Judith Mikesch-McKenzie

Pine Row Issue No. 4 Winter 2021 - Featured Poet


It’s entirely possible that I am a dead tree.

Like the eighty-foot cedar that ice felled

on my house

Or the birch that once spread so wide it gave

shade to our entire yard, until an ice storm

slowly diminished it.

The solid certain trees still living after death

in a state that could never have been

known with certainty.

The cedar becoming the warmth in neighbors’

fireplaces, and the totems carved by

local tribal artists

and the dead birch pruned and carved to

become a habitat for birds,

wildlife and bees.

When uncertainty is confused with observation

it is a strange comfort. It’s hard to admit

what can never

be known, to let go of certainty. That takes

observing not only what you see, but how

you see it.

Like the first world in which I was observed and

found wanting - always too much. Always

observed as too

something - too loud, too shy, too smart, just

- too much. Like the trees some thought

too tall or

too wide. This from those who lived away from

them, who observed from their own

iron certainties.

The trees and I lived beyond those observers,

moving with a velocity observers never

knew they created,

away from those cold certainties and to a warmer

place, where the too-much person ceased

to exist, and

I became the one who knows

what I am certain of.

Interview with Judith Mikesch-McKenzie

by Pine Row Editorial Board

How did you get started as a poet?

I’ve been writing and reading poetry since I was only eight or nine years old, and that is thanks to several teachers who so loved poetry, loved words and story, that they couldn’t help but communicate that love to students. Like a lot of people who develop a lifelong love of words, I owe that to good and passionate teachers.

Do you show your work in progress to anyone?

Sometimes. I have a writing critique group, but I mostly take my fiction writing there, though sometimes my poetry. During my graduate work, I showed all my poems (along with everything I wrote) to my Masters’ advisor, and she was amazing. She could, in one sentence, both give absolutely brutal criticism and say the one thing that made you see what you really wanted to achieve with a poem, and feel so encouraged to do so. She’d hold an unforgiving mirror up and make you see the beauty you were trying to convey and how you were getting in your own way. She never stopped encouraging me to publish, and to think of myself as a poet.

Who are three influential living poets?

This is a harder one for me - I read a lot of poets, living and dead, but what feels “influential” changes for me practically from day to day. I read to hear the poet in the words, and I find that I get as much of that from the unknown, the poets published for the first time, as I do from the famous. So for me the three influential poets are any poets who: 1) write with courage, 2) write the hard truths with beauty and clarity, and 3) those whose hearts show in every word.

How did you first get published?

Like many, my first publications were in school journals in college and graduate school, then publications put out by writing workshops I have attended, until I got the courage to take my graduate advisors’ advice, begin to think of myself as a poet, and submit to poetry journals - like Pine Row!

Favorite quote (doesn’t matter the source)

Comes from a woman who is a Zen priest and was for a while both my colleague at the school where we both taught, and my Zen teacher. During a discussion after zazen once, a new member (also a teacher who we both knew) asked how someone who did not make a living as a teacher could meet the Buddhist obligation to teach? Her answer: “When you’re doing what you should be doing with your life, then your life becomes the teaching.”

What would you say is your most interesting writing habit?

Middle-of-the-night writing. I’ll take those times you wake up at night feeling really awake, and instead of struggling to go back to sleep, I’ll get up and write, and only then go back to sleep - what some have referred to as “second sleep.” I’ve been doing this most of my life, without knowing there was a name for it. I often find that this is when I do my best work. The gap between first and second sleep has been recognized by many cultures and different periods of history as a very creative, productive time.

What book is currently on your bedside table?

There are a few but the ones I’m actually reading right now are Maps of the Imagination - the Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi - a fascinating book that marries one of my passions with one of my interests. The other book was published almost 20 years ago, but I read about it in an article on class culture in America and I decided that I needed to read it: The Mind At Work, Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker by Mike Rose. I don’t think there’s been any time in our history when the need to respect and value the intelligence, skill, and capacities of American workers has been more critical.

Anything else you'd like us to know?

I’ve spent the last fourteen years or so involved in community theater and a substantial portion of my circle of friends are theater people. I think this has contributed to my writing in two ways: first, I love the marriage of poetry and performance - the “spoken word” performers amaze me. I don’t hear/experience/draft my own work that way, as I think the goals and audience for spoken word poetry vs poetry-in-writing are different, but I have deep admiration for what they do. The second thing I think theater experience brings to my writing is a deep respect for (and a different perspective on) how the written experience can be developed, how it can be felt and communicated by the writer. I think it is something every writer should do as part of their development. Many things have helped to contribute to the craft I bring to my writing - theater experience has been one of the few things that deeply impacted the art I bring to it.

Judith Mikesch-McKenzie has traveled much of the world, but is always drawn to the Rocky Mountains as one place that feeds her soul. She loves change - new places, new people, new challenges - but honors a strong connection to the people and places of her roots. Writing is her home. She recently placed & published with The Cunningham Short Story Contest and The Tillie Olsen Short Story Contest. Her poetry has been published in Poetic Bond X, Wild Roof Journal, Halcyone Literary Review, Plainsongs Magazine, Elevation Review, Scribblerus, Gyroscope Review, Cathexis NW Press, Griffel Literary Review, Bookends Review, and others.