Ryan Van Winkle’s second collection, ‘The Good Dark’, has been described as “Channelling Bob Dylan at his trippy, visionary best.” No other collection of poems this year (or any year) gives the reader “exploding lightbulbs, giant waves, apocalyptic floods, fat flies in mason jars, a woman pushing her eyes into the back of her skull and a boy sending his finger into the sky on the back of a Roman candle”, and we’re delighted to welcome Ryan to Islamabad (or Bergen, or one of the innumerable places where The Missing Slate has a temporary home) for the penultimate stop of his globe-spanning Virtual Book Tour.
Which of the poems in ‘The Good Dark’ did you begin writing first, and which did you finish editing last? And which went through the most redrafts?
Cool question, but one that’s hard to answer because I don’t keep very good track of these things. I think ‘A Raincoat a Spell of Rain Ago’ was written a while back, maybe 2007. It set the trajectory for ‘The Good Dark’ because I couldn’t fit it into my first collection and very much wanted to write a collection where it could sit at home. I also wrote ‘Untitled (Snoopy)’ and ‘Snow Passing in the Night’ quite a while back. Both of those were going through changes right till the end of putting this collection together. ‘Snow Passing in the Night’ used to be called ‘The World is the World’ — I’m glad we changed that.
As for edits, I tinker at various times and occasionally make hard re-drafts. ‘Quarry’ had seven different versions, mostly me trying to get the ending right over a number of drafts. ‘One Year the Door Will Open’ had five drafts, ‘Gerontocracy’ had four.
As I’m looking through my files I just realised I’ve edited dud poems a similar amount of times. These are pieces which were never good enough to get into the collection and I did four drafts of them. You’ll likely never see poems like ‘Cardiology’ or ‘Lucripetous’. I guess it takes a while for me to decide something isn’t working and I find it hard to tell when I’m wasting my time.
You’ve been described as “a pioneer of spellbinding one-on-one poetry readings…” How important is the performance element of your work? Is ‘page vs. stage’ a false dichotomy?
I’ve long been dissatisfied with the stage in terms of it being an ideal reading environment. You can get some good audiences, some great mcs and bills, but I’m never quite sure what a bunch of people in a library or a bar are getting out of what I’m reading to them. And, because of that, I’m not quite sure how important performing to an audience is to my work. However, the couple of one-to-one pieces which I’ve done as collaborations (with musicians Dan Gorman and Gareth Warner) do have an important effect on the work.
“… makes you feel not as if you’re listening to someone read some poems, but as if poetry is happening to you, right now. In this space, poetry really feels, as it should, personal and universal at the same time – the language of being alive.”
Reading things like that had a huge impact. I was very insecure about this set of poems’ lack of precise drama, for their attempt at the truth of something inarticulate. They resisted a simple, “This one is about visiting a chicken farm.” They weren’t neat in that way. There was a style of poem which I’d fallen in love with, which I was aiming for in this collection. I’m talking about poems like Sarah Broom’s ‘Snow’, Michael Burkard’s ‘Tooth’, Matthew Dickman’s ‘Slow Dance’, Bob Hicok’s ‘Bottom of the Ocean’, Mary Ruefle’s ‘Goodnight Irene’ and others. These all had a quality that I wanted in my own work, they were honest and open and raw but they refused to explain, they let me, as a reader, inhabit them. They comforted me, honestly.
So, I wanted to know if the poems I was writing were working in people the same way the poems I related to were working in me. The Red Room audience and reviewers gave me confidence in a way that readings in pubs or at bookshops or festivals never did. On a stage, I’m always performing, trying to almost bury the poems. It’s a nervous tic which through the one-to-one shows I’m getting better at managing.
What I’m getting at, as well, is that I don’t think there is — for me — a false dichotomy between page and stage. For my work, the dichotomy is very necessary, very real. I’m sure it is different for other poets but, for me, I can’t write for the stage. That’s not where my head is when I’m writing a poem. Often, I’m writing to myself or to a loved one, I’m writing to a small worry, a tiny sense of an idea. If I wrote specifically for the stage, with an actual audience in mind, I would totally blow things up and in doing so would drift to the polemical, the comedic, the prosaic and didactic.
On an actual stage I prefer to be with a musician or musicians who are better than me, otherwise I end up making stupid jokes and trying to entertain. When I write a poem, I’m not trying to entertain, I’m trying to be honest. My compulsion to entertain at a ‘stage’ reading would lead me to write entertainment — not honest poems, not art.
Is there a connecting thread running between the seven ‘Untitled’ poems in ‘The Good Dark’? Any reason you’ve ‘falsely’ attributed the final epigraph (“It was a dark and stormy night”) to Snoopy, rather than Bulwer-Lytton? (I’ve thought for a long time that “It was a dark and stormy night” isn’t that bad as an opening sentence, so perhaps its appearance here is the start of a long-overdue redemption…)
I’m glad you asked that question because I’ve often wondered about that myself and I wanted people to wonder about them too. The simple absence of titles for all of them was important to me because they all, I think, deal with feelings of absence and loss, and move the collection forward in their own way. I think that binds them together but I’m reluctant to say more than that and cut off meaning and resonances for other readers.
As for the false attribution — I did consider citing Bulwer-Lytton for a time and I just couldn’t do it. I wanted the image of Snoopy, and the comics pages, and the smell of newsprint, and nostalgia there from the very beginning of that poem and I couldn’t do that any other way. And, of course, citing Snoopy (rather than Schulz even) makes light of the portentous which — in some way — the book is trying to do.
That said, I can remember learning that line was considered the worst in literature only a few years ago, probably around the time when I wrote the poem. I probably was surprised because I didn’t think it was that bad a line, though I can totally understand why people agree that it is. That poem, I suppose, started with me just trying to make the line work, to see if there was a context where it could work and it opened up this huge can of worms which is the final poem.
I’m getting a bit hung up on that “dark and stormy night”, so… Bulwer-Lytton’s line often gets described as the worst opening line in the history of the novel. Any nominations for the worst opening line in poetry?
Hah, that’s one for google — I’m not qualified to say. I’m guessing something like ‘Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!’ would be in a top ten.
[A few days prior to the publication of this interview, Craig Raine slithered into contention with an opening couplet seemingly destined for the wrong kind of immortality:
“Tom Stoppard sold his house in France: ‘I was sick/ of spending so much time at Gatwick.’
Ryan diplomatically describes ‘Gatwick’ as “not a bad contender” for the title of worst opening line(s) in poetry.]
On your last book tour, you owned up to a first poetic crush on Bukowski (in spite of his being “a rubbish role-model” and a bit of a dick). Bukowski’s advice to young poets was that they “should stay the hell out of writing classes and find out what’s happening around the corner. And bad luck for the young poet would be a rich father, an early marriage, an early success or the ability to do anything very well.”
How far do you agree with that, and do you think writing classes are likely to stifle talent rather than stimulate it?
That’s an interesting idea and certainly advice which I’ve considered. I mean, Bukowski is a troublesome hero but there’s still a lot, as a young writer, which I learned from him and I am still loyal to some of his notions.
There’s an old Bill Hicks bit that a friend and I were talking about this weekend. Do you know the one — “when did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart!” — well Bukowski did that. And he saw, I think, that a lot of what he considered banality and mediocrity get rewarded. There’s a lot of writing (and art) out there which isn’t playing from the heart, from some kind of authentic experience. And I do think some of that comes from the bad luck of having things too easy, to never have been so hungry, to never have had to pop a zit in the mirror. So, I can hear what Bukowski is saying there but would feel compelled to say, as well, that everybody, even the senator’s son, may have something to articulate in poems. And those could well be good poems, depending on how you define ‘good.’
When I decided to do a creative writing master’s in 2007 at Edinburgh University these ideas were very much on my mind having been loyal to Bukowski as a kid and having absorbed a lot of these kind of thoughts from him. Partly, I was wanting someone to tell me I wasn’t very good. I’d been writing poetry as seriously as I could for almost a decade after taking a few workshops at Syracuse University around 1997. I had written and written and really didn’t know what I was doing with all that paper. I’d published a few chapbooks and had some work in magazines but nothing was coming together. I thought maybe I wasn’t very talented and was insecure that I didn’t really understand things — I had no idea about meter or feet, I didn’t know the word villanelle. I didn’t understand stuff that was teachable. For so long, I’d really only read what spoke to me, what I could understand. Poets like Bukowski who was so clear but, eventually, Michael Burkard, Hayden Carruth, Raymond Carver, Sharon Olds and García Lorca. Those where the books I can remember reading and learning that Bukowski was wrong. That there was some poetry out there which played from the heart. Albeit these were all in a different register than his distinct style and voice. I loved Carver’s ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (an evening with Charles Bukowski)‘ in which Carver takes all Bukowski’s insults (“but then you’re teachers too”) and yet seems to show some affection or empathy with lout as well. Of course, Carver could drink too and that resonant title also hints at Bukowski and Carver’s mutual concern with love considering Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Reading his poem I felt bad for Bukowski because so obviously he and Carver could have really gotten down to it. Maybe they did — a poem isn’t necessarily a full picture of their relationship.
So, I struggled with the idea of doing my creative writing master’s. I had this overwhelming feeling that my 17-year-old self was looking at me in real disdain. I suppose I thought creativity couldn’t be taught. And, I suppose, I still believe that. However, in the one-year master’s, my brain grew in a way that I think would have taken another decade of accidental learning. I wouldn’t have ever looked for what I needed to know. And what I needed to know was that often there were aspects to poems I didn’t like which were impressive, there were things people could do in poems which I struggled to do. My taste didn’t change but I could appreciate things which previously I’d have thrown away. I learned that some people read poems differently. And I was reminded that there is no right or wrong way to make a poem, only thousands of decisions which only the author can make as they negotiate what they want their poem to be. That’s what I take from extensive workshopping.
I’d long had these ideas in the back of my mind… I have this old university friend who got into jazz while we were at Syracuse together. I like the music too so we could talk sometimes about the names I’d learned from my uncle, the records he’d given me growing up, the players who overlapped. However, he knew things I didn’t know — forms, quotes, references, technical stuff. Now, my uncle has been playing jazz for decades and so I knew the words but had no clue what something like ‘hard-bop’ actually was. I couldn’t name ‘bop’ if I heard it nor could I pinpoint any kind of shift to or from it. Now, some of this was because Dave played music, so naturally went deeper into what he was listening to, trying to understand it better so he could play. He needed a vocabulary to talk to the people he was playing with, a way to understand his position in the tradition. Because poetry was a pretty solitary affair for me, because most my friends didn’t read it, because I didn’t often need to articulate anything about poetry and could be led by my own luck and instincts, I never felt the need for context or formal study.
As I became more involved with publishing, organizing events, and putting my own work out there I began to feel insecure. I was 28 and I needed to test my taste outside my insular writing circles and to see how that would affect my writing. University gave me that opportunity and a chance to understand my own work in terms of the larger conversation. In terms of the actual poems, the actual work, the most important thing I learned was from the excellent Jane Griffiths who explained how I could write things which looked and sounded like poems. That was the easy bit, making a poem-looking thing. However, there were one or two occasions where a poem ‘startled’ a reader. I remember her using that precise word — ‘startle’. Learning to seek the difference between a poem which is simply a shape or a poem which startles has since been my goal-post when assembling a collection or assessing my own work.
Essentially, for me, doing a creative writing master’s was not about learning creativity (it wasn’t a course in imagineering) but a fundamental education on how I could continue to learn from other poets, how to learn from the poems I love, how to continue learning after the one-year course was over. I was surprised as anyone by all this thinking. I’d assumed I was going in to have my poems workshopped and my natural talent dismissed or vindicated. I learned how to catch fish.
Of course, Bukowski says “young people” should stay out of writing classes. To a point, I do think that is true. I waited till I was 28 to go back to university and had a number of years of fucking around with art, working at The Forest, organizing events, traveling, and writing on my own. (I also was a member of a writing group, which has always been very valuable.) I was ready and could be skeptical and accepting of the ‘education’ in a healthy way. I’m aware of writers who nowadays go from university, to post-grad, to PhD in creative writing. I don’t know if it shows in their work or if they feel it aids or assists their process but, for me, I couldn’t imagine it. But, I couldn’t imagine not appreciating music for the sound it makes, the feelings it instills. So, what the fuck do I know?
‘The Good Dark’ is available now from Penned in the Margins
VIRTUAL BOOK TOUR DATES:
– Penned in the Margins — 16 May
– Scottish Poetry Library — 19 May
– Inpress Books — 20 May
– The Poetry School — 21 May
– 3:AM Magazine — 25 May
– Sabotage Reviews — 29 May
– Shakespeare and Company Bookshop — 1 June
– Scottish Book Trust — 2 June
– Ofi Press Mexico — 4 June
– The Missing Slate — 7 June
– B O D Y — 10 June