Gemini Ink and Trinity University Press will host acclaimed author Kevin McIlvoy at Trinity University’s Holt Center as part of their new creative writing class and lecture series Words Matter. McIlvoy will present a free author reading and reception on Friday, Oct. 20, followed by a two-day intensive writing workshop titled “The Stance of Wonder: Cultivating the Fiction Writer’s Habit of Readiness” on Oct. 21 and 22.

Author Kevin McIlvoy.
Author Kevin McIlvoy.

A teacher of creative writing for more than 25 years, McIlvoy recently served as interim director of the MFA program in creative writing at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., and was editor-in-chief of the national literary magazine, Puerto del Sol. His most recent work, a hybrid of poetry and fiction, is 57 Octaves Below Middle C. Other works include The Complete History of New Mexico, and the novelsHyssop, Little Peg, and The Fifth Station.

But McIlvoy is much more than a list of his achievements. He is an author who invents and reinvents himself anew with each work, and who places his trust in the voices of his characters, the rhythm of his words, and the lyricism of his sentences. Through the generosity of spirit with which he treats his characters, he endears readers to a charlatan thief, a cranky old woman, or a naked bishop.

“The best experimental literary work consistently originates from the writers who are most radically committed to wisdom,” McIlvoy stated in a recent interview.

In his two-day fiction workshop, students will generate fresh and compelling ideas and work closely with this master teacher as they draft new stories. They will learn to recognize the true heart of their stories and the beauty and imperfection that make their stories shine.

In order to provide a more intimate glimpse into the author’s world, Gemini Ink asked McIlvoy about his writing life.

Gemini Ink: With your workshop forthcoming, you have said that the central pleasure of storytellers’ lives is to be “fully present to the luminous and dark wonders before us.” Can you elaborate on this? 

Kevin McIlvoy: I wish for this workshop to be comfortable right from the start and enjoyable throughout. I always look forward to being with people seeking the pleasure-making and pleasure-taking involved in all aspects of creative activity. The dark and luminous experiences of our lives cause us pleasure when we reside in them rather than resist or ignore their persistent presence. Watching a hornet crawl out of a morning glory blossom reminds a person that she lives in a state of danger and wonder – always at the same moment. The hurries and pressures of our “normal” lives cause us to only glance at that marriage of morning glory and hornet. Art gives us back the childlike joy we recover when we gaze into the world with all our senses opened and opening.

GI: You’ve often talked of the “first trust” that writers fall back on for inspiration. What do you mean by “first trust,” and what does it mean to you?

KM: I ask writers to patiently, thoughtfully reckon with the terms on which they are most fully placed in “the stance of wonder” – a term coined by the poet John Berryman. I believe that a person seeking wonder learns to recognize that her unique sensibility is marked by one thing in which she places her “first trust.” (This does not suggest that she ignores the other richnesses in her sensibility.) For some, attentiveness to settings awakens them to this state of wonder.; they feel they are in the most excited state of readiness when they observe closely the magic in a building or in the woods or at a bus stop. For some, attentiveness to behaviors increases their excitement above all else; they feel compelled by the mysterious, surprising ways that one person responds with actions that make perfect sense and in ways that make no sense at all.

I am one for whom concentration upon sounds unlock all other forms of attentiveness. I place my “first trust” in closely listening to surprising shifts in the tone of a voice, to the rising and diminishing volume of sounds at work, at home, in the car or the shower. A creaking faucet handle, insects “tuning up” at night, the muttering of someone talking to herself – These things set me off. If I have the reference point of the smallest bit of sound, I feel I can draw into the little boat of my heart the full net of this amazing world.

GI: With each of your books, you seem to reinvent your writing style, and your latest book, 57 Octaves Above Middle C, is a hybrid that includes poetry, prose poems, and flash fiction. Can you talk a little about your evolution as a writer and its impact on your current work?

KM: I feel lucky that my books have given me new ground on which to be vulnerable. Each book has surprised me with what it has asked of me. And, happily, each book has shown me how much I will always struggle with learning to balance intuitive and conscious artistry. I have come to believe that it is luckier for writers to skate on thin ice and to propel themselves farther and farther away from safety than to skate on solid ice and to stay within view of the guardrails. The reader of the pages written by the safe skater feels curiously exhausted by certainty. The reader of the pages written by that imperiled skater feels thrillingly at risk with each pushing and gliding sentence. One is the path of acknowledgment: I am here. I am all right. One is the path of astonishment: How did I get here? Am I all right? I can’t, in all honesty, say that I have deliberately chosen this path of astonishment; I’m sure glad it has chosen me. 

GI: What writers have been your greatest inspirations? 

KM: Oral storytellers have been the greatest inspiration to me. In every stage of my life I have sought out and have listened attentively to natural storytellers. No single published writer has been a more valuable teacher to me than family, friends, and total strangers whose storytelling voice itself is an extraordinary gift of pure music. In order to remind myself of the generative complex powers of orality, I read and reread the works of poets whose singing has, in my opinion, the purest qualities of generosity and vulnerability: Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, Pablo Neruda, Robert Hayden, James Wright, Stanley Kunitz, Jean Valentine, Hayden Carruth, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Rita Dove, Philip Levine, Mary Ruefle, Laura Kasischke, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Li-Young Lee, to name a few.

GI: Students who have studied with you have insisted that they “drank the Kool-Aid.” Without making you blush too much, can you talk about how you empower and inspire your students?

KM: I am a learner-teacher. I believe I am valuable to a community of learners in which every writer who places her pages before others is willing to be a learner-teacher. That is what I have discovered in my 40 years of dedicated efforts. I hope I will be given yet more years to walk the exhilarating paths stretching out before all of us who are learner-teachers.

GI: What writing advice would you give to emerging – and even to experienced – writers in this day and age?

KM: Remember that child in you, still there in you, always there in you, who experienced joy – disorienting and fearsome and life-altering joy – as someone read to you and as you first learned to read?

Gazing upon this astonishing world through each word of what you write, summon that child.

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Bernadette Smyth

Bernadette Smyth left Ireland to join Gemini Ink as development director, where she writes and oversees grant applications. She is an award-winning short story writer and editor who has extensive experience...