Ryan Eckes is a poet who lives in South Philadelphia. His books include Valu-Plus and Old News (Furniture Press 2014, 2011). You can read some of his poems in Tripwire, The Brooklyn Rail, Slow Poetry in America Newsletter, Supplement, Public Pool, Whirlwind and on his blog. He is the recipient of a 2016 Pew Fellowship in the Arts.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Writing Old News, my first book, was my first experience working on a book as a single work—that is, as a project rather than a collection of discrete poems. The book wound up as a record of thinking through a place and time, and it changed the way I think about poetry. The practice of pushing questions raised by one poem into the next, and then further and further, letting myself get lost, so that I really get somewhere, in my mind and in the story, was a new thing. The writing of each book changes me in some way. I also feel myself age through each one—this is certainly true of the manuscript I just finished, General Motors, which took three and a half years.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to fiction first, in college. I took a course my freshman year called “Existentialism in Literature”, then started taking creative writing workshops, fiction and nonfiction. In my last year, out of curiosity, I took a few poetry classes, lit and writing, and was converted to the dark side. I owe a lot to these teachers: Jeffrey Nealon, Ken Rumble, and CS Giscombe.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
In general, I am slow. A teacher once pointed out to me that I “like to ruminate.”
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Since writing Old News, I’ve worked book by book. I begin with some framework, though the restraints are usually fluid and I don’t always know where I’m going. I let the act of composition determine the shape of the thing.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes. I love doing readings. Really that’s the whole point. As I’m working on a poem, I read it out loud to myself over and over until it hits.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
How do you write something that someone will feel? What words, in what arrangement, will connect the people sitting together in a room? What will let us think together?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writers whose work matters to me question the way things are and make me think or feel something deeply. There are many roles but one obvious one is to write the truth. Right now, truth feels like a snare drum synced with a fist to a nazi’s face.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve never had an official editor, but feedback in whatever form is useful.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
If you’re lost in a forest and have no idea which way to go, go for it straight ahead because it’s not likely to be any worse than anything else. That’s Descartes, via David Antin. Also: live variously.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’m currently on a Pew fellowship, so it looks like this: coffee first, then the news, then emails. Then some pacing. Then I sit down, look at what I wrote yesterday and continue or re-write or veer in another direction. Generally I split the day between writing and reading (mostly poetry and history) in my apartment, and sitting there thinking why I feel the way I do, how strange it is to be a living thing in the world. I try to take one long walk a day to air the brain out, let things in, meet a friend for coffee or beer.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Haha! I don’t know.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Conversations with friends and strangers. And music and art. I’m very lucky to have a brilliant musician for a brother who keeps me in the loop on new music. I try to get out to see as much art as possible.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Too many to name, but a few important non-poetry books over the last year: The Traffic Power Structure by Planka.nu; The Death & Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement by Stanley Aronowitz; The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study by Stefano Harney & Fred Moten; Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution by Dan Georgakas & Marvin Surkin; The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sarah Schulman.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to fall in love inside socialism. I would like to start a newspaper with likeminded people. I would like to become fluent in Spanish and translate poems. I would like to write an ongoing poem that answers this question.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
This question reminds me of a poem from The Book of Frank by CAConrad in which the host of a party asks everyone where they’d prefer to have cancer if they had to have cancer . . . I think all of the millionaires and billionaires should work for the rest of us. I just worked as a union organizer for a couple of years and I could’ve continued down that path; maybe I’ll return. I was committed to it but the lack of time to write was eating my soul. I’ve also enjoyed teaching but again, same problem.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Something I don’t yet understand.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Certain Magical Acts by Alice Notley. The last great film I watched was Harlan County, USA by Barbara Kopple.
19 - What are you currently working on?
The manuscript I just finished is called General Motors. It’s about labor and public and private transportation and love. It’s too early to say what’s next.