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Virtual Tour: Ryan Van Winkle

Image @ Chris Scott

Ryan Van Winkle is an old friend of the SPL. He has been a Reader in Residence in the Library and, until recently, our podcaster. We've been looking forward to the appearance of Ryan's second collection The Good Dark and, at last, it is here, available in all good bookshops.

Ryan is about to embark on a book tour (see bottom of the page for details), but before then he's on a virtual book tour of poetry websites. Given our links, we're very pleased that today he's arrived on our virtual doorstep. We asked him five questions...

The collection contains poems that were first heard as part of your show Red, Like Our Room Used to Be. Did they change at all over the run of the show? Did you find audiences acting like a poetry-centred focus group?

Great question and I’m glad you remember the show which, for people who don’t know, was essentially a one-to-one poetry reading in a little bedsit-style set. It runs about 5–6 hours a day, every 20 minutes and I’ve done it about half a dozen times now. In other words, I’ve read those 16 poems a lot. A very very lot. And you’d have to have a pretty thin mind for a poem to not change after reading it that many times. Words dropped out, verses I got bored of changed or were cut, and (in terms of the book) I made my peace with a handful of poems in that performance which I haven’t included in this collection. For poems like ‘There is No Library for What I Know of Books’ - that show was its full airing. During the course of putting The Good Dark together it fell out of the collection because every time I read it among the poems in there, it just stood out, felt a bit redundant and prosaic. If I hadn’t done the show, I might have kept it. I liked how it directly referenced my marriage, how it had that weird use of the word ‘geography’, and I like that my friend Dave was in it (which is not something I often do). Also, it marked an important early shift in style when writing the poems in the collection but because I’d read it quite a lot over the past 4 years and because there have always been problems with it which I’m not talented enough to fix, I felt able to leave it out.

Audiences were a delight but I’m not sure I really ever got any constructive feedback in the way a comedian might. I didn’t allow much space for real interaction or critique in person. I didn’t even afford them a space for applause - basically, the audience listened to me read poems for 15 minutes and then I left them alone in a red room. So, there wasn’t a lot of time for people to say, ‘hey, I don’t get that’ or ‘you say rain too often’ or whatever. What I did get from repeated audience interaction, however, was an understanding of how I’d like these poems to be read and how people might come to feel them rather than ‘understand’ them if that distinction makes any sense.

When I read them aloud I wanted people’s minds to wander and I found that the audiences who seemed the most enthusiastic about the work were the ones who had the capacity to let the poems wash over them rather than trying to be alert to every meaning in every word. Like the feeling of someone reading to you while you fall asleep - you hear and you don’t hear at the same time. You drift between your own memories, nostalgias, losses and the images and resonances in the poems. That show, and the audience response, showed me that there were people who would feel the poems and, by feeling the poems, would understand them. Audiences showed me the work was working, so to speak.

That said, I had a lot of help in that show. Evocative music from Ragland, artworks from a dozen friends, scents, even some booze. With the book, the poems are on their own. I hope they do the job I expect of them.

In The Good Dark, a lot of the poems appear to be spoken by voices that appear to be looking back over their childhood. Do you agree with Graham Greene that childhood is a writer’s myth-kitty?

Yes, that sounds authentic. I didn’t want to do the whole go back to childhood thing as I felt I’d covered a lot of that territory in my first collection with poems like ‘I Was a Fat Boy’ and ‘Thirteen’. Those poems, to me, dealt with the idea of getting older, and – in doing so – the sense that we lose (sometimes fundamental, sometimes fatty) parts of ourselves in that process. I don’t think that’s a particularly new idea, but I was happy with how I’d handled it in my first book.

Yet, much of the writing in The Good Dark was precipitated by a break up and in that time I again found myself wanting to look backwards but with more of an eye to how the myths of childhood have to be either abandoned or absorbed when considering an adult life. Perhaps it is relevant that I was re-reading J.D. Salinger at the time and I can remember thinking about Holden Caulfield a lot. Now, that was a character I understood as a young person - a character I both related to and identified with. Not as the anti-hero, but as the hero. That probably says a lot about me when I was younger. I was surprised upon re-reading to find that I no longer felt loyal to Caulfield, that I was annoyed with him, disappointed. If each of us have our own origin stories, then Caulfield was part of mine. And, I guess, by going back and looking at him again, I began to go back and question some of the myths of my own childhood, and see how far I wanted to continue carrying them around with me.

There’s a lot of snow in the collection, Ryan. Why so much snow? And rain! And dark and stormy nights! Have you been living in Scotland too long?

You know, there might be something in that theory. I have been here 15 years and the weather is still something which can frustrate me. Mostly when I’m cycling to work. But I can remember going to a beach one summer when I had first moved from the United States to Scotland. I couldn’t understand what we were doing there, what was a beach for in such weather? It was so windy, the water so cold, the clouds so often hovered. What was the point? It was nothing like my childhood and everything I thought summer was for. Tanning, reading on the beach, falling asleep in the sun, swimming for hours. I thought, man, this beach is useless.

Obviously there's been a lot of nice, sunny days since then and I’ve since begun to take pleasure in gray weather. Part of the tension in this collection is learning to appreciate (or accept) what something is, rather than what it is not. You can spend a whole summer complaining about the weather, you can waste a whole life shoveling snow. Just because something might fall off a bridge doesn’t mean you don’t walk under it.

So, I don’t mind going to the beach now and letting the wind clear my thoughts or allowing the bleakness reflect my mind or, on a more positive note, I can enjoy the rare scorchers as much I can enjoy the wind, the rain. The snow. Eventually, the weather passes and it is neither good nor bad. Love the bomb. Love the dark and stormy night. For its portentousness, for its promise, its mystery.

There are a sequence of poems that are untitled – or have quotes from the likes of David Lynch, Marie Howe and Snoopy (!). Are the quotes epigraphs or are they the soil from which the poems grow?

I’m glad you called these a sequence, I’ve always thought of them that way too. But, in answer to your question, I’d like to say ‘they’re both’ but if I’m pushed I suppose I feel more like they are the soil from which the poems sprouted. They’re where a thought or line took hold in a particular moment and sparked with whatever else I was thinking.

They’re almost wholly out of context. The poems don’t really acknowledge their original setting or anything. A poem like 'Untitled (Lincoln)' doesn’t attempt to address the civil war, but that quote from Lincoln brought that poem into being. When I read that line it spoke to something else inside me totally divorced from its original intention. That poem is some attempt to get that something inside me out.

On the other hand, I do feel like they are the titles of the poems. I want them thought of as titles and I want them to do what a good title does - to point to the themes of the poem. So, they are signposts the way titles are signposts. Further, now that I’m really considering it, their authors and histories could definitely have influenced the tone of those poems. Like ‘Untitled (Hawthorne)’ where there’s a certain american gothic-ish voice as compared to the more surreal and frantic ‘Untitled (Lynch)’. In fact, now that I think about it that way the sources themselves did have an unconscious effect on the poems. So, perhaps I go back to my original answer - both.

What’s your favourite line in the new collection?

You know, I can’t really answer that though I wish I could and I’d love to know what readers say is their favourite line. I’m in love with a good line and often consider how each one works on their own and not just as part of the poem. For instance in 'Untitled (Lynch)', ‘And eventually I will forget other places:’ isn’t a particularly incandescent line but it says something clearly and simply on its own before going into describing the other places, ‘the medicine store, the meat store, the windows of hair-cutters’. I like the first line because it does double work, I want the reader to hear that eventually we do forget before moving on to the more tangible, self-conscious images. Already the narrator has forgotten that a meat store is known as a butchers. Anyway, I just picked that line out at random and it hasn’t been anything I’ve articulated until just now.

So, yeah, it is hard to talk about a favourite line but I am lucky enough not to have to choose. I like most of them. One I was thinking about recently, however, is the line ‘when Lennon bit the sky someone said / there are many ways a star can fall.’ This is going to require a bit of biography but one of my earliest memories is hearing about John Lennon getting shot. I was born on December 8th, 1977. On December 8th in 1980, Lennon was shot. I’m convinced I can remember my birthday party ending, the tv going on, my uncle crying, everybody who was once joyful suddenly somber. Maybe, in my mind, I put birthday candles slowly melting, dripping blue wax onto white icing. The kitchen I remember is very orange.

This has long been something I’ve tried to write about for a number of reasons. One being that when I asked my mother what happened she explained that a beetle had died. What’s a beetle?, I asked. And she told me that a beetle was a bug. Which is true enough for a kid. However, that must not have made much sense even then. People were really sad about this bug all of a sudden. It must have been around then that I decided my ambition was to grow up to become an entomologist or, rather, as my parents called the scientists -- ‘a bug doctor’. I even dressed up as one on Halloween.

I’ve never really been able to fully write about this and what I think it means and in that line I manage to reference this little bit of semi-trivial biography in a way that I’ve been trying to do since I started writing poems. It isn’t much, but I’m always glad when I see it. That line sums up everything I've learned about death since then and it nods at one of my favourite Michael Burkard poems too. And it fits into the rest of the poems nicely, with stars & sky. So, for the moment, we can call that line my favourite.

And, interestingly, during the course of writing this collection I realised (because of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters) that my memory must be somewhat false. At least the timing of it must be wrong because Lennon was shot at 10:50pm. I’m pretty sure I’d have been well tucked in by then and must have seen the effects the next day or maybe even a year or two later when someone teared up during a commemorative news broadcast. Anyway, I like that story and I’m glad at least that there’s one line in the collection which allows me the excuse to share it.

The Good Dark Available Now From Penned in the Margins


- 1 June, London, Waterstones Piccadilly, 7pm
w/ Naomi Booth

- 2 June, Cardiff, 7pm
Waterloo Tea at the Wyndham Arcade
w/ Nia Davies & special surprise guests!!!

- 3 June, Glasgow, Tell it slant, 7pm
w/ Matthew Siegel

-- 4 June, Edinburgh, Blackwell Bookshop Edinburgh, South Bridge, 6.30pm
w/ Matthew Siegel

FREE After party at The Forest from 8pm -- featuring musical guests Supermoon & Faith Eliott and more ...


- 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 -- June 1

- Scottish Book Trust: June 2

- Ofi Press Mexico -- 4 June

- The Missing Slate -- June 7

- B O D Y -- June 10

Category: poets