Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Inside the amazing brains of Ralph Pennel,
Marc Zegans, & Laurette Folk!
Ralph Pennel is the author of A World Less Perfect for Dying In, published by Cervena Barva Press. Ralph’s writing has appeared in The Ocean State Review, The Iowa Review, Literary Orphans, F(r)iction, Thrice Fiction, Tarpaulin Sky, Elm Leaves Journal, Rain Taxi Review of Books and other publications. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart, the Best Small Fictions Anthology, a Best of the Net award, 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.
Ralph Pennel’s poems situate us front and center in the speaker’s intimate company. In a few humble, trust-earning gestures, Pennel can take us great, often dark, distances. “Confiding in the Prison Guard,” written in the voice of John the Baptist on the eve of his execution, risks the one harrowing image after another in service to empathy far transcending them; the poem closes with a devastatingly vernacular plea. Whether he is slipping in and out of personae with the ease of a shape shifter, or serving his subjects as a caring spy, Ralph Pennel has reminded this reader that the single, irrefutable craft of poetry is graceful connection.
~ Frannie Lindsay, author of Our Vanishing
BLM: What are some of the major themes in your poetry and why are they important to you?
RP: Identity. Religion/Faith. Materiality. Agency.
Religion is certainly one of the most important. It played a very prominent role in the first book. It plays a prominent role in the second book, though not as directly, and it is situated at the center on the current work-in-progress.
In my first book, A World Less Perfect for Dying In, I wrote many poems which dealt with the theme of religion via extended metaphor, or which dealt with the theme head on. The poem “The First of the Last Days of Tree Climbing,” tackles the subject of coming back to one’s faith as an adult. The poem that follows in the book, “Proving Grounds,” tackles the subject of losing one’s faith and choosing atheism. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister, and my mother was/is extremely religious, and both conditions absolutely had a hand in shaping my perceptions of the world, both good and bad.
In contrast, the poems which deal with the theme of religion head on, such as “Confiding in the Prison Guard,” are persona poems (this one in the voice of John the Baptist), which gives the reader a chance to find commonality with the speaker regardless of their religious affiliations, something I took into serious consideration, how to make religion palatable, transferable.
In my second book (for which I am still seeking a publisher), faith and religion are still important themes (they always are for the aforementioned reasons—they can’t not be), though identity, agency, and materiality are far more central to the book’s method of meaning. The launching off point for the second book is the movie, Blade Runner. In the collection, I take on all the peripheral texts the director Ridley Scott addresses, either directly or indirectly, in his reframing of Phillip K Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This includes close examination of texts like The Tale of the Heike, and a little-known musical score by Antonio Vivaldi, whose central theme is the story of Adam and Eve (again, religion).
In the current work-in-progress, though religion is central to the shape of the text, materiality controls the larger thematic currents (and that’s all I’ll say on that!).
BLM: Is there a book you've tried to read all the way through but for some reason can't, or a book that everyone else loved and you didn't understand why?
RP: I actually pride myself in always finishing the books I start. I try to choose books I think I will like versus what seems to be the latest “must read.” I am a bit of a serial reader. Which means I usually make my way through the entire published works of an author until something else grabs my attention equally as well or I finish what’s been published by that author to date. So, if I liked one book by an author, chances are I’ll like the other books by that author, and so on. I am the same way with directors and film.
One book I could not get through (in fact, I only read the first 150 pages) was Great Expectations. I had great expectations for this book for a myriad of reasons (I liked other Dickens books, it was supposedly my father’s favorite book, it’s one of those books every English major is supposed to read, etc.), but I absolutely loathed it. Dickens was clearly getting paid by the word and he very easily could have condensed the150 pages I read into about 50. I have zero inclination to ever pick it back up.
The other book I never finished is The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon. I had already read Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys (which is also a wonderful film), Cavalier and Klay, and thought I would enjoy this as much. This book, though, went nowhere and seemed aware of this condition, oddly. To my best recollection these are the only two fiction books I have not finished.
I have read many books that I wished I had enjoyed more: Life of Pi, Goodbye Columbus, A Farewell to Arms, Motherless Brooklyn, Kafka on the Shore, News of a Kidnapping, among others. But I finished them all, and I have read other books by these authors, especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez (I’ve read nearly everything by Garcia Marquez that has been translated into English), Hemingway, and Murakami.
I know I’m naming all fiction authors here. It was just easier to answer this question with fiction authors. Poetry resonates with me differently. But the one poetry book that comes to mind is Ariel, by Sylvia Plath. Though I liked it, it did not live up to its billing. I realize that might be an unpopular answer to this question. I think I came to it too late in life and I might have liked it more if I had read it when I was younger, as I enjoyed The Bell Jar quite a bit and read it several years before reading Ariel.
BLM: What do you feel is your favorite or most successful poem and why?
RP: This is tough.
If you had asked me what my favorite poem was five years ago, I may have said “Jesus Was a Handsome Man,” from my first collection, A World Less Perfect for Dying In. Or, “Postcards from the MoMA She Never Knew She Wanted Before Today.” However, if I’m considering my second collection too, then maybe I might say “To Die When to Die is Right” or “Kyudo” or “Reaction Time is A Factor in This, So Please Pay Attention.”
My most “successful” poem might be, “I’m Not in the Business, I am the Business” (from my second collection), which was nominated for a Best of the Net award by the online literary journal, Fatal Flaw—if the awards a poem win are the mark of its “success.” However, maybe the most “successful” poem I have written, if I can assess this by which poem gets the most comments when I read it at readings, would be “Shooster,” which is in my first collection. Every time I have read that poem (and I have read it at nearly every reading since my first collection was published) someone always comments on it. Usually they have a similar “chicken” story to tell (Shooster was a rooster). Or they wrote a poem about an animal and “Shooster” resonates with their sensibilities regarding their own work. Here is the poem:
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 spotted 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.
RP: However, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t believe I’ve written my favorite poem or most “successful” poem yet. I know what I want to work on still and I can’t imagine I’ll not love those poems more, and I can’t wait to begin to work on them.
Lyon Street is Marc Zegans' seventh collection of poems. His most recent earlier collections are, The Snow Dead (Cervena Barva Press, 2020), and La Commedia Sotterranea: Swizzle Felt’s First Folio from the Typewriter Underground (Pelekinesis, 2019). He has recorded two spoken word albums: Night Work and Marker and Parker, crafted and contributed to several immersive theatrical productions including Sirens, Dreams, and a Cat (co-written with D. Lowell Wilder, 2020), and written the text for many short films. He lives by the coast in Northern California.
(Image credit: Lark Simmons)
BLM: Were there any poetry books you read as a kid and thought, Ah yes, that's what I want to do?
MZ: The first was A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. That had a big impact on me, as did work by other “Beat” writers like Ginsberg, Snyder and Corso. I read the City Lights edition of Howl and Other Poems, when I was in my teens. That was inspiring. It helped that this collection had a fine forward by William Carlos Williams. I wish more collections had good forwards by excellent poets. Later I read Williams and the collected works of Wallace Stevens. I had a good grounding in Shakespeare from the time I was a small child. Reading and seeing Shakespeare from an early age had a very strong effect on me as a reader and writer. The language, line control, word-play, rhythm, humor, neologisms, and phrasing taught me so much about what can be done in verse. When I was a bit older I read a collection by Sharon Olds that really struck me. It gave me a sense of what contemporary poetry could do. I was more directly inspired, though, by spoken word recordings that I heard when young, ranging from recordings of Dylan Thomas to Tom Wait’s spoken riffs on his album Nighthawks at the Diner. When I was in my late teens, apprenticing at a recording studio in San Francisco called Different Fur, I had a chance to work on the soundtrack for a public television show about San Francisco poets with Pat Gleeson, to whom I was apprenticing. The voiceover of those poems riveted my attention in a powerful way.
None of this though made me wake up suddenly and say, this is what I want to do. Rather exposure to this material and more prepared the soil from which many years later my poems would grow. When I began to write poetry, it came from necessity, rather than inspiration.
BLM: Can you tell us about your fascination with San Francisco and how the city has inspired you?
MZ: My family moved to San Francisco when I was in my late teens. I remember my first flight into the city. I flew out to help my dad find housing. I took a red-eye and remember landing in the early morning light. As the plane swooped over the bay and approached the runway, I recall having the intense feeling that I had come home. Though I had never seen this place before, I felt that I was arriving back at my true home, my Ithaca. I loved everything about the city from the moment I arrived, and loved soaking up all its life, its color, its detail, the smell of the air, the fog, the variety of life and culture and food. I particularly fell in love with North Beach and spent many hours wandering about its cafes and shops and clubs, often with Erin Cressida Wilson who became a playwright, then later an accomplished screenwriter. I first began to write for myself in cafe’s in North Beach, particularly Puccini and the more famous Trieste. I also spent a lot of time with pen in notebook at the Blue Danube on Clement in the Richmond district.
The city’s geography and people have always inspired me, and, over the years, it has created a safe and welcoming home for me as a writer. I fact, on August 19th, I just did my first in person reading since the pandemic at a club called the Bottom of the Hill, which sits at the base of Potrero Hill. I performed with some punk and alt bands at that great little venue. That’s what’s fantastic about San Francisco, they’ll put poets on the same bill as musicians and the crowd is appreciative of both. I also performed for years with the San Francisco Poetry Brothel, an immersive theatre production that began in New York and has outlets in several American cities and cities around the world. In the past my work has been presented at San Francisco Litquake, a most wonderful institution. Seeing my work presented at the Lost Church in an immersive theatre piece as part of that festival with dear friends in the crowd was truly energizing. I think that as poets we need outlets where our work lives in air, and San Francisco presents great opportunities for this.
BLM: What do you feel is your favorite or most successful poem, and why?
MZ: This poem, “Hauling Up Mermaids,” which appeared in the November 2020 issue of Subterranean Blue Review, is a favorite poem of mine, quite different from the material in the new book, one that’s strong in its craft.
Hauling up Mermaids
The days of summer boats now gone
the grey-sprayed rock jetty silent
cast out, cracked and quarried to break
the line of winter swell, full-mouthed
I put up the mast, fastened stays
recalled lobstermen—with rock salt
loaded in shotguns—who fired
when we came too close to their pots
striped and chipped buoys—a warning
dropped in centerboard and rudder
hoisted sail, and took the tiller
gliding out from the small harbor
spindrift spatter burning my cheek
blood raising—a recognition.
The quiet chop and lap of waves
against the hull, sitting windless
in a fog bank tasting of kelp
I could feel the long carried rot
in this diffusion—a sign.
And into my mainsail came gasps
a gathering of distant cries
the sounding of expiration
reflected between the gunwales
raising cilia—a tocsin
calling winds that set me running
through the sea fret, an ancient haar
enshrouding these sullied waters
sails set wing-to-wing, hull planing
in the mystic—a summoning
that lifted me out of myself.
i was simply hand on tiller
skimming silent into the white.
I felt a pull as if true north
had fixed my eyes—a quickening
covering distance without time
until there was a hole and light
a shaft-way beacon through the brume
to a windless strewn splash, debris
floating round a tattered gill net
four bickered bodies, torn and spent
sucking and spitting surface brine
their white skin gone greener than scales
tails drained of iridescence, caught
in lines and mesh—a trawling.
As my luffed boat came round and by
it was their eyes, stripped of all sense
so wide and lost, their world betrayed
eyes beyond asking and sorrow
that were as mine—a communion.
And then there was the work of it:
drawing near the net; unfolding
the wood handled knife bought in France
with the metal collar you twist
to lock the blade—a steadying
the cutting; the reaching; the lifting
the embrace of a near dead soul
the scum of the sea on her skin
her tail’s erratic final beats
and then the next—a lament.
Three backs pressing ‘gainst the foredeck
and one leaning on another’s shins
breathing slowly on the port bench
as (like the others) her tail turned
to a vapor—a becoming.
Their conveyance done, the fog
opened to the afternoon sun.
I could feel their thoughts traveling
between them like a sea current
invisible and fast—a flow.
Connected again by touch
this group of once Oceanids
resonated with a low hum
their eyes clearing, their hair losing
the stink of the sea—a rising.
And then one spoke as a chorus
the others in naked unison
swaying with the tones of her voice.
“Do you remember when you pulled her
bleeding from the sea—a rescue?”
I nodded. “Her hair was short brown then.
It is grey now. You wouldn’t know.
We were there far beneath, you know.
We tasted her blood, saving her
and you from the sharks—a blessing.
So she is in and among us
and we are connected to the land
through her, and through the life you saved.
And you sat shivering in your boat
because you gave her your sweater
the color of seawater and peat
a conduit between our worlds
like the fog that brought you to us
with the knife you carried all these years
cutting us free to live on land.
Now that our world has been destroyed
we can never go back.” Sobbing
spread between them, shaking the boat
causing furious waves to rise
crashing over the hull—a wake.
The roiling dropped then ended.
The westward sun had found the land
casting a stripe from harbor out
bringing us warmly into the bay
and the promise of different lives.
Laurette Folk‘s fiction, essays, and poems have been published in Waxwing, Gravel, Brilliant Flash Fiction,Boston Globe Magazine, and Best Small Fictions. Her first novel, A Portal to Vibrancy won the Independent Press Award for New Adult Fiction. Her second novel, The End of Aphrodite, won the Eric Hoffer Award for General Fiction and is described by Kirkus Reviews as “[A] haunting and poignant reflection on grief, spirituality, and the koving bonds that provide guidance and sustenance." Laurette is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee and a graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing program.
BLM: What is the most unusual event or source of a poem you've written?
LF: There was a time I was writing from my dreams, but the genre was mostly flash fiction. In one story I wrote about my husband (then fiance) falling in love with a blow-up doll; in another I drive off a bridge into a bay and evacuate the car only to transform into a swan.
BLM: What is a movie you've watched more than three times, and what do you love about it?
LF: A Christmas Story: because we used to watch it as a family and I remember my father laughing hysterically. It never gets old, that scene with the department store Santa shoving Ralphie down the slide with his foot: ho ho ho, it'll shoot your eye out.
BLM: What do you feel is your favorite or most successful poem and why?
LF: "The Death of the Moth" is probably my most successful poem, because it made it into Best Short Fictions disguised as a flash story.
The Dream of the Moth
He chopped me into exactly twenty pieces. He was a man I had known most of my life, my mother’s lover, a rich man, a man with a deep, furrowing brow and strong arms and chaffed hands. I can tell you that the world bloomed into stars as red as blood. He laid the pieces of me out on the basement floor in the dirt, where the spiders crouch and wait. When he went away, the pieces of me shifted, and he came back and chopped some more. This happened for three days, the shifting and the chopping, until I was one thousand pieces glistening like sunlight on shattered glass. He gathered me together and piled me into a chest with dancing women carved into the grain. When he came back to bury the chest, I burrowed into his mind like a worm in wood eating away at each thought and desire.
Eventually, the medicine men came with special teas and locked him in a room in the country where only the hills could hear his screams.
In the cool dark chest, I had the dream of the little moth. I slipped my paper wings through a crack in the wood and wiggled through the crevices of the Earth. Up I fluttered, dancing, flying, up to his rooms where the concubines glided and perfumed their bodies with the finest herbs. Up I fluttered to the roof, measuring my wings against gravity, above congregations of learned men and dray beasts, up to the delicate vapors of the clouds where below me a lake mirrored all the sky’s best intentions.