James McKee

Pine Row Issue No. 6 Winter 2022-23 - Featured Poet

Off into the Sunset

There I go, sauntering along

as if I don’t notice

this bright amber evening already

auditioning for your memory,

though naturally I do.

You can tell I’m savoring how

this magic-hour sunlight

ignites tiny tiaras atop the upper edges

of each sombre object I pass

(car, stopsign, mailbox, car, wall),

like a swarm of small dawns I’ll remember

to describe for you later—

meaning now—

as a sizzlation,

but not just yet.

I’m still basking in the facets

that gleam from bark and steel and brick,

flecked with a luster that will linger

just an instant longer,

though now it’s arrested here.

Sort of. Anyway,

it looks like your mind—

your lovely, captious, queasy mind—is content

to cavort among these surfaces too, as if

the world’s tide of misery

has receded somewhere far beyond earshot,

exposing this block’s homely treasures

for us to admire with the just-

barely-not-ironic gusto

we share like a tic.

It can’t last; it doesn’t.

A sawtooth skyline steps in front of the sun,

some streetlamps blip on,

and the low-angled light

that’d made even the East River look good

for a moment,

departs. As do I.

You’ve plugged yourself back in,

and by the time you surface

from the cyan screenglow of your pent-up phone,

there’s nothing left to forget

but the moment I turned the corner

into everything that happens next.

Interview with James McKee

How did you get started writing poetry?

I bloomed late. It wasn't until high school that I encountered any poetry at all; the ones I remember liking---Shelley, cummings, Dylan Thomas---I rarely read anymore. I wrote lots of bad, emotionally incontinent "poems" throughout my adolescence, when I still hadn't realized that reading poetry is essential to writing it. Then, for most of my twenties, I was trying to remedy that ignorance and I ended up becoming paralyzed by the weight of the English-language poetic legacy. What a scholar wants to know about poetry, and what a poet needs to know, are two very different things, and I mistook the one for the other longer than I should have. The first poem in what I now recognize as my own voice, such as it is, only came when I was nearly thirty. But when I wrote it, I knew.

Who has had the biggest impact on you as a poet?

The first poet I read purely for pleasure, which of course is really the only reason to read poetry at all, was Wallace Stevens, but his example didn't help me to write---in fact, quite the opposite. For better or worse, he remains my touchstone. The first poet whose work actually inspired me to dare writing only to please myself was Philip Larkin; the one who taught me the most about craft was Frost. And from my earliest reading days, the one poet whom I have kept rediscovering is Emily Dickinson.

What inspires your poetry?

Almost all my poems emerge from an experience I've had while out walking: here in NYC or on a trip somewhere, alone or with someone else, in the country or the city, soon after it happened or months, even years, later. Other sources are works of art, memories of childhood, and very occasionally something I've read. Once the poem gets going, of course, lots of other things (including politics and the news) can find their way in. When I look back at whatever initial jottings I made---images, lines, subject matter---I usually find that the farther the final poem has journeyed away from its origin, the better.

What is next for you?

I'm putting together the poems that will make up my second book, which I hope to see published later this year or early in 2024. My first book, The Stargazers, contained pieces written over the course of seven years or so; this next volume will draw on less than half that span---though because it covers the years of Trump and COVID and January 6th, it feels just as long.

James McKee enjoys failing in his dogged attempts to keep pace with the unrelenting cultural onslaught of late-imperial Gotham. His debut poetry collection, The Stargazers, was published in the otherwise uneventful spring of 2020, while his poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Burningword Literary Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Another Chicago Magazine, New Ohio Review, Grist, New World Writing, Illuminations, CutBank, Flyway, THINK, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere. He spends his free time, when not writing or reading, traveling less than he would like and brooding more than he can help.