Peter Makuck grew up in New England and graduated from St. Francis College in Maine where he majored in French and English. He lives on Bogue Banks, one of North Carolina’s barrier islands. His Long Lens: New & Selected Poems was published in 2010 by BOA Editions and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In April, Syracuse University Press released a third collection of short stories, Allegiance and Betrayal. His poems and stories, essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Gettysburg Review, The Hudson Review, Poetry, The Sewanee Review, Yale Review, and others. He is Distinguished Professor emeritus from East Carolina University, where he founded and edited Tar River Poetry from 1978 to 2006.
Peter will lead the Master Class in Poetry at the North Carolina Writers' Network 2013 Fall Conference. This class will consider a range of questions that writers must ask themselves before they consider a poem to be “finished.” Among other things, we will consider imagery, structure, line-breaks, sonic-devices, tone, setting, speaker, etc. We will also look at several kinds of poems—letter, list, object, place, persona, and how-to. Peter will distribute examples. The goal is to have writers leave the workshop with the beginnings of at least one new poem.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Read no books as a child. As a teen, I read fishing and hunting magazines. No books. I faked my way through high school, and didn’t get hooked on reading until my freshman English class in college. William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” turned me into an addicted reader. Moral: never too late.
If you weren’t a writer, what kind of job would you like to have?
My father had a service station and I loved working on cars, especially my own high-powered junker. My uncle had a tavern. At this stage of the game, I think I’d rather be a bartender.
What’s one piece of advice no one gave you when you were starting out, that you wished they had?
Well, Saul Bellow said that a writer is primarily a reader moved to emulation. So read, read closely, and reread, and don’t be afraid to steal. An interviewer once told Faulkner that there were remarkable similarities between some of Conrad’s work and his own. Faulkner replied that he had stolen from Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy, and many more. Then concluded: “And I’d steal from you too if you were a writer.”
Any memorable rejections?
Yes, George Core at The Sewanee Review turned down a short story years ago, one of my very first. In his letter he said the story needed one more scene of about two or three pages for structural balance. And told me where the scene should be. When I reread the story, I realized he was dead on the money. I added a scene of three pages, sent it back, and he accepted it. Only my second story publication. He’s an incredibly generous editor.
Hemingway wrote standing up; Truman Capote wrote lying down. What posture do you write in?
Sitting at a desk.
The Cape Fear Coast is a hotbed for the film industry. In your opinion, what has been the best book-to-screen adaptation?
A River Runs Through It.
Why do you feel it’s important for writers to attend conferences such as the NCWN Fall Conference?
You get a chance to talk and spend some time with others who are involved in the same kind of struggle with paper and ink. A unique learning opportunity. You have a chance to have others objectively view your work and offer constructive criticism. If such conferences were around when was starting out, I’d have saved myself a lot of time. I’ve never taken a course in fiction or poetry writing and there is nothing slower and more haphazard than teaching yourself how to do something.
Do you have pet peeves as a reader? As a writer?
There should be a moratorium on navel-gazing poems about poetry. As an editor, I’d get five or ten weekly and grew to hate them.
Are you scheduled in the time you set aside to write, or is your writing time more flexible than that?
Once upon a time, I could write anywhere, at any time, as long as I had a cup of coffee to keep my brain revved up. Nowadays, I work mostly in the morning, at home in my study.
Do you write to discover, or do you write point-to-point (for example, from an outline)?
For me writing is an act of discovery. I’m rarely sure of what’s coming, always a surprise. As (Robert) Frost put it, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Amen.
What was the first thing you ever published?
A long poem about the death of my Polish grandfather, “Dziadek,” and about my discovery of photography, imagery, and the importance of aiming outside the self. It was in The Southern Review, 1970s.
Who is your favorite North Carolina author?
Fred Chappell. He’s done it all—novels, short stories, poetry, essays, reviews. Really a man of letters. Lots of writers today want their books reviewed, but feel no obligation to give back by writing reviews themselves. Not Ol’ Fred.
Registration for the North Carolina Writers' Network 2013 Fall Conference is now open.