Phyllis Theresa (McKinley) Brace was born on 8 May 1947 in Moncton, New Brunswick to Elmer McKinley, a schoolteacher turned Human Resource Manager, and Bernice O’Connor, a housewife who was talented in the kitchen, often baking recipes learned from her Acadian grandparents, the Melansons. McKinley was the middle child; she had two older brothers and two younger sisters (McKinley E-mail Interview).
From a young age, McKinley was an avid reader who would walk to the library with one of her sisters, “carrying bundles of books to read on all our school holidays” (E-mail Interview). She remembers fibbing “about our age so we could take books from the upstairs shelves and take home six, not just two books at a time.” Her love for literature helped her with her studies, accelerating her graduation from Moncton High School in 1964, a year earlier than expected (she did grades nine and ten within a single year). She especially loved literature, having fond memories of Miss Elsie Crickard, her English teacher, who, when signing her yearbook, addressed it to “the future poet” (E-mail Interview). Although she was not fond of math, she has pleasant memories of her geometry teacher, the well-known Dr. Bernice MacNaughton, whose slogans have influenced McKinley’s life: “you can if you try hard enough” and “think from the known to the unknown” (E-mail Interview).
Although her teachers encouraged her to go to university, her father’s heart attack the year of her high school graduation made it impossible. Instead, she entered a three-year nursing program at the Moncton Hospital School, graduating in 1967. For McKinley, the choice was fortuitous: “nursing showed me life in full spectrum, uncovered and raw, and would bring a perspective to my writing that I may not have gained from the classroom” (E-mail Interview).
McKinley began taking her writing seriously in the summer of 1980. At that point, she had been married to her first husband for twelve years, had four children from ages two to nine, had her in-laws living in a suite next door, and had been writing short essays and poems for a rural newspaper in her limited time. When she noticed an advertisement for the Maritime Writers’ Workshop in Fredericton, she decided to apply.
She would attend the Maritime Writers’ Workshop three times, the first time being the most influential. During that 1980 workshop, McKinley became acquainted with many of the well-known New Brunswick writers, such as Nancy and Bill Bauer, Alden Nowlan, Robert Hawkes, and Robert Gibbs. The biggest influence was Fred Cogswell, who “despite my naivety on all things academic and literary, took me under his wing.” McKinley and Cogswell formed a relationship that saw her send him up to 200 poems per year, that work coming back with a comment on each one, as well as his own “freshly scribbled” poems (E-mail Interview). This relationship continued until Cogswell’s death in 2004. McKinley remembers Cogswell as always gentle “but firm” in his criticisms, allowing her to recognize her strong suits as well as what she needed to work on to become a better writer.
McKinley’s poetic inspiration comes from the world around her. Early on, she often wrote from her “sanctuary,” an old house by the sea in the tiny fishing village of Alma, at the entrance to Fundy National Park. It was there that McKinley felt at home, noting “every trillium in the spring, every red sumac berry in the fall, every snow-laden fir in winter, and every roar of the waves through the foggy nights of summer” (E-mail Interview). She began to realize that she did not only inhabit the landscape but the landscape “owned me and molded me and I belonged to it. It would find its way into my poems and later my non-fiction works for years to come” (E-mail Interview).
McKinley’s long poem, “The Road to Somewhere Else,” is typical of this aesthetic. It was written when she was living year-round in an old farmhouse in Hopewell Cape, a forty-minute drive from Alma. The poem answers a question frequently asked of locals living in isolated places on route to a tourism landmark:
I live on the road to Somewhere Else.
Where every summer the tourists drive
Not slowing, not knowing
There are no dotted lines on this road. (n. pag.)
As the above suggests, place is an important component of McKinley’s work. Her Alma “sanctuary” is the house described in Invitation:
a room of her own
yes, and more
a resting place
a nesting place
a place with roots
a place with wings. (9)
Invitation is one of McKinley’s most highly regarded works, a collection that invites readers to “step into life, step into love, and flourish” by questioning “our response to those things abandoned” (Lynch 19). Throughout the trials of life and increased use of technology, the old house becomes the “heroine’s one sympathetic confidante” (Lynch 19).
McKinley’s poetry has generally been celebrated by both critics and readers. Her mentor, Fred Cogswell, regarded the work as profoundly thoughtful: “What I most admire is Phyllis McKinley’s discovery, often in humble places, of the remarkable correspondences between patterns found in nature and patterns found in the so-called ‘human world.’ Her work evinces a remarkably rich awareness of oneness in all things” (126). Described as a “free spirit, yet remarkably humble,” she is celebrated for her “unique literary voice” (Hersey D3).
Throughout her literary career, McKinley has won various awards, honours, and titles, including the Dr. Alfred Bailey Prize in 1993. Her work has appeared in The Fiddlehead, Germination, and Pottersfield Portfolio. Her work has also reached an international audience, winning the 2002 poetry prize for The New Writer, a literary magazine of the United Kingdom, as well as various Royal Palm Literary Awards from the Florida Writers’ Association.
Not only a writer, McKinley has also held various titles and editorial positions. Between 1990 and 1995, she was the poetry editor of The Cormorant (Corbett C3) and, from 1985 to 1988, served as director and vice-president of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick.
In 2006, McKinley moved to Florida with her husband, Dr. Hanford Brace. She is a member of the Florida Writers’ Association and has been published in several Chicken Soup for the Soul books (Hersey). McKinley continues to write poetry inspired by her New Brunswick roots.
Jamie Foster, Fall 2019
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
McKinley, Phyllis. Do Clouds Have Feet? Avon Park: Leafy Bough Press, 2009.
---. E-mail interview, 18 Oct. 2019; 22 Oct. 2019.
---. Invitation. Saint John: Purple Wednesday Society, 2003.
---. Objects of Joy: Prose Poems. Sackville: Harrier Editions, 1997.
---. The Road to Somewhere Else. Saint John: Purple Wednesday Society, 1995.
---. The Wind Is Blue. Saint John: Purple Wednesday Society, 1996.
Rowan, Phyllis [Phyllis McKinley]. To Touch a Solitude. Saint John: Purple Wednesday Society, 1990.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Cogswell, Fred. “Phyllis McKinley.” Poetic Voices of the Maritimes: A Selection of Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Allison Mitcham and Theresia Quigley. Hantsport: Lancelot Press, 1996. 126-135.
Corbett, Connie. “Authors and Poets Descend on City.” Times & Transcript [Moncton] 25 Apr. 2000: C3.
Hersey, Linda. “N.B. Author Lauded by Florida Writers’ Assoc.” Times & Transcript [Moncton] 8 Nov. 2010: D3.
Lynch, Bruce Allen. “Poet Invites Reader Into Home of Nursing Home Worker.” Telegraph-Journal [Saint John] 11 Sept. 2004: 19.
Mitcham, Allison, and Theresia Quigley, eds. Poetic Voices of the Maritimes: A Selection of Contemporary Poetry. Hantsport: Lancelot Press, 1996.
Quigley, Theresa. Cover endorsement. Invitation, by Phyllis McKinley. Saint John: Purple Wednesday Society, 2003.