Q&A with Poet Robert L. Penick

Robert L. Penick’s writing has been published in numerous literary journals. His poetry chapbook, Exit, Stage Left, won the 2018 Slipstream chapbook contest. The former editor of Chance Magazine, he has most recently been editing and publishing Ristau: A Journal of Being. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Would you mind sharing a bit about your background? How and why did you come to writing? How has being a non-academic framed your work?

I grew up in a very blue-collar environment, was the first—and the last person in my family to go to college, and really took to writing around age 14.  A number of different factors instilled a sense of “otherness” in me, a sense of not fitting in, or wanting to fit in, with the available demographics.  I believe not being the product of an academic writing program has helped me mold my own peculiar voice, since I had no one indoctrinating me with what writers I should like.  There are a lot of folks slogging their way through Michel Houellebecq, for example, because some professor told them that’s good writing. I disagree.  The best are the ones that connect with you, plain and simple. I worked in the court system with the mentally ill and victims of domestic violence, and I believe that had a more valuable impact on what I do than 1,000 workshops.

Your chapbook, Exit Stage Left,won the 2018 Slipstream Annual Poetry Contest. Can you tell us something about its genesis?

Exit, Stage Leftwas a selection of poems from a full-length book project I have called The Art of Mercy  that I haven’t been able to get published.  Mercyis 70 pages, with each of the 70 poems having been published in one journal or another.  I flipped through it and chose 25 pieces that I thought hung together well and sent it off. Some of those pieces go back fifteen years, and I didn’t realize that the overriding theme was one of aging and mortality until I actually had the finished book in my hands.  A fine Kentucky poet, James Still, said in effect that young poets write of death and older poets write of life.  I see life/death, happy/sad, and love/hate as being sides of the same coin.

(Note from RO: To read three poems from this collection, or to order the book, click here. It’s a bargain at $10, with superbly crafted pieces of loss, hope and humanity.)

Would you offer up some of your artistic influences. What draws you to that work?

The writer having the biggest impact on me was John Steinbeck.  Many people dismiss him as sentimental, but you know what?  People are sentimental, just naturally so.  I remember finishing the last page of The Grapes of Wrath, putting the book down and just walking around the house wringing my hands.  I love getting that connection to basic humanity.  Ray Bradbury is the only science fiction author I’ve enjoyed, because those aren’t sci-fi stories, they’re stories about real people with real hearts and hopes and dreams.  Except for the robots, I guess.  Currently I’m on a Nabokov kick, reading his short stories.  That the man could write that well in his third language is astounding.  Recently, I found Richard Wright’s story, “The Man Who Lived Underground,” and was moved by its drama and precision.  

If you were a poetic form, which would you be?

I would be…an accident report.  “Subject took the off ramp at too great a speed and went through the guardrail into the lake.  After being checked by EMS, subject was transported to Metro Corrections, charged with having a lack of common sense.”

You’ve edited and published literary journals. Could you explain what crosses your mind when reviewing poems for possible inclusion in one?

Why am I doing this?  There is a danger in putting out a literary journal, in that you get bludgeoned by bad writing, and that can damage your own craft.  I’ve always said that writing a poem is like playing the harmonica; anyone can do it, but not many can do it well.  But a lot of folks buy their harmonica, then go straight to the Wednesday night open mic at the corner bar without putting the time in to learn. With writing, it’s a matter of finding your natural voice, being able to spot what doesn’t work, avoiding cliches and such.

What themes or traits will readers find in your work?  

I go for humanity more than anything, working often with characters who are socially isolated in some way, finding meaning in the day-to-day.  You have to be entertaining—for goodness sake, don’t bore people—but if you can slip some kindness in there, it’s a win.

 And your creative process? Could you offer us a glimpse into how your poems develop from first glimmer to fully realized piece? Do you follow a regular writing routine? Write in public or in solitude? 

I pick up a lot of ideas when I’m out.  I haven’t been able to write at home lately, so I scribble in coffee houses and fast food joints.  I’m that odd guy in the corner.  Last month, I’m at Burger King, and there’s maybe three other guys there, each eating alone.  I thought, “We should all squeeze into one booth together; we wouldn’t look so pathetic.” That became a poem called “BK,” about how every solitary person still has their childhood train set running through their past. Habit-wise, I wish I could be one of those folks that did their two or three hours a day, but that flow state is getting harder the older I get.  I get a cup of coffee and, if I get 200 words down on a story, that’s a good day.  It’s like pulling teeth, but I’m a fairly conscientious dentist. 

What advice would you offer to a writer just starting out?

Realize that the product is separate from you and don’t be stung by constructive criticism.  If a person is restoring a car and you point out the brake line is leaking, he or she will likely thank you.  But many writers are threatened by good criticism.  At the same time, be selective about what advice you take.  Many people will have no idea what you’re trying to do, and many writers (I’ve done this) will unconsciously try to make your writing more like their own.  You’re at a good point when you can hand a piece to someone you respect and say, “what’s the weak link in this?” 

Do you have any projects in process?

Three big things on my dance card right now: The Art of Mercy that I mentioned, Redemption, a gritty novel that may be too dirty for today’s market, and a collection of flash fiction I’m putting together. Flash gets a bad rap, mainly because much of it are merely fragments, but I think I’ve  done some impressive work with the 300 word story.  I’ve had perhaps 25 of them published (many are linked from my website, theartofmercy.net) and I’d like to get a book of them.  It’s funny, I’ve had work in 150 different literary journals, but it’s difficult finding a house that will do a full-length book for me.  Alas.  We can always find something to cry about, if we choose.