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April 11, 2010

Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Kerry Ryan

This is the way the world works: I met Kerry Ryan last fall when her sister married my husband’s friend, and we were introduced at the wedding reception as two Kerrys who like books. As I enjoyed meeting her, I borrowed her book The Sleeping Life from the library, and absolutely loved it. These days, I have my own copy and was very happy to reread it in preparation for this interview, which was conducted over three days last week, with Kerry answering my questions by email from her home in Winnipeg.

I: Hi Kerry. I started rereading your book this morning– the first section “Winter Itch” sure seems more foreign and exotic here in April than it did back in December, which is a relief. The first thing I want to ask you about is your collection’s narrative “I”. When I’m talking to fiction writers, I make a real point of avoiding conflation of the writer’s and the narrator’s voices, but this seems harder to do with poetry (unless we’re reading something like Gwendolyn MacEwen’s TE Lawrence poems, but even then…). Do you agree? And the following is not a veiled question as to your work’s autobiographical content, because frankly, I don’t care about that, but I would like to know how you talk about the “I” of these poems without referring to yourself. Can you?

KR: Great question! I DO find it difficult to separate the poet from the poem — both as a reader and a writer. I’m not sure why we, as readers, make these assumptions with poetry and not fiction. Is it because there’s not (generally) the same attention to character development in a poem as a story, and thus less distance between the writer and the voice? Or because there’s a tradition of poetry being confessional and soul-baring, a kind of mystique around poems coming from a deeper, more intimate place within the writer? I don’t know. But, as much as I hate stereotypes, I do think we’re usually right to deduce a poem’s “I” is the author, at least at some level.

As a poet, it’s important to me that my work be grounded in genuine experience. But that’s very different than historical accuracy. (How freeing to discover that a poem doesn’t have to be about “what actually happened,” that I could use a poem to imagine a new scenario, a new ending, a better one!) So, while the “I” in my poems shares many things in common with my actual self, especially in terms of experiences, “I” is a character. My friends and family might recognize me in certain elements, but the “I” in my poems is often smarter, more articulate and more graceful than I actually am (though sometimes she’s more lonely, sad or shy than I am). I might look at this differently if I were a more experienced, or scholarly writer, but when I talk about my poems or read them, I proudly claim my “I.”

I: I’m interested in this idea that your work is “grounded in genuine experience”. Why is this important? What role does imagination play in the process of turning experience into words on a paper?

KR: Well, for starters, I’m a bit of a lazy writer, so “genuine” is code for “no research required.” But also, to write a poem I have to really know at least one element of it thoroughly — the subject, the setting, the emotion. And of course I know best the things I’ve seen or experienced. So, basing poems in reality, usually my reality, is a default, but I think it’s also important because my identity is bound up in the poems.

For me imagination comes through description and comparison — transforming the real and common by comparing it to something familiar but unexpected. I also think imagination comes in to the choices I make a about a poem, the angle from which I write, or the details I might select or omit. It’s the same way that cropping a photo can completely change the intensity, focus and meaning of an image. You can use a poem to isolate a moment or a thought and that invests it with a kind of magic.

Then again, if I had a better imagination, I’d probably write fiction.

I: That kind of magical investment occurs throughout your collection in a really wonderful way– particularly your treatment of nature, and birds in particular. Which is not to say that nature isn’t a bit magical on its own, but you create a real connection between nature and language, the scientific facts of birds as invested with line-breaks become mind-blowing and beautiful.

From “the sleeping life of birds”:

during migration,
geese rewrite circadian rhythms
to include the nocturnal,
taking only tiny sips, faint whiffs,
of sleep to keep aloft
all night, all day,
measuring the continent
in wing spans

And I particularly loved, from “owl survey”:

it is amazing so many birds know our language,
each species its own nursery rhyme:
the robin: cheer up, cheer up, cheer up
the yellow warbler: sweet, sweet, sweet, sweeter than sweet.
the red-eyed vereo: see me, here i am, up a tree, see me now
the olive-sided flycatcher: quick, three beers! quick, three beers!
the song sparrow: madge, madge, madge, put on the tea kettle, kettle kettle,

Though in this second poem, you’re acting as translator with tongue-in-cheek, you do serve this role throughout your collection in more subtle ways. Ornithology into poetry– is this a difficult negotiation? Is a relationship implicit between the two? What’s this process like for you?

KR: It’s interesting that you highlight these two passages as they’re about the only examples of times I’ve used reference materials when writing poems. That particular stanza of owl survey exposed me as a bit of a fraud at a reading once. Someone in the audience came up to me afterward, started giving bird calls and asked me to identify them. I had to admit I’d borrowed from Audobon.

In the last answer I was talking about how I often base or begin poems in something actual and from there might extend out through metaphor. I think these two pieces work in reverse: bringing another realm (birds, nature) into terms we can all understand and relate to (sleeping, travel, speaking).
I come by the interest in birds through my husband, who’s a very knowledgeable, but completely self-taught, birder. I’ve never been much into science, but I find myself consistently amazed by bird behaviour. Birds are so “human” in many ways, and yet so mysterious in others. We’re surrounded by birds, even in cities, but I still feel a warm thrill every time I see a shard of robin’s egg, or come across a nest and see how carefully it’s been made. I like that tension between the known and unknown, and it seems like a good place for poems as well.
Our bookshelves are filled with field guides and I find their use of language really beautiful — first the English and Latin names of the species, but also the way their calls are put into words. The nuthatch’s call is often described as a “nasal yank.” I love that. So I see connections between ornithology and poetry in terms of precision and attention to detail. But, for all the times I’ve deliberately written about birds, there are at least as many that a bird just shows up unexpectedly and flies through a poem.

I: Your book is also a field guide to human behaviour– their sleeping lives, mating habits, the quirks of their habitats, also with such carefully made nests. Your poems are intensely domestic, which is part of the reason I love them so much. But I so often hear “domestic” used as a pejorative in literary criticism– why do you think that is? And why, even with the criticism, do writers find domestic subjects inexhaustible?

KR: Well, domestic subjects are easy to come by; we’re constantly surrounded by them. But that doesn’t make it easy fruit to reach — there’s always the challenge of finding the aspects of  everyday experiences or objects (especially the ones everyone is familiar with) worth the attention of a poem.

I’m not sure why domestic is often used as a negative. I think there’s an expectation that a poem contain some grand idea, all the better if it’s buried under layers of obscurity. (And I also think that perception is why so many people are intimidated by reading poetry.) As a writer, reader and person, I’m much more interested in detail than the big picture.

Life’s small, domestic details can provide intensely intimate information about a person or a situation and I think that’s appealing to many writers. You can learn a lot about people by the homes they’ve made for themselves. When I go to someone’s house for the first time, I love to look at their book shelves and photos, the stuff they have on their fridge. Other people might look at stereo equipment or kitchen counter tops.

And with poetry, when you need to say as much as possible as concisely as you can, you look for simple details that are symbolic of something larger — so a half-empty wine glass on a table, a ticking clock, a finger worrying at a strip of flannel can be a kind of shorthand for something larger and more difficult to name.

I: And how well you do those simple details symbolic of something larger– the click of the glasses folded on the nightstand in “All Day” represents an incredible intimacy, for example. I love that!

When you’re writing, does it tend to be the detail that strikes you immediately, or the more general sense of that detail? Are your sparsest poems whittled down, or do they arrive that way?

KR: Yes, it’s almost always some little detail that sparks a poem for me. And sometimes, that’s all a poem is — a single tiny moment, like in “all day.” Other times I use a small detail as a point of entry into something larger. But often, when I do that, I end up cutting the original image or inspiration in a later draft. The poem outgrows it and the image that once seemed so significant goes back to floating around in my notebook, waiting to belong somewhere. Occasionally the complete opposite happens: I realize that an abstract concept has crept into a poem and then I try to use detail to pin it down, clarify. Most often the short poems are just born like that (though I can pick and poke endlessly, even at the slightest pieces).

I: The poems in this collection represent a real shift– from being lost to being home, from cold to warm, from fear to security. The collection finishes with the poet in her cosy nest (though, of course, storms rage outside, all is not easy). Is this a new point of departure in your work? Is comfort a difficult place to write from? Or are you now working in a direction entirely new?

KR: The poems in this collection were written over a long time span and when I was arranging the order I tried to build in a sense of movement, growth and story-telling. I think my earlier poems tended to be darker and more angsty; I’m more likely to write from a place of comfort now, but that’s probably because I’m generally more content, confident and comfortable now than I was as a younger writer. I don’t find it difficult; in fact, I don’t even think about it. But when I look back at some of my older work I can definitely see a difference from where I am now.

I: So speaking of where you are now as a writer, can you tell me about that? What are you working on? What are your plans?

KR: My second collection, Vs., is forthcoming from Anvil this fall. The poems are about boxing, based on my experience training for an amateur boxing bout, so it’s quite different from The Sleeping Life. I’ll be editing that over the next few months. The “business side” of poetry, and finding a publisher, has been keeping me busy for the last little while, so any new poems have been random, sporadic things.

I: Do you (or can you) situate your work within a poetic movement, or tradition? Who are your influences as you were starting to write, and who do you look to now?

KR: Honestly, I don’t know enough about poetry to identify with any kind of movement! I feel like I’m just winging it — every time. I do read other poets, but I’m not sure that they really influence my work (inspire, yes!). I am, and always have been, very influenced by music. I listen to a lot of folk and singer-songwriter music, and in my writing I do strive for the stripped-down clarity and deceptive depth of lyrics by The Weakerthans, Iron and Wine, Nathan, and lots of others.

I: What poets or poems would you recommend as must-reads?

KR: I’m not one to tell people what they must read, but when I need a little kick in the butt, there are a few poets I come back to again and again. It won’t surprise you that one of them is Leonard Cohen. Also Michael Ondaatje — I find his poems absolutely delicious.

I: What else do you like to read?

KR:It feels like a betrayal to my chosen genre, but I have to admit that I read fiction more often than I do poetry — mostly contemporary, Canadian authors.

I: And what are you reading right now?

KR: Like usual, I have a few books on the go right now. My main read is a novel called Shadow-Box by Antonia Logue, an Irish author. It’s a series of fictional letters between historical characters — the poet Mina Loy and boxer Jack Johnson, so it’s an interesting fit with my current project. I also keep returning to Jeanette Lynes’ most recent book of poems, The New Blue Distance and Torch River by Elizabeth Phillips — a lovely collection. I just can’t put them away on the bookshelf, so they live on the night table where I can easily dip into them. There are also a couple of issues of Prairie Fire there, awaiting my attention. I’m a bit behind on my reading.

(Read Kerry’s poem “the british museum”)

Kerry Ryan lives and writes in Winnipeg. Her first collection of poetry, The Sleeping Life, was published by The Muses’ Company in 2008 and nominated for the Aqua Lansdowne Prize for Poetry in 2009. She has has poetry published in a number of journals, including Prairie Fire, Grain and Carousel. Poems from the manuscript Vs. are forthcoming in Room and CV2.

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