Todd McKinney serves the Ball State English Department in a number of ways: as a teacher, an English Majors adviser, and as faculty adviser for the Writers Community. He works on his poems line by line and a nonfiction project regarding Family sentence by sentence. His work has appeared in The Cimarron Review, The Greensboro Review, Smartish Pace, Split Lip Magazine, Puerto del Sol, and other journals. Last year, he and his wife, Jackie (aka Dr. Grutsch McKinney, aka Director of the Writing Center), along with their two sons, moved to a small farm in the country where they garden, keep chickens, and attend to a small orchard of baby fruit trees. Their dog, Bert, is their family mascot.
Read part one of this O’ Captain! My Captain! post here.
I met Tyler in the fall of 2007 when he walked into a Writers Community meeting. One of his pals (Andrew, I think) encouraged him to go.. I’m not really sure, but maybe he heard Matthew read some David Berman poems, and Emily read something by Joan Didion, and Nate and Shaun read James Tate in unison, after which Rebecca probably shared a story by J.D. Salinger, and then Laura told a story that made Ashley or Layne laugh real and loud, and then Elysia introduced the next reader, and then Brittany read some poems she had been working on followed by Austin and one of his short stories. At some point in there, I read a Dean Young poem (maybe his poem, “Frottage,” the one that begins, “How goofy and horrible life is.”) and Tyler looked like a late-autumn bonfire.
Turns out Dean Young poems are the kindling of what has become our friendship. Turns out poetry is the bonfire.
I helped start (along with the help of Emily Boshkoff and Laura Relyea) the Writers Community for people like Tyler. By that, I mean, I wanted to help provide a space for those who wanted to share what they were reading and writing (and feeling and thinking). Or even just to talk (about music, politics, school-related concerns, random videos on YouTube). A space in which people could discover other writers, forge friendships, and find support for their craft. After all, community has always been essential to writers (think of the Romantic poets, the Bloomsbury Group, the Beats, the New York School.. Even contemporary groups like Cave Canem and Kundiman speak to the necessity of writing communities). Why not a little collective here at Ball State? Tyler took full advantage of it, becoming a vital part of its organization and development. Like he writes, it became a place where people could share their stories and lives, a place where the world could open up.
Poetry is a great way to get inside ourselves.
Tyler still sends me poems (thank goodness!), or even texts about what he’s reading (thank goodness!). Roger Reeves. Tomaž Šalamun. Noelle Kocot. He’s a voracious reader. (As a writer, one has to be, I think, always pushing beyond one’s comfort zone.) Plus, he’s willing to talk about what he’s reading—be it how Dr. Mix opened up John Berryman for him, or how Peter Davis showed him the magic of Kenneth Koch, or how excellent an experience Mark Neely’s Broken Plate class was. Between those conversations, he’d chat about tutoring in the Writing Center, or even talk to me about my own pedagogy. Last year, he was going on nonstop about odes (like Pablo Neruda’s!) thanks to Lisa Olstein. Then, it was Keats (thanks to Dean Young, now one of his teachers). Then, plays (thanks to Diana Lynn Small and other Austin playwrights). Just as importantly, he considers the old dude like his dad he talked to at the bait shop or bar, or how, during his time as a teaching assistant, a first grader in Elwood showed him a new thing about joy or sadness.
I mean to say: Tyler’s open to the world and willing to drive his pick-up there, and then write a poem about it.
And I try to be there for my students, to listen and to respond. In the classroom, and outside of it. Either during the Writers Community, or individually with those who simply ask to meet with me. This I learned from my own best teachers (who I’ll refer to as I did to them, as that’s how I think of them): Mrs. Colquitt (who took me to Ft. Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum one summer afternoon and talked with me about Manet and Van Gogh) and Dr. Daniels (who helped me form a similar writers community at TCU and guided me through the grad school application process while smoking cigarettes in his office—can’t do that anymore, though). There’s also Tony (who shared tacos al carbon with me at Ándele’s and had me watch over his books one summer) and Mac (who I met with at least once a month to talk poems though I shamefully and regretfully never enrolled in one of his fiction classes, not one). And there’s Stuart (who was always happy to have a beer and recite poems between stories), and Elizabeth (who talked NYC and Dylan between reflections on teaching college writers). There are many more (like Mrs. Johnson from seventh grade English, my pal Rich, and Tina, a 82-year-old Greek woman with whom I worked at the Department of Human Services one Tulsa summer), but these are a few of the people Tyler is really praising. I try to channel them as often as possible.
Toward the end of “Frottage,” Dean Young writes, “We are clouds / and terrible things happen in clouds.” It’s good, I think, when we can share our cloud-states with others–in a class, a student group, at a pizza parlor, whatever. At some point, our clouds will become the budding leaves on the newest branch of the maple tree near the library. It’s a repetitive but beautiful process.