Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Long time high school teacher, Louis McKee has published numerous chapbooks of poetry.
Louis McKee, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 31, 1951, was the author of over a dozen chapbooks, including one of translations of monastic poems from thirteenth century Irish monks. Heralded as “a true Irishman, Louis McKee knows how to tell a good story,” says reviewer Eileen D’Angelo. Following his graduation from LaSalle University in 1974, he taught English at Father Judge High School for thirty-six years. Simultaneously, he enriched the landscape of poetry by, not only creating it, but reviewing and editing for several publications.
Poet Louis McKee claims, “What arrogance it takes to believe that something you have thought, and written down, would be of the least interest to others. This is the reason many take the Emily Dickinson route and hide their seventeen hundred poems in a box under the bed. It also says something about those who scribble words on a napkin during an open reading and then stand up minutes later to read them. I guess I am somewhere in-between.” McKee’s admiration of Dickinson’s approach makes his humility evident, while his criticizing of the pretentious should be indicative of his “down-to-Earth” style of poetry. Although laypeople will be able to commiserate with the strife of his poems, the well-versed may find hints of masters of poetry, like Yeats and Hugo. His poems usually represent him as being “stuck-in-a-moment” and working out its place in his life, transforming the mundane into a subtle revelation. Naturally, he draws from his own experiences and roots.
McKee was born to Irish-Catholic parents, Louis Sr. and Mary Jane (née Barrett). She was a housewife, and he was a railroader employed by Pennsylvania Railroad. They raised their only son in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, where he attended a Catholic school, Holy Innocents School. By the age of eight or so, he knew he wanted to write, and his poetry was put in publication. His poems were graffitied in his parents anthology of poetry. Its empty space was taken over by his poems, complete with titles and page numbers in the table of contents and index. He even hijacked his mother’s Underwood typewriter to begin numerous novels as he drew inspiration from a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse pilfered from his family’s bookshelf.
At the age of ten, the McKee family moved to Philadelphia, where he continued to attend Catholic school at Northeast Catholic High School and furthered his training. Three years later, his mother gave birth to a daughter, Michele.
McKee’s teenage years were shaped by the lyrics of Bob Dylan and the poetry of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. Through the halls of his all-boys Catholic high school, he carried his large notebook of “finished” poems, always in search of more poetry. One of his classes “lent” its students anthologies of British and American Literature, which McKee neither returned nor felt guilty about. As he delved into the Romantics and the Moderns, from Wordsworth to Yeats, he wrote as much as he read. At the same time, McKee felt the power of the Beat generation, growing up in the 60s. Anything published by City Lights, New Directions, and Evergreen Review made its way into his hands, garnering a faith in publishers as well as poets. Anecdotally, he recalled the time a priest took his copy of Wholly Communion, a transcript of the Beat poets’ readings at Royal Albert Hall, citing its name as offensive. Ironically, he prayed the priest hadn’t read any of it. Luckily for McKee, he hadn’t.
He first attended a poetry reading in high school with his girlfriend. It was Poets Reading against the War in Vietnam, one of the Robert Bly/David Ray protests that featured other Beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg and John Logan. He took pleasure in the Beats because, “They were so different from the hammered and chiseled meters we were reading in school,” he recalled in an interview.
He continued his education at LaSalle College (now LaSalle University) in Philadelphia, where he discovered the charm of contemporary literary journals and the literary gems of small presses. His first published poem, entitled “The Chair,” was published in a 1970 edition of the LaSalle undergraduate magazine, Grimoire. He soon took to editing and worked for several publications throughout his college career. McKee attended poetry reading with the piety of a churchgoer. His time there is remembered with a sense of humility, “LaSalle was a good environment for a would-be writer, and Philadelphia offered a lot of literary activity in those days.” This environment was heavily influenced by his first mentor and teacher, Richard Lautz, the on-campus authority of contemporary poetry. “He was Poetry Editor of the well-respected literary journal, Four Quarters, which was published by the school, and he had history, or so it seemed, with every important poet of the post-war years,” McKee said. It was Lautz’s passion that was instilled in McKee, as well as his support for writing, that invigorated McKee.
LaSalle College recognized his work with a Bachelor’s degree in 1974 and his teaching certification. Fresh out of college, he took part in a writing workshop – not his first - headed by C(harles) K(enneth) Williams, renowned political poet in the 60s and one of his mentors. This ten-week workshop, and the enduring advice from a mentor, influenced him in incalculable ways. “He directed individuals to poets and writers, especially to those writing in other languages. Anyway, I learned a great deal about poetry from C. K. Williams, about poetry… and being a poet. This latter bit cannot be understated. For someone stepping out of the cozy padded walls of academia, living openly as a poet did not seem an easy thing. Williams set a good example. Again, I think of those I knew in college who did not continue their writing – the workshops with Charlie immediately after being graduated from LaSalle certainly helped to keep me focused and in the game.” For McKee, workshops became usual occurrences, conducted by poets like Steve Berg, Richard O’Connell, David Ignatow; he recalls, “each, of course, with a different take, a personal aesthetic. It was a good program, and came along at just the right time for me.” Soon after, he began teaching English at an all-boys high school, Father Judge High School, which he would do for the next thirty-six years.
As well as being a poet, he was a voracious reader, and he was quick to offer an opinion or suggestions, much like C.K. Williams had done for him. Naturally, he explored poetry-related book reviews. Reviewing became habitual when he became Reviews Editor of a small literary magazine, Carousel Review. ”It forces me to read poems more closely, and to consider how and why a poem works. This can only be good for my own writing,” he asserts. He wrote freelance reviews and essays to numerous publications, while being on the reviewing staff of Library Journal.
His first chapbook, Schuylkill County, was published by George Murphy’s Wampeter Press in 1982. The chapbook is filled with poems that instantly create a snapshot, presumably about his life – McKee himself says, “I write a personal poem; regardless of what the poem is about, it is likely to be full of ‘I’ and ‘you.’” – and they make you feel as if each scene is within arm’s reach. Philip Dacey, in Schuylkill Valley Journal (#24, spring, 2007), says, “It is the essence of McKee’s work to be rich in artifice and craftsmanship and informed poetic strategies while at the same time consistently brave in its presentation of two confrontations: a person’s with himself and that person’s with the world outside himself. To read McKee is to witness drama and struggle; if the art is hard-won, the human victories are, too.” Each poem has a “sense of narration...love poems, nature poems, political poems, and poems of place – and often, themes and ideas bleed into one another, perhaps defying any attempt to label them,” says McKee.
In 1983, McKee became co-editor of the Painted Bride Quarterly, an independent, non-profit literary journal that was created in 1973 by Louise Simons and R. Daniel Evans. It quickly developed a solid reputation publishing the finest poets regionally and nationally. It is still a community-based literary magazine with a rotating staff of poets early in their careers and the goal of maintaining “a venue for the highest quality literature that best represents the individual voice,” according to its mission statement.
The following years saw the printing of his chapbooks The True Speed of Things (1984) and Safe Water (1986), by Slash & Burn Press. No Matter (1987) was also published a year later by Pig In a Poke Press.
In 1988, he edited and published a special issue of the PBQ, entitled Etheridge Knight: A Celebration, honoring one of his friends and the last of his three mentors. McKee had met him in the early 80s, while housing migrant poets. “[He was] one of those who sought refuge in the new house I had in Holmesburg. In fact, shortly after I moved in, Etheridge took up a long-term residency on the third floor (while John Logan settled in for a while in a room of the second floor.)…And just as Charlie Williams had shown me that one could live a life as a poet and still be of the world, Etheridge made the same point – albeit in a very different way. Etheridge was, and is, always there to remind me that ‘all poetry is celebration.’” Although McKee left the PBQ in 1988, citing burn-out and needing time for his own poetry, he returned in 1990 to edit an issue in memory of John Logan and his poetry, another one of his friends and biggest influences. It was simply titled John Logan. During his time off between the two special editions, M.A.F. Press published Oranges, a chapbook of his, in 1989 and Angelus, published by the Lilliput Review, a broadside issue in 1990. In 1991, he received received a Fellowship from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and once again in 1994.
In 1993, McKee returned once more to help edit his last special issue, a commemoration the Painted Bride Quarterly itself, entitled PBQ: A Poetry Retrospective 1973-1993. That same year, Three Poems, his latest chapbook, was published by Verse Press.
Last Seen, a pamphlet of his poetry, was published by the Red Pagoda Press in 1999. That same year, River Architecture: Poems From Here & There: A Selected Poems 1973-1993, one of his most celebrated works, was published by Cynic Press. Eileen D’Angelo, a reviewer, said this about the collection: “More than each poem’s sincere and well-crafted message, it is about the way his words roll on the reader’s tongue, words sweet and rhythmic to the ear.” McKee expounds on the music of his poetry stating, “I write mostly short lyrics, but with a winding narrative that goes through them. While I work in free verse, I must admit that I am conscious of meter with every poem I begin. I may abandon it, the cadence, early, and it is never strict to begin with, or I may consciously play against the expectations it sets up, but there is always a sense of the dance in the back of my head. And I am equally conscious of sound - the rhymes, chimes, and noises the words make. I avoid absolute rhyme, and don’t want duck-stepping lines, but I want something around which to wrap my poem, a frame or ribbing of sorts.” For this same reason, he routinely returns to poems by Yeats, for its musical nature. When he needs a sense of narration, he mines the poems of Richard Hugo, to remind himself that poems can be told with “a consciousness of musicality,” McKee says. “I tend to think of myself as a lyric poet with a penchant for narrative.”
Right as Rain and Loose Change were published by Nova House Press in 2000 and by Marsh River Editions in 2001, respectively. Loose Change focuses on McKee crossing boundaries, such as adultery and the Oedipal complex in “The Nurturing,” his infatuation with a political disobedience in “The Power of Free Speech,” and the transcendence of social class with just a word in “Nouveau Riche.” McKee also adeptly plays with the senses, from examining the empty shelves of a “bachelor’s apartment,” to contemplating his dog in “Still Life,” and the unpacking of words he heard at the grocery store and took home with him in “Russet.” The titular poem transgresses the lines between the reader reading his poetry and McKee as a reader of poetry. He buys poetry with some loose change because he “was looking / for something to make better a bad time / I was going through.” Instead of spending it on a jukebox or a phone call to the woman he loves, he “wanted cold beer, and poetry in the room.” In the final stanza, he presents the inevitability of facing his problems, but reassures the reader poetry is “worth every damn cent.”
2002 saw the publication by Pudding House Press of re-workings of some of his earlier poems in Greatest Hits 1971-2001. The chapbook was a comprehensive overview of his works until then. It was well-received and led to the popularity of his following chapbook, Near Occasions of Sin, a collection of love poems issued in 2006 by Cynic Press. It was been praised by Brendan Kennelly thusly : “They have two qualities I love—clarity and candour. And they often tell stories even as they evoke mysteries of being…”The Soldier,” for example, is stunning for its pure drama. Then, he is a moving, complex love-poet, at once passionate and reserved…Near Occasions of Sin is utterly unpretentious because his genius (I think he has that) is so real; ‘I am content with this,’ he says at the end of ‘Failed Haiku,’ and this readiness to be himself, in all his complexity and simplicity, is, I think, the basis of the appeal of this most unusual and attractive book…Also, they sound like songs at times—winged, humane, vulnerable.” The inception of some of these poems dates back to before River Architecture (1999) because he wanted to compile poems about love. The mysteries of his short-lived marriage are seldom cited. The book was seven years in the making having found dead ends with failing publishers. This bitterness inhabits its poems. Even the book’s cover presents a cynical view of love depicting a single breast amongst a collection of apples. It was chosen from a set of paintings by the German painter, Christine Dumbsky. McKee says, “Near the end of the book, ‘Second Chance,’ suggests, I’d change nothing; I’d gladly make all the same mistakes again.”
He also edited the magazine, One Trick Pony, through a dozen semi-annual issues until its end in 2007. “After eleven issues, the usual bugaboos, financial and health woes interfered. I hope when things improve, to do another two issues - the material that had already been accepted before we shut the operation down. Those poets, I’m sure, will find another home for their good work, but I still would like to see it where it was first intended to appear - with proper credits listed, of course,” he stated in an interview with Cervena Barva Press.
Forgotten poems of medieval Irish monks were exhumed from the copies of Bibles that contained them thanks to McKee’s translations in Marginalia: Poems from the Old Irish (2008). Adastra Press published the collection of 19 monastic, yet pastoral poems, in the form of quatrains that had been graffiti in the margins of the gospels the monks were copying from the 9th - 11th Century, as well as McKee’s translations. Chapbooks, Still Life and Jamming, were also published that year.
He currently operates Banshee Press, which recently published a series of limited edition, letterpress broadsides, featuring Philip Dacey, Paul Muldoon, Gerald Stern, and Denise Duhamel. McKee lives in Holmesburg, a part of Philadelphia, which has hosted wandering poets since the late 1800s, especially its roadside inn which is currently McKee’s residence. His house has “character,” he says. He has lived there for thirty years because the tumult of the city knocks at his front door while the tranquility of Pennypack Park creeps along his back yard. Add to that Pennypack Park Creek, less than a hundred yards away, along with the Delaware River, less than a mile away and viewable from the front porch, and it is a veritable haven for any writer. McKee lives there alone. He regrets not having a son to shoulder his name since he is very aware and proud of his Irish-Catholic roots.
Having retired on August 1, 2009, after teaching for thirty-six years, McKee is ready to make poetry his full-time profession. “I never was one to complain about teaching interfering with my writing time – I had and have plenty of other things to complain about – but now that there are no bells ringing day and night in my head, I suspect it will allow for more writing to be done,” he said in an interview. He doesn’t have any specific engagements in terms of writing, but he knows he will continue to write, as well as give reading and lead workshops. Recently, he offered a workshop at the Philadelphia Writers Conference on “The Poetic Line,” and it, the concept of line and line-breaks in Free Verse, has become a temporary obsession. He not only plans to continue writing, but has chosen to devote all of his time to the creation of poetry in all of its forms, whether it be to provide inspiration, write it himself, or get poetry into any person’s accepting hands. “Sweet Cakes, Small Stories, and a Few Words on Poets and Poetry” is a forthcoming collection of his critical essays and reviews.
McKee remains humble and accedes, “Certainly I mine the past for material, and I cannot avoid the influences and matter that comes of family, an Irish Catholic heritage. I’m sure that having lived my whole life “in the city” has affected my poems, although it may have resulted in my writing about non-urban setting as much as otherwise. There are many people, friends and others, who have left an impression on me, and in fact, a mark of my poems. Then, of course, there are the professional influences, the poets I’ve read, the ones I’ve been lucky enough to know. I often quote Yeats: ‘And say my glory was I had such friends.’”
Schuylkill County. Green Harbor, MA: Wampeter Press, 1982.
The True Speed of Things. Philadelphia: Slash & Burn Press, 1984.