"One Slice of Makuck, Please"
Will Angel: Lorraine Hale Robinson has said that you have a "compelling interest in place" and that the landscapes of Eastern North Carolina are a big influence on your work. How does the "landscape" of Eastern North Carolina affect or influence your work?
Peter Makuck: I'm probably a bit like a photographer. What attracts the eye often gets worked into a poem either in the foreground, middle distance, or background. My first published poem was "Dziadek," and it's about taking photos of an abandoned farm outside Kent, Ohio, that reminded me of my grandfather's farm in Ivoryton, Connecticut, and the day of his funeral. I tend to write about where I happen to be. What is in front of you can be a great playground for the imagination to select, edit, and rearrange.
Angel: Anything in particular that your writing draws from the people of Eastern North Carolina (from our accents to our general demeanor)?
Makuck: North Carolinians show up in my fiction much more than in my poems. I came to ECU after teaching for a year in France at l'Université de Savoie. The French are very polite, always say "vous" and only "tu" after you've become friends. And it was always, "Oui, monsieur," or "Non, monsieur." One of the first things I noticed here was "Yessir, no sir." "Yes, ma'am, no ma'am." Engaging similarity from two far apart cultures. You don't get that kind of politeness and formality up north. It's not only a different and often colorful speech that I find attractive here in the South. The way people relate to one another can also be impressive. Neighbors in Greenville were extraordinarily friendly when Phyllis, my son, and I moved in. Before the van had even pulled away, neighbors were arriving with pitchers of sweetened tea, casseroles, fried chicken, and so on. This kind of behavior was not typical where I grew up. Greenville provided many things that both intrigued and entertained me. Once when some northern students were complaining in class that they felt discriminated against by locals, I simply said that I was a Connecticut Yankee and had dealt with a large cross-section of North Carolinians since I've lived here and never felt any discrimination. One Greenville native raised her hand and paid me the ultimate compliment: "That's 'cause you don't act like a Yankee!"
Angel: How has being an ECU Pirate shaped the general "essence of Peter Makuck"? I take this "essence of Peter Makuck" from an earlier interview with you that took place shortly after your retirement. Your response was: "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." Has this "essence" changed over the years? How so?
Makuck: That's a hard question to answer, requires the kind of objectivity most of us don't have. I really don't know. But the phrase you often hear about "reinventing oneself poetically" isn't something I can take too seriously. As if one could, at will, change or reform one's essence. We're talking about voice. Bellow, Faulkner, Hemingway, O'Connor, and many others kept the same voice throughout their careers. Why change one's voice, style, or areas of interest? From a Zen viewpoint, this business of reinventing oneself strikes me as laughable. I'd go along with George Eliot: "Our deeds still travel with us from afar / And what we have been makes us what we are." However, despite my New England roots, I have made North Carolina my home and its sights, smells, and sounds are now part of me and my writing.
Angel: Have you found writing without the requirements of a full-time professor weighing down on you to be any different? If so, how has this change of pace shaped your writing? Do you (or does your writing) miss the spirit of a day-to-day life with students and colleagues?
Makuck: Since retiring from teaching and editing, I seem to be writing a a lot more. I don't think my writing suffers from the absence of day-to-day contact with students and colleagues, certainly not in terms of motivation. I've been addicted to pen and ink since I was a college student. Rehab is out of the question. But I do sometimes miss the classroom. I was the Lee Smith Visiting Writer at NC State two years after I retired, and my graduate poetry seminar there was a wonderful experience, partly because I didn't have to deal with university or departmental politics that used to have me grinding my teeth, or worse. I only had to concern myself with highly motivated students. I loved it and was delightfully reminded why I became a teacher in the first place. And it certainly wasn't money. Writing can be solipsistic, selfish. Teaching, however, is about giving back, reaching out, getting away from the stink of oneself.
Angel: I notice that the landscape of ECU's campus seems to have been a direct influence on your poem "Prey." What is it about ECU's campus, personality and/or people that provides good material for your writing?
Makuck: Well, aside from one or two short stories, I think I have only two poems set on campus, "Prey" and one about swimming laps in the old Christenbury pool just before it was closed. The so-called "good material" of "Prey" was both the hawk itself and how completely oblivious students were to the Darwinian drama that was taking place only a few feet from them.
Angel: Luke Whisnant has called you "the poet of Coastal Carolina." How do you feel your connections with this part of the state have grown or developed over the years?
Makuck: My connections to this part of the state have grown and deepened over the years along with my changing experiences. In terms of the coast, for example, at first I knew it mainly from the beach, from surf-fishing, pier fishing, and snorkeling. Then I got an inflatable Zodiac with a small outboard that I launched through the surf and fished a mile or so off the beach. Later on, I got an 18 foot Sea Ox and fished for Spanish mackerel and king mackerel in deeper water. Then, I went partners with a good friend on a 26 foot Parker with a cuddy cabin and a deep V hull that took us out to the Gulf Stream for much bigger fish like yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and dolphin. Blue water fishing is a very different ballgame. In the middle of all that came scuba and wreck diving, the marvel of the underwater world.
Angel: Do you find that there is a stark contrast in your writing since you have moved to Eastern North Carolina from the north? What sorts of things carry over from your northern upbringing and integrate themselves into your writing as coastal southerner?
Makuck: Good question. Nobody has ever asked me that. There was a definite change of setting and subjects, so the change might well be seen as stark. But I suppose what is continuous and carries over is a keen interest in the outdoors. The Sewanee Review just published a personal essay about my teen years as a fur trapper. In coastal Connecticut I started at age thirteen trapping mink, muskrat, fox, and raccoon. It was a way to make money before I could get a driver's license and a better job. I loved riding off into the dark on my bicycle to check the line before heading off to school. I did a lot of hunting too, but I haven't owned a gun since I was a teenager. Now my outdoor life includes crabbing, fishing, scuba diving, and birdwatching -- activities that find their way into my poetry and fiction.
Angel: What has the experience of writing your new book been like? (Where did it take you? Future or past? Who did you meet? Did you notice any progressions or changes in your writing?)
Makuck: Putting together a New & Selected Poems involves some difficult choices, like trying to figure out what your best poems are and balancing subjects. As soon as the book was published, I had an email from somebody who said he was disappointed that his favorite poem "Flying Fish" was not included in the new collection. Alas, alas. Not always easy to know what your best suit is, or what readers think it is. I've sometimes been very surprised by what readers like best. But I didn't want to book to be top heavy with poems about the coast, or poems about France, birds, or other repeated topics. Anyway, assembling the work was definitely a trip into the past. Reading the old poems was in part an experience in revisiting places I've lived or spent time: Maine, Ohio, West Virginia, Utah, Arizona, Ecuador, Italy, France, Connecticut, as well as things like my son's birth, working construction jobs, working on cars at my father's gas station, or being an altar boy and getting smacked around by the nuns. Whom did I meet? A host of the departed -- my parents, college housemates, several good friends and colleagues, and a number of influential teachers I'm very grateful to.
Angel: It seems that much of your poetry hinges on being able to become an "observer" of life, somehow removing one's self from the picture and just becoming "a transparent eyeball," a lens for natural perception if you will. Do you agree? If so, how much of this "observer lifestyle" comes into play in your new book of poetry, Long Lens?
Makuck: I'm not ready to assign any kind of percentages, but there are also poems where the observer becomes participant, has a real stake in what is going on, and distance shrinks for a time, as in "Against Distance" where the speaker gets carried off in a riptide with a young boy he's trying to save. He is not merely a distant observer. Or when the speaker of another poem is getting bounced around in the cockpit of his friend's small plane in a violent thunderstorm. In "Trafficking with Voices," I am very much in the picture, not at all removed from it.
Angel: In your mind, where does the future of creative writing stand for those currently involved with the art?
Makuck: Well, I'm not a prophet, and am reluctant to make any general predictions about the future of creative writing as an organized field of study. But human beings will continue to write for existential reasons that have been and will always be with us. Robert Frost said that poetry as process is "a momentary stay again confusion." T.S. Eliot wrote that "We had the experience but missed the meaning." Writing in order to recover meaning will, I think, will always remain a strong motivation.
Angel: What words of advice would you give to someone aspiring to accomplish some of the things you have achieved in your career as a writer?
Makuck: Shut off your cellphone. Pay attention to what goes on around you. Read, read, read. I've always been impressed by the advice implied in Saul Bellow's comment: "The writer is primarily a reader moved to emulation." And remember that poetry isn't simply a matter of mastering form(s), it's a habit of awareness, a habit of looking that leads from sight to insight.
Angel: Finally, if I asked you to pick your favorite spot on ECU's campus to write, where would it be? (Any favorite benches, fountains or trees?)
Makuck: I hate to disappoint you, but I was never able to write anything but letters or emails on campus. Letters of recommendation I could manage. Otherwise too many interruptions -- advisees, students with problems, colleagues with jokes. My poems and stories got written at home in my study. I could, however, sit happily with a cup of coffee and read a novel inside or outside the Mendenhall Student Center. I always liked those deep chairs inside that would just about swallow you.
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