Patrick McKinnon, local poetry advocate, dies at 64

The co-creator of Poetry Harbor, which hosted readings, published books and had its own TV show, moved to Duluth nearly 50 years ago.

St. David’s Day
In 1996, local poets took part in the first St. David's Day poetry reading. The featured poets were, from left, Louis Jenkins, Connie Wanek, Nancy Fitzgerald, Ann Klefstad, Kate Basham, Patrick McKinnon, Liz Minette and Todd White. 1996 file / Duluth News Tribune
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Patrick McKinnon was a boisterous man, a writer described as having endless energy and enthusiasm, just the kind of character one would want to see holding a microphone at the poetry slams he hosted at the NorShor Theatre and beyond in the 1990s.

“Everybody in the room knew something was happening,” recalled local writer Paul Lundgren. “Other people might be mousy and apologetic about reading in public. It’s easy to not pay attention to a poet.

“It was hard to not pay attention to Patrick McKinnon.”

McKinnon, 64, died last week in Duluth. He had been struggling since having a benign brain tumor removed about a decade ago, according to his sister, Kathy Spires, of Sonora, California, and he had lung cancer, though he might not have known.

McKinnon, a California native, landed in Duluth nearly 50 years ago. His father was living here, according to Spires, as well as their aunt, Sister Mary Charles McGough, a late Benedictine nun from the St. Scholastica Monastery who was an accomplished artist. Her work was featured in an exhibition at the Tweed Museum of Art in 2014.


In Duluth, McKinnon, too, became part of the arts community — as an instigator in the local lit scene. He was co-creator of Poetry Harbor, a nonprofit launched in 1991 that supported local poets with readings, a literary review and chapbooks, and a public access television program.

Katri Sipila met McKinnon at a poetry reading in the late 1990s.

“We just hit it off from the start,” she said. “Poetry is what brought us together and I’m pretty sure we’ve traveled many, many lifetimes together. It was like, ‘I know you.’”

They later married and divorced, before reconnecting as friends in 2019. McKinnon had three children, including one with Sipila. She described him as a beat poet, with a certain amount of edgy work.

In recent days, cleaning out his apartment, she has removed the work that hung on his walls — poems with collage backdrops. He published nearly 20 collections, including “Cherry Ferris Wheel” which was nominated for a Minnesota Book Award, and won countless awards, like the sci-fi-centric Nebula Award for “Dear Spacemen,” a longer piece.

In a 2002 story about McKinnon in the Duluth Budgeteer , a reporter pulled out a line that offered a colorful metaphor for the modern world: “a mound of maggots in a pile of fresh dung.”

Jim Perlman of Holy Cow! Press met McKinnon in the late 1980s and called him a “real dynamo, in terms of what he was doing” in the local lit scene.

“He was a man of endless energy and enthusiasm and openness to new ways of thinking and writing,” said Perlman. “The likes of him, we probably won’t see again around here.”


Ryan Vine, an assistant professor in the English department at the College of St. Scholastica, also remembered McKinnon as a champion of poets.

“He was a rascal, but he was also super generous with his support, inviting me to read and encouraging my early efforts,” Vine said. “And I know he wasn’t the only young poet he helped along the way.

“There isn’t anyone to take his place in the Duluth literary scene, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine who would.”

Lundgren, too, had McKinnon’s ear — and a spot in North Coast Review, the regional literary magazine.

“You could open that and say, it’s me and my work is next to Bill Holm and Barton Sutter,” he said. “That was the only magazine like it at the time.”

About a decade ago, McKinnon was driving a truck for a local grocery store when he had a seizure and went off the road. Doctors found a brain tumor that he had likely had for most of his life, according to Sipila. His life changed after that.

In 1996, the News Tribune published a Q&A with McKinnon, who was fresh from the publication of “Me & Death,” a poetry collection published by Speakeasy, an Erie, Pennsylvania-based press. At the time, Poetry Harbor was reportedly reaching an estimated 30,000 people through its various mediums.

McKinnon was asked about the response he gets from people when he tells them he is a poet. The most wonderful response was “Why?”


“To tell the truth,” he responded. “I don’t think anyone knows ‘why’ anything and I think maybe that’s why I write.”

This story originally contained an extraneous line. It was updated at 11:31 a.m. Oct. 15. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Patrick McKinnon was a writer, collage artist, harmonica player and more. He died last week. Christa Lawler / / Duluth News Tribune

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