When the Dead Speak: An Interview with Brian Fanelli

Brian Fanelli’s most recent collection of poems is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the 2017 Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. He is also the author of the collection All That Remains (Unbound Content) and the chapbook Front Man (Big Table Publishing). His work has been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Main Street Rag, Louisiana Literature, and elsewhere. His poetry has been featured on “The Writer’s Almanac” and Verse Daily. Brian has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a  Ph.D. from SUNY Binghamton University. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College and runs the Writers Showcase Reading Series with poet Dawn Leas at the Olde Brick Theatre in Scranton. For more information, visit www.brianfanelli.com.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Waiting for the Dead to Speak. I’m always interested in hearing about a book’s journey. Can you tell us how you ended up with NYQ for this outing?

Brian Fanelli: Thank you very much. The book has been a fun ride, one that has allowed me to partake in readings in several different literary communities. NYQ Books is unique because they don’t run any contests or submission fees for a manuscript. Instead, the publication process is invitation only. The editor, Raymond P. Hammond, was familiar with my work from various readings and asked to see some poems on the page. He then saw the entire manuscript and wanted to publish it. NYQ has such a rich history, one that goes back decades, so I’m proud to have this collection of poems out there thanks to NYQ Books.

CS: This is your third collection. How has the whole publishing experience changed for you? What lessons have you learned that you wish you could impart to your younger self before your first collection?

BF: Well, my first book of poems was a chapbook entitled Front Man. That book very much adheres to a theme and narrative, specifically my time in the punk rock scene. Over the years, I learned to focus on writing the best individual poems that I can before even worrying about creating a manuscript of poems. First and foremost, the poems need to stand on their own, not only in terms of form, but also content. It is very rare that I’ll read any poems from Front Man at a reading, in part, because the chapbook is almost ten years old and from a very different part of my life, but more so because the chapbook is almost one long narrative poem. I’m proud of the chapbook, for sure, but I think its poems need to be read together whereas the other two books don’t really adhere to a straight narrative or over-arching theme, at least not as much. I’ve also learned the importance of community in the literary world. Go and support local readings. If you’re area doesn’t have one, then start one. Give back, without burning yourself out. Poetry is really unique because it relies so much on building community, setting up readings, and making space for the art form, be it through a reading series, a workshop, an independent journal, or a press. Without all of this, poetry would have no audience.

CS: At almost 100 pages, this is a pretty heft collection. How long did it take you to put this collection together? Did you work in a steady progression or do you find yourself producing in cycles and bursts?

BF: The poems in Waiting for the Dead to Speak were written over a five-year period or so, with a lot of heavy revisions. I did work in a steady progression, in the sense that I write daily and try to draft and revise a few poems a week. I’ve stuck to that schedule for a long time now, and it works for me. There are times that I’ll take a break from poetry to work on an essay or book review, but, for the most part, I write daily. I think it is beneficial for any writer to follow the routine of writing daily, even if it’s only for 10-15 minutes a day and a few pages in a journal.

CS: I was intrigued by the book’s structure. Without giving too much away, it’s divided into sections that focus on youth, young adulthood, and a more mature adulthood (would you say that’s a fair assessment?). What prompted this organization? Did you have this in mind from the beginning? Or did the shape of it arise as you went back and considered the pieces you had to work with?

BF: I think that’s a fair assessment, and thanks for noticing. This book is unique for me in the sense that it is the first book that I broke into sections. I did this in part because the book is about 100 pages, which, as you pointed out, is longer for a poetry collection. I decided to place all of the coming-of-age poems together in the first section, in part, because some of them are lighter and funnier, and I thought that they would engage the reader. At least I think that some of them are funny! The second section contains more political and social poems that didn’t fit in well with the first or third sections, but worked well together. The third section has a lot of pastoral poems in terms of form and content. I didn’t necessarily have this structure in mind until I started working on the manuscript, which is another form to consider beyond the individual poems. I realized that the poems worked better and spoke to each other more in the sections.

CS: I really enjoyed the sense of place in these poems. I have deep Scranton roots, and I felt a lot of that coming through—both directly and indirectly. How important is the backdrop of Northeast PA to you and your work?

BF: Northeast, Pennsylvania is becoming increasingly important in my work. For instance, I’ve always been interested in labor history. Scranton has a history of that because of the mine strikes and John Mitchell’s leadership. I find myself trying to incorporate this history into my work more and more. This region is also beautiful in terms of its environment, and I do write some pastoral poems and environmental poems, inspired by the natural setting here. We take for granted, sometimes, the fact that we actually have four seasons here and plenty of hiking trails and breath-taking mountain scenery. There is also the history of the environmental impact of the coal mines and now fracking that is impossible to ignore. These issues, in the context of climate change, are increasingly important.

CS: A few of the pieces touched on the teaching experience. How have you found the experience of balancing teaching and writing? What advice would you give a young person considering the same path?

BF: I would say that it’s important to still make time for your writing, even if it’s only half an hour in the morning. I like to write early because sometimes I’m exhausted at the end of a long teaching day. Just find a time to write that works for you. I also encourage writers who teach writing to write with your students. For example, if you give them a writing prompt in a composition or creative writing class, write with them. It often makes the students feel more comfortable when they see you partaking in the prompt, and it also gives you some extra time to write and try out various prompts that you are giving to students.

CS: What’s next?

BF: I’m just going to keep writing and reading. I’ve been writing several environmental poems. It’s become an obsession, especially as I consume more and more environmental literature and read articles about climate change. I’m also working on poems about various American horror films and horror and film theory. This obsession happened because I created a horror literature and film class, so I went back and re-read a number of film criticism articles and classic horror stories from Poe, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, and others. I’ve also been watching so many horror films, everything from the old Universal monster films to the third wave of American horror, like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. I always like working with that idea of the monster and other. At some point down the road, I’ll start working on another manuscript of poems.

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarked, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five.


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