Interview with Peter Makuck

Only 7 weeks until. . .

Pamlico Writers Conference & Competition

The Art & Craft of Writing!

Washington Civic Center
100 Gladden Street, Washington, North Carolina
March 8, 2014, from 9am until 6pm

If you haven’t already registered for the conference, you’ll need to do so soon. With only seven weeks remaining, you’ll want to ensure your seats in two of our six workshops, as space is limited. You won’t want to miss this once a year event.

For information on the conference or competition details, presenters, workshops, panels or lodging links, visit our website at:

And now, this week’s interview.

Peter Makuck

Peter Makuck, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at East Carolina University, is also a celebrated poet, short story writer, and critic. His Long Lens: New and Selected Poetry was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He recently published Allegiance and Betrayal and was the founder and former editor of Tar River Poetry.

Peter will be a presenter at the 2014 Pamlico Writers Conference. He has limited his workshop to 12 participants. So if poetry is your passion, register for the conference and sign up for his session before the 12 seats are gone. His session titled “When Is A Poem Finished?” will be a rare opportunity for poets to get personal feedback on their writing. He says, “Each participant should submit two or three poems at least a week in advance for evaluation. We will closely read at least one of the poems submitted. We will also discuss the process of revision and the questions writers should ask themselves about a poem they think is ready to be submitted for publication.”

The following are responses to questions posed in a recent interview:
Interviewer: Is there a singular event that led you to become a writer?

Peter: In college freshman English, the teacher praised my essay on Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning.” Later, he encouraged me to join the staff of the literary magazine. He said I had talent. Memory isn’t always reliable, but I don’t think I was ever praised for anything in high school, and am fairly sure I didn’t deserve to be. I do remember the principal once telling me I had a real talent—talent for getting into trouble. Anyway, once in college, thanks to my generous teacher, writing gave me a new identity and started me on a better path.

Interviewer: Did your writing begin as poetry, short story, non-fiction, etc? And which genre would you now consider to be your “passion”?

Peter: On the staff of the college literary magazine, I began to write stories, essays, reviews, and poetry. Nothing much has changed. I still work the same genres, flip back and forth between them. Sometimes I’ll be in a fiction mood and write only stories for a few months, then it’s poetry etc. Essays and reviews I take just as seriously. I’ve written a lot of reviews. Writers, of course, want to see their own books reviewed, but some of them see reviewing as beneath them, hackwork. I don’t. In any case, I’m happiest when writing and really enjoy whatever is in front of me, a poem or review.

Interviewer: Since you were a professor, did your writing interface with your teaching?

Peter: In my fiction and poetry writing courses, I’d never talk about a specific poem or story of my own, but I would talk about how I went about revising.

Interviewer: Is some, most, or all of your writing conceived through personal experience?

Peter: Most. Why bother to make up things if you have promising raw material waiting for your imagination to play with it. Some writers have the idea that you shouldn’t use your own life. Nonsense. Look at Philip Roth or Eugene O’Neill. Long Day’s Journey into Night, arguably the best play of the 20th century, is so autobiographically close to the bone that O’Neill didn’t want it staged until 25 years after his death. If you write about something you’ve experienced, the chances are greater that your passion or enthusiasm for what you are writing about will be more contagious, more convincing, and register more deeply with a reader. But my allegiance is to the work in progress, what it wants to be, not to the way things actually happened. Never let truth stand in the way of a good story or poem.

Interviewer: Do you consider commercial value when choosing subjects and characters for stories or poems?

Peter: Never. In The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly says, “Better to write for yourself and have no public than write for a public and have no self.” Amen.

Interviewer: Thank you for that answer. I love it! What is your favorite of all your works? Why?

Peter: That’s tough. I’m emotionally connected to some poems about my parents and stories set in my hometown, but I don’t know if I’d call them favorites, or my best work. At readings, I usually start with the title poem of my last book, Long Lens. Both my parents are in it and it comes close to the way things were. I did once pave a driveway for a miserly judge. My father and I did all kinds of sweaty jobs together. My first published short story is about a kid helping his father deliver milk in the pre-dawn hours—something I did when in grade school. I’m still fond of that story. Is it my best? Not for me to say.

Interviewer: If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?

Peter: I’d take a few courses in creative writing. They weren’t available when I was in college, or available in very few colleges. To simplify things—a teacher can save you a lot of time by just telling you about a story or a poem, “Do a lot more of this, and a lot less of this.” Teaching yourself anything is hit and miss and takes a lot of time.

Interviewer: Besides taking college courses, that answer is the whole reason for writers’ conferences. What or who has been the greatest influence in your writing?

Peter: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on William Faulkner but learned you should never try to imitate him. Or Hemingway, or other writers with a very distinctive style. I’ve been influenced by lots of different writers. Leslie Norris, for one. When I was teaching in high school, I read one of his stories in The Atlantic, and it knocked me out. He was also publishing regularly in The New Yorker, both fiction and poetry. I read everything I could find by him.

Interviewer: Is there a particular humorous or touching story in your experience as a writer you can share with our readers?

Peter: Once on the road giving readings, I got sick. At one college, my host’s wife was a nurse and got me medication that cured the problem. The medication, however, triggered an allergy and created another problem that kicked in when I walked on stage to the podium. I got itchy all over and started scratching my head, my arms, chest, legs, etc. all the while trying to read my poems. I apologized to the audience and said I felt like the guy in one of Elvis Presley’s songs, “itchin’ like a man on a fuzzy tree.” Everyone laughed and kept laughing as I scratched my way through the rest of the evening.

Interviewer: Great story! Looking forward to the conference. Your presence will honor the event.

Doris Schneider

PWCC Website:


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