10 Questions for Dennis Finnell
- By Abby MacGregor
Just now the thing inside
the flowering beauty bush is mewling
as little ones do wanting warm milk
or having a cramp meaning no one loves them.
—from “Walking her into the beautiful night”, Fall 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 3)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first deliberately creative piece I recall writing was a story for a high school English class. A young man suddenly loses his memory but feels compelled to go to California. I was very pleased with it, probably why I recollect even this little bit of it. I don't recall how it ends but see it as a teenage fantasy of the time—leave your past behind and start a new, more beautiful life in the Golden State.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Over the years many writers have moved me, even influencing my writing for a time. One teacher and poet who still influences my writing is Terry Moser, virtually unknown as a writer. As an undergraduate I took a couple of writing classes with him, and elements he emphasized I am still mindful of as I write, but maybe especially as I revise, both poetry and prose. Most of these notions have to do with pairings—head/heart, sound/sense, form/function. And always the integrity of the line, the measure. These pairings don't always need balance, either, depending on the poem. Two writers I do read over and over are Chekhov and Dickinson, but they may not directly influence the way I write now, but how I am composed in the world.
What other professions have you worked in?
I recently started a series of haibun-like things looking at the jobs I've had, forty-six I believe at last count. A few of these jobs were part-time or seasonal, and in one eighteen-month period in Colorado I did have six full-time jobs. I think I was fired from two of those jobs, one as a salesman in a Sears plumbing department, another at a lumberyard where I mostly rebuilt broken wooden pallets, and I quit the last one, selling real estate—I still have my Realtor pin—where I sold nothing. As a professional, I've also taught English and math at high schools, and writing and literature at colleges and universities, wrote training materials for business, and worked as a financial aid administrator.
What did you want to be when you were young?
An architect. I read a book about Frank Lloyd Wright when I was about fourteen and became enthused by his work. (I'd already made various metallic model structures—many of them impractical—with an Erector Set I received as a gift one Christmas.) In the basement there was a small blackboard, and I made rough sketches in colored chalk of office buildings and houses. One I recall was a tree house which featured a staircase spiraling around an artificial trunk of an artificial tree, and an actual house—much like Wright's "Fallingwater"—situated in the artificial limbs. I was a poor student both in high school and community college, so when I applied to four-year schools declaring a major in architecture, I was denied admission. By default I declared an English major—I had one inspiring English Instructor at community college. Both architecture and poetry have gravitas, giving me substantiality and space, especially walking inside buildings and saying poems aloud.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Walking her into the beautiful night" is an elegy for my friend Margaret Szumowski, and it was inspired by her life and her stubborn refusal to walk into darkness without our love.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Recently I've been very mindful of the St. Louis of my youth, in particular my working class neighborhood growing up. That place and the one outside my window, and here I mean the bigger current world, and a third place in my mind, wherever that proves to be.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
No ritual or tradition, more of a habit. If I'm working on something, I try focusing on it in the morning after I have my whole wheat toast with butter and blueberry preserves, and a cup and a half of Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters Breakfast Blend.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Music or sculpture, maybe. I bought a tenor saxophone years ago and took lessons from a university music student for a year or so, and practiced daily, but not for very long each day. I improved very little, peaking with "St. James Infirmary," and ended up selling the sax a few years later. I knew I'd never be able to play the way I wanted. As far as sculpture goes, I like the materiality of it, at least the idea of it. I don't know if they're sculptures, but I do have a few empty candy boxes I've filled with small, mostly found objects—a small feather, a dead fly, a piece of coal, half of a bird shell, my Realtor pin.
What are you working on currently?
I already mentioned the haibun series on jobs I've had. I'm about finished with a prose memoir—or maybe it's finished with me—which focuses on a possible act of arson against a black church near my home when I was growing up. I think I recall hearing this news as I stood in my kitchen when I was in my early teens. I've scoured my memory about this, contacted the St. Louis Public Library for help, including their History Department, and researched the newspaper of record then, The St. Louis Post Dispatch. About all I've found is a report of a burning cross with KKK marked on it in the yard of a man who lived on my street. Nothing about attempted arson of a church.
What are you reading right now?
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, by Roy Scranton, and The Challenge of Consciousness, a fifteen-part series of conversations on consciousness between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks, first appearing in The New York Review of Books. The first is a well-researched and depressing look at global warming and the probable disasters which humanity and many living beings will face, and which may do us in. The second is a wonderful and surprising conversation, in which Manzotti challenges the widely held belief that consciousness is internal, in our brains. He believes it's external, out there, and makes a pretty interesting case.
DENNIS FINNELL'S most recent book of poems is Ruins Assembling, winner of the 2014 Things To Come Poetry Prize. His book, Red Cottage, won the Juniper Prize from the University of Massachusetts Press. His next two books, Belovèd Beast and The Gauguin Answer Sheet, were selected for the Contemporary Poetry Series from the University of Georgia Press. He has received grants and fellowships from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, and the MacDowell Foundation, and tteaches at Greenfield Community College, where he also served as Co-Director of Financial Aid.