By the time I found my way into a creative writing workshop I had already been to and dropped out of three different colleges. I had published a shitty, immature collection of poetry, fiction and non-fiction and had no formal education in writing whatsoever. I had no one directing me, assisting me, telling me what was good or bad. My only teachers were the writers I read and they didn’t respond when I repeatedly asked them – how did you do that?
This all changed at LeMoyne College, in Syracuse, NY, when I decided to change my major for the final time from Psychology to English. I entered a classroom of round tables and folding chairs filled with excitement and fear and the cockiness that only a 26-year-old that knows nothing can have. Enter Linda Pennisi. A pocket-sized woman with a passion for words, passion for her students and fearless when it came to critiquing her students work. Linda was the first to instill the importance of the ever-present phrase show don’t tell. The first to teach me that writers together are a community. Linda was the first person in my world to give me what I needed as a writer, not what I wanted. I am thankful that I knew her as a professor before I knew her as a poet because had it been the other way around, I would have just been a fangirl gazing at her adoringly.
Linda publishes her work under her full name, Linda Tomol Pennisi and her full-length publications include: Seamless and Suddenly, Fruit.
Seamless won the 2002 Perugia Press Intro Prize and was the first runner-up for the Philip Levine Poetry Prize.
Suddenly, Fruit won the 2005 Carolina Wren Press Prize.
Her chapbook, Miniscule Boxes in the Bird’s Bright Throat was one of four winners of the Toadlily Press 2014 Quartet Series and appears in, The Good Wall.
Linda’s poems have been published in literary journals such as: Bellevue Literary Review, McSweeny’s Book of Poets Picking Poets, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, Lyric Poetry Review, Midwest Quarterly Review, and Bitter Oleander.
Currently, Linda is Writer-in-Residence for the Creative Writing program at LeMoyne College.
Q: You are currently a Writer-in-Residence at LeMoyne College. What does that mean?
A: I teach two courses per semester for the creative writing program at LeMoyne College. Patrick Lawler and I basically share one position within the English department and we both share that title. It’s a contract position, but isn’t a tenure track position. It’s an adjunct position with a bit more stability.
Q: Service-learning was a big piece of the education at LeMoyne College. You taught “Writing into the World” which paired students with senior citizens. I recall the class being very close to your heart. Are you still involved with this program or one similar?
A: Since that class was worth only one credit, after the first few semesters it was difficult to fill. I still feel, as I did then, a need to give back in some way. I am fortunate in many ways, and one of those ways has to do with experiencing the joy of writing and of teaching creative writing. I have a need to give back, and that course stemmed from this need. Now I find other ways, such as founding and supporting the Y-arts program for students at our local YMCA. It offers students an opportunity to attend writing workshops, take music lessons, attend summer camps, etc.
Q: For a moment, let’s pretend I was not your student. What is one thing you hope to impress upon your students when a new class begins and why?
A: I think the most important things I want to establish those first few weeks, especially in an introductory workshop, is a sense of community, a sense of excitement in regard to the possibilities of language, and a sense of safety in the classroom. I try to let them know that though their writing is read aloud and critiqued, it will be done so with sensitivity and an appreciation of the fact that revealing one’s work this way is a challenging thing to do. Especially for undergrads, and oftentimes new writers, that’s important.
Q: I very distinctly recall reading “Perspective on Chaos” for the first time. Your first line, “I am not a box of wings” made me gasp. That line stuck. It pops into my head frequently and I wonder, is there a line from a poem that does that to you? Appear out of nowhere and linger?
A: Yes, more than one. The poem “A Summer’s Day” by Mary Oliver contains a line that completely knocks me out. The poem culminates with these lines:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
Other than meaning, what draws me is the music of the lines and their rhythm—the way the monosyllables slow the passage and create an emphasis that heightens its urgency. Also, I appreciate the way it begins with the imperative and ends with a question. It’s hard to ignore a passage like that.
Q: I’m curious about your process. Do you have a room of your own like Virginia Woolf? Do you listen to music or need silence? Do you write in a notebook or type on a laptop? Would you be willing to share a bit about your how and where?
A: Most times I sit at my kitchen table. I love the light there, and it overlooks the woods. My office doesn’t have the same kind of view. The walls are dark and stacks of books clutter all the surfaces. I now need my computer for writing, though of course I scribble notes wherever I can.
I recently went on a retreat with a friend of mine and the imposed silence of that first evening was at first daunting, even a bit terrifying, but then the silence was what grounded me in the writing room that I often find so elusive. I realized that weekend how much technology gets in my way. Though I am not terribly phone-driven, when I could not use my phone for that weekend I saw how much it does get in my way.
Q: Continuing along the same process vein, your poetry unfolds so beautifully, so fluidly. I’m thinking specifically about In the Stars: “It was then she realized she had always wanted to be Jesus.” Did this line surprise you? Or, are there other lines/stanzas/entire poems that you finished and were like – where did that come from?
A: Thanks! Actually, that line did surprise me when it came. After I wrote it, the rest of the poem unfolded easily and wrote itself. That’s a rare occasion for me.
Q: If you could attend a weekend writer’s retreat surrounded only by colleagues and practitioners, alive or dead, who would you choose?
A: Blake and Wordsworth and Keats and Dickinson would be there, and on the more contemporary front it would likely be friends and colleagues, as well as poets such as Jane Hirshfield and Sharon Olds and Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Mark Doty. Of course, I could go on and on…and would add all my former advisors from VCFA, as well.
Q: When I need a reminder, when I feel like writing is an impossible task, I read Credo, by Jack Kerouac. It’s like the poem version of Tony Robbins. Is there a poem, story, quote that is your go to when you need reminding? This is assuming of course that you have these moments?
A: I must admit, I am a bit of a head case in this regard. I sometimes experience what I read this morning that Amy Tan also experiences, the fear that I’ll never write again. Sometimes it’s to Richard Wilbur I turn. In “The Writer,” as I’m sure you know, the speaker watches his daughter writing a story, listening to the stop and start of the typewriter keys. Reminded of the starling once trapped in her room, he recalls that it could not immediately find the window he has raised to let it escape. Speaker and daughter watch the bird
…drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again;
Finally, they both bear witness as it “…lifted off from a chair-back, / Beating a smooth course for the right window / And clearing the sill of the world.” Wilbur’s words acknowledge the difficulty in the process, and the joy when one finds her way. Much encouragement there.
Q: It is important for writers to have at least one person that they trust implicitly with their work. I have this fantasy that you, Lawler, Lloyd, and Roche sit around a round table with coffee and stacks of yellow legal pads, workshopping. I imagine Ann Ryan pops in carrying a basket of fruit. Is this how it works? Who is your person?
A: Oh, that sounds like fun in some ways, but the group focus you mention appeals right now only in fantasy, like your earlier question about the dead and the living. Over the last few years I turn to my colleague and first poetry teacher, Patrick Lawler, who is my most consistent and trusted and nurturing reader.
(Of note: Patrick Lawler, David Lloyd, Dan Roche, and Ann Ryan are all professors in the English department at LeMoyne. All are on my list for my fantasy writer’s retreat.)
Q: You are primarily a poet. Do you ever work outside your genre? Perhaps play with fiction? Tinker with essay?
A: Occasionally I am drawn toward the lyric essay, but have yet to really focus in that direction. Who knows where that might take me.
Q: Are you currently working on a new book? Do you have any pending publications?
A: I’ve been thinking for the past couple of years that the poems I’m writing are feeling like a book in progress. I’m still letting that percolate, however, with the focus being new poems and seeing where they take me. I am pretty settled now with the fact that I am not a prolific writer. Though at one time this was a concern, for the most part I’ve let it go.
Q: You are an alum of VCFA. After 5 incredible weeks here, I never want to leave. Do you have any advice for current / future students?
A: I remember that I felt lost when I graduated from VCFA. It took a long while to figure out how to function as a writer again without the richness of that experience, without the rhythm of deadlines and mailings and those incredible seven-page responses from mentors. From the newsletters I read, it seems that there are now ways to curb the loss of that rhythm through feedback groups with other alums, etc. As advice, I’d say try to prepare yourself for that transition by planning for it, being sure you have a reader or readers to whom you can regularly turn when the program ends.
I graduated from LeMoyne College ten years ago. In that space between then and now, Linda and I have kept in touch and she has always been willing to read and critique the poems I’ve sent to her. When she found out I was applying to VCFA, she contacted me immediately and gave me the Tony Robbins treatment to quiet my panic that I wouldn’t be accepted. She told me that this was the perfect place for me. She was right.
by Lennie DeCerce