Interview by Uriah Young
QFTD: Tell us about yourself. Who is Brian Fanelli?
Brian: I am a poet, and I am a political activist who has been involved in issues, including climate change, social justice, and various anti-war causes. Political and social activism have always had an influence on my poetry. I'm also an educator, and I teach writing and literature full-time at Lackawana College in downtown Scranton.
QFTD: What made you want to become a writer, and when did you know you wanted to become one?
Brian: I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with writing. It happened my senior year of high school when I was finally able to take some electives. I took creative writing and journalism, which was one class taught by the same teacher, split into two halves of the school year. Mrs. James was the teacher, and I will always be grateful for her class because it gave me a chance to express myself through language.
Previously, in high school, I tried different things: basketball and even art, but I just wasn’t good at those things. After I took the writing classes, I realized that I loved language, playing with language, and saw that it could be a passion for me. Her class was great because we did a lot of different writing assignments: movie reviews, current event articles, poetry, and fiction. I discovered there’s something you can learn from each genre; one feeds the other. Just the idea of compression of language in poetry can help you with essays or when facing a deadline.
QFTD: Teachers making a difference...any other teachers influence you?
Brian: I remember one of the college professors I had at West Chester University, Kate Northrop. She encouraged me to begin writing in different poetic forms. She taught me the rules of poetry and how to break the rules properly. After taking her workshops, I remember sitting down with her during my senior year. She asked me what I wanted to do in the future, and she told me, ‘Keep writing poetry because you are starting to develop a talent and skill for it.’ At that time, that’s what I needed to hear. Although most people don’t know exactly what they want to do at the end of their senior year, I knew that I wanted to keep writing poetry. Like other good teachers, Mrs. James and Kate Northrop, gave me the inspiration and encouragement that I needed.
QFTD: In a previous conversation we had, you mentioned being a journalist for some time and covering politics. How has that period of your life impacted how you write poetry and how you teach at the college level?
Brian: I think it impacted me in two ways: Being a journalist taught me the importance of working on a deadline and under pressure, and it taught me to use language that’s as concise as possible. I think those traits are important for any writer, no matter what genre you want to write in. Also, I’d like to add, when I covered local and state politics, I saw how people could make a difference. I know it sounds cliche, but it’s true. I sat through meetings in Harrisburg and meetings at local and county government levels, and I saw politicians enact change because they were pressured by their constituents coming together at a meeting, over and over again. Sometimes it would takes weeks or even months in a row to pressure them to do something, but they did it. I learned first hand that though our democracy faces problems, at the end of the day, there is such a thing as a grassroots movement. I saw that many times, and each time, it was an inspiring thing to witness.
In the classroom, I do encourage my students to get involved with service-learning projects. I also encourage them to attend community events. And I also try to stress to them that you can make a difference in your community, through writing, volunteering, or joining an organization. So, I learned all of that during my time as a journalist.
QFTD: There’s a dedication page in the front of your poetry book, All That Remains. The dedication says, for my father. Why did you dedicate this book to him?
Brian: There’s a number of reasons why I dedicated the book to my father. First of all, he passed away from throat cancer when I was 20-years-old…
QFTD: I am very sorry to hear that, Brian.
Brian: Thank you. I think that out of all the things that have happened in my life, that had the greatest impact on me. When we lose somebody so close to us, we ask ourselves, “Could I have spent more time with that person? Could I have had more conversations with that person?” A decent number of the poems in All That Remains deal with that, trying to make sense of the past, moving on from the past, and also feeling at peace. It deals with trying not to have any regrets and appreciating the time that you did have with that person. I was lucky to have had 20 years with my dad. Looking back, I appreciate my dad in many more ways. As young kids, we generally don’t realize what our parents do for us. In Robert Hayden’s wonderful poem, "Those Winter Sundays," the speaker in the poem talks about all the things his dad did for him as a kid and how he never simply told his father, “Thank you.” That was on my mind as I was working on All That Remains. While in high school, my dad would pick me up every day because I didn’t want to ride the bus. You know, what a nice guy and loving father. He always supported me; even when I told him I wanted to be a writer, although we both knew journalists don’t make a lot of money, he didn’t tell me to be a business major. He always encouraged me to do whatever made me happy, and I dedicated the book to him because I am grateful to have had him in my life.
QFTD: Serious poems in your book like, "Mr. Scranton," and light-hearted poems like, “For a Moment” paint vivid pictures to tell very different stories. Where do you find inspiration to write such poetry?
Brian: I think that when you put together a manuscript, especially a book of poems, it should be diverse. You don’t want everything to sound the same in terms of either its content or tone.
I think funny poems like “For a Moment” are needed in my book because there are some pretty serious working-class issues in it. “Mr. Scranton” deals with those kinds of issues. I made a conscious effort to level the serious poems with a few light-hearted poems. To answer your question: I know that it sounds cliche, but as a writer you should keep a notebook and just jot down lines of language you hear, because you never know when you are going to need them to use them. I’m really inspired by things that happen around me. Also, being in a classroom is always inspiring. You never know what is going to come out of your students; you never know when they are going to challenge you. Conversations in the classroom keep you engaged with young people. Overall, my life experiences inspire me to write.
QFTD: In a favorable review of your poetry book, Tricia Fidler, from [PANK] Magazine writes, "Fanelli is also politically savvy without preaching, calling attention to the burden of the blue-collar lifestyle…” Another quote says, “Rich in small town culture, this collection is filled with characters that have overcome the losses of life, but it doesn’t forget those who have not…” How does it make you feel to have someone critique your work and shed such a positive light on it?
Brian: It feels good because I spent a few years working on All That Remains. The book was originally was going to be something else, but then Occupy Wall Street happened and a few other things happened that inspired me more in the national conversation of economic issues. I went to a lot of those marches and rallies in some of the bigger East Coast cities and locally, and again, I was inspired by the grassroots action that I witnessed. I also spent a lot of time revising the book, making sure the poems spoke to each other, without them sounding too similar. Again, it’s good to get such a positive review on something that I spent working on for a number of years.
QFTD: You travel and read your poetry at many venues. Who are some people you’ve met along this particular path that stick out in your mind, and why do they stand out?
Brian: I am inspired by going out and visiting different communities and witnessing how people build great literary communities. Monique Lewis is one of those people. She and I attended graduate school together. She runs a really amazing reading series, At the Inkwell, at the KGB Bar and other venues in New York City, where she brings in writers from all around the country. Monique is a tireless advocate of different writers, and she is also a fiction writer herself. I am just impressed every time I go to one of her readings the turn-outs that has and the energy that goes into promoting that literary community. Another who sticks out in my mind is Pat Florio, who attended graduate school with me. She started her own reading series at the Jersey Shore Arts Center near Asbury Park. Like Monique, Patricia brings in writers from all over, and she works very hard to promote that series. There’s also some writers in Gettysburg who I have connected with over the years. They opened up a reading series at the Ragged Edge Cafe. There, I visited their open-mic nights, where high school and college students read, and I was blown away by what these young people were doing. I was fortunate to have been a featured reader there last March, and I was so impressed by the amount of work they put into having an open-mic night every month. One other person I’d like to mention, Christian Thiede, runs a weekly reading series at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg. He is an excellent organizer, and he is an excellent writer and reader himself. I really respect all of these people; I may be missing some people, and for that I apologize. Pretty much, anyone who works hard to build up their literary community deserves a lot of praise, because it is no easy task. I also have to mention the 100,000 Poets for Change event, where I met you. That was one of the most inspiring readings I have ever done.
QFTD: Other than earning your Ph.D from SUNY Binghamton in the near future, what do you have coming down the road? Any new books or poetry events?
Brian: I have a manuscript of poems completed. In time, I'll send it out to the world. I have a reading coming up on Sunday, December 14th in Scranton. At 6:30 pm I will be reading at the Old Brick Theater. It’s actually a jazz-poetry event, and it’s going to be so much fun. Lastly, in April, I will be reading at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis as part of a reading to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of Wilkes University’s MFA program. I am excited to be a part of this event, especially since the Wilkes community is a strong, vibrant group of writers, and this is a huge writing conference. I look forward to meeting other writers, sharing my work, and listening to their work. Even more so, I'm eager to celebrate what the Wilkes program has been doing for the last decade. There is much to celebrate!
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