Getting To Know Kevin McLellan and His New Book Tributary

Available now by Barrow Street Inc.

Kevin McLellan is the author of   Tributary   (Barrow Street) and the chapbook   Round Trip   (Seven Kitchens), a collaborative series with numerous women poets. The chapbook   Shoes on a wire   (Split Oak) and the book arts project   [box]   (Small Po[r]tions) are both forthcoming. He won the 2015   Third Coast   Poetry Prize, and has recent poems in journals including:   American Letters & Commentary  ,   Colorado Review  ,   Crazyhorse  ,   december  ,   Kenyon Review  ,   West Branch  ,   Western Humanities Review  ,   Witness  , and numerous others. Kevin lives in Cambridge MA.

Kevin McLellan is the author of Tributary (Barrow Street) and the chapbook Round Trip (Seven Kitchens), a collaborative series with numerous women poets. The chapbook Shoes on a wire (Split Oak) and the book arts project [box] (Small Po[r]tions) are both forthcoming. He won the 2015 Third Coast Poetry Prize, and has recent poems in journals including: American Letters & Commentary, Colorado ReviewCrazyhorsedecemberKenyon ReviewWest BranchWestern Humanities ReviewWitness, and numerous others. Kevin lives in Cambridge MA.

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I first recall poetry in middle school (yet trust that exposure to poetry happened before then), a homework assignment to read a few Shakespearean sonnets. I struggled to get through the first few lines of one, and didn't complete the reading which seemed like another language to me. During the next class, several of us remained quiet during a discussion about these sonnets, and then there was a ten question pop quiz. I handed a piece of paper with answers for two questions. 

 San Francisco! I was in love for the first time, or rather I thought that I was in love, and I obsessed over a poem for him. This lover gave me a copy of Wallace Stevens' The Palm at the End of the Mind in which he inscribed, “Your lamp-light fell / On shining pillows, / Of sea-shades and sky-shades / Like umbrellas in Java.” If you are reading this, Miguel, I hope that you are well. 

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
No, no routine per say, yet as of late new poems wake up as I wake up with coffee and juice on a weekend morning or the beginnings of a new poem will appear while I commute (say, either walking or biking to work in the morning or while traveling greater distances), yet revision can happen anywhere and anytime. I enjoy writing whenever it happens, even when I'm writing crap (which is most of the time). 

 Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
My poems that incorporate elements from several sources -- images (imagined, dreamed, and/or actual), sounds (overheard language and/or something misheard) phrases (overheard ones and/or the ones that descend seemingly from out of nowhere), and ideas-- have a greater chance of not being terrible. Yet I am finally learning to resist idea poems when I know an outcome or at least attempt to discover something new or fictionalize them in order to discover, dare I say, a truth.  

 Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I have been most influenced by (but not limited to): Hans Faverey’s distinctive ability to examine impermanence and loss by making an action happen and then not happen by way of negation (Edwin Morgan insightfully describes Faverey as “…a poet of losses and silences, of meditations on change and how change undermines or strengthens our sense of reality”); Sylvia Plath’s unrelenting courage to explore vulnerability with “a voice like the thunder of God” (as described by Ted Hughes); James Schuyler’s meditations on the ordinary and especially when his exquisite mechanics substantiate transcendence; and Mary Ruefle’s uncanny shepherding and/or refusal to shepherd disparate, or seemingly disparate, pieces of intelligence that move in increments or leaps, thus creating language pile-ups or reductionist discoveries, poems that always risk everything for the sake of event-making.

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc. 
Tributary endured dozens of revisions and a handful of titles before it was accepted by Barrow Street, and exists due to a succession of life changing events, events that demanded an evaluation of the day-to-day. This collection implicitly attempts to explore the psychological pressures of (one’s own) mortality with the support of subtext and nuance, yet there are a few explicit moments. Language play and memory are mechanisms for escape here, but some of these memories, sometimes tributes, lead the speaker in the vicinity of, or directly back to, the corporeal. Does this interminable process, this movement in the mind, allow the speaker in Tributary to metaphorically crawl and possibly leap toward the possibility of transcendence? I’m not sure. Please do let me know.   

Read a sample poem and listen to an audio recording here:

(a tribute)

Always one less breath.

Repeatedly I don't know
what will happen next.

Repeatedly I'm confused
by words, thousands
of words that all mean form. 


Antonyms for form:
to exacerbate (or to distract)
to delineate (or to distract)

as is and so on and so forth


The skeletal quality
of sideways
October light elicits
or rather-be-
forgotten memory.


A truth: my palms
flush against
the planes of my pelvis.


Without resistance

cannot be


Infinity or rather
forever is relentless
and unrelenting.

I can’t escape this

nomenclature: bone-
dry light defining

the unmade bed.

To accept needs
darkness which is not
the same as forever.


We need to be careful
what we ask for. Are you

certain that you’re okay?


Empathy isn’t considered
a proper noun in all instances.
I must remember

to capitalize “You.”


My body is a trench.

To fall in.
To climb out of.

Morning light on my body.