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Celebrating the life and legacy of Kevin McIlvoy

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Peter Goodman
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Commentary:

Snapshots of the writer and his family flash on the screen in a theater where he sometimes read from his work.

The writer’s older son, recalls falling asleep in a motel room the evening before his paternal grandfather’s funeral, as his father, the writer, sat hunched over a little desk working on the eulogy. When the writer’s son awakened at 2 a.m., the writer was still working, to make the words just right, “to give the performance he felt his father deserved.” Adds the son, “And now, 40 years later, I’m trying to speak at his memorial.”

I’m at a celebration of the life of Kevin McIlvoy, a brilliant and dedicated writer who was friend, colleague, and mentor to people who mattered to him, some of whom matter to me. “Mac” was also a loving husband and father, and one helluva writing teacher.

Mac wrote several fine novels and many poems and short stories. He arose at 5 a.m. to write. Afternoons, he wrote in coffee shops, listening to the conversations around him. He revised constantly. As a friend and colleague said, “He tortured the text until he got it to do what he needed it to.” He worked incessantly and took risks. (Novels narrated by a sixth-grader or an octogenarian stonemason and sometime thief?)

Mac gave back, too. Despite a writer’s need to hoard his/her time, Mac cared enough to be incredibly responsive to the work of students, not merely mouthing interest but displaying genuine appreciation with numerous perceptive comments and questions. “He truly engaged with students,” one former student said. Mac also edited Puerto del Sol, responding personally to everyone who submitted work. Wednesday mornings at the Munson Center, he taught writing to seniors. Earlier, in Chicago, he convinced the warden to let him teach writing to prisoners. He was such a dedicated father that on one camping trip, after he fell and broke three ribs, he stayed two more days in the wilderness, despite the pain, because his two sons were having so much fun.

Mac was instrumental in growing the NMSU writing program, and two other institutions here flourish because of his efforts. The Wednesday group became Southwest Writers, still meeting at Munson Center fourteen years after Mac left town. (Members have written more than two dozen books!) Mac chaired the Doña Ana Arts Council when it rescued, rehabilitated, and restored the Rio Grande Theater, now a performing arts venue owned by the City of Las Cruces.

He was a teacher in every moment, but also a lifelong student – an example for all of us.

Above all, Mac was a writer who deserves to be remembered and read.

As he said in 2021, “I remind myself that I want to live inside the sentences and not immediately start asking myself, ‘Where is this going?’ but to stay on the ground of the experience that the sentence is making sonically and then to discover by accident where this is going.” He also said, “Being uncertain, being vulnerable, is the best possible thing for me as an artist. I’ve come to believe it’s the best possible thing for anyone who presumes to make art, to place yourself in uncertainties, to be in over your head, to realize that the work is asking you to rise above your limitations.”

Amen, brother. Such words magnify my regret that I never met Mac.

But we have his words, his wonderful books!