How to Ignore All Practical Advice and Become a Poet

When all other Newhouse grads flocked to New York City, Ryan Van Winkle traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland in pursuit of a New Year’s Eve party in August 1999. Sixteen years later, he has become a distinguished poet, a podcast host, and an international artist. Lucky us, he sat down with Lou for a quick Q&A.

Words By Kait Hobson | Submitted photo by Ryan Van Winkle

As an SU senior, Ryan Van Winkle rejected all professorial and career advice about what to do after he stepped across the convocation stage and into the real world. In fact, his successful career as an award-winning poet and live artist has been built on doing exactly the opposite of conventional wisdom and on following his curiosity. After graduation, his friends flocked to the media mecca of New York City. Van Winkle, 38, wanted to act on his wanderlust, wanted to avoid the post-grad hustle. A professor gave him the endorsement he needed. “I told him, ‘Look, don’t tell your parents I’m saying this, but now is the time for you to travel,’” says Charles Salzberg, novelist, journalist, and former magazine professor. Van Winkle did just that. After receiving his magazine degree in 1999, Van Winkle took his grandfather’s well-worn leather briefcase — a signature of his undergrad presence that, along with shoulder-length, curly brown hair, a preference for baggy khakis, and his beloved green army jacket, added to his decidedly anti-establishment look and P.O.V. — and headed to Europe. He picked his destination based on the simple reasoning that he heard Edinburgh offered a great New Year’s Eve party. “I ended up here very much by accident, the same way people must end up in Cleveland or wherever,” says Van Winkle. Whatever the reasoning, the move proved wise in the long-run. In Edinburgh, Van Winkle built a collective of artists and activists called the Forrest Collective, earned a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh in creative writing, became the Scottish Poetry Library’s first Reader in Residence, and in 2010 earned the 2009 Crashaw Prize for his first book of poetry Tomorrow We Will Live Here.

Much like his career choices, Van Winkle’s work is unexpected, memorable, and filled with great stories. The pieces in his most recent work, The Good Dark, revolve around childhood, growing up, falling in love and losing love. His poetry performances are intimate. He often designs a bedroom set where he can speak his poetry aloud to one person at a time–making for an intimate and personal performance. The listener can get up and look around at the objects in the room and feel his poetry, each person reacts to it in a different way. The Guardian put him on their watch list and said his performances are “An intimate, emotional experience guaranteed to win over even the most poetry-phobic.” Here he takes time to speak with Lou writer Kait Hobson. He reminisces about his last summer in Syracuse, shares stories of his recent trips to Syria and Pakistan to promote cultural exchange through creative work, and explains how putting together a book is a lot like a Bruce Springsteen album.

How did you go from being a Newhouse grad to living in Scotland?

I studied abroad in London while at ‘cuse, and when I was about to graduate a few different things were happening. First, I’m lazy, which is part of the issue because I decided when everyone was graduating and looking for jobs that I was tired, and I knew I didn’t really want to move to New York. I didn’t want to have an internship and settle down in a publishing firm.

So, I applied for a program and was set up with a six-month work visa. I thought “I can totally delay real life for six months.” I am flying and I’m out of here and leaving the country. I had a few professional reasons for that. I thought I wanted some “experience” of living in a different place to get a different perspective.

 So in 1999, my friend and I, we both flew over here in September. We chose Edinburgh because we heard there was a good New Year’s Eve party. And it did not live up to any expectations but I did end up staying for a variety of reasons. Eventually I started working at an arts collective called the Forest—it’s a dream project that I didn’t know I was looking for, which was a volunteer-based free arts and events space masquerading as a vegetarian café.

 What effect does living in Scotland and traveling have on your writing?

As a young writer I was interested in all types of writing—fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and short stories, but it was not a burning ambition. I wrote poems. I was in Michael Burkard’s poetry class, and I started to understand what poetry can do and I really enjoyed workshopping with other poets because you sit in a group and talk seriously about each other’s work. I found by the end of Syracuse I was quite tired of journalism; and I would love to be a great journalist, but I didn’t have the strength or confidence to go through the hardship of not being a great journalist to be a journalist. Oddly, poetry was a way for me to write about experiences that felt more honest and I stepped out of me having to be loyal to facts and the responsibility of having to tell someone else’s story, which weighed heavily on me. I could do better in poems to get at an emotional truth rather than a literal truth. I thought I could be more honest.

How have you been able to make a living from writing?

 There are different ways to make a living so I do a lot of reader in residence at the Scottish Poetry Library—encouraging people to read poems, presenting workshops at schools, encouraging kids to write poems—so, that’s one way to make some cash. I’ve hosted a number of podcasts about Scottish poetry for cultural institutions, Creative Scotland, which is the grant-giving body here and they occasionally give some money to me to work on something or travel. I work for Higher Arts and work in places of conflict to combat stereotypes in places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and through the arts so that pays some money sometimes. Like any freelance career, it’s about being flexible and having diverse interests and skills. I grew up in this very hectic arts culture and arts space, and having managed that for a number of years I can do a variety of things and put on a gig or cabaret.

Where do you draw inspiration from for your poetry?

It can be something from real life but often times I get excited about writing from reading other poets, fiction, and nonfiction. I try to read things like a writer, always paying attention to how a writer or an artist makes something work and when I see that I get excited. I’ll use everyday experience or things I get in the news to jam it in, but I don’t have a well of inspiration. I have themes I go back to again and again, which I think most artists do.

What is it like to perform your work?

I’ve been to one-on-one performances but it would be ridiculous and far too intense. For me, It’s usually a room, used to evoke a feeling, where I embed people in this little room and read four-to-five poems in 20 minutes. In that environment, I don’t even look the person in the eye, and I don’t move around and I don’t try to sell them the poem through delivery. So I keep the poems the way I would read them to myself almost, so I don’t consider the performance when writing the poem.

When you create your books how much time goes into bounding those poems together, what story do you try to tell with poetry. Some fiction writers will just have a collection of short stories, how do you feel about your work?

I write a lot of poems, and after a number of years they sit there and I look at them regularly and put together a manuscript. It’s a sifting process, and eventually after 300 poems certain themes and styles and feelings emerge. When I go to put together a book, I know I’m not going to put everything in that book. I’m trying to curate a whole unit. I read a lot about how Bruce Springsteen makes albums and this idea that they have to tell a story. Poems don’t have to tell a story; it’s too novelistic, but they have to make an argument or consistency of some sort. I’m looking for poems that create a theme in certain ways or for poems that feel the same way tonally and there’s enough variation in the tones that the book isn’t boring but I’m looking for a certain feeling to go throughout—a thread and arc. I do curate the books. My collections aren’t my greatest hits. I believe that an art exhibition or a book of poems is kind of an argument—a solution to a problem. I consider my books the solution to a problem.  

 Could you explain what it is like to travel abroad to Pakistan with Highlight Arts?

Highlight Arts brings people together, basically. The first thing I did with them outside the UK is going to Syria and Pakistan for a festival. We had a few poets, three-to-four Scottish poets, three-to-four Lebanese and Syrian poets. We got them to translate each other’s work. They sit there with a poem that’s been translated into really rough Arabic and English and they ask what are you talking about. They have to explain that the tomato is symbolic and they go in and unpack all the images about why they wrote it the way they did. Line by line. They establish trust and a friendship across cultures and they come up with some really good poems because they’re both people who are talented in their own languages.

We do it with music and poetry and we do it with visual artists and murals and then we present that and, we hope, good quality art to show that artists and people are basically the same no matter where you go. Most people just want to meet a good person to dance on a Friday night, have enough food in their stomach. Most people miss their mom and the things that are common between us are a great experience. To watch two poets not familiar with each others work or traditions come together.

 Can I hear a few stories about your time at SU? What writing professors did you have and is there a memorable moment?

I had the benefit of learning from Michael Burkard, a great poet in Syracuse. He always would use the word ‘interesting.’ He particularly didn’t like typos in our work and would find the typos more interesting than the work. He knew they were typos, and he’d say they were great because the writing was often so banal that the typo was more engaging. I kept that with me. I love that I can hardly read my own handwriting. I’ll think ‘It looks like I said cake there. I don’t know how that fits into my poem.’ That’s a professor who really stood out in terms of where my life has ended up. I also remember really bad parties and ice luges, and I remember that final summer and I stayed in Syracuse. I thought, ‘I’m gonna turn off the lights on this experience.’ I stayed and cycled around and explored the city in a way that in the previous four years I didn’t do. I would definitely move back to Syracuse. I worked for a company during that summer and had a handful of friends that I kind of didn’t really know that well, one of whom who has become one of my closest friends and since there weren’t many people we became really good friends. It was nice to watch Syracuse slide away.