I first saw Ryan Van Winkle read in Oxford, at an event I also read at. Later, on the Mexican Poets’ Tour, I visited the Scottish Poetry Library, where he is Poet-in-Residence, but he was gone, traveling to Berlin. This October we were both featured in Carcanet’s OxfordPoets 2010 anthology, and I was proud to be featured alongside such an accomplished young poet. Van Winkle’s new collection, Tomorrow, We Will Live Here, which won the Crashaw Prize for first collections, is published by Salt. A true poet of our generation, Ryan and I corresponded via Facebook.
You’re debut collection is called Tomorrow, We Will Live Here. You’re an American, living in Scotland, and I know that just scratches the surface of your multidimensional, transnational experience. How does place and your belonging (or not) to it influence your poetry?
I didn’t realize it at the time of writing, but this book is very much about distance, longing, settling, and yes, my move to Scotland probably influenced the feel. While writing the book I think it was dawning on me that, actually, I kind of live here. This was after 7 or 8 years of being in the UK and I think part of the process of writing this book was also admitting that I don’t live where I was born. You know, for years, I kind of flirted between America and the UK. I think my subconscious was coming to terms with that move.
Also, for some reason, my poems kept returning to the landscape of my youth, the American landscape of my past. I’m not very proficient at writing about where I am. I tend to dwell on where I was.
That’s poets, right? I often find that there’s a sort of transatlantic disconnect between MFA America and the UK, even though we write in the same language. What UK poets would you recommend in America? What American poets would you recommend in the UK?
Yes, there is a pretty big disconnect between the US and UK in terms of poetry and it took me many years to find poets working here that I could identify and empathize with—poets I could really sink my teeth into. For a longer time than I should admit my reading was very Yank-centric.
That said—there are fabulous poets here. There’s the legendary Edwin Morgan and Norman McCaig who people should look into if they’ve not heard of them, but the new guys I really really have been excited by and recommend to anyone who asks are:
John Glenday who wrote a book called Grain (shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize), which is just about the most elegant, controlled, and beautiful thing I’ve read in a long time. The book was 16 years in the making. Runs for only 60-something pages and is, to my mind, just about the best answer to why we read/write poetry. Find it if you can.
Kei Miller is a young Jamaican man who writes incredibly lyrical and gorgeous poems. His new book is called A Light Song of Light and it is very much worth reading. The kind of book which makes me want to quit writing because—it is that good.
I just got a review copy of Miller’s new book from Carcanet; we’re looking forward to featuring it here. Who else?
Vicki Feaver, whose book, The Book of Blood was the first book I read by a UK poet that woke me up to the sharp and beautiful writing that can be found here.
I love that book, too. I’ve been scouring used bookshops on both sides of the Atlantic for her collection before that, but so far no luck. Keep going.
Mario Petrucci whose book Heavy Water: A poem for Chernobyl blew my mind. It is a brilliant examination of that tragedy and tells the story from loads of wonderful viewpoints. It is one of the best books of poetry I’ve read in ages—one that I’d honestly call a page-turner.
As for American poets I always recommend, well, there are a lot. My top three are usually:
Hayden Carruth—whose book Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey made me want poems seriously. I love his voice, his kindness, his versatility. Just one of my favourite books.
Michael Burkard totally inspires and transports me. What he can do in a poem is illogical and beautiful and blends the surreal with narrative in a way that I would love to mimic. One thing I love about him is the way every line of his poems crack. There is rarely a dud line. It makes me crazy.
Sharon Olds is a rock star to me. I don’t think everything she writes is brilliant but her book The Father is one of the most honest and brutal examinations of death I’ve ever read. I was shocked by how each poem in the collection examined the father/death in a different and unique way. It felt a little like looking at the different surfaces of a crystal.
You curate The Forest’s Literary Cabaret, a hugely popular reading series in Edinburgh. What makes the program so popular? Is it accessibility, performance? You?
I curate and help put on The Golden Hour with my friends at Forest Publications. I guess it works partly because it is free and is hosted in one of the most amazing places in the world—The Forest. The Forest is a volunteer-run, collectively-owned, FREE arts and events space masquerading as a vegie cafe. So, naturally, people just pop in because it is free. It is BYOB and, a lot of our audience tends to find us by mistake.
That said, I think a lot of standard poetry nights are pretty boring. Even with a strong bill of good readers I find my mind drifting, I get tired, and I just lose interest. I think a lot of people stay away from readings because they’ve seen one or two bad ones. So, my goal is to sneak high-quality literature in between acoustic musicians, full bands, electro-pop, punk, cartoons, and general drunken fun and frivolity.
This may sound like we don’t respect the words. That isn’t true. We’re very serious about the writing, we don’t normally feature performance poets or readers who are particularly pyro-technic. We try to book serious-minded, highly talented people and we’ve had loads of successful and established writers as well as young writers who are just starting to find their voice.
I love exposing an audience to powerful new poetry and stories and I am pretty sure we are the only reading series that concludes with dancing. I hope the night is successful because it is fun. At least I find it fun.
Now a few rapid-fire, first-response-is-best-style prompts. Favorite poet’s facial hair.
Hayden Carruth’s beard.
Most underrated living poet.
All poets are underrated, don’t you think?
Bruce Springsteen. I listened to him like he was a professor when I was younger.
Best (or worst) poetic pick-up line.
Wanna read my manuscript?
What are you working on now? How soon will we see your sophomore collection?
Wow, the baby hasn’t even dried yet. I’m probably working on a book version of Red Like Our Room Used to Feel, which is a spoken word/music collaboration/art installation I did with my friend Ragland. You can download the album here.
These poems are looser, less compact and controlled than the ones in this collection. I really tried to let go in these and hopefully I’ll be able to find a publisher by 2012. Mark your calendars!
What are you reading, watching, listening to now? What do you recommend?
Reading—Just finished Stephen King’s Under the Dome which felt kind of sinful. I’m also working on a book of Mary Ruefle’s poems.
Watching—My new year’s resolution was to give up TV. I’ve actually done pretty well. I do cheat, though, and watch The Daily Show on a regular basis. Mostly, however, the year has been about movies. I just saw Jackass 3-D. Those dudes are brilliantly surreal. All my literary friends are snobbish about it but I watched the film as if it was performance art.
Listening—I’ve been listening to a lot of The Broken Bells this year, Joanna Newsom’s new album and The Black Keys. I recommend all of that.
Finally, what’s the most embarrassing line or image you remember having written?
Here’s one that is always embarrassing to read aloud: “My dick is a simple machine / a straw.” Gross!
Not bad. Thanks, Ryan, for the conversation. We look forward to spending more time with the new collection, and to word of many more in the future!