Volume 24, Number 6: May 2006
The Poet of Coastal Carolina
When Peter Makuck, writer and professor, announced his retirement this past Spring semester, I was asked to do a feature about him. "To seek the essence of Peter Makuck!" What an intriguingly difficult assignment! The essence (or should that be Essence?) of Peter Makuck.... Initial responses to the direct question, "What is the essence of Peter Makuck?" were something like, "His essence? I can't answer that! I don't know how to describe it." Of course it's difficult. He has internationalized the award-winning Tar River Poetry, having been its founding editor in 1978. He has received the International Poetry Forum's 1993 Charity Randall Citation and was named the Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor in 1996. He also has directed the ECU Poetry Forum every semester when he hasn't been awarded release-time to write more books -- Breaking and Entering: Stories (1981), Where We Live (1982), Pilgrims (1987), The Sunken Lightship (1992), Shorelines (1995), Against Distance (1997), Costly Habits: Stories (2002), and Off-Season in the Promised Land (2005).
Anyone who has ever heard Peter say, "Show, don't tell," knows that Peter would prefer that his essence be something that is not so easily told, but rather something that must be shown through discussion and description. The stories that some of Peter's colleagues and students have shared with me suggest that the essence of Peter Makuck is a combination of professionalism and personality. In a world where personality and creativity are often suppressed to the point that "professional" becomes synonymous with "boring," Peter demonstrates that professionalism and personality are not mutually exclusive.
He does not force others to accept his professional authority based on his degree - PhD. His credibility and intelligence and his prolific publishing career prove authority enough. When I first met him at the Poetry Forum during my first semester of college (Fall 2001), he introduced himself as Peter instead of as Dr. Makuck. I thought, "Call a professor by his first name? Wow. That's awkward." I have never heard him reprimand students for not calling him "Dr. Makuck," and as long as I have known him, I have called him "Peter."
I have read a number of Peter's poems and have heard him and his colleagues read some as well. My ENGL 1100 students in Fall 2005 enjoyed "Prey" from his latest collection of poems -- Off-Season in the Promised Land -- because they could identify with the place -- the poem's speaker is walking across ECU's campus from the Rec Center to the Bate Building. In fact, place is a key theme in Peter's work.
Luke Whisnant has written, "From his first book of poems, Where We Live (1982), Peter's work has exhibited a vital connection with place. Though he was born and raised in Connecticut, Peter has lived in Eastern NC for over 30 years now, during which time his poetry has celebrated and illuminated our region. Peter is, quite simply, one of the three or four contemporary poets of any note living east of Raleigh, and with his move to Bogue Banks a decade ago, and the publication of his recent books, he has become the poet of Coastal Carolina."
Don Palumbo's description of Peter's soundside house on Bogue Banks seems to support the significance of place in Peter's work. "Visiting Peter's house gave me a sense of Peter as a poet in ways I'd not thought of before." He suggested that the construction of the house almost makes Peter seem like a lighthouse keeper or watchman because the third floor is one large room with windows all around -- "a really nice place to just sit and space out in."
Among his colleagues, Jim Kirkland, Don Palumbo, and Sandra Tawake, discussion of Peter's new house spurred, not surprisingly, recollections of his former house in Greenville on Maple Street, right next to campus. They described his Greenville residence as a "writers' center," where he brought a "sense of elegance" to post-reading celebrations. Palumbo added, however, that "It might have been the wine." People who attended ECU in the 60s have told me more than once that the Department of English has always been a haven for partiers. At his Greenville residence, Peter continued that tradition, but hosted what Kirkland, Palumbo, and Tawake described as "poetic soirées."
The French term is so appropriate because of Peter's love of language, which is something he has striven to help his students develop in his classes: "I'd like students to develop a love of language, really care about language, our own and others. I began as a French teacher." Whether he's sharing French blonde-jokes or reciting bits of poetry or prose that he remembers from numerous writers (he has said he can memorize almost anything except his own poetry), he speaks French with a tonality that probably almost anyone could listen to tirelessly. On a recent afternoon in the Tar River Poetry office, he was absolutely ecstatic about his friend Jean-Pierre Trudoc's gift of a French version of Lolita signed by Nabokov, and he was admiring the handsome signature.
Whisnant has noted, "There's a lot in his poems about learning things and understanding the world, or finding things out about the world." The impact of the images in Peter's poems and his writing style is apparent from Whisnant's memory of Peter's first workshop at ECU in 1976. On the last day of that class, in lieu of an exam, Peter gave a reading of a half-dozen or so of his own poems. "It was a memorable end to a great workshop," Whisnant says now. "Peter's first book hadn't been published yet, so he was reading from manuscript, and there was one poem I've always remembered --'Dziadek.' It was a beautifully evocative poem sprinkled with these exotic Polish words."
"'Dziadek' was my first published poem," Peter told me. "It is about taking photos, about trying to find a way of seeing things. The title means 'grandfather' in Polish, and it's about the family. A lot of my poetry and fiction deals with family and relationships, is interested in the visual, and tries to find a way of seeing things clearly. In a way, much of my subsequent work comes out of that early poem."
Even those who have only been around Peter for a short amount of time have probably heard him lambaste the use of abstractions, clichés, large words, and sing-songy rhyme in poetry. He has a long list of "Taboo Words" that includes such abstractions as "love," "hate," "beauty," and "death." Yet, specific lessons are not all he would like for his students to remember. He would also like them to "enjoy great literature, profit from its insights, laughter, and wisdom, learn how to be a little wiser about their own lives, and not just see literature through the pinhole of some political ideology. If any of the novels, poems, plays, or stories they read in my classes made a difference in their ways of seeing themselves and the world, I'd be happy. Whether they remember me or not matters little."
-- Leanne E. Smith
Copyright © 2006, ECU Department of English.