An Interview with Gary Fincke
By Dan Cryer
Gary Fincke is the author of sixteen books of poetry and short fiction, and, in 2004, of Amp'd, a personal account of his son's life in the rock band Breaking Benjamin. He is a recipient of the Bess Hokin Prize for Poetry, the Rose Lefcowitz Prize from Poet Lore, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and many other honors and awards. His essay, "The Canals of Mars" was reprinted in The Pushcart Essays, an anthology of the best essays from the first twenty-five years of Pushcart Prize volumes. His most recent books include Sorry I Worried You (U. of Georgia Press), a collection of short stories, which won the Flannery O'Connor award, and Standing Around the Heart (U. of Arkansas Press), a collection of poems. He is the director of the Writer's Institute and Professor of English at Susquehanna University in Selsinsgrove, Pennsylvania. Smartish Pace has published Gary Fincke's poems in issues 5, 8, 10 and 13. He was interviewed in April by Dan Cryer, associate editor at Smartish Pace.
Dan Cryer: You've managed to have success in poetry, fiction and non-fiction. To be proficient in all three, you must spend an extraordinary amount of time on your writing. Are you very disciplined with your creative time? Do you write everyday?
Gary Fincke: I'm very disciplined---ordinarily, I'm writing by 6 a.m. every day--I don't always get something done, but I'm always available. Those few times when a couple of days go by without writing, I'm difficult to live with. It's just like exercise, if I don't do something active for a couple of days, I'm just as difficult
DC: I've read that you came to writing relatively late, in your late 20's or early 30's. What pushed you towards it?
GF: Late 20s--after I finished my Ph.D., I began to read for myself for the first time, and I discovered a whole world of contemporary writing that was exciting, especially poems and stories coming out of a blue-collar experience; Phil Levine, James Wright, etc. Shortly thereafter, I read stories by Ray Carver and Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford, and I was hooked. I discovered that I was ready to carve out a space in my daily life for writing.
DC: With your writing, you've identified yourself closely with Pennsylvania, so I'm going to infer that place is an element of poetry and fiction that is important to you. Are there other writers you feel do this particularly well? For you, was it a conscious decision to do this or was it more of a natural response to your surroundings?
GF: Especially Western Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh area--I live in central PA now, but this place isn't nearly as prominent in my work--and yes, character and place are what attracts me first---Phil Levine, James Wright, Gerry Stern--those poets I was reading when I first began to write, were especially influential in showing me the value of working out of place.
DC: Heinz figures into your writing repeatedly, especially working in the plants. Is that from personal experience, or because it's something of a marker for Western Pennsylvania, or both?
GF: I spent two summers working at Heinz in Pittsburgh during college. It dropped me right into a blue-collar, racial and ethnic mix that became a genuine coming of age experience, both for the work and for the culture, and since it's so centered in Pittsburgh, where I grew up, the place has resurfaced several times in my work.
DC: You seem concerned with storytelling in your poetry. Do you do that for yourself or for the reader? By that I mean, is telling a story your natural tendency, or do you feel it's the best way to grab someone's attention?
GF: Writing narrative poetry is what came naturally. I never thought about it. It's just that character is always first for me in my poems and stories and essays. It accounts for me making the transition, after nearly ten years of writing poems, to writing short stories. The narratives wanted to keep going, fighting for enough space to go even deeper (even the poems kept getting longer, accumulating into sequences). It's never been about "grabbing attention," although for myself, when I read, I'm always drawn to poems that are "about something," meaning they have a narrative drive.
DC: In your fiction, your dialogue manages to sound off-the-cuff while letting us in on elements of character and story. It sounds natural, like talking, but it's doing a lot. Does it take you a long time to work out the exchanges between your characters, or does good dialogue happen more spontaneously for you?
GF: I rely heavily on dialogue to advance my stories. I have a good ear, I think, and it's often hearing the voice of a character that draws me to beginning a story. In fact, I need to hear at least one voice in order to begin, plus, I use a minimum amount of descriptive visual detail in my stories. I rely on characters' voices to let readers "see" them. I often find myself revising simply to insert a few visual details, maybe it's because I have lousy eyesight, but it's more likely because listening has always been my most active way of entering the world.
DC: What advice do you give your students about writing dialogue? GF: I'm always telling my students to listen to the way people really talk. It's not the dialogue of television and Hollywood movies, which is almost always exposition. On the page, that sort of dialogue is ludicrous.
DC: In the story, Sorry I Worried You, your main character, "The Serial Plagiarist," a writing teacher, tells his students, "Bad stories are ones in which you can see the outcome before it arrives." Do you like to have an idea of where a story or character will end up when you begin a story, or do you prefer to follow your imagination to see where it will go?
GF: I never know the ending of my stories when I begin them. I know something about a character or characters; I can hear their voices. I know where they live and the work they do, the rest is putting pressure on them and discovering who they are and how they behave.
DC: Your poem, "Basketball at the State Prison," in SP issue 8, has one of the most pleasing first lines I've come across from a narrative point of view: "The felons run a layup drill." That must've come from a personal experience. If it did, how far into it were you before you knew it would be a poem? Do you try to always have pen and paper handy, or do you have a pretty good memory for stored ideas?
GF: Yes, one of those personal experiences that's remembered for a long time. I played on a team with some other young colleagues at a Penn State Campus and we ended up playing at a maximum security prison. I didn't think of it as a poem at the time, but twenty years later, those moments came right back to me. I don't keep a journal, so I'd better be able to "store" memories.
DC: One of the things I love about Amp'd, your nonfiction book about your son's rock band, is the fiction writer's touch of characterization. You are the first-person narrator of that book, and the character the reader gets to know the most intimately. Was that a conscious choice?
GF: Yes, Amp'd, regardless of what else it is, is a father/son book. Whatever intimacy there is with the rock world comes from my relationship with my son.
DC: Some of my favorite moments in Amp'd happen when you have a new recording of Aaron's band and then share it with people you know, who you think might appreciate it, or just to watch their reaction. Does that ever get old? (It doesn't seem like it would.)
GF: No, it never gets old to hear his new music, and what follows is always the desire to share that music with others. I love taking people to shows, not only to share the experience with them, but because it lets me see the experience new again.
DC: Making a living, especially with a family to feed, is hard to do playing music. What's Aaron doing now? Do you still get to go to shows?
GF: The book ends as the band is making their second CD. This one went platinum and produced two #1 songs in Active Rock; they're currently recording their third CD, so they've beaten the odds and are making a solid living doing this, at least through three CDs, which makes them veterans in their world. I go to nearly every show when they're within 150 miles of where I live, which is only four or five times a year these days.
DC: You seem to have a genuine love for the music your son plays. Do you lean toward loud rock n roll, or do you have other loves, like jazz or classical? What band, besides any of the bands Aaron has played in, gave you the biggest thrill at a live show?
GF: I love all sorts of rock music. I fell in love with Rage Against the Machine and Tool when my son was in a band that covered them; on the other hand, I'm a big fan of what's called alt-country; Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, especially their poignant songs. I've seen all of them and loved it; of the bands I've seen with Breaking Benjamin, Godsmack and Hed PE put on the best shows; and I loved watching a band called Systematic that never quite caught on.
DC: In your fiction your prose is spare, relatively unadorned, with short sentences. In many of your poems, sentences spin out sometimes for many, many lines. Why is that?
GF: I wasn't aware of that. It's probably because in poetry I'm aware of lines instead of sentences, and the poems are built by association. One thing leads to another to another and so on
DC: Do you have anything longer, like a novel, in the works?
GF: I've just finished a novel built around the Kent State shootings. I was a student there at the time, the O'Connor Prize got me an agent, and she is about to send it out. I also have an associative memoir nearly completed, so two book-length projects about to test themselves.
DC: Do you subscribe to any literary journals? What are some of your favorites to read, for poetry and for fiction?
GF: My favorite magazine was DoubleTake. I think I have every issue until it went under. It's been resurrected, so I'll take another look. Over the years I've subscribed from time to time to The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, for all three genres; The Idaho Review has wonderful fiction, and just this month, when a poem of mine appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, I found its poetry quite good and hope they'll be interested in more. I wish there were more time to read, there are dozens of very fine magazines. Smartish Pace, for example, was a pleasant surprise.
DC: Finally, do you have a favorite collection of poems published in the last five years? A Collection of stories?
GF: Stories? Dan Chaon's Among the Missing. As soon as I read it, I invited him to Susquehanna so I could meet him. Poems—it's harder to single out one collection, but whenever Rodney Jones, Phil Levine, Ed Hirsch, or Frankie Paino publish new books, I always buy them immediately.
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