Now We Bow Our Heads: Interview with Poet Ralph Pennel
One summer, the neighbors directly behind
my grandparents’ house brought home a rooster.
My two brothers and I named him Shooster.
We spent the whole season strutting and clucking
back and forth along the chain-link fence that
divided the lots into yards. In return, Shooster
would strum the fence with his sharp beak
and bark us back to the middle of the lawn.
One day, after lunch, Shooster did not come
no matter which tone we called in or how hard
we rattled the fence, the seed we scattered
just before going in still spotting the dry Tennessee soil.
Later that night, dining with the neighbors, we found him.
Only we felt we knew him too well, and after the table
was cleared, we slipped the bones into a plastic bag
and took them out into the dark.
Kneeling beside the fence in the faint glow of the porch light
that barely reached this part of the yard, we three dug into
the ground with my grandfather’s trowel to a depth
we felt would keep our friend safe from more harm.
We patted the earth down with our feet and sprinkled loosed dirt
over the tiny mound. Not to hide what we had done. But because
we felt revealed, this the first lesson in who we would make ourselves
available for: so much becoming us from so little.
We bowed our heads, each offering his own prayer.
Then, we just walked away. Each to his own room.
Near. But not too near.
Satellites. Waiting for sleep.
~ Ralph Pennel
In recent years, contemporary poetry has come under fire for failing to remain relevant to the lives of ordinary people. What began as an oral tradition where shared experiences and lessons from daily life were shaped into a rhythmic and repetitious form to make the stories easier to remember and pass on, a means to keep alive core beliefs while warning against pitfalls, critics say has failed to keep up with a pace of life that has become increasingly frantic, all-the-while attention spans have grown shorter and shorter.
One is left to wonder: Is there still a place for poetry, for the carefully chosen word, the aesthetically and thoughtfully rendered experience which begs to be sat with and savored?
The world is in chaos. Who has time for a poem?
Fifteen years ago, on the one-year anniversary of the 9-11 attack on our country, I gathered together our West Linn, Oregon community of writers and fellow citizens to discuss the value of poetry in a time when it seemed there were no words. “Can Words Heal?” I posed to both the panel and the audience. The resounding answer, of course, was yes.
Last year, Juan Felipe Herrera, the son of Mexican migrant farm workers, was selected as this nation’s first Latino poet laureate, his poems exploring the reality of living on the margins of society while working with other artists and community members to bring about change. In his interview with poet Salvatore Ala for Combustus magazine, anti-war activist and poet, Sam Hamill invited readers to “Find Yourself By Serving Others.” Closer to home here in my current resting place of Eugene, Oregon, poet Sam Roxas-Chua, [“Poetry is a Raft,” Combustus] is an active force, building community via his unique yet universally understood take on growing up Filipino-American.
And so here is the gift of poetry: In the hands of a sensitive artist, words that have been artistically, even lovingly, arranged have the ability to slow us down, inviting us to consider and ponder, perhaps even to alter our thinking as we move deeper and open wider. A beautifully formed poem has the unique power to put the reader back in touch not only with what lies within his or her own complicated heart and imagination, but also and maybe even more importantly, with the increasingly varied, and ever-changing world around us.
Enjoy now, my interview with one such artist.
INTERVIEW WITH RALPH PENNEL, POET
~ Somerville, Massachusetts
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Ralph, your voice is strong and pure. Pared down to what truly matters. And yet a storyteller. Very few poets can achieve this balancing act. Shooster is simply beautiful. I so love your sparse style. Perfect.
Ralph Pennel: Thanks! [Shooster] is routinely one that people comment on when I give readings. I usually start with it.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You stinker. I hope they forgive you for it.
Ralph Pennel: Yes. The poem always gets a twittering of laughter at the beginning. But it quickly changes. That change in the mood of the audience is always palpable for me.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Reading What You Should Know About My Mother, I felt like I was being pierced with knives, one after another, each so precise and true and fine that it was almost too much to all be combined. Each part needs its own time to breathe and weep in me.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT MY MOTHER
Ask her what it means to be one.
A good mother that is.
And she will tell you.
It is a little like sunlight—
It is a house on fire and you
are a bucket of water
with no one to throw you.
It is giving up
because you must
The list is long.
And you will listen.
Because you will thrust her.
Her every word too, too much
like everything you have ever had
to leave behind, to ever let these go.
~ excerpt from, What You Should Know About My Mother, Ralph Pennel.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I also loved [later in the poem] your description of your mother with her husband. How they lived their lives viewing each day a gift. Even the acceptance, expectation, of death. Reminds me of the biopic, Shadowlands, the tender relationship between C.S. Lewis and the woman he marries as she is already dying of cancer.
Ralph Pennel: He was diagnosed three years after they married, the same year her father passed away. Still alive actually. Outlived the original prognosis. But there is definitely an aspect of that in their story.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: It is beautifully tender.
The trenches where we lie, the hours ahead still unfulfilled except by all we cannot manage…We insist on waging our losses against an hour more of sleep, against facing our certain departure from this room, or from any room just like this where we may have landed seeking shelter from all we can’t possibly begin to begin.
The awareness that arrives when we reach a certain age, yes. I should like to have my eighteen-year-old son read this and see if it resonates nearly as intimately as it does with me. Have you shared this with young people? College students? Do they get it?
Ralph Pennel: I read that one at readings. Younger listeners don’t generally comment on it.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes. how could they understand?
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What moves you to choose a particular topic? Are you aware that there is something you need to explore or express and this is your means to understand deeper? Something is biting at your neck to be addressed?
Ralph Pennel: Many of the poems in my new collection [A World Less Perfect For Dying In, Cervena Barva Press] are centered around resolving my religious and cultural conflicts.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Tell me more please. Was your mother very religious? Did you feel you owed it to her to continue her beliefs?
Ralph Pennel: Both parents were born and raised in Memphis, this is a huge part of my identity. So much so that it is hard for me to tell people where I am from. I was raised in Illinois, near Chicago, but my extended family is in Tennessee. We ended up in Illinois because my dad got a position teaching at NIU. We traveled down to Memphis nearly every summer. So, my liberal political stances are in direct conflict with this part of my identity. Which is really what Shooster is about.
My mom’s father was a southern Baptist minister. And she raised us in a southern Baptist home. But raised us in a UCC [United Church of Christ] church, so this created quite a bit of conflict too. The UCC teachings aided in my political views. It always felt like a betrayal of my grandfather.
I chose atheism for a while.
Then came back to my faith later as an adult. Which is what First of the Last Days of Tree Climbing, and Proving Grounds are about. Proving Grounds is about choosing atheism.
THE FIRST OF THE LAST DAYS OF TREE CLIMBING
For most of my youth, my father was a tree.
And climbing was a small retreat, my back to everything,
leaves holding fast against the breeze.
What did other matters matter—the spines of books uncreased
hedge trimmings and clippings scattered across the lawn—
when well-shaded roots knuckled up from cool grasses,
or when unbending limbs carried me up, fit firmly
beneath each step toward flickering blue and sun,
the ways of childhood still too much with me.
I was happy this way. Swinging sometimes. Palms
callused by bark. Until I fell. Landed flat on my back. Wind
pushed from my lungs so entirely I thought I was dying.
When my breath came back, those slow promising gulps,
I gathered myself from the ground and ran home.
Nearly fell over my father watching from the patio door.
Looking up only then to see how tall he stood above me,
I dropped in a heap on the last step up. Ashamed
for coming so close to death.
My father helped me into the house. And though
he never said a word, I knew he knew. I knew also that my fall
meant nothing when he led me to his reading chair
where I fell asleep, leaning against the arm, my head
on his shoulder, his breath rustling my unkempt hair
still hot from so much sun.
We cut through the park again, head home from the public pool,
so my brother and I—mother’s urging shrugged aside—can look
for bottles in the tall grasses that surround the horseshoe pits. And
we have become good collectors. Toss new-found labels into shirts
fashioned smartly into satchels, pennies closer to some prize
we’ve yet to name, the pantry shelves, now nearly three rows deep,
our mother’s concern growing, the summer
already too long by late June.
This morning the pits are filled—green and brown bottles
gleam with dew—and without a word between us,
we smash glittering glass against stead-fast stakes instead,
look up only after every bottle is gone,
early morning sun sharp on each severed edge,
the smell of beer lingering on our fingers.
When we return home, our shirts on our backs, mother asks
why we have no bottles for her to rinse and sort,
washtub braced against her hip. I tell her about
the bottles, about the chiming, about the way they glittered,
colored the sands, as she stares us down, the collection,
my brother and me, fingers strumming empty tub.
Without a word, she grabs two rakes from the garage,
drives us to the pits, stands over us, arms crossed,
until sand and glass are raked into small,
even mounds. As soon as we are done, we dump
the evidence of our work into the nearby bin,
follow our mother to the car, to the task we know
must lie ahead, the burn of hard labor still in our backs and arms,
believing even then that what we did was not wrong, and maybe
even beautiful, the weight of mother’s will
giving way like fog beneath a midmorning sun.
~ Ralph Pennel
Ralph Pennel: The last part of Shooster never actually happened. There was a “Shooster,” but we didn’t bury the bones in the back yard. [That poem] is about me burying parts of myself that I felt revealed too much of my vulnerabilities that my southern roots positioned me in.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: So I am not familiar with the UCC church.
Ralph Pennel: UCC is one of the most liberal Protestant sects. Close to Unitarianism. One of the first churches to ordain female ministers.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Lovely.
Ralph Pennel: My mom’s church ordained its first female minister back in the early eighties. It started in Massachusetts.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: So your mother was radical in her own right? A free thinker?
Ralph Pennel: Not really. It’s still a mystery why she picked that church once we moved to Illinois. I think she liked how it looked on the outside, to be honest. Little brick church. Maybe she wanted small. Her father’s church was huge. My mom honestly doesn’t believe in dinosaurs because they aren’t in the bible.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I’m thinking about the last part of Shooster, and how it links back to your wanting to hide the vulnerability of your grandfather’s southern religion.
Ralph Pennel: Yep. It’s something I’ve struggled with for years. Exposing this part of who I am. I don’t identify with his specific brand of [Baptist] religion. It’s restrictive. Most are. But he was easily the most influential man in my life, so to denounce that part of who I am as an act of empowerment is nearly impossible without also feeling a sense of guilt and shame. It is a complicated combination of feelings to parse through, that’s for sure.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: We try as adults to be bigger, wider, than the limitations of our upbringing, and can be quite successful, but even so, there’s this lingering sense that someday the world will discover we are a phony. That maybe our dreams for ourselves may have been bigger than we deserve.
Ralph Pennel: And yet I believe we have those dreams of ourselves because we are supposed to follow them. That’s why we have them at all.
On Looking at a Photo of Two Soldiers on the Wall in Costello’s Bar, Saint Paul
Both men are smiling. One man is leaning on the jeep’s bumper.
rifle rooted to the ground, hand holding ever so loosely.
The other man stands beside him, holding before him the rising sun
against snow-white cloth.
And you are staring at them, too, head turned over your shoulder,
describing to me what cannot be seen:
the man they must have killed for his flag
still lying just out of view of the road where they found him sleeping,
as if he had forgotten about the war or simply ceased to care,
the sun overhead against a cloudless sky the last thing he saw before drifting off.
Your back still turned to me, you tell me of the time you were fishing
and were dragged under by the current and carried down-stream.
You came to a stop near the bank where the river
had faded to a shallow brook and could not carry you further,
and you slept because you were far from home and tired.
It is hard now to imagine the story of the photo
could be told any other way, the two of us with nothing more to say,
staring at the wall, the two men holding up the flag to us
as if we, too, were lying back into the tall grass at midday,
leaving so much left undone, the wind touching everything.
~ Ralph Pennel
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Has there ever been a subject you have deemed just too much to tackle?
Ralph Pennel: Yes, my grandfather’s death.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you find that art allows us to sneak in indirectly through the back door, sometimes when even you yourself are not looking? Have you ever surprised yourself to discover what a piece you wrote was really about?
Ralph Pennel: Yes, absolutely. There’s always a little bit of denial, then relief, growth through acceptance.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are there questions you still are interested in investigating through your writing?
Ralph Pennel: Of course. My new book [A World Less Perfect for Dying In] deals directly with memory, not my own, but memory as it defines self, race, humanity. And whether we can extend humanity to non-human entities and what our ethical and emotional obligations are to those beings.
Elegy to Young Boys Jumping Off The End Of The Dock
taller than the rest, his head rising above
them all, takes his place in line, pushing
and shoving. He inches his way slowly forward
until the only thing between him and water is open air.
There, he turns away after standing too long before jumping,
slips past the others, who watch in silence as they
step aside to let him pass. Not one joke is made.
And when it seems that every last boy will follow his lead,
thinking now of shallower water, they quickly
turn away, laughter spilling from their mouths,
again pounding through the water’s surface.
There is so much strength needed to be a boy
of this age, each knowing his fate is manhood
and that he must take to practicing now.
This is nothing a boy can change.
No doubt this boy will return tomorrow and make the jump.
He will get there first and stay one jump longer,
fly into the blue green lake with so much air
beneath him, the other boys already heading
back to the dorms, lake water drying off their skin
in the breeze made by brisk walking.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Would you say you use writing to better understand others as much as to understand yourself?
Ralph Pennel: Absolutely, yes. When I was an undergrad, it was about art. [But then] I discovered I could create better on the page with words than I could in paint. It intrigued me, so I pursued it more fully.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: So you weren’t that kid who curled up with his journal every night to sort out who he was and what was going on around him?
Ralph Pennel: That was not a part of my life until maybe I was twenty-four, twenty-five. I drew all the time when I was younger. I though I might want to major in art as an undergrad. Then the writing thing happened.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How did that come about? Growing up, did you read a lot?
Ralph Pennel: My dad taught Shakespeare, so reading was a must in my house growing up. Never not an option.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: ahhh
Ralph Pennel: I actually struggled with reading for a while in elementary school. I’ve discovered I’m mildly dyslexic. I’ve actually written words mirror image backward on the board during a lecture before. Freaked my students out.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I had a lecturer, an anatomy professor, who would teach us the location of muscles, but in reverse location. We had to keep flipping what she was telling us in our minds.
Many of the children I work with struggle with dyslexia. It can be quite a challenge to overcome. The gap between what they want to express, what they see in their minds, and what comes out on the page is so vast. I have deep respect for that journey and for not giving up.
Ralph Pennel: I worked in the writing center as a grad student and one girl came to work with me regularly. Her dyslexia was so bad, she had to use forty-pound paper because if she saw the ghost of words though twenty-pound paper, she would read them as if they were on the page she was looking at and not the next page underneath.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you recall the first memory you sought to understand and capture in words?
Ralph Pennel: Being a pall bearer at my grandmother’s funeral. I was in high school. I wrote the poem when I was seventeen.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you find that writing takes an experience out of the dark and gives it some light?
Ralph Pennel: Yes. I don’t write about experiences directly much anymore though. I usually end up working through a myriad of experiences, molding them into one.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is the biggest mistake beginning writers make? Any words of advice?
Ralph Pennel: There are many. But probably the biggest is they think they need to know what they are writing about before they begin, and they won’t give themselves permission to let the work evolve as they discover what they might really be working through instead.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You know, when I initially read your first pieces, I thought, here is a man who exquisitely captures what it is to be a young man, all the forces pushing at him. Then I read these other pieces and how you capture the inner lives of women is just phenomenal. You do not sentimentalize. And that is such a hard one to avoid when you are writing about Other.
And, oh my…how you ended Beauty…
I want to read each of these out loud to my dearest friends. To have them savor them with me. Like enjoying a well prepared feast, one the chef has sweated over for hours for us. One we are almost guilty for devouring.
Ralph Pennel: I’ve recently begun sharing What We’ve Come To Expect From Beauty at readings.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes. It’s one to end with for sure. Fills the listener with gratitude. Sometimes we need that permission.
Ralph Pennel: I’ve actually never thought to end with it. Perhaps I will read it last next time. I like that idea.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Maybe light some candles, dim all the other lights. Just the twinkling.
Ralph Pennel: Ha!
WHAT WE’VE COME TO EXPECT FROM BEAUTY
She knows I can hear. She asked and I told her.
I said it without a smile because I believed it did not matter,
though tonight I need to imagine her in that moment
before she slips into a long tee shirt and nothing more,
Let us suppose you haven’t yet felt included,
that my insisting we have pined together is
nothing more than that—my pining and you haven’t
wished beauty to find you, to welcome you to its table
where you would sit, leaning over your elbows,
slipping slowly forward till your hands touch
like moon light descended on soft, forgiving snow.
But I believe that we all, at the very least,
should have some. Beauty, that is.
Maybe even just a little more. That
even in a poem about beauty
we must be moved to see its two sure hands
and how our own fit perfectly inside them.
~ excerpt from, What We’ve Come to Expect From Beauty, Ralph Pennel
Ralph Pennel is the author of A World Less Perfect for Dying In (Cervena Barva Press, 2015). His writing has appeared in The Cape Rock, Ropes, Open to Interpretation, Ibbetson Street, Apercus Quarterly, Unbound Press, Monologues From the Road and various other journals in the U.S. and abroad. Ralph teaches poetry at Bentley University and literature at Bunker Hill Community College. He has been a guest lecturer at Emerson College and served as the judge for the 2013 WLP Dean’s Prize for Emerson. Ralph is a founding editor and the fiction editor for the online literary magazine, Midway Journal, published out of St. Paul, Minnesota. Ralph has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for Poet Laureate of Somerville in 2014.
My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.
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