While Reading Billy Collins at Bandera’s Best Restaurant, Words Come to Me

 

While Reading Billy Collins at Bandera’s Best Restaurant, Words Come to Me

And having no other paper at hand,
I scrawl on a dollar bill, “I want to speak
the language of smoke.” My invisible friend
interrupts. That is a white man’s dilemma.

 At least you have a dollar and a pen.
“But I’m only half-white,” I reply, “with half
the privilege.” Then you must bear double
the burden,
he says. This version of math

twists my intestines into a Gordian knot,
as does the concept of half equals twice,
or in terms I might better comprehend,
one beer equals four when divided by color

or accent and multiplied by projection.
The unsmiling waitress delivers my rib-eye
as I’m dressing the salad, and the check appears
just after the first bites of medium-rare beef

hit my palate, certainly before I can answer the
never-voiced question “would you like dessert?”
Cheese cake, I would have said. Or cobbler. And I
seldom turn down a second beer. This too, I’m told,

is another example of my unearned entitlement. I
contemplate this statement, scribble a few other
phrases on bills, drop them on the table, and walk out,
wondering which direction to take, which to avoid.

* * *

“While Reading Billy Collins at Bandera’s Best Restaurant, Words Come to Me” was a finalist last fall for the Slippery Elm Prize in Poetry. It was published in Slippery Elm (print only) in December 2017. You may be amused to hear that shortly after the winner was announced, I had lunch in Bandera with one of the other finalists in this competition, but not at the restaurant featured in the poem. The photo is of a local bar, not the eatery, but it offers some of the flavor of the town.

Nocturne with a Line after Kees

country

 

Nocturne with a Line after Kees

I close my eyes and see nothing but rain.
And after, take pity

for what turns beyond sight: the wretched
flower, a hiss from the road. Last night the wind
stole sleep from my body,

leaving me alone, wordless, listening
for her next breath. An alchemist,

I transmute the memories of old wounds laid open.

 

*****

This first appeared in Ijagun Poetry Journal, in December 2013.

 

Antique pharmacy

 

Dead Rose at 5 Points Local

 

Dead Rose at 5 Points Local
(A collaborative poem written with Stephanie L. Harper)

Having plucked the disheveled
petals from the core,
she waits
for the dead to speak
of last week’s sweetness—

of damp upholstery
and worn-out shoes,
of locked chests
and the faint honey
of unrealized hope.

Magnetized,
I twist the stem;
I quarter the seeds and
blemish the plate.
Which north rings true?

Which faded-red
bridge reveals the lost
inner compass?
Our ice cubes clink
no answers, as the essences

of hibiscus, lavender,
and mint slip over my tongue,
concealing the cool
tang of her demurring
ghosts…

But when she says whisper,
touching her lips
with an index finger,
I hear distant trains
baying like wolves,

and smell the char of nights
trailing the undiminished
river, its waters flowing
in every possible
direction, away.

 

* * *

“Dead Rose at 5 Points Local” first appeared in Formidable Woman Sanctuary in November 2018. For the story behind the poem, click on the link.

Hours

Hours

who remembers can
the blur of
flowers be so

unpleasant if as
Creeley says “imagination
is the wonder

of the real”
what then is
presence obtained from

nothing the mere
transformation of shape
to glory incessant

as the night
raining in through
the long hours

 

* * * *

A poem from the mid-80s. I don’t recall where the Creeley quote came from.

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.

 

Spring Night (after Wang Wei)

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Spring Night (after Wang Wei)

Among falling devilwood blossoms, I lie
on an empty hill this calm spring night.
The moon lunges above the hill, scaring the birds,
but they’re never quiet in this spring canyon.

Another try at an old favorite…

I consider this adaptation rather than translation, but perhaps appropriation or even remaking might be more accurate.

Here’s the transliteration from chinese-poems.com:

Person idle osmanthus flower fall
Night quiet spring hill empty
Moon out startle hill birds
Constant call spring ravine in

So many choices, none of them exactly right, none of them entirely wrong. How does one imply idleness, what words to use for “flower” (blossom? petal?), or for that matter, “fall” (descend, flutter, spiral)? And how to describe a moonrise that scares the constantly calling birds? My first attempt began:

“I lie among the falling petals”

but it seemed vague. The word “osmanthus” fattened my tongue, or so it felt, but the osmanthus americanus, otherwise known as devilwood or wild olive, grows in parts of Texas. So I brought the poem closer to home.

I considered naming the birds (quail came to mind) but decided against. In this case the specificity felt somehow intrusive.

My hope is that I’ve managed to amplify, in some small way, previous iterations, and that while the edges are still a bit blurred in morning’s first light, perhaps they’ll become slightly crisper by the evening.

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“Spring Night” last appeared here in February 2018.