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The Good Dark: an interview with Ryan Van Winkle

Ryan Van Winkle – poet, podcaster, Poetry School tutor, and an all round “good force” for the UK poetry scene – approached us a little while back with an intriguing and brilliantly novel idea: Would we like to be part of a ‘virtual book tour’ to help promote the release of Ryan’s second collection, The Good Dark? Yes please.

Here’s how it works: Ryan is doing a series of short interviews all over the interwebs, each comprising of exactly 5 questions, and we’re pleased to welcome Ryan to CAMPUS today on this current leg of his virtual tour. Full details of all the tour dates are at the bottom.

Ryan’s also involved with a super-exciting new project at the Poetry School we can’t talk about just yet, but trust, it really will be definitely quite good.

Without further ado, the interview…

Hi Ryan! Thanks for being here. So first question: What are you afraid of, Van Winkle?

Ryan: Change. All kinds of change — like I’m afraid of getting to the movie theatre and finding out that Avengers is sold out so I have to watch Mad Max even though watching Mad Max would equally as pretty good. I’m afraid of moving house, moving city, moving in general. I think parts of my life like living abroad, travelling a lot, are ways of vastly over compensating for this fear. My friend Chris liked to say, ‘Change is the opposite of death’. I tell myself this frequently but I probably fear the minor accumulated changes which occur while growing older more than I fear the inevitable passing.

Is there anything you would never do in a poem?

Ryan: Good question. At the moment, I can’t think of anything particular. It is sunny and so perhaps I’m feeling magnanimous in regards to my many pet peeves.

Of course, it is problematic to say “never” — though I have long had strict rules for myself as a writer and poet. For instance, I don’t like adverbs and I don’t like rhetorical questions. These ideas are holdovers from my journalism training back when I was at Syracuse University. I was always taught, and still believe, that these pecadillos are often signifiers of lazy writing and that the poem or story benefits by rooting them out. “How can I describe the farmer’s market?’ — that kind of thing. Yet, sometimes, I let that rule slide and have done so a few times in this collection because I thought it was in service to the poem.

I also could say I’d never use the word ‘gossamer’ in a poem but, then again, I myself used ‘shards’ recently. Which is equally an overused, poetic sounding word. ‘Shards of shimmering light fell on the pool’ — we’ve all seen a lot of that. I scratched my head a lot over my use of that word and eventually I decided that I literally meant shards. Actual broken pieces of glass. When I was dithering over it that Gertrude Stein justification of  her famous – ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ – line popped into my head.

Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying is a is a is a. Yes, I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.

Now listen, I can’t say that in my line a shard is just a broken piece of glass for the first time in English poetry for 100 years. But, I liked Stein’s defence and used it as a little mental shield against my own, sometimes restrictive, rules.

The Good Dark draws close, respectful attention to a kind of ‘smallness’ of being. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?

Ryan: An interesting thing to bring up and well said, thanks.

You know, I don’t think of myself as a spiritual person and I don’t keep a religion. And, I know you said ‘spiritual’, not religious, and I totally appreciate there’s a difference. I only bring up religion because you’ve reminded me that as a kid, I did go to a lot of church and there was a point when I began to see there was good and bad or right and wrong and I understood why one should do right and be good. But, of course, it is hard to be completely good even as a kid and as we were raised Roman Catholic I’d have to go and confess that I’d been mean to my mother or stole some change from my grandmother’s purse while she was sleeping.

Yet, at some point I realised everybody else was messing up all over the place and doing stuff the bible and the priest said was way worse, said amen to in unison. It was a small town and there were drunks, and wife beaters, and cheaters, and liars and probably truck thieves as well as just really nice regular people in the congregation. I didn’t know how to process that kind of information, it just seemed incongruous once I’d realised it. Maybe everyone was confessing behind the screen and saying their Hail Marys but I wasn’t sure what that was worth in reality.

I was suspicious and questioning and didn’t see why everybody had bought into this religion thing. I remember asking for proof that Jesus existed, can recall wondering why we didn’t have his bones the way we had dinosaur bones down at the Peabody. (You can see the resonances of that in ‘The Day the Desks Grew’.)   I also saw tension between what people preached and what they actually did. It took a long time for me to understand that it isn’t simply hypocrisy but that religious prayer and texts can also be aspirational.

Up until I understood that, I was negotiating very Calvin & Hobbes kinds of thoughts: ‘Am I being good because I want Santa to bring me toys?’ kind of things. In realizing there is no Santa I realised there’s no reason to be ‘good’, that I had only to be ‘good’ in a way I understood. And that understanding of what I consider ‘good’ comes from empathy or, as you say, from awareness of the smallness of being. And I’ve struggled, I think, to be a good person and to understand what that means especially if being good isn’t about pleasing a higher authority.

These are big questions which play out in poems regularly and  there’s often Catholic images, phrases and themes which appear in my poems. Like with the pastor’s son poem or even ‘Ode for a Rain from Death Row’ where forgiveness, sin, redemption are all at work..

Does writing have a therapeutic value for you? Either as the traditional means of ascribing words to un-languaged states, or maybe even settling psychic scores?

Ryan: Massively. The Good Dark was very much necessary for me to write partly because poems are my way of dealing with complicated or traumatic situations. In therapy you’re looking for answers about who you are, how you’ve become this way, and you examine changes you want to make in yourself and you decide whether or not you can. So, in the case of this book, I ended up making something quite confessional (in the above sense), something which contains admission of wrong-doing.

This book was precipitated by a breakup and so it grew directly out of mourning and then evolved into going back over things I missed, things I could have said and done differently. Sometimes thinking  I should have cooked more, sometimes thinking I should have to talked (or even argued) more. I was talking to myself and slowly understanding that all things must pass, that this is okay. When I relationship ends I think I can feel very adrift — in a way it is like losing religion. That feeling of, shit, we’re all alone out here in these individual fleshy sacks!

But, I want to stress, the book isn’t about assigning blame or trying to hurt anyone — it is about analysis not  ‘settling scores’ but re-paying physic debt. Through writing The Good Dark I was working out problems and subconscious tensions in my own life — trying to understand where my motivations come from. So, I tend to apologise. I tend to admit mistakes or re-imagine where something went wrong. Often, the act of writing and editing is about making me feel better for how I feel.

But also, as you say, sometimes just about ascribing words and hearing those words is therapeutic in and of itself. I feel like I’m doing both things in this collection and I think Dave Coates summed this all up better in his review of The Good Dark than I’m doing here.

“the poetry of loss in The Good Dark, particularly loss of love, is not bitter or recriminatory, but a kind of analysis, a recognition of one’s own failure, even a manner of apology. The book’s opening poem, ‘The Duke in Pines’, inhabits a time significantly after the initial parting, in a kind of workaday breathing space between loss and closure…”

Where do you feel most at home?

Ryan: My head, of course.


The Good Dark Available Now From Penned in the Margins


– Penned in the Margins — 16 May

– — 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

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, live artist, podcaster and critic living in Edinburgh. His poems have appeared in New Writing Scotland, The Prairie Schooner, The American Poetry Review, AGNI and The Australian Book Review. His second collection - The Good Dark - is out from Penned in the Margins. He is the host and co-producer of the arts podcast Culture Laser and the poetry podcast for the Scottish Poetry Library.


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