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.


A MHR Conversation: Robert Okaji

My March 2016 conversation with Mockingheart Review editor, Clare L. Martin. I’m stoked to be reading with Clare and fellow MHR poet Bessie Senette on October 20th at Malvern Books in Austin.

Q&A with Poet Lynne Burnett, Part 2

Part 2 of the Q&A with poet Lynne Burnett:

Would you offer up some of your influences – poetic and otherwise. What draws you to that work? 

Well, I’d have to start with the Romantic Poets (Shelley, Keats, Blake) and William Wordsworth, whose lines “To me, the meanest flower that blows/Can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” are engraved in my mind. Then there’s Walt Whitman (the music of his lines!), Emily Dickinson (nutshells bursting with meaning), Rilke (“Again and again, even though we know love’s landscape”…), Rumi (words that dance with beauty, love and ecstasy) and a host of others. More currently, Jane Hirshfield for her image windows and language depth, Billy Collins for his ease of expression and accessibility, George Bilgere for his wry humour, Stephen Dunn for the contemplative mind journeys he takes me on, Tony Hoagland for his wit and great intellect in both poems and essays, Mary Oliver for her simple praise of the natural world, David Whyte for poems that immerse me in the soul’s callings. There are many more – I’m a wide reader and everything I read exerts its influence – but these are the ones that immediately come to mind. I am drawn to work that praises both the extraordinary and ordinary aspects of a life, to the grounded ecstatics, to poems so deep they are bottomless – that reward over and over and feed a hungry mind, questing heart. I’m also drawn to haiku for its succinctness.

And to art, especially paintings: I’ve written a sequence of 17 poems based on one artist’s “Time” sequence of 17 abstract paintings, which resulted in the two of us finally meeting face to face and me being able to see those paintings firsthand. I guess that makes me an ekphrastic poet!


What themes or traits will readers find in your work? What will they not find?

Because of the brevity of life, it’s precious to me. So, the themes of time and death and why are we here, what does it all mean. Readers will find praise, love, ecstasy, humour, irony, an articulation of ideas and ponderings, joy and innate spirituality in my work. I’ll work a theme from every angle over the course of many poems – which I hope I’ve done successfully with this chapbook. You’re unlikely to find swearing or really long poems (yet) or long wordy narratives. I like compression. I try to present different facets of a subject in a poem rather than take a specific stand for or against something. Although I initially worked toward a resolution in my poems, now you’ll find less of that, more of a door for the reader to go through and take what s/he will. Animals and nature abound in my writing. The “aum” of life too. 

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? Do you listen to music while writing? Write in public or in solitude?

I have so many folders jammed with notes on odd pieces of paper, and little memo pads in every bathroom of the house! Any phrase that comes to mind or overheard and of interest, any incident read or seen that grabs me or gives me pause or makes me think – all get jotted down for later development. An observed image can tunnel through me to unexpected places. Occasionally I’ll use a random group of words and this will result in some of my best poems. Most of the time I start with a memory or something seen or read that I want to make sense of or settle emotionally. I sit at my desk some portion of every day (and thankfully have a large den with a door) but the real writing happens either first thing (before checking emails etc.) or mid-late afternoon. I LOVE this time of day, after I’ve meditated, and can write freshly or look with more objective eyes at something already begun. When I begin a poem, it lives with me – usually for days and weeks – until it amasses enough energy and coherence to be considered a poem and at that point I’ll type it on the computer, print it and then also put a handwritten copy into a binder. Every poem I’ve ever written, and every revision, they’re all dated, signed and noted in these binders. Anyway, this fledgling poem that finally got printed will have had a rocky start and almost always reach a point where it’s not working, I can’t find a satisfactory end or smooth transition between stanzas or the tone or point of view aren’t right and I get stuck – for days. It’s a part of my process I’m familiar and increasingly comfortable with. I’ll go for a walk or iron and the physical motion does some magic. As uncomfortable as this part is, it ALWAYS resolves itself if I just surrender to what wants to be said, not what I think wants to be said. Often I’ll end up with an opposite point of view as a result. The completion of the poem after this tipping point happens quickly: I get an image of sewing, a tactile sensation of words being stitched together, that is strong and stretchy and hole-proof. This doesn’t mean my opinion of the poem doesn’t change over ensuing days/months/years – it certainly does and most of my poems are revised. However, the core energy of the poem – hopefully – stays intact (I believe poems are energetic structures). I’ve learned to always sleep on my “latest, greatest” drafts (what was I thinking?) which turn out to be in the new day’s light – if not “it” then a necessary step to get there. On occasion I’ve written to music (always instrumental) and found it quite freeing! Usually though I work in quiet solitude. Now that I have a much larger den with a fabulous sound system I think I’ll experiment more with that.

List three favorite poets, an admirable animal, and your go-to beverage.

Only three!!! This moment it’s Stephen Dunn, Jane Hirshfield and Dorianne Laux. Ask me again and my answer might be different (isn’t it wonderful to have a Poet Bank to draw from?). An admirable animal would be my totem, the black panther: about ten years ago I dreamed one picked me up in its mouth and half-carried half-dragged me to a path I was supposed to be on, before letting me go, mission accomplished. Shortly after, I was in Mexico and a beach vendor walked by, hawking, among other stone sculptures, a foot long black panther. Yes! Of course I ran after him and this big boy has stalked a corner of my desk ever since. If it’s first thing in the morning, my go-to beverage is a strong cup of coffee but later in the day some coconut water does the trick! 

Thanks, Lynne!

See Part 1 here.

Visit Lynne’s blog to read a sample of her poetry, after which you’ll likely feel an irresistible urge to purchase Irresistible, now available through Amazon.com and Finishing Line Press

Q&A with Poet Lynne Burnett

I’m pleased to offer this Q&A with poet Lynne Burnett:

Lynne Burnett on the old Ice Road (Mackenzie River) between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk (inside the Arctic Circle).

Your chapbook, Irresistible, has recently been published. Can you tell us something about it? 

The poems in this book have transitions in common – from death and dying, whether accidental or planned, to milestones such as a son leaving home etc.  There’s love palpably felt after death and beyond it, little epiphanies from near-disasters, the whole subject of death from many different angles – the news that breaks us, how our lives are enlarged by telling moments. The title poem “Irresistible” and “Tandem Hang-Gliding Incident” seemed to embody our human failings and the unnecessary accidental deaths we suffer as a result. But also, physically, death is inevitable and therefore irresistible – we can’t resist it. It will happen sooner or later: our first breath inspires our last, so to speak, and our last – for those believing there’s more beyond our bodies – inspires our first on a different plane. Physically our time here on Earth is limited and I think this awareness allows an appreciation for the preciousness of life in all its forms (my chapbook includes animal journeys as well as human ones). I seem to be fascinated with this subject as it creeps into a lot of my poems!


(Note to blog readers from RO: Each time I read this book, I find something new to appreciate. You will, too.)

Would you mind sharing a bit about your background?

I was born in London, England, emigrated to Toronto, Canada at age 4, left home at 18. There followed 3 out of an expected 4 years of university (and poems published there) mixed in with travel to Scotland, Wales and England (my hippy years – this was the early 70’s), before returning to Toronto to work for 2 years and then coming west to Vancouver, where I’ve lived 40 years now. Although I’m not politically oriented in my poetry, I’ve always had a vision of what’s possible for this beautiful world we find ourselves in. As a result, I took myself to Findhorn, Scotland for awhile back then, took the Erhardt Seminar Training (EST) in London and was generally quite involved with the human potential movement of that time. In 1975 I began Transcendental Meditation and have been a regular meditator since, which I think has been helpful to my writing (and sanity!). Anyway, after venturing west to Vancouver, I met my husband and voila – here we are 38 years later! I became an instant step-mom to 2 wonderful kids then but having my own took another 8 years, so the older ones were leaving high school when Stewart was born (he did the author and cover photos for my book) – so it was like raising 2 families back to back and as a result, with the intensity of those 2 experiences, writing got put on the back burner until my son was 10 and I could take time for myself again. I was happy about this and do not regret that 20 year gap in writing – in fact I learned that “one hand shakes the other” so to speak and when the time is right, everything you thought you’d lost or forgotten floods the page again and even better – has matured with time. Anyway, aside from third year university courses on the Romantic Poets in the early 70’s, all my learning about craft etc. has come from my own wide reading and study: I’m self-taught.


Please tell us how or why you turned to writing poetry?

 Though I feel like I was born poetically inclined, I remember writing down my first poem at age 9. It was a rhymed poem of many verses, about the path to God/light/worlds unknown, probably influenced by the fact we lived next door to the minister, played with his children, saw him every Sunday. Poetry has always been a way to express deep emotion that was otherwise inexpressible, a way to articulate thoughts and feelings I struggle to voice. We moved every year/year and a half in and around Toronto so I was always changing schools, making new friends. Being shy, quiet and introverted, books, paper and pen were my confidants. As the oldest child of divorced parents, I wanted to be “good” and do good as a person. But on the page I could be dangerous, unpredictable, angry or ecstatic; I could question things. And did. I wrote steadily until my mid-twenties and published here and there – sometimes in university journals, once in Chatelaine (which paid me $50 for a 9 line poem back in 1971 – imagine!). But once I married, fewer poems got written than nightly dreams and those that did were filed away for 20 years before I began sending them out into the world. I think those years of apparent non-activity were a fertile darkness and everything experienced during that time got written into my body and soul. All to say writing poetry involves living a life – everything contributes and is necessary.


What is the relationship of your environment, your daily surroundings, to your writing?

Important! Especially nature – I grew up when you could walk to the end of your street at the age of 8 or 9, roam the fields there all day, only returning for supper – before strip malls replaced them. This is where I discovered I had a natural leaning to meditation, because I’d lie on the grass or sit against a tree and disappear into the silence, often emerging with phrases, images to write about. I have more than one big window in my den so I can sit at my desk and write, looking outside. If ever I’m stuck in a poem, going for a walk quickly loosens things up (I walk every day). That or ironing! The physical motion seems to freshen the creative process. We boat in the summer for several weeks and as much as possible anchor out in very remote bays – no cellphone/internet/newspapers/tv!!! That immersion in wild nature and largely living from the sea (catching prawns, crabs, salmon, cod) is extremely nourishing to me. Many poems are later drawn from that experience.


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

Hmmm, I think I’d be a haiku because it’s so succinct. I love things in a nutshell! However, I’m also partial to the sonnet, with its twist and turns.


We’ll continue Part 2 of this Q&A in a few days, but in the meantime, you might visit Lynne’s blog to read a sample of her poetry, after which you’ll likely feel an irresistible urge to purchase Irresistible, which is available through Amazon.com and Finishing Line Press.


NPR Interview with Jane Hirshfield

In this interview, Jane Hirshfield reads her poem  “My Eyes” from The Beauty, and discusses the “window moment” in poetry. I can’t remember when I first fell in love with her poetry (2000? 2001?), but she remains one of those writers essential to my life.

Q&A with Poet Stephanie L. Harper (Part 2)

I’m pleased to present part 2 of the Q&A with poet Stephanie L. Harper:

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

I would be a poetic form that could seep down into darkness, molecule by molecule, through miles of porous rock, to return to the wellspring, then rise again to the surface, and wash over the grief-stricken with the all immensity of love and joy in my depths. I’m pretty sure that would make me an elegy.

What themes or traits will readers find in your work? What will they not find?

My work is chock full of mythological creatures, archetypal symbolism, and nature imagery (i.e., birds, seascapes, wolves, forests, volcanoes). It touches often on spirituality (and/or religiosity), sometimes alludes to current events (and associated dismay), and has an overall feminist and philosophical bent. My love for and awe of my children shows up a lot, too. Some of my poems address such uncomfortable subjects as child abuse and misogyny, but I try to avoid any superfluously vulgar or violent language. It occurs to me that I’ve tended to give the explicit erotic love bandwagon a wide berth, which I don’t anticipate will cease to be the case, but I suppose stranger things have happened…

List three favorite poets, an admirable animal, and your go-to beverage.

Ocean Vuong, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/04/someday-ill-love-ocean-vuong

Melissa King Rogers, https://www.rattle.com/deus-ex-machina-by-melissa-king-rogers/

Emma Gonzalez, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/03/emma-gonzalez-is-responsible-for-the-loudest-silence-in-the-history-of-us-social-protest/

It bears mentioning that on another given day, I’d likely have chosen three different poets, but it’s also true that anyone I’d think to include would be someone whose work I return to again and again.

Animal: I think animals, in general, are admirable for being better and more pure in every moment than we humans ever will be in our best, most authentic moments, but sometimes an animal will stand out for me as being exceptional, even by animal standards. One example that comes to mind straightaway, is a she-leopard whose brutal and remarkable story I once followed in a nature documentary. It was years ago, when my kids were still quite young. In one of the episodes, the leopard returned to her den to find that her cub had been swallowed by a giant python. Desperate to retrieve her cub, whom she must have known was already dead, she relentlessly attacked the python, issuing blow after calculated blow clearly designed to maim and traumatize the snake without killing it, so that it would regurgitate the cub, which it eventually did. The mother leopard then performed a harrowingly elaborate mourning ritual, during which she paced and mewled and roared, and ultimately ingested her cub, presumably to protect its body from the elements, or, perhaps, to achieve a final moment of closeness. In any case, that ordeal was devastating, nausea-inducing, heart-rending, absolute perfection, like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed. I still can’t recall or write about it without tears welling up.

Go-To Beverage: This is where things get really interesting! Sorry, NOT. I drink a cup of coffee with a splash of almond milk pretty much every morning. Without it, not only is my ability to interface with the world on a conscious basis severely impaired, but my chances of experiencing a raging migraine by late afternoon are increased by a factor of ten. That is all.

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? Do you listen to music while writing? Write in public or in solitude?

There’s a ubiquitous voice out there in literary world that would have us believe no one can be a serious writer without following a strict writing practice. As someone who doesn’t operate well with routines (which is far from saying that I’m not a creature of habit, but that’s a story for another day), that’s always been a sore subject for me, and so I’ve done a lot of soul-searching about what does or doesn’t constitute success as pertains to who I am and what I do. For one thing, I’m learning that my tendency to get obsessive over whether or not I’m performing to some prescribed standard of “real poet” (as opposed to “full-of-shit pretender,” that is), is a recipe for performance anxiety tenderloins braised in a tangy reduction of doom. I suppose it’s true that a heaping serving of doom has on occasion successfully fed a convincing performance, but it’s not a sustainable diet for me.

So, while I’ve never figured out a methodical way to conjure creative output in written form “on demand,” I’ve come to realize that this fact doesn’t necessarily mean I’m any less invested in the work. I’m finally understanding that everything I do in the course of living (i.e., being in the world each day, reading, sharing in the joys, frustrations, and griefs of my family and friends, everything that goes into raising and championing my kids, even menial chores and any and all associated avoidance tactics, and did I mention reading?) is oriented toward the work of poetry. Eventually, invariably, the imagery-laden phrase-fragments I find myself chanting in the shower, or in the car, will rise to a critical point of insistence that they be born, obliging me to do something about it—a something which tends to involve either a journal, a screen, or the back of a receipt. Then, once such a creative burst has resulted in a new, nebulous little life-form, said infant poem may demand extensive attention in the way of crafting, cross-referencing, cajoling, and other various cerebrations over the course of months, or sometimes even years. Occasionally, though, a poem will learn as a result of my ministrations to pull off a pretty persuasive full-realization act.

Please tell us how or why you turned to writing poetry?

 When I was a youngster, my teachers used to call me a “gifted” prose writer (go figure), and anyone who’s ever received a personal letter (whether in handwritten, or electronic form) from me would attest to my proclivity for words, and lots of them, but I’ve actually always preferred poetry as my vehicle for creative expression. I don’t believe I ever had a pivotal moment of “turning to” writing poetry, but rather, simply, that I am a Poet. It’s a fact about my life that it’s taken me the better part of my lifetime so far to figure out, but I’m learning that it’s more a matter of how I’m wired to relate to the world and others in it, than of my having chosen to practice one form of art over another.

I think of poetry as an attempt to account for and share the truth (in terms of emotional, experiential immediacy) as accurately and proximally as human language will allow, given that language can only at best be a pale stand-in for any actual thing we mean to express. Insofar as telepathy hasn’t yet evolved in humans to the extent that it could viably supersede our linguistic systems as the primary mode of communication, poetry strikes me as the closest we can get to understanding one another.

I am a Poet, not because I think there’s something special about me that I need to tell everyone, but because I’ve found nothing more fortifying and validating than those moments in which I’ve recognized myself in someone else. And so, what moves me to give something of myself to the world in the form of poetry, is not so much a hope of getting something in return, as it is of being a gift that’s received.

Would you mind sharing a bit about your background?

You might say that I’ve taken an anti-establishment approach to achieving Poethood, in that I never earned an MFA, or even studied in any writing program. But the truth of the matter is, my sans-MFA route was not for a lack of trying to pry my way into the establishment. When I was a senior at Grinnell College (IA), graduating with a double major in English and German, I applied to a boatload of graduate programs in creative writing. Several of my professors made a point of advising me against including any of my poetry in the writing samples I submitted with my applications, stating euphemistically that it “wasn’t ready.” The non-conformist in me did not heed, and did not prevail. A year later, stubbornly submitting more of my “poetry” with my applications to yet another batch of writing programs, resulted in more resounding rejections. I did, however, manage to find my way into one of the top Ph.D. programs in German literature in the country at the time, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I studied and taught for four years while completing my MA, and two additional years of coursework toward my Ph.D. After the accrual of much debt, my life took an abrupt, yet immensely welcome turn toward marriage and motherhood. I’ve since made a show of pursuing other “respectable” career paths, including completing the prerequisite science courses for a nursing program I ended up not applying to, and a stint in theological seminary as a Master of Divinity candidate, during which time my son was diagnosed with autism, which suddenly made my true calling crystal clear… Societally-induced guilt over “wasting my education” be damned: I’ve spent twenty years so far as a Mother, doing exactly what I was meant to do—which, as it turns out, has amounted to a pretty stellar education in the poetic arts…

* * *

This concludes our Q&A, but while you’re awaiting your copy of This Being Done (the pre-publication sales period ends April 27), you might read Stephanie’s poem “How to Be a Malacologist” in Panoply, or visit her blog.