13 Questions with Ralph Pennel

“Not a single line from the first draft survived to make the current, final draft. But it is clearly the same poem. “

Ralph Pennel headshot

Ralph Pennel is the author of A World Less Perfect for Dying In, published by Cervena Barva Press. Ralph’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Ocean State Review, Literary Orphans, F(r)iction, Thrice Fiction, Tarpaulin Sky, Elm Leaves Journal, Rain Taxi Review of Books and various other publications. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart, the Best Small Fictions Anthology, and he was twice a finalist for Somerville Poet Laureate. Ralph is a founding editor and the fiction editor for the online literary journal, Midway Journal. He is on the board of the New England Poetry Club and teaches writing and literature at Bentley University.

Coffin Bell: When you write, do you start with a plan and move from there, or do you generally go where the writing takes you?

Ralph Pennel: A little bit of both, to be perfectly honest. Sometimes I have an idea laid out beforehand. Sometimes I start with a notion and follow it until I figure out what the story needs to mean. For instance, “The Minnesota Goodbye,” which I published with Elm Leaves Journal, began with the title, which came from a story that I shared with another writer at a writer’s retreat about what a Minnesota Goodbye is. When I finished telling him the story, he said, “Write that story.” So, I did.  Sometimes, though, I just write until I know what the story is supposed to do/mean, like with “Runner Up.” It didn’t occur to me what kind of runner up I was thinking about until I started the story. This story also grew out of a workshop prompt, and once I realized the runner up was a pet photographer, I had an idea of what the story needed to be do. But, I still did not know how the story ended until I started writing it, which was complicated by the fact that I started with the end. The main character burying the dog.

CB: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

RP: Probably the best advice I’ve gotten wasn’t actually advice that was given to me from someone I ever met. And I can’t remember if it was Phillip Larkin or someone else. The idea is, if you can’t give away the only copy of a poem you’ve written then you don’t believe you have a better poem in you. And, in honor of the spirit of that sentiment, I have done that. Just to see if I could. Give up the only copy of a poem I wrote. This was years ago. Harder to lose track of things these days if they are composed on a computer. But I needed to know if I could do it. It was the poem I considered to be the best I had written at the time. I don’t even remember the title anymore. However, I can say with complete honesty, although I do miss the poem from time to time, I have written far better poems since and I think I am a better poet for having tried it.

CB: What advice can you give on editing and revising?

RP: Don’t be afraid to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I know that might seem like contradictory advice wrapped in unconventional wisdom. Don’t be afraid to ditch a working draft. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice the truth for the success of the poem. One of my own poems I routinely share with my own students is from the manuscript I’m working on. Not a single line from the first draft survived to make the current, final draft. But it is clearly the same poem. It gives them permission to look past the language on the page and to examine the underlying impulse behind a poem. What ought to, what needs to survive?

CB: What publishing advice can you give?

RP: Three things I always tell my students who are interested in publishing: Grow thick skin. Be persistent. Be your own cheerleader. We can never take rejection personally. If we do, then we shouldn’t be artists. It’s ALL subjective and it’s all personal. Know your audience. Find your cheerleaders. Grow with them. Cheer with them. Claw your way through. Be thankful to those who help navigate the darkness.

CB: Who are your influences?

RP: The short answer: everyone I read. But, if you’re looking for specific authors, for fiction it’s Garcia-Marquez, Faulkner, Michael Martone, Lydia Davis. For poetry, it’s Anne Carson, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Larry Levis. Both lists are longer. But I will stop there.

CB: What’s one thing you wish every journal editor knew?

RP: How to embrace editing and not just publishing. I once received a rejection that explained if I had only changed one word, they would have taken a poem they rejected. Then ask me to change the one word. That is the job of an editor. If you only want work that needs no polishing, then get out of editing. You are a publisher. Not an editor. Editors aren’t afraid to ask for changes from their writers when they know they have work that belongs in print but might need to be revisited. That might need some tightening. By the way, I changed the one word and published the poem with a different journal.

CB: Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. Tell us about your fears.

RP: I realized I had it/developed it when I was very young. 8? Maybe 9 years old? I was building a fort in the snow with my sister. I was digging a tunnel along the ground that would eventually connect to a tunnel we were going to dig down from the top of the mound. While I was carving into the snow, I had this sudden fear that the whole thing was going to collapse on top of me and I was going to be buried under all the snow. I screamed for my sister to pull me out of the tunnel by my feet, which she did. Ever since then I can’t imagine being buried alive like that without shuddering and getting chills up and down my spine. I can’t watch movies with characters who get buried alive. I don’t have claustrophobia. I have no problems with confined spaces if there is no threat that the space will collapse. But that fear that the ground will collapse on me in an unstable tunnel/space and I will suffocate is very real. Just typing about it now and imagining it gives me the chills.

CB: What draws you to dark fiction?

RP: I like horror films. I always have. Loved the classics: Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, etc. I just recently re-watched A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. So good. My favorite vampire movie. That love naturally carried over into my own story telling. Of course, I don’t invent supernatural monsters for my stories. Real life monsters, people who might actually exist are far scarier than any vampire or body constructed from the body parts of the dead. The psychological uncertainty of human horror, something that makes us wonder about our own humanity is far scarier, far more disconcerting. Far more fascinating. I like to explore that. Expose my readers to it. Make them explore this aspect of themselves if they dare to be honest with themselves.

CB: How does the darkness in your piece enhance the work?

RP: It opens the reader up to notions about the darkness in human nature. We are just as easily capable of destructive acts as we are capable of helpful acts. And I don’t necessarily mean acts against the other. We are just as likely to commit acts of harm against ourselves through what might look like acts of harm against others. For instance, when we kill and bury a love interest’s dog, we are actually brutalizing our own shadow, the aspects of ourselves we wish to hide from view. What we choose to love by testing the limits of love.

CB: How important are your surroundings when you write?

RP: Very. I can’t write in very sterile environments. So, like hotel lobbies. Hotel rooms. I need the space to feel more organic. I like to write in coffee shops. My apartment. Spaces where just a little bit of chaos is acceptable. It shouldn’t be too quiet either. Some ambient noise helps. Maybe Glenn Gould playing Bach, maybe Coltrane or Davis blowing their horns. Never complete silence. Always a little noise. Always something that forces me to focus harder. Always something in the background to forget. To leave behind.

CB: Do you use any sources for your material aside from experience?

RP: Sure. I take ideas from everywhere. I am always listening for interesting turns of phrase that I can turn into a title, or funny/odd stories that leave me stunned that I know will leave a reader stunned too. “Runner Up” of course, was born out of an idea generator from a workshop/retreat I attended in Taos, but that is not always how it happens. But the idea of writing a story about someone who is a perpetual runner up caught my attention. Paired with the idea that the character was always a pet photographer and the story all but wrote itself from there.

CB: Where can we find more of your work?

RP: Other places you can find my work are Literary Orphans, Thrice Fiction, ELJ (Elm Leaves Journal), and Germ Magazine.


Read Ralph Pennel’s “Runner Up” in issue 2.1 of Coffin Bell!