Ryan Van Winkle: A Work In Progress

<strong>Ryan Van Winkle</strong>, reader in residence at The Scottish Poetry Library, Editor of <em>The Edinburgh Review</em>, and used to write reviews for The Skinny. So when he said his first book of poems was being published, our Reading Editor was so sure it’d be great that he thought it be best to get him to critique it himself…

Feature by Keir Hind | 20 Dec 2010

And so he began, somewhat hesitantly, with this 100 word review:

I don't read poetry. I just don't get it. So, with that in mind – I'm lucky to be reviewing Ryan Van Winkle's first book of poetry. The cover has a trendy "Where The Wild Things Are" font. I liked that film. I'm a big fan of whimsy. I have seen everything by Wes Anderson. The cover image looks like some hipster / indie wedding in Indiana. It is perfect bound. It has about 60 pages. The back has some pleasant quotes by people I've never heard of. But, they are all positive. Oh my, I'm out of space already!

"Jumping Jehosaphat of Jerusalem!" I told him. "You can't do that! Lock yourself in a room and don't come out until you've written a serious review, literary style," I said. "We're trying to sell your book here!" And so he came back with the following:

America. A distinct lack of formalism. A distinct lack of regular meter or rhyme. Violence. A little sex. A distance in the voices of the speakers. Quiet. Understated. Plain-spoken. These poems don't blow one away. They are not pyro-technic. They get under your fingernails like the grime that appears after a long, drunk night. These poems are like Seinfield – about 'nothing' – but without laughs. That said, if you like all that Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love business this might be the collection for you.

"Crippled crab on a crutch!" I opined. "What are you trying to do, fool people into trying this out?! Okay, maybe this ain't your thing. Look, come back to me with a poem, maybe you'll pitch it better with what you know." And so he did come back with a poem, a haiku no less:

Violence. Quiet. Sex.
Distinct American grime.
We talk about love.

"Bitter bananas of Basho! I cried. "There's the seed of something there. Okay, here's what you should do," I told him. "1) Get yourself down to the nearest airport. 2) Go into their bookshop. 3) Look at the blurb of any book there. 4) Write something like that blurb, but using the same words, in the same order, that were in the haiku you just wrote." And if this don't sell books, nothing will:

It is 1977 and a seemingly random act of disturbing violence begins to have strange affects on a quiet Florida town. People stop having sex. The distinct smell of cabbage haunts the air. As police try to unravel the case – once pristine beaches are covered with an inexplicable and dark soot. Scientists have no explanation but they know the foreign substance is migrating towards town. American Airlines cancels all flights into and out of Florida. Soon, all other modes of travel are restricted due to "The Grime". "We cannot comment," is all the Army Corps of Engineers will say of the mysterious happenings. Soon, talk turns into action as citizens turn against each other. No one is immune. Americans blame immigrants. Brothers turn against brothers and even love becomes fear.

"Galloping Ghost of Grisham" sayeth I, "That was almost perfect. But you missed the word 'about'. Damn." "Oh well," I told him, "I'll have to punish you, I'm afraid. Write me a limerick! I'm told they're popular or something, maybe that's how to pitch poetry". I should warn you that Ryan hated the result, but here, for the record, it is:

There once was a boy from Connecticut

who went as far as Scotland to forget it

he wrote a little book
and wanted people to look

so here he is trying to f'n sell it.

Oh dear. Well, maybe this joke has gone too far. In honesty, Ryan is a far better poet than the ludicrous lines from Limerick above suggest, so I finally decided on the honest angle: I'd just print one of his poems and you, dear reader, can buy the book if you like what you see. So here we go:

Retrieving the Dead

The losing army litters the roads we’ve paved.

We ride on the dead, getting to town, going home.

The dark raccoon, a sun-blind dog at midday.

We slow, drive in low gear till the guilt’s blown.

Rain and maggots take the flesh. But,

sometimes the stench sticks in our entrails.

We have our own stones, the smell ruins a veal cut;

a neighbor calls the town council

and I come in jeans with a shovel and an orange truck.

All summer the roads tally bodies like bumps

of fur and blood from route 11 to Walnut.

I peel the carnage, haul the dead to the dump,

lift the soldiers up, try not to breathe till they’re tossed

into our trenches of tea bags, messed diapers, spare parts.

Hey, this kid's got talent! Anyway, Ryan's collection, Tomorrow We Will Live Here is available now, published by Salt publishing, cover price £9.99. And if you've made it to the end of this piece, you propbably owe it to yourself to buy it