Ryan Van Winkle: The Virtual Book Tour

Ryan Van Winkle
Category: Reading

Edinburgh-based poet Ryan Van Winkle has just released his second collection of poems The Good Dark. He came to visit us on his virtual book tour and was subjected to some very real questions about his very real new collection.

We discovered what Ryan would do if the poetry apocalypse hit, learned about some of his unexpected influences and the truth behind his peculiar name...


Why poems? (have you considered short stories/a novel?)

Good question. The short answer is that I ‘chose’ to write poetry because I’m lazy and poems are short. They don’t require the sustained attention of a novel or, even, a short story.

The longer answer is that as a kid, I can remember very clearly writing stories and just never finishing them or getting so tangled trying to set everything up just the way it happened that I never got to the actual ‘story’ part. I kept at it and got a little better at finishing and I’ve made a few stories which focused on a moment or a conversation. But nothing really happened in them -- they were very sub-Carver in that way. I think there’s one in an old Edinburgh magazine we used to make called ‘Smallfry’. Maybe there’s a copy in the NLS.

Anyway, I didn’t choose poetry, really. I dabbled with short stories, essays and I was pretty serious about journalism for a long time. See, when I was younger, I was trying to do it all and there has been a gradual closing of doors as I got older. Basically, since 1999 I saw my poems getting better faster than my prose and I had problems with being a journalist. I was doing travel writing and some arts journalism and I’d had pieces in the Boston Globe, The Glasgow Herald, The Scotsman and a few other international papers and magazines. I even contributed essays to a book about Lockerbie. But I never felt like I was articulating truth even though I was using facts. There’s really good, inspiring long-form journalism out there -- David Simon, Hunter S Thompson, James Fallows and others -- which really do amazing things. Also, on the other side of the journalism spectrum, there’s huge value in beat reporting and local reporting which I still have a lot of respect for. I wish I could be involved in either because I do miss reporting and think it can be truly meaningful, truly impactful in a way which poetry and fiction just can’t be. However, the journalism I was practicing was very much ‘Tell us about Oslo in 500 words’ and I just couldn’t give the reader an authentic Oslo in that many words.  

As I pulled back from being a journalist I realized that I’m not quite interested in telling a story per se and that a story or a narrative isn’t always honest, even if it is true. I feel like with poetry I can be more honest, can convey a feeling rather than be concerned about telling the reader a tale or imparting information.


When did you have your epiphany ‘poetry moment’ and realised this was for you?

I suppose there have been many. As I said, it has been a very gradual process -- I don’t think anybody says, ‘I’m going to be a poet now’ but instead you keep working and working and eventually it becomes less ridiculous to say ‘that’s what I do’.

Partly, it goes back to what was lacking in my journalistic practice. I wanted to explain how an event or a city or an author made me feel rather than describe the things that were giving me that feeling. I’ve never been to a protest or event or exhibition which managed to capture my experience of that event and I saw that it was impossible. But yet Jarvis Cocker could write a song which captured everyone’s festival experience. I wanted to be able to do that! So, once I firmly gave up writing journalism, poems became my main medium with which to articulate my inner and outer experiences. I felt I could be more emotionally honest if I wasn’t hewed to the rigors of journalism or to the narrative drive of fiction.

Going further back, however, I think a lot of what gave me the confidence to write poetry was a deep, deep ignorance of the form. I basically thought, like Charles Bukowski, that there were no good or honest poets out there. My reading was limited to him and a couple of contemporaries I liked but most of what I’d find at the local bookshop was unintelligible, stale, bloodless, academic. I had no clue how much brilliant poetry is being produced all the time and so, as a young person, I saw a void I could fit into. And poems I was attracted to, like Federico Garcia Lorca’s ‘New Heart’ or Hayden Carruth’s ‘Quality of Wine’, were profoundly meaningful to me. So, from around 16 I was very much into the limited amount of stuff I read but also was dumb enough to think there was room for me.

Perhaps the penny fully dropped at Syracuse University. I did a creative writing elective with Michael Burkard whose poems blew my mind. More importantly, he looked at what I was writing and showed me work he thought I’d be able to learn from, poets I was immediately attracted to like Etheridge Knight, Joy Harjo, Cornelius Eady, Robert Creeley and others. Not only did I begin to realise the quality of work out there -- but that there were different ways to write a poem. I was stuck on Charles Bukowski and Richard Brautigan the way I see some younger British poets hung up on Wordsworth, Donne, and other canonical characters. You can’t help sounding like what you love at the beginning so adding more names to the list of those I loved was really potent.

Also, I was in my first ever writing group with Jennifer Cross, Nic Darling and Chelsa Santoro -- all of whom have poems I still look back on fondly. It was the first time I had poetry friends and it felt like I’d found a cohort. We even produced a chapbook by stealing time on a university photo copier. The book was called ‘And Hats Too’ and we called ourselves the Tenants of the Lighthouse. You won’t find it at the NLS.


If all poetry was banned for the rest of time, what occupation would you adopt?

I want to know more about this situation -- has some dictator taken over the country? Why do they hate poetry -- were they beaten with Dante’s Inferno as a child, did Carol Ann Duffy murder their uncle? Fascinating premise -- probably more fascinating than my answer as I don’t consider writing poetry my occupation in the way journalism would have been an occupation.

However, I reckon I’d happily go back to organising events, publishing and other aspects of the work I did when I was fully involved at The Forest. I love facilitating other people’s work, I love the chaos of a busy event and I love working with other people to achieve something, anything. I still get to do lots of events and organising with The Forest and Highlight Arts and Culture Laser but I used to do it all year round and it was exhausting and brilliant and soul destroying and revelatory and perfect all at the same time. So, I’d probably get into running festivals, events or projects for an arts charity if I ever got tired of being a freelancer.  

I also would enjoy teaching, trying my hand at stand-up comedy, or being a postie. I’m a frustrated all three of those things.


Have you found any unexpected things end up influencing your work?

I’m more surprised by what doesn’t seem to influence me -- for instance, I’m not much influenced by travel, which I think is a waste. I mean, I should be getting something artistic out of a trip to Berlin but I never manage to write much when I’m away from home. Perhaps it is a hangup from my days as a travel journalist -- when I’m on the road I just want to experience things, I don’t want to be processing them, writing them down. Oddly, if I feel compelled to use a pen when I travel, I draw cartoons. Dan Méth taught me that -- they’re a lot more fun to go back to than my own ‘it was hot in Athens / my shirt stuck’ kind of garbage road poetry.

However, in The Good Dark, I was surprised to be influenced by an essay on Dylan Thomas’ line ‘a grief ago’ which led wholly to ‘A Raincoat, A Spell of Rain Ago’.

I was also surprised to find that I could write about things which I didn’t know anything about like football. In 2010 I was asked by Dave Coates and Al Innes to do some World Cup poems for a chapbook he was putting together. I didn’t want to do it having never really researched a poem before. Turns out -- it was great fun to write that way, to look up stories and words, and historic matches. There’s some great stories out there -- the war which started between Honduras and El Salvador, the legend of the Hand of God. I could connect in a way with some of that stuff and I discovered how far I could push my own empathy.

Anyway, I thought the poems turned out okay and that’s been really influential since I’d been very resistant to commissions -- ‘write us a poem about owls!’ -- and being told what to write about. Thanks to that World Cup project I saw that poems didn’t have to come, wholesale, from my own head. I’d always used other people’s lives or gotten inspired by a newspaper clipping but I was never proactive about finding that kind of material. Turns out where there’s people doing things, there are poems to be written. Writing about football seemed very contradictory to me but the whole range of human emotion is there and some great metaphors and images too. That was certainly a surprise to me.

What is the last thing you read?

Besides the Internet? I’ve recently finished Mary Ruefle’s Trances of the Blast (which has one of my favourite poems in it) and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn.


And is your name really Ryan Van Winkle, or did you make that up?

Yep. And I can’t even imagine why anyone thinks I’d make that name up -- of all the names in the world. If I could make up my own name I’d be a Vandelay and I’d be an architect.

That said, I can remember my father telling me I’d appreciate the name as I got older. People will remember it, he said. Which, they do, for whatever that is worth.


The Good Dark Available Now From Penned in the Margins


Follow Ryan on his real and virtual book tours around the country and internet: 



1 June, London, Waterstones Piccadilly, 7pm

w/ Naomi Booth


2 June, Cardiff, 7pm

Waterloo Tea at the Wyndham Arcade

w/ Nia Davies & special surprise guests!!!


3 June, Glasgow, Tell it slant, 7pm

w/ Matthew Siegel


4 June, Edinburgh, Blackwells Bookshop Edinburgh, South Bridge, 6.30pm

w/ Matthew Siegel

FREE After party at The Forest from 8pm -- featuring musical guests Supermoon & Faith Eliott and more ...



Penned in the Margins -- 16 May

Scottish Poetry Library -- 19 May

Inpress Books -- 20 May

The Poetry School -- 21 May

3:AM Magazine -- 25 May

Sabotage Reviews -- 29 May

Shakespeare and Company Bookshop -- June 1

Scottish Book Trust: June 2

Ofi Press Mexico -- 4 June

The Missing Slate -- June 7

B O D Y -- June 10


Photo credits: Ericka Duffy/ Chris Scott

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