Ryan’s first collection Tomorrow, We Will Live Here was published by Salt in 2010. His second collection The Good Dark was published last year by Penned in the Margins and won the Saltire Society’s 2015 Poetry Book of the Year award.
As a member of Highlight Arts he has organised festivals and translation workshops in Syria, Pakistan and Iraq. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship in 2012 and a residency at The Studios of Key West in 2016.
Hi Ryan. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your second collection The Good Dark with Penned in the Margins last year and its awards success. Can you give us a bit of background on the book and how you feel it compares to your debut Tomorrow, We Will Live Here?
I’m glad to be here, thanks for the invitation. Personally, I felt that the voice in my first collection was quite deliberate. That voice didn’t reveal too much, left things unsaid. Not being able to fully say or articulate where you were and how you got there remains a concern of mine, but it was never something anyone in those poems could express. The narrators in Tomorrow, We Will Live Here rooted themselves in describable places, describable rooms, describable narratives but the real story was between the lines, in the things they wouldn’t or couldn’t quite say.
In contrast, when I was writing the poems which formed The Good Dark I began letting things spin out and I wanted a style which reflected the overwhelming emotions I was going through at the time of an important relationship dissolving. I suspect everybody struggles with a torrent of troubled thoughts at times like those and has recurring images, apologies, recriminations, which you cycle over and over. Sometimes it feels like there’s a gerbil running a wheel in your brain and the writing of this book was partly an effort to get that gerbil to slow down. And then, editing the book, was like trying to teach that gerbil how to do yoga. I hope it reads a little like that too.
The book closes with a long poem ‘Untitled (Snoopy)‘ which takes the phrase ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ as its springboard and draws upon multiple influences such as Joy Harjo, e.e cummings, Hayden Carruth, and Michael Burkard. Could you tell us a bit more about the genesis of the poem and how much work and drafting was involved in reaching its final form?
I wrote that poem as part of a larger project in response to an artwork which featured a broken light bulb and some spliced pieces of celluloid. It never appeared as part of that project and it sort of got lost in my hard drive until I was putting the 3rd or 4th draft of the collection together.
I’m so glad I found it. It was a poem I had completely forgotten about. It spoke to the other poems in a way I would never have accomplished if I was striving for it. I could only have stumbled upon those links sub-consciously, accidentally.
And my sub-conscious was working seriously hard. When I re-read ‘Untitled (Snoopy)’ in the context of the manuscript, I was shocked to see all the concerns of the collection were gestating inside it. The poem was like an egg. It held everything long before I knew what everything was.
It was written years before many of the poems in The Good Dark yet it contained nods to other poems in the collection. I started to think of it like the last scene in The Usual Suspects – a poem which could maybe affect the work which came before it: the veil reappears, red returns, there’s that safe, romantic, nostalgia for childhood, there’s 4th of July, there’s getting older, growing up, a relationship dissolves, mistakes are made and accounted for.
In a way that poem puts a love to rest, it says goodbye in as honest and loving a way as I know how. The poem does what I’d been trying to do for years: the narrator understands the need to hold, the need to let go. It is a difficult negotiation.
I suppose the poem got buried because I couldn’t recognize what it was doing until I’d written the rest of the collection. Once I’d found it, it went through a number of serious edits and constant tinkering. One thing I deliberately worked on was the repetition of the ‘dark and stormy night’ phrase which, originally, was much more prevalent and used in it’s entirety throughout the piece.
Mario Petrucci and J.O. Morgan read early drafts of the book and helped me to see how to subvert the phrase, how to use elements of it, hide it a little so all the strings wouldn’t be showing. Their help was vital and made that poem much stronger.
Some of the poems were previously performed in your spoken word show Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel which you reprised for the Forest Fringe at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. What inspired the project and collaboration originally and do you think the audience gets more out of the one-on-one performance than they would at a more traditional poetry reading?
For those who don’t know the piece, ‘Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel‘ is a one-to-one performance where I invite a single audience member into a small bedroom. I seat them on a bed, offer a glass of port or cup of tea, and then read a series of poems before exiting the room.
The room is painted red, and crammed with ephemera: photos, mango boxes, comic books, shells, coins, a pine tree with christmas lights and other references to the poems I’m reading.
Many of them make up the spine of my latest collection, including ‘Summer Nights, Walking‘, ‘The Duke in Pines‘, ‘I Do Not Want Rain for Rain‘, and probably a half dozen others scattered throughout The Good Dark.
There are many reasons why I made that show but, emotionally, I wanted to do it because I was hurting from losing a long-term relationship and I simply wanted to say things I was too stupid, shy or insecure to say throughout it. The show was a way for me to address a ghost.
It’s interesting you ask about the audience. I think they must get something different from it than they would at a straight reading of these poems. I created the space initially because I couldn’t imagine reading them to a brightly lit audience at a library or with bar glasses clinking.
In fact, I didn’t want to read those poems to any audience at all. I didn’t want to introduce them with a story or a thoughtful quote – I just wanted to speak them, quietly. I guess I wanted people to be in the same metaphorical space as when I created them. A little warm, a little overwhelmed, a little claustrophobic.
Because I didn’t want to project my voice, tell anecdotes, or make jokes, my friend Gareth Warner (aka the musician Ragland) and I turned the material into an ambient poetry/music album when it was first taking shape.
I’m grateful to have artist friends like Gareth as it pushes me to consider my work in new and helpful ways. I wanted to get the material out somehow and it wasn’t yet ready to be a book, so making a record was a pivotal distraction from what I thought I was doing. It gave me a chance to play with structure and to take a step back and see what the poems were doing as a unit.
And then, luckily, David Martin from the Hidden Door festival asked me if I had any ideas for a poetry collaboration that could be performed at their inaugural event and I told him about the Red Room. It helped me realize it could work and gave me a free space to perform in.
But I’ll only know how it feels to read those poems in that space; I’ll never get to experience my own show. And that’s fine because, in truth, I didn’t make it for that reason. I created it for myself and for my quiet little poems, for me to have somewhere I could feel comfortable reading in.
I can’t say if the audience gets more out of the material when it’s presented in this way, but I can say that it taught me a lot and I get a lot out of it and I’m thankful to those who have indulged me.
I understand you will be teaching an online course with the Poetry School this autumn looking at how blues music has influenced poetry and encouraging participants to incorporate it into their own poetry writing. Can you give us a flavour of what students can expect and has your fascination with the music genre been a lifelong one?
I’m no musicologist, to be clear, so I’m not sure how much we’ll delve into the historical influence blues has had on poetry. However, I’m keen to explore how singing the blues is a transformative and necessary act and how – as poets – we might be able to achieve that.
So, we’ll look at my favorite blues inspired poems and songs and then we’ll try to unpack what the artist has done by emulating it in our own writing. The blues is a vehicle – feel bad, let it out, feel better. That’s the arc I’m aiming to explore.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have enjoyed this year or are looking forward to?
I’m very excited for my first trip to Latvia with Literature Across Frontiers. They’re a great organization who bring poets together for translation workshops and innovative readings. Doing these translation workshops is a unique opportunity to work with other poets in a truly intimate way.
I love these experiences because I get to step inside somebody else’s skin and really engage with their work. It’s a rare privilege and it takes a lot of trust and empathy between artists – because you’re really breaking down your work in an almost unnatural, naked way and you have to trust this other stranger will re-dress your poem so that it will look good in their language, in their poetic tradition. It’s a transformative experience and one that I love doing.
I’m also excited that Elemental is coming to Scotland. Elemental is an exploration of science, the mind and the universe and features poets, musicians, science-writing, sound and video artists all showcased under a planetarium’s dome theatre. I was lucky to be invited to write a poem for the show and I’m very excited to see it in Scotland. It will be in Glasgow on October 17th and hopefully a few days before that in Edinburgh.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
Some of my favourite poems have come right out of the newspaper. Typically I catch an interesting quote from someone, like the death-row prisoner Kenny Richey, and it gives me a springboard. This tendency has slipped away though I still read the news. And this occasionally bothers me because I really like those poems which have a genesis in real-life. In some of them, I feel I was able able to use the source material to get somewhere honest in me, that I wasn’t just describing a thing that happened.
Anyway, a few years ago, I came across this quote from Vladimir Putin’s ex-wife talking about his fascinating marriage proposal.
“One evening we were sitting in his apartment, and he says, ‘Little friend, by now you know what I’m like. I am basically not a very convenient person.’ And then he went on to describe himself: not a talker, can be pretty harsh, can hurt your feelings, and so on. Not a good person to spend your life with. And he goes on. ‘Over the course of three and a half years you’ve probably made up your mind.’ I realized we were probably breaking up. So I said, ‘Well, yes, I’ve made up my mind.’ And he said, with doubt in his voice, ‘Really?’ That’s when I knew we were definitely breaking up. ‘In that case,’ he said, ‘I love you and I propose we get married on such and such a day.’ And that was completely unexpected.”
There are elements of Putin’s shy candor which I relate to and empathize with. Only recently, a while after writing the poem, have I begun questioning why I like this quote so much. I think it’s almost sweet how she recalls him in that moment. The recollected articulation of his humility, of his weakness, is oddly endearing and compelling to me.
The fact that he’s often presented as a villain makes it even more intriguing and incongruous, and perhaps speaks to my interest in the said and unsaid. Remember, we’re only getting her memory. In it, he’s saying something to her and, for it to work, she has to meet him half-way, has to translate and read between his lines.
And she does it, she fills in the gaps, says yes, and it isn’t clear if she even fully understands why. I’m cynical about a lot of things, but for some reason, I’m not cynical about this.
So, with none of that in mind, I started a poem. I don’t know if it will ever find a place in a collection. I can’t decide if my rather artificial rendering of Russia (based on pastiche notions of semi-remembered Dostoevsky and Tolstoy) works or if it is just lazy and I’ve been wondering if the poem is strong enough to stand without the quote. I worry that the poem relies too heavily on it.
So, I thought – since you’ve given me a rare chance to prop up a poem with some explanation on the process – I could share it here. Thank you for giving me the space and for the great interview.
I said yes because it was raining
or maybe it wasn’t
I can never remember
if we had tea and cake
or if it was only brown
bread his mother left
on the counter, his white hands, I know
they were folded like napkins,
impossible to pick up. I said yes
because his eyes were blinking
out a code I could almost break.
I’d had a horse and my horse could speak
only to me and he called
me ‘little friend’, then spoke
his weakness: he was not
a talker, would never
remember a date or detail
I would never see him rushing
a spontaneous box of new shoes
in my size, my color. He would not drive
all night for shoes. He could not
name my eyes or say father’s
hometown. He could not guess
the road to the hospital, name
the women on my shift and he promised never
to say again what he’d say, breaking
a piece of bread, forking a cake or
whatever he did, his eyes blinking
definite, his hands moving
across the table to me, like horses,
like quiet and shy children, like
flowers opening in spring, budding
and shaking in slow motion there
on the table, his secret hands
of paper begging me
to say ‘yes’ and his words,
saying ‘no’. Saying he was only
a man, and not a good man,
not a horse I could break but
one that would stand by my side,
loan me a back when needed.