‘Fundamental, beautiful or total menace’: an interview with Ryan Van Winkle (Part the First)

Blog | Published on May 16, 2015

  The Good Dark is a book about secrets and mysteries. Do you have any secrets you would like to share with us today? Ah, secrets – well, I don’t like chocolate ice-cream & my knee hurts because I cycled into a parked car last week but I guess any other secrets will be revealed in […]


The Good Dark is a book about secrets and mysteries. Do you have any secrets you would like to share with us today?

Ah, secrets – well, I don’t like chocolate ice-cream & my knee hurts because I cycled into a parked car last week but I guess any other secrets will be revealed in the questions below.

That said, I don’t want to close off interpretations of the book by saying it is about this or it is about that. I think the book examines and maps secret places and certainly contains a fair bit of mystery, but it also meditates on love, loss, nostalgia, growing up, and learning where you take your orders from.

The poems in The Good Dark are dripping with atmosphere and are often quite sinister, but you also maintain an approachable lyric voice. Is this – what I might describe as gothic conversational – a deliberate ploy, or does it emerge naturally? How do you strike the right balance?

I like that description a lot – gothic conversational – and I think is very much a register I find myself gravitating towards. It isn’t a ploy in that I sit down and think, ‘well, I’m going to write something sinister’ though it is deliberate.

Right now, I’m trying to understand where that tone comes from while I’m listening to an album I haven’t heard for may years – Living with the Law by Chris Whitley. It is great to hear him again — his slow, brooding, semi-country sound. He’s not a huge star  (he sadly died quite young a number of years ago) but I did get the chance to see him live when he opened for Warren Zevon in the late 90s.

I’ll come back to Zevon in a moment but I telling you all this because it is reminding me that my voice has largely been formed by what I am drawn to as a reader and as a general absorber of cultural stuff. For instance, I’m not a huge fan of Muldoon but I often go back to that ‘Cukoo Corn‘ poem of his. (Do you know it? It has a beautiful, mysterious death in it: ‘This girl whose hair floated as if underwater /  In a wind that would have cleaned corn, who was strangled / By the flapping belt’). Muldoon, also, wrote some songs with Zevon. As did Hunter S Thompson. Who, again, has an almost playful darkness in his voice. One of my favorite passages of his is this bit from Richard Nixon’s obituary (something to keep in mind, perhaps, during the next few years of Tory rule):

‘Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.’

As a former journalist, that quote has long resonated with me. And, in much the same way, I’m not interested in ‘nice’ poetry and I like to stand in shadows. Which isn’t to say I’m not, personally, interested in a lovely sunset. I like to watch the sun sink as much as the next guy. However, the sunset I remember most is the one I watched in a post-industrial Syracuse, New York where I went to university. I remember very clearly sitting with a friend, watching the sky go blood orange and pink. At one point my friend explained we were seeing those colors because of all the pollution in the air. Syracuse in the 90s seems a tragically beautiful place and that grabs my interest, that seems worth writing about.

Likewise, I feel the same about life and getting older. I’m at the age now where my old friends have settled into houses, families, and by and large, they seem quite happy after years of struggle with art, shitty partners, dumpy flats and the rest. That’s all great but it isn’t particularly interesting to talk about. I love my friends to death, and I hope that is evident and that this doesn’t sound too mean but I always tell my close friends, ‘Call me when your house burns down.’ I’m aware this is a terrible way to live & in my work I’m trying to reconcile the things I love with the sense that there’s a boot somewhere waiting to drop.

Along these lines I think Miriam Gamble summed up my work well in her Edinburgh Review piece on my first collection:

Heaney has said there are two types of poem: one gives you the rosy glow of recognition, the other disorientates, annuls your set coordinates. Van Winkle’s poetry wears the garb of the former, but belongs in the latter category.  As with the rest of the poems, you may not like what it has to say. But that’s its greatest recommendation: we don’t live in an age when poetry should warm your heart.

I hope it isn’t gauche to say, but I’ve always been proud of that analysis and I think if you’re looking for poems to ‘warm your heart’ you’re best staying away from my work. I can hardly write a love poem (event though this book was very much born out of love or, rather, the wreckage of love).

Going back to Zevon, for those who don’t know his songs, he perfected a kind of LA Noir. I’ve often talked in interviews about Bruce Springsteen but I’ve never really credited Zevon for showing me this kind of dark, funny, sardonic voice. I’m attracted to the way his songs often have an edge, even the pretty ones have a shadow. I’m thinking of a song like, ‘Don’t Let us Get Sick‘ which is a wonderful love song containing the lyric, ‘Don’t let us get sick / Don’t let us get old /
Don’t let us get stupid, all right? / Just make us be brave / And make us play nice / And let us be together tonight’. Simple, conversational, plaintive, almost prayer-like but with that hint of sickness & loss & fear at the core. That’s the pitch I’m drawn to, the kind of material hear best.

Of course, none of this is on my mind when I’m actually writing. At that point, I’m just trying to get words out and am pretty unaware of anything like ‘voice’ or ‘style’. I’m just getting from one line to the next. I write all sorts of poems but the ones I tend to value, work on, and bind together are the ones which I’d personally want to read. Poems which have an air of mystery that even I need time to fully understand, which I come to understand through editing, and collating. For instance, I wrote ‘Untitled (Hawthorne)’ a number of years ago and I think it does have that gothic conversational feel what with the veil and all. Yet, it wasn’t until relatively recently, when I was interrogating every poem going into this book, that I got a sense of what the poem was saying. Again, I don’t want to close meanings for other readers but the reason that poem is in this book is because I feel it addresses the way I’ve made mistakes, failed to pay attention, and I have – at times – mistaken the veil for the flesh so to speak.

That process of putting a book like The Good Dark together is very illuminating especially when it comes to tone, style, and tics.  I’m not sure if I do strike the right balance all the time but certainly in a collection, and in building this collection, I’m aware that you can’t just have the grime, the grim, for 60 pages. So, when I start looking at a collection I’m looking through hundreds of poems and in that process I’m cutting poems which are unbalanced or making sure that ones which are super dark don’t combine in a way that makes an overbearing, morbid, one-note collection.

How do you feel your poetry has developed since your first collection came out in 2010?

As soon as my first collection was finished I started wondering what would be next. I didn’t have a firm idea but I was keen to create a second book that sounded different than my first.

Tomorrow, We Will Live Here was very constrained in a lot of ways. It had very deliberate narrators, and a very colloquial American voice. In writing that I was striving for a poetry of everyday speech and I had narratives I wanted to tell. Many of those poems were stories which I cut and cut and cut leaving only the voice of a narrator who wanted to talk but was unsure what to say. A narrator who spoke slant. If someone looked at earlier drafts they’d see the classic mistakes of a young poet writing chopped up prose. It took a long time to realize that a poem had a different job than a short story, that I couldn’t be Raymond Carver, that I wasn’t Townes Van Zandt or something. It hurt a lot to realize that but I’m glad I did because those poems are better, more intriguing for it.

However, one of my very few frustrations with that book was that there were one or two poems like ‘A Raincoat, A Spell of Rain Ago‘ which simply couldn’t make it into that book. It was just a lot looser, a lot more fragmented, weirder and had no place next to something like ‘I Got Out When it All Went Down‘ which was a pretty simple post-9/11 narrative about a guy leaving his family in the aftermath of September 11th. The chasm, stylistically, between the two styles was just something which that collection couldn’t breach. So, when I put that book to bed, I wanted to make a book in which a poem like ‘Raincoat’ could feel at home. In a way, I’ve simply opened up the poems. I let them swirl a little and didn’t start them from the same place I stated my older poems. In other words, I didn’t begin with a story, I began with a feeling, and I tried to put more of myself in these poems. I hung them on my own emotions, my own history, and didn’t allow myself the comfortable cloak of a character. Which isn’t to say one is more truly me, I couldn’t write that 9/11 poem without empathizing and understanding the character and not everything in The Good Dark is perfectly autobiographical, linear, or anything like that. To me, the two books are just two different ways to get at something emotionally honest.

The shift between the two collections might be a development or an evolution in style but I can’t say yet. The last time I finished a collection, I aimed myself in the direction of this one. At the moment, I’m at a bit of a crossroads so we’ll see what sticks in a few years time.

There’s an awful lot of snow in your poems; is winter your favourite season?

No, but I can get a lot of work done during the winter so maybe that has affected the material.  I like winter and I’ve always been a sucker for snow days but as we were working on this book I too noted (and was surprised) at how often and how prominently snow appeared throughout.

I wondered a lot about that and realized that, in fact, snow is a pretty perfect, though un-intentional, metaphor. Snow is beautiful but deadly. Snow buries and hides. Snow melts. Snow preserves. Snow is cozy. Snow is a pain in the ass if you have to get somewhere.

I was born in December, a season of snow which was uplifting and led to days off of school in the run-up to winter holidays. That was in Connecticut but then I moved north to Syracuse University where I studied journalism and it sometimes snowed all the way into May. It was a love / hate relationship. Part presents, hot-coco and white Christmas, part gray drudgery. I think all of that is in the book and, in fact, is announced in one of the first poems in the collection which is a riff on that line from The Decemberists: ‘All my childhood was snow’ from January Hymn. That’s one of of those lines which I totally understand but couldn’t explain if you put a gun to my head. That poem probably best embodies my relationship with snow – let it be or clear it away. Fundamental, beautiful or total menace.

The Good Dark is out now from Penned in the Margins priced £9.99: Order online.

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