2018 NC Award Winner for Literature: Michael McFee

the best writing that I do is a gift to
where I am in the sense that it’s paying attention to where I am the beauty of
living here in Chapel Hill and Durham is you’ve got three hours one way or the
other and you’re in a totally different landscape and I think North Carolina’s
fairly unique to have that range because each landscape has a different culture a
different barbecue a different accent what a gift to have that and to have
been born here was a real stroke of luck as a writer I was born in Asheville and
grew up south of town and a little cross roads called Arden once I got down here
I realized I miss having the mountains at the horizon also my family and the people I knew there people from Appalachia really are a bit different from others
so I guess I was absorbing things without realizing I was absorbing them
for writing because I did not set out to be a writer I thought I wanted to be an
architect and started college at NC State to do that but once I made my way
into a poetry writing class here at Chapel Hill I started thinking about
what really interested me what I tell my students is you’re looking for the thing
you can’t not do the thing just you’ve got to do with your life and I just
really enjoyed playing with words in that way and making these little word
worlds called poems I think the first poem I wrote in the class was about a fire tower on the Blue Ridge Parkway I’ve kept writing poems and essays about
the mountains ever since I’m most always inspired by things around me and daily
life things I see or hear and I always carry in my pocket a piece of paper that
I write notes on I wrote a series of poems about stuff I ate when I was a kid that
I don’t eat anymore you know like uh saltines which we just
ate all the time growing up it’s like our hors d’oeuvres or how he would salt
watermelon when we ate it juicy watermelon on a picnic table that seedy
red meat sweaty with melting crystals a lot of the poems are rooted in memories and those memories are always really sensory and specific it’s not like I think I
want to write a poem about the meaning of family I could not write that poem
but if I can write a poem about my weird uncle or the aunt that I loved
or how my mother used to say I swan a swan I got a poem out of that just
out of the language that she used when I have a student come in who’s from some
small town in North Carolina if you can help show that student that you don’t
need to write poems about nightingales and sort of more English Lit kinds of
things but there are poems back home where you’re from often the results can be
amazing to see younger writers really getting engaged with the possibilities
of the language and of imagery and of the structure of the poem it helps
remind me why I got into it in the first place especially with the students at
Carolina they want to make a difference in the world and for some of them that’s
meant to be a writer I’ve read poems at their weddings I just became the
godparent to one of their children and we’ve become a family my mentor and late colleague Doris Betts used to say the literary community in North Carolina is
cooperative and not competitive we’re happy for the successes of our fellow
writers I love going out into the state and reading or talking with not just
fellow professors and writing students but other North Carolinians I think many
of us are raised or taught that poetry’s written in a kind of code that you have to
have the secrets to unlock it’s true that poetry has a mysterious quality to it
but it’s not a secret code if you’re somebody who enjoys words you can enjoy

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