Working Writers Series: Mike Finley
Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Today’s writer is Mike Finley.
I’m a St. Paul writer and poet, videographer and performance artist who’s been writing and publishing since 1966. I grew up in northeast Ohio and discovered hip poetry in a Cleveland bookstore that year. The poets were funny and dark and rebellious and I set out to be just like them. A college dropout, I traveled around the country having Kerouackian experiences and writing like crazy. I’d describe myself as the kind of young man who would hitchhike to a girl’s house 700 miles away, knock on her door, cry “Ta-da!“ on the front porch and expect people to take him in and feed him. Amazingly, one did, which is how I wound up in St. Paul, where I finished school and has lived most of his adult life. In St. Paul I worked as a security guard in a menswear store, writing poems and stories and reviews by the light of the moon. It was easy to publish in those days because paper plate printing (Insty-Prints or Kinko’s) was cheap, so I got accepted in hundreds of magazines. I was offered an editor job at the University of Minnesota, or I might still be guarding bellbottom pants. At one point I heard Robert Bly advise writers not to publish, too soon. Give yourself a chance to wise up a bit. So I dropped out of the poetry scene and lived as a journalist and ghostwriter, writing poetry on the side. In the 1990s I discovered the Internet, and became one of the first digital publishers, reissuing his six chapbooks as e-books. Kraken Press took off, and today I have had about two million downloads – who they are, or why they downloaded, I have no idea. I’m in my sixties now and have had a good life, without breaking through as a writer, but I am still having fun publishing LIEF Magazine and projects by myself and friends at Issuu.com.
What started your shift into surrealism, and what do you think is the appeal of the style?
I started writing when I was 16, and though my life had some painful terrible things in it – the death of a sibling, family troubles, me running away from home – I was too close to those things and too young to be wise about any of that. So I explored mystery instead. I naturally wrote in a kind of detached, weird way – but then in college I discovered the great French writers like Rene Char and the Spanish writers like Borges and Vallejo – and they gave me confidence that some incredible way of writing was out there waiting to happen. So I used surrealism to teach me how to write, while my brain was still learning how to think (because of my age). I still do it today, but mainly for humorous effect.
Another thought – the appeal of surrealism is mostly for the writer, not the reader. Not many people really want to read your dreams. Flaubert, or Balzac, or one of those guys said: “Write a dream, lose a reader!”
The worst thing might be to let your spellcasting abilities turn you into a monster of the imagination, like Rimbaud or Coleridge or Baudelaire, serving up bizarre, grandiose imagery to satisfy bizarre appetites. At least, I didn’t want to go that way.
Why do you think readers struggle with surrealism? We all dream, after all.
It’s a paradox. Most great writing creates a kind of spell, a path to walk down, and taking that directed walk is the delights of reading, the literary equivalent of getting high. But most people recoil when writing gets unreal. Think of it like reverse-film action, a person leaping backward from a pool to the diving board. People’s brains say, “That was amazing, but it felt false, it was a trick, not a real part of life. It’s even a kind of a lie. Great ideas can come to us in dreams, but like liquor you have to go easy on it. You run the risk of being – what’s the word – solipsistic!
I find I don’t read much classic surrealism any more. I enjoy it most when it’s funny.
Why do you think you would have done if you were more successful, published more, been able to live off writing?
I’ve been writing and publishing in the Twin Cities, and probably no more than 100 people know my work. I have a few dear friends – Klecko and Rick Broderick have been my mates for two decades, and there are others and god bless ’em for the kindness and attention they have shown me.
There are several reasons I never made it. First, obviously, maybe I’m not that good consistently. I write very quickly and sometimes I’m satisfied before I should be. Looking back, I can see how aspects of my personality fed into my writing to my detriment. I’m excitable and impatient with long descriptions and beautiful language. I am often confident a thing is complete before it really is. Now, most writing is flawed, so that’s not a killer … but it doesn’t help.
Another thing is that I have a tendency to be “heroic” or overstated – over-the-top – that doesn’t sit well with people who want a calm, reasoned literary experience. In my youth I saw myself as a myth-making character. For instance, I met Charles Manson in 1969 – at least I think I did. I often put myself in the path of danger to have something to write about. Lying down on a highway. Climbing a water tower at night. Also, a lot of people in my life were dying and doing other unsubtle things. All this drama kept me from making it with the more academic or more sedate publishers.
I wish I had had more help at times. I never had a good, supportive person, who would edit out the dumb stuff, the too-soon stuff, the excesses and indulgences that mark everyone’s early drafts. I envy people with terrific dads or uncles or moms who can guide them through their writing. I was always on my own, and always needing to make rent. It’s hard to make it on just your own judgment. It’s like being your own lawyer, not recommended. I’m really just a guy who tried hard, and often wrote with passion – but it – success – didn’t happen for me. Let’s face it, there’s not enough it to happen for more than a handful of people.
So why do you do this?
I once saw an evangelical preacher give people the “touch of death” – one little touch of the palm of the hand and people are overcome and fall to the ground. It’s charlatanry, but it’s also real – if you connect with people, you can give them a hell of a jolt. We all have it in us, to touch one another with the effort of seeing them, the love we have been taught by others, our encounters with bears, everything that life offers up. And if you do it with humor and tons of brio, those people in the room – Aunt Alma and your college roommate and that strange nephew who keeps hanging around – they will feel it, and fall. In that sense, I feel I am successful. There have been times when I felt that kind of power going out of me and into other folks, or vice versa. It is a bracing experience.
One final reason: people hate literature nowadays. It’s a remarkable distaste people have for being told much of anything. They hate the guy reading at the dais, for thinking he deserves the spotlight. They think, “What could you possibly have to tell me? And why is this taking so long?” We really are living in a post-literate world.
Do you have a philosophy about what writing should do?
I have written in lots of forms – novels, stories, creative nonfiction, poetry, but what I most like are short, middlebrow monologs, like my piece about encountering a bear, or the one about the man whose dog blew him up, or the dream I had of my daughter coming back to life. These little stories are in the moment, they are not flowery, and there is a bear or explosion or death-defeating moment in them. They are not about me or my prowess with words, they are about whatever they are about.
People know I have been through a lot – like my daughter Daniele’s suicide in 2009 – and that if I can come up with a moment of joy or madness or barf-out-loud hysteria – there’s hope in that, fuel for the future. I strive not to be a bringdown or buzzkill. I want everything I present to be a useful gift to people – even if it is just a joke or an instructive poke in the eye.
My favorite as a young person was William Blake. What immortal hand or eye can frame thy fearful symmetry? I loved his cranky, eccentric attitude. You can tell he did not play well with others. He asked his wife if her sister could join them in their reenactments of the Garden of Eden, in the nude; she said no. But that’s the attitude I try to have. A little mad, indifferent to what the world says, because the world is reliably rotten, and always jabbing you with a finger Yes, I wish I had the glory and wore the shiny sashes of more celebrated writers, but when I’m pounding it out and feeling good about a story, like it has power to change a person’s mindset or mood, that’s pretty glorious, too.
If you’ve seen my website, my book site, or my video site, you see the volume of stuff I have been extruding. I published a 500+ page chapbook of collected poems in part as a joke. “Who’s Finley that he should pilot such a project?” But I felt that the technology was there, and the will was there, and the writing was there, so why not. Danny Klecko, my baker friend, and I give out an annual Kerouac Award to area rebel writers, those who have gone unrecognized for too long.
Danny and I got busy a year ago and wrote two quick books togethe – you can’t tell who wrote what. The point was that that shouldn’t matter. The stories do all the mattering. My friend Richard Broderick has collected dozens of “dichos” – anonymous Latin American street poems, many with a wry twist view about life and death. They are hard little nuggets of reality. These projects are fun precisely because they are not about us. And we try to write for ordinary people, not fellow writers. I like writers, as people – they’re just not my people.
Do you think we’re post-literate because of the excess of technology, or has there been a kind of cultural personality change among writers?
Rich Broderick said to me this morning that the problem is not that our culture is IN crisis – but that our culture IS crisis. Our culture is one pulsating, competitive, commercial culture – it is the spirit of our capitalist ethic of Love the winners, fuck the losers. We have created an amazing culture justifying that thought, and playing to it so effectively than most of us losers readily assent to it.
My daughter was a punk, and her group’s culture was created in reaction to the death culture that was itself a kind of satirical death culture. I was a hippie, and our childlike innocence bombed, too. I wish sometimes our leaders would stop talking about the war of the day or the current economic horror story, step back and see that we are in some ways the saddest country on the planet, and we are exporting our sadness to the rest of the planet as our #1 cash crop. Our people are going mad, and the false consciousness around us is so thick, we don’t notice it, or we think we’re edgy or something. When children die in large numbers before the parents, for whatever reason, that’s a sign. Like whales beaching themselves, or bees and butterflies disappearing, a message is being sent.
What’s the answer? Damned if I know. But I feel better when I try to tell the truth about something to another person, when we know we’re not bullshitting one another. Shelley said poets are the natural legislators of the world. What a nightmare that would be! But – people who can talk and listen owe it to everyone else to cheer them on, and let them know that the corporate vision of denial of despair is not the only vision, and we have needs beyond healing OUR cracked, split ends. On a good day that is what good artists do.
Mike Finley can be found at his website, http://mfinley.com , at Kraken Press at http://issuu.com/mike_finley, On YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/mikefinley, at LIEF Magazine at http://www.familography.com/lief/ or on his Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/mike.finley