Llewellyn McKernan

Pencil Memory (Finishing Line Press, 2010)

How did you write Pencil Memory and why?

Though I didn’t know it at the time, my chapbook, Pencil Memory, started with a poem called “Cat Pencil.” I love cats and have written several poems that feature their startling personalities. So I wasn’t surprised that one appeared as a pencil. I’ve also had a long and intimate friendship with pencils, too, so that both showing up in one poem made me happy, especially when the pencil therein invited the reader to view that ancient writing tool in a new way. For I have always loved the pencil, the slow but sure way it draws out of my hand and heart that free spirit that is the springboard for every poem I’ve finished, (having invested the best of myself in it, I can now leave it to live confidently on its own).

This devotion to the pencil began when I was a child.  My family and I lived on a farm in the country.  It was in the forties and there was no TV or playmate nearby.  My mother, father, and sisters were too busy to pay a lot of attention to me, a small solitary day-dreamer who spent her best hours alone, having thoughts and feelings that—pressed down, shaken together, and running over—had to be expressed or I would burst. Luckily I avoided that outcome when I picked up a pencil and a piece of scrap paper and started writing.

I could talk with a pencil and the sheet would listen. What I said was special to me, and I didn’t want it to be mocked, criticized, or rejected. The pencil and the paper never did any of these things.  Instead they became my best friends—and we have had a great reciprocal relationship for more years than I want to reveal.

Mostly what I wrote were poems, and I continued to write them during my adolescent, college, and graduate school experiences, plus those in my adult life, which included being a wife and mother.

I must have used up hundreds of pencils, not only for poetry but for the journals I kept  during most of my grown-up life, and I am convinced that such creative outlets made it possible for me to confront and endure the daily sometimes difficult pressures of the adult world.

This blending of need and creativity is the gut-level foundation on which all my poetry books are built: Short and Simple Annals: Poems About Appalachia, published by a West Virginia Humanities Council Grant. Many Waters: Poems from West Virginia, Mellen Poetry Press. Llewellyn McKernan’s Greatest Hits, Pudding House Press, and the soon-to-be released Sound of One Tree Falling: New and Selected Poems, MotesBooks Press.

This basic sensibility worked to produce the pencil poems, too. But what got the poetic gears going occurred after I wrote “Cat Pencil.” I had so much fun creating a pencil like a cat that when I thought of a metaphor that would suit a “Young Pencil,” I wrote that poem, too: this fresh recruit out of the box had all the traits of a rifleman in the army who sooner or later would “spill my guts before he’s done for.”

Then I thought, “Well, if there’s a young pencil, there’s got to be an old one, and since I’m that age myself and know a lot about it, I ought to write it.” So I did.

By that time, I was hooked.  I imagined other kinds of pencils, how they would think and feel, so I wrote about them.  When I had rough drafts of about fifteen different poems (among them “Blessed Pencil,” “Hungry Pencil,” “Emily’s Pencil,” ’Whitman’s Pencil”), I realized that if I could write enough poems and fill enough pages, I’d have a chapbook!  I was already motivated by the desire to write these poems for myself, but now the thought of publication and of others reading them made me work even harder. I thought of other kinds of pencil poems, wrote rough drafts of them, and revised the ones I’d already written. Most went through countless revisions. A few, such as “Pencil Memory,” I hardly had to change at all.  Others, having seen the light of day, wilted and died by night fall. One called “The Last Pencil” endured several weeks of bad weather before it sank in the earth like a bad seed and was never seen again.

The average size of a chapbook usually ranges from twenty-eight to thirty-two pages, so I aimed for and achieved the minimum goal. Pencil Memory has twenty-four poems that fill twenty-eight pages. (I’ve seen chapbooks as short as twenty-two pages. My first poetry book, Short and Simple Annals, was forty-two pages long but was called a chapbook because it wasn’t long enough for a full-length poetry book (sixty – eighty pages),  and because it was about one subject—Appalachian women and children—and the individual poems added up to a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. I hope Pencil Memory does, too.

A lot of chapbooks don’t have this one over-arcing scheme, but I found that those who do often win prizes and/or get published. I myself like this kind of strict measure of a chapbook, and I would suggest this form for any poet planning to write one. I myself will never attempt another unless I get hit over the head by a subject so overwhelming it has to be split up and presented piece by piece.  I like to regard a chapbook as one long poem whose various parts stand on their own, but by being placed adjacent to one another, each becomes richer and stronger and more satisfying to the reader. Of course, some chapbooks will be successful, no matter how they are structured. But I think it is more gratifying to conceive and execute one where the reader can easily construct the whole word picture.

I worked sporadically on my own word picture for about two years, then finished it in 2009. How I felt then is difficult to explain, but perhaps the following paragraph will help a little.

I was glad the train of thought jumped-started by “Cat Poem” was over. Yes, it arrived at an old-fashioned station ( blowing joyful steam in my face) and when I had at last unloaded its cars, there they were:  a hefty (not lofty) weight of words the Muse had sent. It had been a long journey and some of them were weary (like “I sure hope you don’t return me again to be revised”), but most were just happy to have survived the long trip and its many pitfalls. For example, once the train went right into the river when a bridge failed; another time it was strewn across a vast waste when the train took a wrong turn and ended up having a wreck.  Sometimes it endured days of crawling at a snail’s pace from one stop-off to another, where nobody got on who knew how to write.  Of course, the engineer and the conductor had a good deal of experience riding on the rails so they had somehow managed to get the cargo through every crisis. It was a miracle—these tiny slips of paper that only book covers kept from floating away on a breeze so sweet perhaps I should have let them go.

But I didn’t. I wanted to get them published.

I didn’t submit my chapbook to contests or open reading periods. For various reasons I wanted Finishing Line Press to publish it. Here are some of them: l) It only publishes chapbooks so the editor, Leah Maines, is always accepting submissions, unlike presses that publish mostly full-length books.  2) Leah Maines has years of experience in producing chapbooks and knows how to do them well. I know because I’ve seen some of them. Quite a few of my  poet-friends have chapbooks published by Finishing Line Press, among them two university professors, another who is both a painter and a poet, and one who is a graduate student in an MFA program. Such a variety of authors means that the editor’s acceptance of a chapbook does not depend on the  professional status of the poet but on the poems, which is the most authentic standard an editor can make.

So I submitted Pencil Memory to Finishing Line Press; the editor accepted and published it in 2010. My friend, Laura Eklund, known as the mystical Appalachian artist, did the original pastel for the cover and Christen Kincaid, Finishing Line designer, adapted it for the cover, where two gold pencils danced with each other in a darker gold forest. Then the press printed five hundred copies for the first edition, and I was formally finished with the chapbook.

I had a publishing party to celebrate its arrival at the Cabell County Library in Huntington, WV. I’ve also done various poetry readings throughout West Virginia and in New Smyrna Beach, FL, where my husband and I spend our winters. I’m no marketing expert and would  appreciate anyone’s advice on how to get books out there in the real world in funny or unique ways.


Llewellyn McKernan’s bio: “I was born between a rock and a hard place.  I was raised in a field where it really was greener on the other side. Now my life hangs by the thread of a song, but the thread is steel-strong and won’t snap until I’m no longer on earth but in a heavenly home.”


Cat Pleska Interviews Llewellyn McKernan at West Virginia Literary Soul:



Here are three cat poems. The first is the one that jump-started the whole series of poems. The second and third describe different ways that kept me working on the pencil poems. Then a paragraph describes a technique that works for me when I experience writer’s block, and which I used while I was writing the pencil poems.

Cat Pencil

It has verbs
that stalk,
that creep,
nouns with
big paws
that take
flying leaps,
when they
a pronounced
claw—it has
more than
nine lives,
each dark
end abides
in words,
the paper.

You can find these images in the “Cat Pencil” poem in my chapbook. The published poem has a different shape and slightly different diction, but basically it’s the same as the one here, which jump-started my investigation into various into-your-face pencil poems.


My Best Friend

the kitten
loves to paw
my moving pencil,
loves to clutch it
with her claws, &
bite its eraser
off:  whatever
you write is
purrfect she
purrs you
don’t need
this end of
the pencil
at all!

Whenever I wanted to quit, the exuberant faith somebody had in my creative power kept me writing the pencil poems. So I wrote this comic poem to express a serious thought: the one who supports and encourages you to keep writing poetry is your best friend. If you have more than one, you’re lucky.


Cat Poem

Purrfect verse
every time.
Each image
licked until
it shines.
A frisky
that climb.

This is another cat poem.  Can you tell I’m playing around? Just having fun? Well, I was, and that same sense of play kept inspiring me while I was writing poems, even the most difficult ones, such as the “Pencil in the All-Nite Diner.”  I wrote three different versions before I got the flip, off-the-cuff style that suited such a nitty-gritty setting.


One other thing helped me to keep working on the pencil poems. It’s a gimmick, but it works for me. I didn’t think of this trick myself. Over the years I’ve heard about it at workshops and readings. Perhaps you’ve already heard this piece of advice, but if you’ve never tried it, why not?

If you’re writing a poem, and it’s sinking like a body in a muddy bog, haul it out by its hair and in order to resurrect it, shake it to death.

Here’s what you do: Think of the many ways possible to shake up the content so hard it’s no longer carved in stone.

Here are a few.

1. Begin the poem where you ended it.

2. Begin the poem with the middle part or any other part in the poem.

3. If your poem is a free-verse poem, turn it into stanzas with meter and rhyme. Of course, you don’t have to keep this form on the final draft, but you’d be surprised at what happens to the content when you change the form.

4. If you have four-line stanzas, make them shorter or longer. Do the same thing with any stanza length. Shorten the number of lines or lengthen them.

5. Turn your lines into a prose poem.

6. Write your lines in one long stream-of-consciousness sentence that goes on to the last word.

7. Cut your poem into phrases, throw all the slips of paper on the floor, turn them face up, then write another poem by choosing a phrase here and a phrase there until you’ve used them all or used those you need for your new poem.

I know what happens to my relationship with the poem when I use one of the seven techniques to revise it, but I don’t know what occurs in yours. You can only discover that by trying one or more yourself.


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