Monday, August 31, 2015

book interview: a world less perfect for dying in by ralph pennel

May as well start here. I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?

What do Elvis, Jesus, and Edward Hopper have in common? How do you light the soul on fire without, too, igniting the flesh? A World Less Perfect for Dying In answers these questions and more! The works here exam the liminal through the immutable, give lyric to form, give spirit permission to aspire to will. These poems, in exploration of themes of loss, faith—both lost and regained—death, isolation, and love, examine the ways in which our lives are but the brief imaginings of others, and the hope we still dare to breathe into those imaginings that they might one day come true.

How did you come upon the subject of your book?

As is the case with many other first books of poetry, the themes and subjects emerged organically, for the most part. By that I mean that I didn’t sit down consciously one day to “write this book” per say (though, in a way, by composing these poems, it was a conscious decision). The place I started working from was a suite of “urban pastorals” I had written a few years back. I wanted initially to expand on this notion, but the more time I spent working directly with this conceit in mind the less the works held together. Other ideas and themes emerged prominently and had to be moved from the periphery to the center. This meant adding and subtracting from the collection in order to get the right feel for the work as a whole. Once the poems began speaking to each other in ways that elevated the individual works collectively it became evident to me through that conversation what book I was really working on. This is all, of course, a much different process than I am executing now with the next manuscript . . . so far.

And the title? Sometimes, it seems to me, titles can strike like lightning or can be extraordinarily elusive. How did you go about finding your title?

The title of the manuscript came as both a strike of lightning and something extraordinarily elusive, actually. It was elusive in the sense that I had tried out several titles before it, which didn’t seem to work. But, maybe that’s not quite right. They worked with the way I had the poems arranged, but I felt like the wrong themes and tone were being exposed within those arrangements. It wasn’t until I made a few good decisions about how to create a greater sense of tension in the way the poems were speaking to each other that the title emerged. Actually, two possible options emerged. When the two titles emerged, it was as a lightning strike. I abandoned the first one that came to me, as I figured it might lead the reader in the wrong direction, toward assuming the “I” in these works is meant to be confessional and not lyrical, as I work consciously to expose what is emotionally true through what seems experientially true as seamlessly as possible. The title I abandoned became, instead, the title of the first section of the book. Coincidentally, this is usually not how titles reveal themselves to me. I often know the title of an individual piece before I begin to write or within the first few composed lines of a new poem. So, this was a slightly different type of engagement than what I have been accustomed to when working on individual pieces.

Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey.

Letting certain poems go regardless of my affinity for them for the sake of the success of the manuscript. It was difficult at times to be completely honest with myself about the fact that some pieces just weren’t speaking well enough to the other poems to stay. We have to be able to kill our darlings, right? At least, that’s what I keep telling my students. But, it’s true. We aren’t very often our own best audience, often too close to the material to make the right choices concerning content.

And the most pleasurable?

When I came back to the book after my publisher sent me the first round of proofs. It had been a while since I had looked at the manuscript at all, exhausted by the process of getting the book accepted for publication in the first place. I had spent so much of the last two years arranging, rearranging, revising and composing new pieces that I couldn’t really see the book anymore. Or the individual pieces, for the most part. That first time through the proofs felt really good. I had gained enough distance from the work again to see it with fresh eyes. It was a huge relief.

What’s the best and / or worst piece of advice (writing or publishing or similar) you’ve gotten?

I’ll go with worst. Oddly enough, however, often the worst of the worst advice evolved into the best. But that has more to do with me as a person than the advice itself. One of my undergraduate professors had this uncanny knack for exacting the truth in a particularly poignant and damaging manner (she was eventually let go by the school, unsurprisingly). On more than one occasion, in an attempt to do harm, she actually made it clear to me what decisions I needed to make to move forward as a poet. One moment during a meeting with her in her office—where she was clearly reading my poem for the first time though this was a weekly arrangement she had with all members for the class and this was a task she should have accomplished before I was sitting in a chair at her desk with her—she made an attempt to belittle me by showing me how I was failing as a poet in general as a way to talk about the poem she had just read for the first time. And, admittedly, the poem may not have been that good. I don’t remember the poem. However, (though I was initially crushed to the point of considering becoming a math major), I realized that in her attempt to stamp the life out of me, she inadvertently led me to see where I was succeeding, and I, therefore, knew exactly where to focus the majority of my energy in becoming a more successful poet. So, in the long run, I am thankful for the interaction, but she was wrong and dead wrong to treat me, and everyone in the program, as recklessly as she did.

Tell us one of your favorite books you’ve discovered recently and say a little about why.

Pinion, by Claudia Emerson. Someone in my writing group recommended it and let me borrow her copy. She thought that it might help me make some critical choices regarding voice and organization with the new manuscript that I am currently working on. And she was right. The pieces come from different voices. The voices are true and emotionally authentic. And Emerson’s voice is so powerful in a quiet, purposeful way that is simultaneously public and private. I am glad to be spending time with the book in general and would recommend it to anyone, but I am also grateful to have the chance to study, for my own artistic purposes, the kinds of choices (and tough choices, I am sure) that Emerson made regarding the types of risks she knew this book had to take.

Can you share an excerpt from your book? Give us a taste.

from “Planning Our Departure”

You roll away from me, hand dropping
against the box spring,

as if to usher this bed into motion, into
one last feat of greatness though nothing on it stirs.

While we lie here, storm clouds
settle in above us,

rain gathers in their sagging bellies, felled cotton seed
invades every grassless patch of ground below.

I half expect to find this bed covered too,
mistake loose down against my pillow

for some ambitious seed that made it through
the screen beside this bed, seeking some higher,

safer place to land, who knows what falling is,
how it ends where no light reaches and never has.

Not even in the highest noonday sun when
the shadows are but charcoal blemishes no bigger than a sigh.

What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)

I guess influences? The voices where I always seem to find inspiration most often (though I’m always looking for books and authors to add to the list—Natasha Trethewey, for instance, is a relatively new addition, in fact) are Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Larry Levis, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Brenda Hillman, Carolyn Forche, and Lisel Mueller. And, on a different day, if you asked, depending on the kind of work I’m doing, I may also throw Yusef Komunyakaa and Mark Doty onto the list.

OK, we’re smitten. Where do we go to buy your book?

You can buy the book directly from the publisher (which is, of course, best for the publisher and author) at .

The book is also available on Amazon or on SPD The book can also be found on the shelves at Porter Square Books, in Cambridge, MA.

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