All Columns in Alphabetical Order

Friday, September 10, 2010

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Rennie McQuilkin, Poet, Publisher, and Godfather of Whom You Know!

Photo by Pit Pinegar
For many years, Rennie McQuilkin was an instructor of English at schools including Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. and Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut.  He founded and until 2000 directed the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut. After that venture, he founded Antrim House (, which has become a leading publisher of poetry and memoir. His own poetry has appeared in many journals, among them The Beloit Poetry Journal,  The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Yale ReviewThe Hudson Review, Crazyhorse, The North American Review, Poetry Northwest, The Gettysburg Review, Southwest Review, Chelsea, and The American Scholar.  His most recent book is entitled The Weathering: New & Selected Poems.  

Earlier books are We All Fall Down (winner of the Swallow's Tale Poetry Prize), North Northeast,An Astonishment and an Hissing (awarded the Texas Review Poetry Prize), Counting to Christmas (a Christmas gift book), Learning theAngels (runner-up for the Anhinga Prize for Poetry in 2002), Private CollectionPassage, and Getting Religion.  McQuilkin has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as several grants from the CT Commission on the Arts. Other awards include first prize in the 2000 Yankee Awards series, as well as the Ruth Fox Award of the New England Poetry Club and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut Center for the Book. He is at present short-listed for the annual Connecticut Center for the Book poetry award. He and his wife, the artist Sarah McQuilkin, live on a small farm in Simsbury, CT.

Richard Wilbur has written that “Rennie McQuilkin’s poems are pungently exact about the properties of the real world… In a book which has poignancy, gusto, and many another mood, there is never a false feeling.” David Bottoms has commented that “Rennie McQuilkin is a poet with an extraordinary eye. He looks at the hard questions of the world, never flinching, and translates them with a clarity that is rare in American poetry today.” Eamon Grennan has praised the “marriage of humor and meditation” in McQuilkin’s work and “loves the dynamics of its natural world and the poet’s dynamic affection for the human inhabitants of that world.” Dick Allen adds, “He has a voice unlike that of any other contemporary poet—so natural, so sympathetic, so convincing that the many moments and passages of fulfilled perceptions occur in these poems like the effortless unfolding of wings. McQuilkin speaks from us and with us in a language so devoid of all rhetoric it is pure American: the natural man is lifted out of himself almost beyond his knowing…  My response is one of pure thanks.”

Rennie McQuilkin taught many girls at Miss Porter's School, including Peachy Deegan, the difference between who and whom and he has been the biggest literary influence of Peachy's life.  She even read The Great Gatsby at his suggestion so many years ago, and she's read it about 40 times since then, more than any other book.  And it was in Rennie McQuilkin's 10th grade English class that Peachy Deegan learned the difference between who and whom, and where she first learned it's not who you know, it's Whom You Know.  If you like Whom You Know, you must love Rennie McQuilkin.  We are absolutely thrilled to present him as our latest Mover and Shaker!

Peachy Deegan interviewed Rennie McQuilkin for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: What is your earliest memory of loving the English language?   
Rennie McQuilkin: I loved being read to by my poet mother and I slept with Stevenson’s A child’s Garden of Verses under my pillow.

What made you such a successful teacher?   
Was I successful? If I was at all, it was because I wanted the Word to survive the onslaught of the Barbarians.
[Peachy: Of course you were successful look at all of your students that have friended you on facebook, and what they have grown up to be!]

How did teaching at Andover compare with teaching at Miss Porter's?  What did you like best about each?  
Miss Porter’s was much more open to innovation than Phillips Academy (Andover).

When did you first begin writing poetry?   
I had a wonderful 6th grade teacher who assigned poetry and put one of mine up on the class bulletin board. That was my first taste of publishing. But I think what really impelled me to write was the fact that at Xmas I was the odd man out in a family where everyone else played an instrument. My only defense was to compose and declaim Xmas poems.

Do you have future poetry festival ambitions?   
I’m running a small one currently—at a railway depot in Windsor, just down the road from the Loomis-Chaffee School

What kind of art does your wife do, and does it influence your poetry?   
She paints, mainly in watercolor. We have collaborated on a few books, both my own and others, she doing the illustrations. She also serves as the Art Editor of Antrim House.

Please tell us about your current publishing pursuits.  
I edit and publish both poetry and memoirs. My wife and I are the only staff members. I’m too busy with others’ books to think much about my own.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?  
Poets the likes of Richard Wilbur, Galway Kinnell, and Mary Oliver. Also publishers the likes of James Laughlin, who founded New Directions and published many fine poets, Denise Levertov among them.

What are you proudest of and why?   
I am proudest of the books Antrim House has been producing. And I’m happy that I lived long enough to get my New & Selected Poems out into the world, where it is having a tough go of it but is still alive.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?   
Publish a Pulitzer Prize winner for someone.

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?  
Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and several from the State of Connecticut. My New & Selected (entitled The Weathering) is currently short-listed for the Connecticut Book Award in poetry. See my bio for other awards.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan?  
Poet’s House.

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?  
I don’t shop.

What is your favorite drink?  
Islay single malt.

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan? 
I don’t eat out.

What is your favorite Manhattan book?  
There’s one about the natural history of Central Park. Can’t remember its exact title.

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why?  
A nook at Poet’s House.

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?  
Walking across Central Park to the Met.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?  
Visit my son, whose literary agency is down toward the Village.

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?   
Various exhibits (especially a Hopper exhibit at the Whitney and another there that featured the artist friends of Wiliam Carlos Williams. And of course that splendid retrospective of Andrew Wyeth, who is one of my personal heros. (One of his paintings is on the cover of my New & Selected). Those exhibits produced a number of poems that are in a collection entitled Private Collection and also in The Weathering: New & Selected Poems.  And of course I love to wander through the Met, the Frick, the Modern...

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?  
1) The Mets  2) The Yankees.

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it?  
English Errors!  Because the murder of the language is a sort of genocide...I can't wait to read more of the whole site. I’m rather partial to the overall title, don’t ya know.

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?  
I like to spend hours sipping beer in a backwater where the snapping turtles bask and let me scratch the algae on their backs with my paddle.

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?   
By bicycle.

Back to TOP