An Interview with Gary Fincke

by Kameshia R. Logan


Gary Fincke has published thirty-one books of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction, most recently The Out-of-Sorts: New and Selected Stories (2017) and Bringing Back the Bones: New and Selected Poetry (2016). Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Ohio State University/The Journal Poetry Prize, he has published work in such periodicals as The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Newsday, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, Black Warrior Review, and CrazyHorse.  He has been twice awarded Pushcart Prizes for his work, recognized by Best American Stories and the O. Henry Prize series, and cited fifteen times in the past eighteen years for a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays. He has just retired as the Charles Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University.


The Darkness Call includes essays about serial killers, infectious diseases, the vast abyss of space, and other dark subjects. Was it hard for you to find goodness within all this darkness?

Trouble creates tension. I don’t seek out “darkness,” but it’s often what provides the emotional engagement to take me to the page. The real issue is finding a way to write “darkness” without just grinding my teeth as a writer. That’s why there are usually several angles from which I’m coming at the subject. When one of those angles finds its way to a vulnerable spot where discovery occurs, there’s always exhilaration despite the tone. And yes, it’s always hard to find goodness within, but the moment, however small, of understanding or awareness of something new, I hope, eventually surfaces.

In your essays you often take one idea and stretch it as far as it can go without losing meaning. How did you develop this approach to essay writing?

I’m attracted to associative writing. One image suggest another, which reminds me of something, which suggests another image, etc.

I also write poem sequences frequently.  The form welcomes my attempts to keep as many balls in the air as possible.  It felt natural to allow the sequences to open into essays. Freed of many poetical restraints, I could toss even more balls up. The essay that locked in my excitement for this technique is The Pain Scale by Eula Biss. I read it and reread it and couldn’t wait to try and extend myself even more. The biggest risk is redundancy or obscurity, so I also had to learn to pare back. Most of the essays in The Darkness Call had one or two more “balls” in the air that I allowed to drop to the floor.

You’ve published works of both poetry and prose. How has writing poetry influenced your prose writing, and vice versa? Which came first for you?

Poetry came first. I’m self-taught, so trial-and-error worked reasonably well with shorter pieces. Meanwhile, I was reading poets like Philip Levine and James Wright and understanding that a blue-collar background like mine was where I was likely to discover subjects as well as my own voice.  The poems were mostly narrative. They opened up and lengthened and suggested scenes for possible stories. I kept reading, especially short stories.  When I discovered the personal essay, I was absolutely hooked. The vulnerability that is required to write in that genre successfully was a godsend for my other work. It showed me ways to get under the surface where the real subjects of any genre lie.

What inspired you to combine journalistic investigations and research into old case files with a more personal essayist’s voice?

About twenty-five years ago I began to immerse myself in literary journalism pieces. I introduced a workshop that sent students out into the world to observe and even participate.  It was so good for them that I added it to our curriculum. Meanwhile, I was beginning to do the same sort of work–the very first piece I wrote was about returning to Kent State where I was a student when the National Guard killed four students and wounded more. It was an eye-opener. I was so emotionally charged that I decided to always be pursuing a literary journalism project. At the same time, I began writing opinion pieces for the local paper, and I employed the same techniques for a few of the “local issue” essays. There’s nothing like being “Immersed” in a situation to help make discoveries.

What are you working on now?

Large projects are completing new collections in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.  It sounds like a lot, but all three book manuscripts are “almost there,” and one thing I’ve learned is to take a while and let them breathe before I begin to circulate them. Right now, all of them are in that stage where I keep telling myself “one more poem/story/essay that lifts the collection and I’m there.” It’s a good place to be, but also the place where I begin to question every part of the collection, which sometimes leads to taking a few steps backward.