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INTERVIEW WITH GARY FINCKE

 

Gary Fincke

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Gary Fincke is the Writers Institute Director as well as Professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. Winner of the 2003 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2003 Ohio State University/The Journal Poetry Prize for recent collections of stories and poems, he has published nineteen books of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction, most recently Standing Around the Heart (poems, Arkansas, 2005), Sorry I Worried You (stories, Georgia, 2004), and Amp'd: A Father's Backstage Pass, a nonfiction account of his son's life as a rock guitarist in the band Breaking Benjamin (Michigan State, 2004). Standing around the Heart was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize. Michigan State will be publishing his next book, a memoir tentatively titled The Canals of Mars, in late 2007.

Winner of the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry Magazine and the Rose Lefcowitz Prize from Poet Lore, Gary Fincke has received a PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize as well as seven fellowships for creative writing from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in such periodicals as Harper's, Newsday, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, American Scholar, and Doubletake. Twice awarded Pushcart Prizes for his work and cited nine times in the past eleven years for a "Notable Essay" in Best American Essays, Gary Fincke's essay "The Canals of Mars" was reprinted in The Pushcart Essays, an anthology of the best nonfiction printed during the first twenty-five years of the Pushcart Prize volumes.

Gary Fincke also writes a bi-weekly newspaper column, which is often distributed by Scripps-Howard. Recent columns have been reprinted in the Atlanta Constitution, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, The Sacramento Bee, and dozens of other newspapers throughout the United States and Canada.

Describe the room you write in.

It's upstairs. My younger son's old room converted into a study. The most distinctive object in the room is a chair with an extended seat (like an open-ended couch) so I can stretch my legs out as I write.

Your write both fiction and poetry. Do you favor one more? Do you write both at the same time?

I don't "favor" one over the other, but for the past couple of years I've written much more fiction. When Sorry I Worried You won the O'Connor Prize, it gave me a shot of confidence, and I wrote nothing but fiction for six months; when Writing Letters for the Blind won its prize, I went back to poetry, so some of my concentration is driven by the response of others to my work. And I only write both at the same time whenever I have pieces that are in the revision stage I can go back to; I never write "new" in two genres at the same time.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

In fiction-Tobias Wolff, Fred Busch, Richard Ford, Dan Chaon; in poetry, Ed Hirsch, Phil Levine, Rodney Jones, Frankie Paino-there are many more, of course, but these are writers who have made an impression and ones I go back to.

Who is one of your biggest influences?

Philip Levine. He's the poet that showed me the importance of working out of the world I knew, that an audience can be moved by the simple, yet complicated, act of getting it exactly right. And since I began as a poet, his influence was absolutely critical.

I have followed your writing for so many years going way back to publishing you in BLuR. It is so exciting to read book after book that you have published. Your writing is so powerful. Some of your book publications are Standing Around The Heart (University of Arkansas, 2005), Sorry I worried You (University of Georgia Press, 2004), Amp'd: A Fathers Backstage Pass (Michigan State University Press, 2004), Writing Letters For the Blind (Ohio State University Press, 2003), The Stone Child (University of Missouri Press, 2003), Blood Ties: Working Class Poems (time being books, 2002), The Almanac for Desire (bkmk Press, 2000), Emergency Calls (University of Missouri Press, 1996), Inventing Angels (Zoland Books, 1994), For Keepsies (Coffee House Press, 1993), and The Double Negatives (Zoland Books, 1992). I have listed these so that the readers can check them out. Please talk about your newest book Standing Around the Heart. Out of the rest of these books, is there one you feel close to?

As always the poems in Standing around the Heart are mostly narrative and grounded in experience. But just as often, they are associative in a way that I hope takes the poems beyond the events and characters and places into something deeper and surprising-I use history, science, pop culture, trivia, and everything that comes to me in an effort to do just that.

I feel closest to Amp'd because it's nonfiction and chronicles four years of following my son's career as a rock guitarist, from being in a bar band to playing arena shows and being on shows like Jay Leno. I went to about seventy shows along the way, and you get close to that world in a way that stays. The next book, a memoir, focuses on my father, so that will certainly be close as well.

You wrote a memoir about your son's rise to fame in a rock and roll band. His band won MTV's Ultimate Cover Band Battle. Share some of the experiences that you had and the whole music industry as you experienced it. How long did you travel and be backstage? Did your son and the band approve of this? Did they know you were writing about them?

Odd experiences-I saw the drummer of another band die on stage, and I witnessed a sweep of a venue by a dozen or more state police. Early on, the band was playing three one-hour sets in bars and clubs from 10 PM to 2 AM. The music was "aggressive," and so were the fans-lots of moshing and drunkenness and stupid behavior, but it was exciting. Once they were MTV darlings, these places were packed. I wrote about the bouncers and the fans and the guys in the band. That first band was signed but fell apart after one CD; he was signed a second time in another band (Breaking Benjamin), and that one took off, so then I had a different world to write about. The bands knew I was writing. They approved. I showed them a chapter or two early on, but I was there so often that I could "disappear" into their world and allow their behavior to be natural.

You currently are the Director of the Writers Institute and Professor of English at Susquehanna University. You have been there for a long time. How many years? How do you balance your time and find the time to write? Share any secrets you have on this!

26 years at Susquehanna. The Writers Institute is 13 years old; the creative writing major is 10 years old, so my job has changed significantly from time to time. I write early in the morning, nearly every day-early means I'm usually writing by 6 AM-otherwise I wouldn't be able to work at it the way I do; by 10 AM I'm ready to deal with teaching and administration-I work a lot of hours and nearly every weekend, but it's what I love to do, so that's not an issue-I coached tennis here for 21 years, but I did give that up five years ago. Writing is one thing for which I have a great deal of discipline. The secret is making myself available each day.

What are some of the things you try to teach your students about writing? about reading? What are some challenges you face as a Director of a writing program?

Observe. Take in the world through your senses. Reach for the audience's heart in your writing. Go as deep as you can, then go deeper. Ask yourself "What if?" Don't anticipate where your poems and stories and essays are going-discover it as you write. I don't think any of those are secrets, but they need to be said. As for reading-do more of it. Students, even the best of them, don't read enough. Read as a writer---listen to the sound of the poems, the rhythm of them-read them aloud. The challenge-and the joy-is that the program has grown to over 100 creative writing majors at a school with 1850 students. It's a job I never anticipated, but one that I welcome-the Writers Institute is endowed; there are four writers in tenure-track positions; we publish four magazines, etc.

What are you working on now?

A new collection of stories. A new collection of poems. A novel. The novel is based on the Kent State National Guard killings-I was a student there at the time-I have an agent who is just this month beginning to try to sell it. And I'm trying to sort though all of my poems to compile a "selected poems" collection.

Thank you so much Gary for letting me interview you. Do you have any last comments you'd like to share?

Thanks for asking. And your support way back when.

 


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