As Ryan Van Winkle embarks on a reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and a tour of Australia this August, we chat performance, inspirations and Scotland with the author of The Good Dark. Catch Ryan reading with Jonathan Edwards in Edinburgh on 21 August The Good Dark collects together poems that were originally performed […]
The Good Dark collects together poems that were originally performed in your critically acclaimed one-on-one theatre piece Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel. Do the poems sit as comfortably on the page as they did in performance? Were there any challenges in editing them for the book?
For those who don’t know the piece – ‘Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel‘ was a one-to-one performance where I invited a single audience member into a small bedroom. I’d seat them on a bed, offer a glass of port or cup of tea, and then would read a series of poems before exiting the room. The room was 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 wanted it to be an immersive experience which brought you inside the poems. There are many reasons for 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 the relationship. It was a healing process a way for me to address the ghost of my ex. It was role-play.
So, many of those poems from Red Room make up the spine of this collection. Those poems include ‘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 collection. They were all, always, page poems. Up until recently when I started doing live-art collaborations with people like Screen Bandita I would say I never created a poem for performance. Some of my poems definitely worked well in front of an audience but they were page poems first. And, in fact, the reason there was a Red Room performance was because, to my mind, those poems were such ultra-page poems I couldn’t imagine reading them in any other way. I didn’t want to read them to an audience at all. I wanted to present them as quietly as I possibly could. I didn’t want to project my voice, tell anecdotes, make jokes. So, I made the poems into an album with Ragland and that eventually became the show people saw.
See, after Tomorrow, We Will Live Here was published in 2010, I got very secure in reading from that book. I had introductions and stories to tell about where that material came from, I could frame them in an entertaining way. Yet, I was writing this new work which felt different to me and I wasn’t very confident in presenting the poems. I couldn’t figure out how to sit poems from Tomorrow along-side poems from what has become The Good Dark. I didn’t know how to introduce them, and I didn’t know how to leap that chasm in a reading any more than I did in assembling my first collection.
I just wanted to read them and try them out but I needed quiet and a proper length of time to air the work without feeling the need to entertain an audience. Creating a space to read a curated swath of poems in a really intimate way was highly valuable for this book. It was fundamental in the creation of this collection because in performing the Red Room show for 6 or 7 hours a day I got to see how effective they could be. I’ve had audience members cry, I’ve had people come back two or three times and I saw that those poems could work as a unit and they worked on an emotional level. People understood them even though I wasn’t going out of my way in the performance or in the poems to explain.
Importantly, I also saw where there were gaps thanks to a very astute review in Exuent where Tom Wicker wrote:
The packed room feels less like a haven … and more like a bunker. As Van Winkle finishes reading, the atmosphere has changed from cosy to claustrophobic. The past pouring off the shelves and cluttering the walls had become creepy, obsessive; the uniform redness overbearing. The room was now more a mausoleum than a twinkly treasure trove – an airless place, buried tomb-like in memories.
That was a powerful and articulate observation. On the one hand I was very glad that the material had that edge and the show wasn’t seen as a ‘haven’, as something whimsical and lovely. I was trying to redress a serious problems in my failed marriage, a lack of communication. And I was looking hard at myself and trying to understand how I lost someone who I’d truly cared for. That room was haunted, I was haunted, and I was happy that came through. What I hadn’t realized was that I had created an almost airless mausoleum. I’d trapped myself in my memories and was artistically (and personally) close to getting buried in a past that only I was cherishing, holding on to. When I read that review I saw that the book had to have more air in it, and that I too had to learn what to keep, what to let go of. I wanted to retain the overwhelmed, traumatic essence of the Red Room and I also wanted to keep some of the fear and creepiness that Wicker identified. I wanted the reader to feel slightly mired. However, I needed to let some air in, some forward motion, some escape. Not just for the reader, for the collection, but for myself as well. In other words – I had to let go. And so, at that point, the book shifted from being a rumination on a lost love and became a stock-taking, an accounting, a moment of reflection before opening the heavy door and leaving that safe, comforting bunker of memory.
That said, it is difficult to edit poems I’ve read aloud hundreds of times. You get used to certain rhythms, word choices, pauses. You get used to saying ‘not a window’ when ‘no window’ would be better. And, in editing, the poems have become stronger – less reliant on banal transitions and links. It all has been a process but I think, fundamentally, the actual poems are little changed from those heard in the Red Room performance. The difference is, there’s more context, more room for a reader to move around, maybe even a shred of hope. Or, at least, a feeling of progress.
You namecheck Marie Howe, David Lynch, etc in the book, but I can’t easily pin down your literary or artistic influences. Can you help me out?
I wouldn’t say I ‘name-check’ because that sounds like I’m bragging about listening to the Decemberists or reading an interview with David Lynch or an old Lincoln speech. I hope it doesn’t come off that way but part of the reason I add notes and such to my work is that I simply love liner notes in albums and books, I love seeing the connections between people and artworks and I like to imagine that someone might be interested and might find an entry point into work I cherish and admire. I don’t know what I would have read if the artists I was attracted to didn’t proudly proclaim their influences. The writers I admire have always led me to new work which has broadened my horizons and so I try to wear my loyalties on my sleeve as much as I can.
As you mention, for a handful of keystone poems in this collection I did want to cite the leaping off points and I wanted the titles of these to simply be the quote itself. Ideally, a reader could look at these untitled poems as a kind of sequence on absence. I don’t know if anyone will as the poems are staggered throughout the collection but maybe after reading this interview someone will. Howe and Lynch and others in that sequence were on my reading list during the forming of this collection and I’m obviously into the work of them and others I quote directly in epigraphs like Ristovic and Hawthorne etc.
However, I’m glad my literary influences are not so easily pinpointed. I think Raymond Carver and Springsteen are heavily embedded in my first collection. That plain-spoken narrator was very much in their vein and I aspire to write a poem which begins with, ‘My name is ___ and I work for the ____’. I’ve tried many times but I can’t quite make it work and that frustration probably led me towards the poems found in The Good Dark.
Otherwise, my strongest influences are relatively contemporary and probably very American which may explain the difficulty in placing them. Michael Burkard was my first ever poetry tutor in Syracuse circa 1993. Tomas Transtromer said his work was ‘like approaching a sphinx from behind’ by which I think he meant there was a recognizable and significant shape, an outline, but not necessarily a clear understanding of what it is you were seeing. I’ve long admired that quality (though I think Burkard took it as a critique or, at least, in the introduction to Envelope of Night he said he wanted to try to approach the Sphinx from another angle) and his work ultimately gave me permission to say and try things which I wouldn’t have. Burkard once said to me, (and I paraphrase), ‘the worst thing about graduate students is that they think they know what their voice is and they won’t try anything.’ That stuck with me as did his relentlessly amazing individual lines, his understanding of enjambment, and his willingness to let the poem go where it wanted to go regardless of the author’s ambition. Unsleeping & Entire Dilemma have had a huge impact on my work and on this book in particular.
Further, one of the first collections I can remember buying was Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey by Hayden Carruth. I bought Carruth’s book only because of the title but, it turned out, he was a giant. I read Scrambled Eggs over and over for years and it was only during the writing of this collection that I realized he’d had a very long career and I went looking for some of his older books. There are a couple of lines in the collection that are homages to Carruth who I was lucky enough to see read before he died.
There are so many others who’s work has influenced mine. I think the influence of these poets has been in me trying to do what they do and failing. I think that striving but failing to sound like someone you admire is often where an authentic voice is found. John Coltrane trying to sound like Charlie Parker and failing is where Coltrane’s voice is found. So, Mary Ruefle writes better about snow than I do. Matthew Dickman is more loving and romantic than I manage to be. Bob Hicok kills enjambment. Joy Harjo is better at being direct, honest (and better at politics too). John Glenday’s ‘Grain’ is a diamond of a collection and my highest aspiration. Vicki Feaver renders childhood in red better than I. Mario Petrucci’s ‘Heavy Water: a poem for Chernobyl‘ does research, history, story-telling and profound empathy in a way I aspire to. So, with all these voices in my head, I’m just trying to hold my own, you know, punch my weight.
Then there’s theatre-makers / live artists like Lucy Ellinson, Adrian Howells and Deborah Pearson who were instrumental in influencing my ‘theatre’ work. It was Ellison and Pearson who first showed me the power of the intimate performance through their work at Forest Fringe, work I didn’t know could exist. They’d both be able to put their work in context but the nearest thing I can relate it to is the work Adrian Howells accomplished. Their work gave me permission to try mine and reinforced the notion that performance could be more than standing in front of an audience and projecting.
But, going back, my willingness to accept such ideas I feel spring from Ginsberg and the beat / hippy movement. Not because I admire all of Ginsberg’s work (which is bloated at times and can lack curatorial control) but his candor and the playful attitude he had towards working with others, celebrating community, and collaboration. Messing around with others is essential to my practice and collaboration has led me to the best work and best times of my life. So, I have been influenced in my life by that spirit of play, of making music, films, etc. Had I not gravitated towards that kind of thing as a young person, I don’t know if I’d have been receptive to what I was seeing as an older person trying to make new things.
The final poem, where the phrase ‘good dark’ comes from, is a very powerful lyric piece, driven by an urgent speaking voice, and ending with a strange dialogue with a parrot. To what extent does that exchange stand for the ventriloquism you are attempting in the book as a whole?
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 one day when I was putting a 3rd or 4th draft of this collection together.
I’m so glad I found it. I had totally forgotten it existed but when I started re-reading I could see all the concerns of the collection as well as little nods to other poems I’d written. It spoke to the other poems in a way I could only have stumbled upon accidentally: 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. You can’t take everything with you when you go, you have to throw things away, but that doesn’t invalidate the love you once felt, it doesn’t mean love doesn’t exist. It did, it does.
So, the narrator takes stock and – in effect – digs himself out of that mausoleum of memory, becomes unstuck. I suppose the poem got buried because I couldn’t recognize what it was doing until I’d written the rest of the collection. Originally The Good Dark ended with ‘Summer Nights, Walking‘ (which was a pretty safe ending poem: a man takes a walk, looks back at the mistakes in a failed relationship, feels bad, recognizes that this is life. There’s turbulence, there’s trauma, there’s chaos) but I’d taken Wicker’s thoughts from Exuent to heart and I wanted the collection to differ from the Red Room performance. Untitled (Snoopy) allowed me unpack some of the book, to offer a key to the earlier poems if anyone was looking for one. It was the missing piece of the collection and it was written long before the collection was formed.
But, that parrot, I have no recollection of how he got in there. He seems to be almost mocking me, my obsession, he’s a living embodiment of the repetition of dark, sad, worried thought. He’s a feedback loop.
You are a very active member of the poetry scene in Scotland – not only as a writer and performer, but as an organiser, podcaster and workshop leader. How would you characterise the artform north of the border right now?
There’s a lot of poets living up in Scotland and I’ve been lucky enough through my work to meet some of the best and that talent seems to span the entirety of the country. For a historical perspective check out Donny O’Rourke’s Dream State: New Scottish Poets anthology from 1995 and you’ll see names which are now undeniably well-recognized like John Burnside, Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Don Patterson and Robin Robertson.
Moreover, there are supportive communities of writers in every city I’ve been to and certainly in Edinburgh and Glasgow where I spend a lot of time. There are a few significant factors in this: there are high-quality events happening which are supported financially by Creative Scotland. There’s also overlap between artists across artforms – there’s collaborations between poets and visual artists, musicians etc and that has been steadily growing since I got involved in doing events circa 2001. Poetry doesn’t feel ghettoized up here – it exists as part of the artistic tapestry and stands with other art forms rather than apart. It has long been my feeling that poetry needs to engage and my work at The Forest and as Reader in Residence at the Scottish Poetry Library was largely about facilitating that engagement.
In Edinburgh, I’d say there’s room for poets of every stripe to find an outlet, to find a community. Spoken-word, avant-garde, page poetry, light verse – it is happening here and, importantly, I think all these interact with each other. People might not love all the work being presented but there is a feeling, I believe, of mutual respect for the making. I don’t know if that is different from any place else. I’ve lived here my whole adult life. It is certainly different to Syracuse in 1995 but, then again, I wasn’t paying so much attention to the artform back then.
Ryan’s Tour Dates
21 AUGUST – Edinburgh Book Festival
26 AUGUST – Melbourne Writers Festival
27 AUGUST – Ipswich, Queensland Poetry Festival
29 AUGUST – Brisbane, Queensland Poetry Festival
30 AUGUST – Brisbane, Queensland Poetry Festival