“I’m not the kind of poet who can write about the place where I am.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot in the last few years, but very little has come out of that in terms of work about place, which surprises me – and occasionally even disappoints me. It certainly disappoints other people!”
“But I don’t do that thing of ‘I am in Greece and look at the sun and how it falls on the monument’. I can’t do it. But my memory is always stronger in a different place, you get a smell that reminds you of something.”
Words tumble with poet Ryan Van Winkle. He seizes them enthusiastically, chewing them over like he’s digesting sentences. He wants your ideas, your thoughts – they’re triggers, like the memories that only blossom into verse when he’s not where they were any more. He’s a Connecticut transplant, living in Edinburgh. But his poetry isn’t about there. “The reason I’m here is the stupidest in the world. I came because I heard Hogmanay in 1999 was going to be a really good party. That’s how I came to live here. Totally by accident.”
I met him in Edinburgh in 2013, on a staircase, in the blur of the Festival. He was carrying a suitcase and had a civil war moustache. He didn’t seem quite real. He smiled and was inscrutable. We went to a red room, hidden away like Narnia, full of past things on shelves – toys, postcards and the kind of stuff you keep in the corners of your brain.
“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.” (Me, back then.)
He offered me port and read me his poems. His voice lulled, but there was edge. His verse wasn’t bucolic – it was a rustle in the trees of a landscape. Something else was there, a fretting thing, something lurking. It was beautiful-ugly. It was Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel.
And now it’s folded into The Good Dark, Van Winkle’s latest collection of poems.
“[L]ike a heavy book
Dropped in the dark.
Not a crack appeared
In your eyes but this lingers
inside me like that dream
when we were in bed and you spoke
with her mouth
at my shivering dick”
(‘Window, Not Sky’)
There’s a break-up behind these poems. And guilt and curiosity and a turning things over. “But they’re not straight-up narrative poems so anyone looking for prurient details of my life or my former partner’s life, probably isn’t going to find them,” van Winkle says when we speak. (Aptly, after some difficulty and unanswered telephones.) “But I guess I did have a wet dream.”
“I think the thrust of this book is coming to terms with not knowing and being uncertain. I do think, you know, that for a long time – in our younger lives, especially – I could have been strident at times. I think realising that you don’t know things and you don’t have all the answers and things don’t necessarily always add up is a big part of the process of writing poetry for me in general.”
Van Winkle’s words gather pace like this, his thoughts built more of commas than full-stops. “I’m trying to discover how I feel about something, I’m trying, often times, to make things better in a way, or make sense of them.”
The poems in this collection are liberated by this searching. They’re beautiful in the friction, of grasping and not quite clutching – the good, true things fall out of the space between. They land softly. “Maybe I should / let them be, let the crystals pile high, raise / the roof beams – maybe this week or next / I will place one rare flake in a cigar box, / leave it at your door by way of explanation.’ (‘Untitled, The Decemberists’)
Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel was “a hoarding. Hoarding the emotions of a relationship, hoarding the emotions of childhood, those pure emotions that you can have and the way certain things and objects make you feel secure,” van Winkle reflects. “But at what point do you get burdened by them? At what point are you hiding yourself from the world?”
He knew a woman in college, “a lovely woman,” who one day told him what his spirit animal was, a squirrel. It was a warning to him, “one of those kids who collects those stupid bar coasters,” the voracious postcard-writer who “wanted a piece of me to make it to somebody,” about greedy holding-on. “She was like, ‘You’re going to have to be careful, you’re going to have to spit something out at some point.”
He laughs down the line. It’s stuck with him, filleting the pages of The Good Dark and the weighing of his poems. It’s a book that, “largely for wont of a better metaphor, is a process of negotiating the nuts which are in my mouth!”
It sounds rude. I snigger, then he does. We’re like kids.
The Good Dark, by Ryan van Winkle, is available now, published by Penned in the Margins.