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Peter Meinke

spotlight on the craft:: Writing an economic and blistering collection of short stories. It's never easy but if you are Peter Meinke, it is worth the effort. He recently was honored by The Florida Book Awards for his newest work, The Contracted World

Peter Meinke
An American Poet
:: Peter Meinke :: author and poet ::

By Lissette Vega

The legendary Peter Meinke has published twelve books of poetry during his more than seventy years of living. His recently published ZINC FINGERS received a SEBA Award from the Southeast Booksellers Association as the Best Poetry Book of the Year.

He directed the Writing Workshop at Eckerd College for 27 years. Retired, he lives in St. Petersburg, Florida with his wife. His reviews, poems, and stories have appeared in periodicals such as the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the New Republic. His collection of short stories (The Piano Tuner) won the 1986 Flannery O'Connor Award and he has been the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry. In 2002 he judged the finalists in the summer fiction competition at Word Smitten and delighted all the staff. Our summer intern called to talk with him. This charming interview is the result.

WS: Tell us about your early life.

Meinke: I was born and grew up in Brooklyn, NY, in Flatbush. When I was 14 we moved to what I then called "Noo Joisey."

WS: How long have you been in Florida?

Meinke: We moved to Florida in 1966, which by Floridian standards, makes us natives. I had just finished my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota and was teaching at Hamline University. It seemed a natural time to make a move, not to mention seek warmer climes.

WS: What attracted you to Eckerd College?

Meinke: In 1966, Eckerd College was called Florida Presbyterian College, and was an innovative, really radical school. No regular grades, just Pass, Fail, Honors, a strong Independent Study Program, and a strong International Education program with the language classes to support it. It emphasized the creative arts, and I was hired to set up one of the first undergraduate Creative Writing majors, quite separate from the English Department. It seemed a brave and exciting thing to do; it also appealed as a place to bring up four small children.

WS: When did you realize how important writing was to you?

Meinke: Always. I liked to write. My high school yearbook (1950!) says:
Wants to be: Writer. Probably will be: Censored Both have come true.

WS: What form of writing do you like most?

Meinke: Although I always felt called to write poetry, and wrote in a random, spontaneous way, I don't think I considered the possibility of being a published, professional writer until I was in the Army, after my undergraduate years (Hamilton College, NY), and started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.
I was drafted for the Korean War just as it ended in 1955. I was sent to Germany instead, and developed a lifelong love of travel. I was very lucky.

WS: As an accomplished author, what advice would you share with a new writer?

Meinke: I'm not a novelist, but I am a short story writer, and even if judging contests is not my favorite activity, I believe in encouraging young or beginning writers. My own stories and poems were helped when I won contests (my book, THE PIANO TUNER, received the Flannery O' Connor Award in Short Fiction), so I think I should now do my part. And of course, in the process, I often get to read some terrific stories or poems.

WS: Do you prefer or encourage any specific style of writing?

Meinke: No, any style that is handled with flare and authority is fine by me. I like clarity and intelligence, but that can be shown even in the most surreal styles.

WS: Is there anything first time writers should stay clear of?

Meinke: No, writers shouldn't stay clear of anything that they want to do. Emulate the writers you love. Take some chances. Certainly most fiction writers begin with short stories, but not all of them. And short story writers can also be helped by writing poems, learning how to condense, to use rhythm, imagery, and other technical features. But I don't believe in restriction. I believe in hard work, a great deal of reading, and lots of rewriting. All the successful poets and fiction writers I know read widely and deeply.

WS: What are your thoughts about regional writing styles?

Meinke: Americans move around so much that those differences don't mean as much as they used to.
I was born in Brooklyn but am often included in Southern anthologies. There is a wonderful tradition of folksy southern oral storytelling in certain Southern writers (Rick Bragg, Harry Crews, Sterling Watson, Flannery O'Connor), but I wouldn't push that too hard.

WS: Have you noticed any trends recently in writing styles?

Meinke: I don't really keep up with trends. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the "magic realism" school was the last one that seemed interesting. I like stories that have believable people caught up in difficult situations, with an ending that works, either as solution, epiphany, or intriguing puzzle.

WS: Do you encourage aspiring writers to enter writing contests?

Meinke: If you don't take losing or winning too seriously, entering contests can be a good learning experience. It makes the writer decide which is his or her best work, and to get it into the best shape possible (it would be a silly waste of time to enter your second or third best, not in its neatest most finished form). Contests make you work harder, give a little adrenaline boost, help you look critically at your writing, and are, in a certain way, just plain fun.


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