June 07, 2022

Poetry, Politics, and Presidential Graves

Still early in her career, poet Sasha Debevec-McKenney’12 publishes a poem in The New Yorker.

Poet Sasha Debevec-McKenney?12 is taking the literary world by storm. Poet Sasha Debevec-McKenney’12 is taking the literary world by storm.

Sasha Debevec-McKenney’s searingly personal poem “Kaepernick,” which reflects on the former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s activism and her identity, was published by literary titan The New Yorker in November 2021 — no small feat for any writer, let alone one so early in her career.

Debevec-McKenney, who graduated in 2012, first submitted “Kaepernick” and two other poems to the magazine in 2020. Coincidentally, it was Beloit’s 2012-13 Mackey Chair and now poetry editor of The New Yorker Kevin Young who accepted her blind submission — and who sent her a kind congratulatory email afterwards.

“The reception has been amazing,” says Debevec-McKenney. “I get embarrassed when people bring ‘Kaepernick’ up, because I’m bad at taking compliments, but it’s nice to know people read it. And that it resonates with people.”

She’s also being read by students at her alma mater. She sat down (over Zoom) for a creative writing capstone course, Writing in Public, which is taught by Associate Professor of English Francesca Abbate’90. She discussed her recent success and how she transitioned from a Beloit student to a working writer.

Students in Abbate’s class were curious about how Debevec-McKenney spent the six years between Beloit and NYU — a time which the poet called a “blessing.” She found confidence and inspiration by working in restaurants and cafes, and she discovered that she didn’t want to let too much time pass before writing again.

“I had six years to deal with other things that would have gotten in the way of me doing well in grad school,” she says. “I’m grateful that I was able to not waste that time and realize how precious it is to have space where people are forced to read your work and listen to you.”

Born and raised in Connecticut, Debevec-McKenney spent many of her post-Beloit years in the Madison, Wis., area, where she now lives. She completed her Master of Fine Arts at New York University in 2020 as a Rona Jaffe Fellow. She recently wrapped up a stint as 2020-21 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. Before The New Yorker, her work had been published in the Yale Review, National Review, Peach Mag, Underblong, and TriQuarterly.

Debevec-McKenney was a creative writing major and American studies minor at Beloit, as well as a Round Table editor. Not surprisingly, she told the creative writing class, she incorporates what she’s reading about into her creative endeavors — a habit she began while she was a student.

Sasha Debevec-McKenney?12 Sasha Debevec-McKenney’12
Credit: Michael Doyle Olson
“My writing process is so informed by Beloit,” she says. “I was taking one or two classes about American history or politics and then that’s all I would write about. Whenever I get lost or I’m feeling like I can’t write about something, I always can go back to that place. I’m always reading something, but specifically something that’s not a novel or not poetry — something that’s a lot of facts.”

That process usually involves a line or phrase getting stuck in Debevec-McKenney’s head that needs to be written down. After that, she develops an outline and a “thesis” for the poem, which often incorporates something she’s obsessing about or is afraid to confront. Only after the poem is printed and fully fleshed out can she separate herself from the material and begin to edit it on her own. She frequently shares her work with family and friends for feedback.

“I’m a really aggressive editor,” she explains. “[If] this is the best line of the poem, I have to get rid of it; I’ll use it somewhere else. I never feel like I’m a good writer, but I’m a really good editor.”

As for what’s next, Debevec-McKenney is trying something new, for her: nonfiction. She’s writing a book of essays that translates her visits to presidential graves into a memoir of her life.

“Sometimes you can’t say everything you want to say in a poem,” she explains. “Some of the president poems I write are failures because they would require so much background knowledge in order to make sense to the reader, and I don’t want to alienate people. In prose, I can explain everything I need to.”

After favoring poetry for so many years, Debevec-McKenney finds that shifting to a longer form can sometimes feel overwhelming.

“In my poems, I’m like, ‘Of course you want to listen to me talk about myself,’ and in these projects I [think], ‘Oh my god, stop talking about yourself!’” she says.

It’s been a learning process, she admits, and one that’s still ongoing.

“The big difference is [writing nonfiction requires] more time and being kinder to myself, letting myself write bad sentences and get the point across. In my mind, I’m gonna write these chapters and see what happens.”


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