When I first met local poet Dale Parnell he had yet to step fully into the world of poetry
as he was promoting his excellent book of short stories, “The Green Cathedral.”
Now, not only is he an author and a poet but he has just published his debut collection of poetry , “If I Were Not Me,” so I thought this would be an ideal time to fire off some questions to Dale via email and find out about his new collection and more.
Q. Can you tell folk about your new poetry collection, “If I Were Not Me?” What inspired the title and what poems can readers enjoy inside and how did you find putting it together and which poem/s are your favourite?
This is my first attempt at putting together a poetry collection. I wanted to record where I’m up to with poetry, it’s been a very recent endeavour for me, only starting in 2017 really after I published my first short story collection. I suppose I wanted something solid that represents what I’ve done so far. I’ve been reading some of these poems out at open mic poetry events and the feedback has been very kind and encouraging. Having a book is also a good way to draw a line under the poems I’ve done so far, I can look at them and say, OK, that’s what I’ve done so far, what can I do next?
With regards to the title, I’d love to be able to say that it holds some deep and personal meaning, but really it came about from trying to design a cover for the book. I played around with the idea of calling the collection “38” in reference to the last poem in the book, being the age that marked a kind of milestone in my life (19 years living in Norfolk, 19 years living in Staffordshire) but I never felt comfortable with it. I started going through some old photographs that I have saved on my laptop and found the image of a tree at sunrise that was taken on a camping trip I took with some friends a number of years ago. A lot of the poems in the collection are about nature, most notably “A Tree”. The poem and the image seemed perfectly suited for each other, and re-reading the poem the line “I think if I were not me” jumped out at me. I could pretend that the whole thing was deliberate and has a second meaning around the themes of mental health that are also in many of the poems, but I don’t think I could keep a straight face!
The poems are a bit of a mixture, there are a few concerning nature, a few about my experiences dealing with mental health issues, and a few about relationships. When I was putting the collection together I found a lot of older “poems” that I had written over the years. Some of them weren’t actually that bad, some needed a fresh edit, and some were just awful! But what I found was some writings from years ago dealing with some of my less than successful relationships. I thought it was interesting to show these in contrast to the newer poems inspired by my wonderful wife, Thelma.
As well as these, there are a few just plain goofy poems, things like “Goblin Soup”, and I couldn’t tell you where they come from.
I suppose I’ve never wanted to limit myself to one type of writing or one style, one genre – and sometimes a collection that is too heavily themed around one idea or one topic can feel a bit dull for me – it works for some people and that’s great, but I do know that a lot of my writing can lean towards melancholy or just outright misery, and I didn’t want to subject anyone to an entire book of that!
So, putting the book together was fairly easy. I re-read all of my finished poems a few times and then started moving them into different folders – ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘needs some more work’. When I had a nice selection that I was happy with I did some final edits and put them in alphabetical order. I played with the idea of grouping them into themes, but when I’d created the alphabetical list, I saw that it actually created a nice mixture of short and long, happy and sad poems that will hopefully keep a reader’s attention.
There are a lot of favourite poems in the book, a lot that mean something to me and are about a specific person or memory that are special to me. But I think “What kind of man am I?” just tops the list. This is inspired by a real event and was the first time I really wanted to write something about myself being a flawed person. I’m not proud of how I responded on that day, and this poem is a reminder to myself that I should always think and look past the initial hasty conclusions that we can all sometimes make.
Q. As well as being a poet I know you write short stories as well. When inspiration strikes how do you decide that an idea is going to become a poem or a story?
I generally know from the very start if something is going to be a short story or a poem. Short stories tend to start in my head as almost complete ideas, or at least a beginning and a middle. A lot of my poems have started as a phrase or line, something that sticks in my head and begins to suggest the next line and so on. I also tend to write poems in response to my own life and how I am feeling at any given moment. There may be a slight hint of myself in some of the stories I write, but on the whole, they are fictional creations.
The only exception so far is a poem called “House Clearances Available”, which will feature in my second collection of short stories. For a long time I was trying to write a short story about a man getting trapped in a haunted second hand / antiques shop, a place where the items are somehow imbued with all the negative emotions that they had absorbed in the houses they had come from. But I was never happy with it, I started it four or five times and could never get the tone right. One morning sitting in bed I decided to try the idea as a poem, I don’t know where the whim came from, but it flew out of me and the poem as it stands is almost identical to that first draft.
Since then I have been mindful of considering whether new ideas would work as stories or poems. Maybe one day I will try re-writing one of my short stories as a poem, it would make an interesting writing exercise.
Q. As if you’re not busy enough I know you run a storytelling open mic in Cannock, can you tell folks a little about the event and what goes on there?
Yes, we have the third ‘Cannock Tales’ event coming up on the 1st April. I love the open mic events that are available locally and I think it’s amazing that there are so many opportunities for people to get out there in front of an audience to read their works. But as a short story author I’ve always found it a bit frustrating that I could never really get into a story given the time limitation. I completely understand that you can only have 5 minutes or so with most events in order for everyone to get a chance to read, but I kept searching for events that would give you longer to read an entire story. When I couldn’t find anything it occurred to me that I could try and run an event myself. I spoke to my local pub, the brilliant Stumble Inn on Walsall Road, Cannock and they agreed to let me use their back room. The idea is to give three authors 30 minutes each so that they can read an entire short story, or a good solid chunk of a novel. We have a break in between so people can refresh their drinks and chat with the authors (and hopefully buy a book or two) before moving on to the next author. So far we have started off well, if a little light on audience numbers, but I’m hoping that will grow as more people learn about the event. If nothing else, so far it has proved a great way for local authors to meet up and have a natter with a pint and it may be that this is the way the event will grow in the future. At the moment we meet up on the first Monday evening of every other month, but if people are interested and want more then I’m very happy to arrange it for every month.
Q. What was your introduction to poetry? Did you first read it at school or elsewhere, can you tell readers what started you down the poetry track?
It’s interesting, I’ve been asked a few times how long I’ve been writing poetry and so on, and I always reply that it’s a very recent development. I did study poetry at school as part of my English GSCE, but when I think about it, I remember winning a poetry prize at middle school and having my poem published in the school newsletter – I think it was about the walk-through shark tank at a local Sealife Centre, where you walk underneath the curved glass ceiling.
But I think the first time I really took notice of poetry was in my early teens watching an episode of The Simpsons. It was one of the Halloween specials where they recreated The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe and was narrated by James Earl Jones. I fell in love with the poem and managed to track down a tiny paperback book that had The Raven and a small number of Poe’s other works. It must have been a special collector’s library edition; the book was about as big as an iPhone and for a while it lived in my coat pocket. This then led me to Poe’s short stories, but apart from re-reading The Raven over and over again, I didn’t really read poetry for a long time.
When I published my collection of short stories, “The Green Cathedral” I was looking for any local bookshops that might be interested in stocking it for me, and I discovered Southcart Books in Walsall (very sadly no longer there!) and I was invited to read at one of their events. And then suddenly there you all were, a community of writers right under my nose, writing fiction and poetry, all of it excellent, and I think it must have stirred up that old poetry monster lying dormant. I started trying to write poems, I looked up old pieces of not quite fiction I had written years ago and gave them a polish only to discover it was poetry all along. I found out about the poetry night at Caffe Del Nino in Cannock, run by the very talented Scarlett Ward, and it was actually here that I popped my poetry reading cherry. And it grew from there. The more local poets I met, the more I loved the community and the art form itself. Now I find that I start to get a bit twitchy if I haven’t written a new poem in a while!
Q. If you could only take one collection of poetry to a desert island, which collection would it be and why?
This is a tricky one. Being a relative new buyer of poetry books I don’t have a huge collection. Most of my collection is books by the local poets that I have met, and I don’t want to play favourites, but I think it would have to be “Bullet Verse” by Matt Humphries. I love this book; Matt’s voice really shines through and I count myself genuinely lucky to be able to call him a friend. The book also contains what may be my favourite poem of all time, “The Word”.
I would also have to sneak in my little collection of Poe – I reckon I could hide it between the pages and it’s so small it hardly counts anyway. Its that or I’d have to quickly copy The Raven onto my arm in permanent marker!
Q. Where can you be found online if readers want to find out what your up to?
I decided early on that I wanted to concentrate mostly on Facebook. Almost everyone you speak to has an opinion on which is the best social media platform to use, and if you did all of them, I honestly don’t know when you’d sleep!
So you can find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/shortfictionauthor, which works as an allusion to the fact that I write short stories, and that I’m only 5’6”!
I try to regularly post any updates about my writing and books and any signings, or events I’m going to. This is also where all the information for the Cannock Tales storytelling events can be found.
My books are also listed on Goodreads if anyone fancies leaving me a review!
I’d like to thank Richard for inviting me to take part in this interview and for his help in putting my first collection of poetry together – your very kind feedback means a lot. I’d also like to thank you and the many other poets I have met in the past almost two years for entertaining, moving and inspiring me to re-discover poetry in all its glory!
Always a pleasure to help Dale, I’ve read both your short story and poetry collection and thoroughly enjoyed both and thanks again for agreeing to take part in my interview.