Poet Marc McKee, on driving through Missouri like a horse in a desert

Above: Marc McKee performs his poem “Columbia 77”  at Get Lost Bookshop in downtown Columbia, October 10 2011

Today we’re proud to feature the poet Marc McKee, whose first full length collection Fuse has just been released by Black Lawrence Press. McKee received his MFA from the University of Houston and his PhD from the University of Missouri here in Columbia, where he currently ives with his wife, Camellia Cosgray. He is the author of What Apocalypse? (2008) and he celebrated the release of Fuse this past weekend at the Columbia Art League with the poet Melissa Range.

Before he moved to Missouri:

I’m originally from East Texas. Grew up in a small town named Big Sandy about 100 miles east of Dallas. When I was 17, my parents moved us to Indiana. I went to college there — IU in Bloomington — then did my Masters at the University of Houston. My girlfriend asked me where I’d want to go if we wanted to move away, and I said the thing I’d most like to do was to go back to school and get a Ph.D. The only place I applied was here, where two of my friends – Nicky Beer and Jason Koo – had gone. We began our tenure in Missouri in the fall of 2006, about two months after we got married.

On settling into Columbia, and the nature of a college town:

I had never been here. I think the most time I’d spent in Missouri – I’d been to St. Louis before on a family vacation, and we’d seen the arch. And we’d gone to the amusement park. And I think that was it, except crossing state lines. So I didn’t have a lot of expectations. But I’ve found Columbia a fantastic place to be. It evokes strong memories of Bloomington – but while Bloomington is more developed and more obviously a blue hub in a red state, Columbia’s not as fierce as that.

But when I was first in Bloomington, I didn’t know the town, the gives and niches it had. I was part of a very specific university experience. I think a lot of kids probably have that same experience with MU. They come to a college town, they live in dorms or on the other side of town, so they’ll radiate between their house, the classes they go to, and the library. And then maybe, maybe, on Friday and Saturday, they’ll venture out to, like, Harpo’s [a local sports bar]. Sometimes in the spring, I’ll mention to my students the True/False Film Festival and ask if anyone’s interested. Not many of them know what that is, or have any plans to go to it.

But having crossed over from student to teacher, things like that have given me a sense of how much these towns have to offer. There are places you can go see music, and you don’t even know about them. And until you start venturing out, you don’t even know how arts culture works, especially in very small ways. I think that’s becoming increasingly vital. There are local bands like Believers that are amazing and play these shows you would never hear otherwise. I was introduced to this kind of culture in Bloomington, and it makes sense here – there are little hubs of grad students or people who are connected with the arts, where they mix with young people.

I don’t think Columbia is quite Bloomington status yet. The journalism school is great and that still kind of eclipses some things. And I think True / False is really big, and I think it’s going to get bigger. I think the Creative Writing program is stellar here, too. I don’t know how long it would take for Columbia to achieve a kind of indie-destination style like Bloomington, Austin or Madison. But I think the town is growing in that direction.

On the inspiration behind “Columbia 77”

Last year I was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Central Missouri, about 90 miles from Columbia in Warrensburg if you’re going toward Kansas City. It’s a smaller town; the university there is about 11,000 students. It was an opportunity to see a lot more Missouri countryside — I mean, I actually had to get off the interstate to get there. And this poem was the first in a series I wrote about my long weekend commute to and from Warrensburg.

It was really the only space that I had to kind of let my mind go and actually focus on writing poems, and it became a traveling office through the Missouri countryside. I would see these fields, tall with corn when I started my commute, and by the time I was done making that commute the fields had been cut down to corn stubble. And that’s an image I use later in the series. But the very first thing I’d see as I hit the interstate was a sign for Columbia – 77 miles away. I started with that idea, and any of the images I’d soak up, any of the dramas from the week of working with freshmen who were scared or nervous, trying to make a good impression, those would inevitably filter in. The first poem I wrote in that series ended up being a kind of “What do I tell them?” poem that’s tracking the concerns of the day and trying to find a way to be at peace with the limitations of being a teacher. And those concerns are kind of lifting out as I’m driving. And as soon as I get to that space, and we’re on the other side, it starts being about my eagerness to get home to be with my wife. The energy shifts, it starts getting looser with the moments I’ve transported from Warrensburg.

Hammering Makes The World

The poet Dean Young, ready to drop knowledge and drink ice water.

This past Friday, my friend Marc McKee organized a benefit at Orr Street Studios here in downtown Columbia in order to raise money for Dean Young. In case you haven’t heard the good news, Dean received a transplant last week, and thus far, all news has been good about his body accepting the new ticker. More news on his progress is here. All of us feel tremendous relief at this news. Despite the circumstances, the benefit was more of a celebration, a social event that honors both Dean’s spirit by being as lively, funny, encouraging and deeply benevolent as the man is,  as well as his poetry’s zany and antic cartwheels in the service of art and beauty.

However …

The good fight isn’t over. Surgery is expensive. Heart surgery is really expensive. And this isn’t the time or place for political discourse, but health insurance is only going to get Dean so far. We need your help. Marc, knowing this, asked for a little help. Gabe Fried, a terrific poet himself, helped Marc round up poets to give their time and energy; and Allison Smythe was instrumental in securing the space at Orr Street Studios on such short notice. The three of them put on a terrific and fun benefit last week in the hope of raising whatever amount they could to help with the medical costs. Dean’s friend Joe DiPrisco has been the mastermind behind several national events that have been created in order to help out. Here‘s where you can get the good word.  Joe wrote:

Dean’s expenses will be sky high and relentless for as long as he lives–which is going to be a long time if we can help it. Yes, he has “good” insurance, but insurance does not pay for everything, and we estimate his out-of-pocket expenses to be in the area of $50,000 to $100,000 a year—going forward for many years to come.

At the benefit, Marc let us know that over $170,000 has been raised by nearly a thousand contributors thus far. Eight poets affiliated with the University of Missouri, Stephens College, and the local arts community came together to celebrate Dean’s work; each poet read at least one (often two of Dean’s poems) as well as one of their own. The readers included Marc, Gabe, and Allison, as well as poets were Katy Didden, Jessica Starr, Melissa Range, Austin Segrest, and Sara Strong.

Dean Young is a close, dear friend of Marc’s, and hearing Marc talk about what Dean meant to him, what his poetry has meant to him, and to so many others, was one of the highlights of the evening. Katy Didden shared her story of meeting Dean at Bread Loaf, his pure delight at being there, in open fields under a clear sky, meeting fellow writers with his characteristic joy and good humor.

Marc McKee captivating the audience through lyrical hypnosis.

Here’s something to acknowledge: several poets admitted they have never Dean. I thought this was a brave and marvelous thing.  They only knew Dean through his poetry, just from what they’ve discovered about him through his work, his influence on Marc, and the impact he’s made on “Dean-iacs” over his many years of teaching. His accomplishments are numerous: ten books of poetry, Pulitzer Prize finalist, the Griffin Prize, the Lenore Marshall prize, and the winner of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA fellowships, and so on. But the accolades really don’t matter: something about his poetry has moved us.

It’s strange to hear the cadence of eight different poets reading Dean’s work. I’ve read another writer’s work aloud before, and it is an incredible challenge: the inflections, pauses, rhythms, all of it, is so different when it isn’t the work that you spent months working on. Yet every single poet read Dean’s poems magnificently. We laughed a lot Friday night – how can you not when hearing Dean’s best work? – but there were also moments that also brought us to tears, like the final stanza in “Elegy for a Toy Piano“:

When something becomes ash,
there’s nothing you can do to turn it back.
About this, even diamonds do not lie.

We also heard “Changing Genres”, “Red Glove Thrown in Thorn Bush“, “Commencement Address“, “Bay Arena“, “Centrifuge“, “One Story”, and “How I Get My Ideas.” It was a terrific, successful, fantastic evening, and we all have Marc McKee, Gabe Fried, and Allison Smythe to thank (along with all the other poets) for such a great event.

One thing I always tell my writing students is “be generous.” Sounds simple, but as we all know, it really is incredibly hard to be a giving and kind person, not just in a workshop, but with our writing, with ourselves, and throughout our lives. And, so, my request to all of you out there in the TMR audience, is just that: be generous. We need your generosity. It would be an incredible gift if you would.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review. Donations for Dean can be made at the National Transplants website, Transplants.org, can be made by clicking here. Remember that any size donation, even just a buck or two, is greatly appreciated and goes a long way towards helping. Thank you!