‘Nothing is not giving messages’ reads the sign on the red shelf, in the red room, under the staircase. I am sitting drinking port on a single bed, under the glassy gaze of a tattered teddy bear propped up on a pillow. In front of me, perched on a small stool is Ryan van Winkle, a poet. He is drinking tea while reading the first of four poems. The air is thick with incense and steam from the recently boiled red kettle drifts in the air. We are the only people here.
This piece is billed as ‘an intimate poetry performance’, which is no overstatement. When the fairytale-named van Winkle – a Connecticut transplant with a Civil War moustache – collected me from a busy stairwell one floor above, he was clutching a battered suitcase. Even before I entered the room, its walls plastered with postcards and mementos, it was as though I was going on a journey. If that sounds twee, this was how it felt at first. The twinkling red fairy lights festooning the painted brickwork suggested something worryingly cloying; a new-age reinvention of the paraphernalia of the past as a return to the womb. I regarded the colour with figurative suspicion.
But this is 20-minute experience is richer and more unsettling than it initially appears. Van Winkle presents you with four envelopes – each containing a poem written by him – for you to choose one. This decides the order he reads them and how you interpret your surroundings. ‘My’ poem, a reminiscence of childhood, had me noticing a Fisher Price tape recorder, a china Winnie-the-Pooh and toys on a top shelf. But, of course, red is bloody as well as warm. In the poem, a younger brother is maliciously branded with a burning seat belt. An edge enters van Winkle’s voice. I avoid the teddy’s unblinking eyes and remember how much I hate dolls.
The remaining three poems are a cluster of exposed nerves, cycling back through relationships and world history to the eeriness of a time before hats, books, yellowing photos and holiday souvenirs; a blank place, with none of the stuff we need to tell stories about who we are. The packed room feels less like a haven from the bustle of the Edinburgh Festival and more like a bunker. As van Winkle finishes reading, the atmosphere has changed from cosy to claustrophobic. I want to hide that bloody teddy bear under the quilt.
Van Winkle exits after the recital, leaving you to look around. But, by then, I had lost my appetite to snoop. 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. At the same time, it had become more beautiful and strange than I had expected, set against the ebb and flow of van Winkle’s elemental poetry. Go and experience it – even if you might be thankful for the open door by the end.