CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Irene McKinney, who returned to her native West Virginia and served as the state's poet laureate for nearly two decades, died Saturday morning at the age of 72.McKinney, who was also the director of the creative writing program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, wrote "lyrical poetry [that] is steeped in the rural Appalachian landscape and frequently explores the connections between people and place," according to her biography on the Poetry Foundation's website."She is a great loss to the state of West Virginia," said Buckhannon native and novelist Jayne Anne Phillips. "She made West Virginia real, sensory and important in all its timeless variety, the land, farms, the people and animals, the rituals. She knew the meaning of home place."McKinney was born April 20, 1939, in Belington, Barbour County, where she grew up on her family's farm.
After getting a bachelor's degree from West Virginia Wesleyan and a master's degree from West Virginia University, McKinney published her first book of poems, "The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap," in 1976.Her other collections include "The Wasps at the Blue Hexagon" (1984), "Quick Fire and Slow Fire" (1988), "Six O'Clock Mine Report" (1989), "Vivid Companion" (2004) and "Unthinkable: Selected Poems 1976-2004" (2009).In addition to West Virginia Wesleyan, McKinney taught at the University of Utah (where she earned a doctorate in 1980), the University of California at Santa Cruz, Western Washington University and Hamilton College.Among her many honors were a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and her poems were repeatedly featured on "The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor" on National Public Radio.McKinney was named West Virginia's poet laureate by then-Gov. Gaston Caperton. In a 2009 interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, she said she didn't subscribe to the idea that a poet laureate should have to do a lot besides be a good poet.
"I like working with younger writers one on one, having someone come to my house with their manuscript in their hands, spending some hours drinking coffee with them, trying to convey what I know of the craft by looking closely at what they've written, pointing out what they've done well so that they can do it again," she said. "I tell them about books I love and why and read poems out loud so we can hear how it's done together."During the last three years of her life, McKinney created and directed a Master of Fine Arts Program in creative writing at West Virginia Wesleyan.Through her poems, she created a "West Virginia that is complex, authentic and enduring," West Virginia poet Maggie Anderson said. "She taught the importance of knowing one place well. Through her teaching, she mentored a generation of writers from this region that wouldn't have existed otherwise."McKinney was also featured in the 2003 anthology "Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia."In the book's introduction, she said, "I'm a hillbilly, a woman, and a poet, and I understood early on that nobody was going to listen to anything I had to say anyway, so I might as well just say what I want to.""She understood what it meant to be an artist," West Virginia Wesleyan professor Devon McNamara said. "She encouraged your spirit in the most unpretentious, infinite way."
McKinney is survived by her daughter, Julia Vickers of Germantown, Md., and her son, Paul McKinney of Santa Cruz, Ca. She is also survived by two brothers, Harold and Waldo Durrett and three sisters, Janet, Eleanor and Eileen.A fund in her memory, the Irene McKinney Award for West Virginia Wesleyan MFA Students, has been established at West Virginia Wesleyan College.A service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at Talbott Funeral Home in Belington.