Ryan Vine’s debut full collection To Keep Him Hidden (Salmon, 2018) was a finalist for the May Swenson Prize, the New Issues Prize, the Crab Orchard Series, the MVP Prize from New Rivers Press, and—selected by Robert Pinsky—the Dorset Prize.
His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Ireland Review, Verse Daily, on National Public Radio and elsewhere. His chapbook, Distant Engines (Backwaters Press, 2006), won a Weldon Kees Award and spent time on the Poetry Foundation’s contemporary best-seller list.
He’s received the Greensboro Review’s Robert Watson Poetry Prize, McKnight/ARAC Career Development Grants, an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in Poetry from the Sewanee Writers' Conference and has been a finalist or nominee for numerous other honors, including the Pushcart Prize.
Ryan is associate professor, a member of the Honors faculty and Chair of the English Department at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN.
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?
My chapbook made me feel seen. I’d been serving tables and adjuncting after an MFA program and feeling mostly lost. When I got the call from Backwaters Press that Distant Engines had won a chapbook prize, I was—of course—elated. What a liberating experience for a young writer!
But I wonder if in a way it wasn’t damaging, too. I coasted for a while, I think. I celebrated for too long, I think. Over 10 years passed between my chapbook and To Keep Him Hidden.
Much has happened in the ten years it took to write the book, though. I was teaching full-time. I bought a house. I got married. I had a kid. I had another kid. I lost a good friend. I lost another good friend. I also moved to a more direct approach to my subject matter. I'm now closer to the poems I’m trying to write.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I grew up on Hip Hop. Hip Hop led me to poetry. I was fascinated with metaphor and wordplay. What kept me here, though, was the purity or intensity of expression I found in poetry. When I encountered Robert Bly and James Wright and William Stafford, it felt like I was hearing for the first time an older male speaking honestly to me, without fear or anger or whatever else muddies our most pure expressions.
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?
I work for years, and slowly, on poems. Mary Ruefle, one of my faves, said something in an interview that stuck with me: “I generate poems.” That’s how I feel, Mary! That’s how I feel!
On the good days, the poems are churning and rolling around just waiting to come out. Sometimes I’m brave enough to sit down and get some work done. On the bad days, there’s silence.
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?
A poem never begins in the same way twice for me, it seems, so it’s hard to answer this one. I also have such a shitty memory; I wouldn’t be able to answer it honestly. Poems come from other poems; TV commercials; a big bunch of tiger lilies; my son on the sidewalk in front of me, about to kick a ball; an overheard conversation; music; dreams, etc., etc.. That’s one of the things I love about poetry. It seems limitless in the places it can both come from and take us to.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to enjoy doing readings. I do still enjoy the energy from a good crowd, but now I find the time before the reading (which can last sometimes for days) damaging. I don’t know, as I get older I try to avoid that kind of manic energy.
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?
Work itself is the question. I mean, honestly, why do anything? Each successful poem is a tiny, new path in the direction opposite confusion and despair.
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?
Such a tough question. I mean, I love the idea of the writer as a human being simply be-ing (while of course capturing in language that “be-ing” in such a way that the reader is convinced that what she’s reading is real). At the same time, though, I love the idea of writer as activist and writer as shaman and writer as unacknowledged legislator and writer as prophet and writer as no good low down reprobate. I have no idea what the role of the writer should be. Most days, I don’t feel like a writer.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s essential. It’s difficult, sure, but writing is difficult. If it’s easy, as they say, you’re doing it wrong.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Read, read, read. Read everything, not just poetry: novels, short stories, novellas, essays, memoirs, etc. etc. Tom Lux once said, “for every page you write, read one hundred.”
But the best advice I received (especially when having to navigate the political pitfalls of academia) came from John Skoyles. He said to me years ago when I was applying for a job, “keep your head down and do your work.” That “keep your head down” is just as important as “do your work.” I work with a lot of people who’d prefer me decapitated.
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?
Because I teach full-time and am 50/50 on the kids with my wife (she’s a photographer), I have to take the time when it happens. Like right now: I’m writing on my butt in the piano teacher’s backyard in the shade of a big red pine. There’s a tiny, white moth climbing up through the grass. Leo, my 4 year old, is in the house banging out a wonky tune.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Poetry. I read.
Also, the woods. I go for a run through the woods or a long walk (or a hike, as the hipsters like to say). Before I had children, I’d go get hammered. I mean, I’d really tie one on. What’s that the loggers used to say, burning out the grease? You gotta clean the lines once and a while.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Boiled cabbage and whiskey.
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?
I need my time in the woods. I’ve heard writers I admire say the woods are boring. My god, could you imagine? Terrifying, sure. Incomprehensible, you betcha. Beautiful, of course. But boring? What a bizarre sentiment.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
John Berryman’s Dream Songs affected me deeply. So, too, has Maurice Manning’s work. Have you read Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions or Bucolics or One Man’s Dark? There’s a music in Manning’s work which music barely rivals.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
It’s been years since I’ve had a good nap.
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?
I love to sing. I also play (quite poorly) guitar. I guess I’d busk?
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The solitude. It’s like the only time of the day when I feel like I’m thinking for myself.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Long-Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin. It’s a fantastic novel set on the shores of Lake Superior. I could go on and on about it.
Not sure if it’s great, but the BBC Documentary “HyperNormalisation” I saw last year scared the shit out of me.
19 - What are you currently working on?
12 or 20 (second series) questions;