Welcome to a new feature at Primitive Information. I hope to conduct interviews with poets whose small-press books have found their way onto my desk lately, both as a way to find out more about them and to help get the word out about these great books. The first interview is with Ryan Eckes, whose book Old News was recently released by Furniture Press. (Click link for purchasing info.)
Thanks to Ryan for chatting with me; the interview was conducted via e-mail in October. Enjoy!
DH: The event that provides not only the title of this book, but also a sort of ongoing theme and frame for the text, is described early on: the discovery of some Philadelphia Inquirer issues from the 1920s underneath the carpeting in a house where you were living. Tell me more about this—how does this inform and resonate with the poems and pieces in the book, and what made you decide to reproduce and explicitly reference some of the content from those old newspapers?
RE: As soon as I found the old papers I wanted to make something out of them, but it was a year before I figured out what to do: just re-tell the most fascinating stories, paring down and lineating to bear out what’s most fascinating. I was drawn more to odd local stories that wouldn’t make the news today, mysterious banalities and antiquities, especially those with oddly beautiful language (phrases like “I have been shy of bandits”) than I was to national or “historical” events. At the same time, I was ready to start writing about the block I was living on, where the neighbors were very social—people outside every evening, talking, hanging out, kids running around. It was the most communal block I’ve ever lived on in any neighborhood, and I was collecting all these interesting little stories from my neighbors. So I figured I’d pull them together, the old news and what was happening in front of me every day, and see if I could find some fluidity between them, see what kind of Philadelphia I’d end up with.
The plan was to construct one whole story out of a back-and-forth between the past and present, using an idea from one piece (either an old-news-story poem or present-day poem) to lead me to the next. What better way to begin than with forgetting, I thought, and so the first found piece was FORGETS CHILD ON TRAIN, and I started building from there. The following piece, “training,” responds to it, reaches into my own childhood for some introduction and opens up a space for the next poem, and so on. So there was a level of improvisation even though I was culling intermittently from a pool of articles I already wanted to use. I left out a lot of interesting material because it didn’t fit into what I ended up building, which was this scrapbook (of a city) with momentum that’s meant to be read front-to-back, which you can do in under an hour, though it might take longer to digest.
DH: The first two poems of the book seem to register a sort of bafflement and wonder in these encounters with other worlds—that of the past, that of the urban landscape of Philadelphia, with its priests, neighbors, roofers, etc. It all seems to harmonize into this unsettling and unsettled space: the “blah blah, he said, blah blah blah, I said” as you have it at the end of “odd years.” I wonder if you could talk about that. I know you told me that the series of poems here was conceived as a book pretty early on, and I’m curious if moments like those were a conscious concern as you worked, a fruitful place to go with the poetry.
RE: Bafflement’s a really good word. Typically I write into experiences that baffle me, and I’ve always struggled to remain “at wonder” with the world—I suppose poetry is a way to do that. In retrospect, I can see a pattern of unsettled spaces in the book, if I’m following you on that, but I don’t think I was very conscious of those as I wrote. That is, I wasn’t purposely trying to create an unsettled space—it wasn’t a goal. But I was trying to understand what was around me and in so doing arrived at questions I then used to push myself further from page to page, to expand the stakes.
DH: One of the things I admire about this book is that the “other worlds” I alluded to brings you in contact with lots of people who are less than, shall we say, enlightened about things like race. And you don’t shy away from that. Has this caused any problems in terms of reception of the book? Did you think about altering some of that or leaving it out, toning it down, etc.? What did you think was the importance of leaving it in there? An example: The end of the prose piece, “how to get around,” records a conversation with a neighbor, “frankie,” which reads, “so why don’t you take the subway, i say. ah, the subway, he says, well the subway’s a little too dark for me if you know what i mean.”
RE: Racism is very common, isn’t it? At least around here it is. Common as a dog barking. I can’t see why I wouldn’t point it out. I mean, if I’m writing a book about Philly I’m certainly not going to pretend racism’s not a part of it. I’m not a marketer. I call it as I see it. Maybe some poetry reviewers will say it’s not poetic to reveal some of the pitiful ways that working class white people attempt to confide their racism in each other?
In any case, nobody’s expressed any beef that I know of. But the book hasn’t been reviewed yet, and so far most of the people who’ve read it know me, and perhaps about a quarter of those are not poets. I should probably say that my sense of audience includes people I grew up with and possible readers who are not writers, people much less concerned with literary history than with history—the conditions of the society we live in. While I hope the book challenges and entertains anybody who reads it, there’s no way I’m going to write into some narrow idea of “reception.”
DH: A lot of the themes of the first part of the book seem to converge in the poem “inside the scowl”—neighborhood tensions, race, marriage, and this cherry tree that you and your wife are trying to plant, a very well-worn poetic symbol that is rescued (for me) by the humor and hopelessness of it all, specifically the anxiety around dog shit that city-dwellers know all too well. Last line: “ginger, did you shit on my tree?” Talk about the turn to really materialize the issues and open up some intimate details at this point in the book.
RE: Ginger was a dog I wanted to pick up and punt down the street. Ginger. That poem vents feelings that had built up—my anger, a feeling of being stuck—inside the scowl of South Philly. It’s a gripe about the neighborhood, which I was experiencing as very static at the time (in 2008, middle of that election year). In it I admit my prejudice against the Italians. I think the poem’s saved by its acknowledgment of the contagiousness of a certain kind of pettiness. I’m glad the humor came through. Up to that point in the book most of the writing is observation-based (more show than tell, you could say), so that poem does function as a vent. I actually worked it over many times and at one point considered cutting it. Good thing I didn’t because much of the later narrative depends on it. It was important to balance the found material with the personal, the intimate, to keep the whole thing real.
DH: I am really struck, on reading this book over again, with the idea of the neighbor, especially this guy frankie who keeps popping up like a disturbing motif. He really ought to have his own theme music. In the poem “originally,” he makes an implicit statement that jibes strangely with an idea in Robert Pogue Harrison’s book Forests, which maps the appropriating of forests during the Middle Ages in England (among other things), drawing a distinction between the shrinking “wild” forest and the “juridical zone” of the park, the latter brought under the king’s sovereignty for the uses of hunting and sport. Clearly frankie’s not about to engage in a disputation with you about critical theory. But when the two of you are talking about the woods that used to be in the north of philly and you say, “still plenty of woods, though, if you think about pennypack park,” and he replies, “pennypack park, no, i don’t think about pennypack park,” this really opens out on the contentious issue of zoning, sharing, and “naturalizing” of urban space—also registered in his objection to a cherry tree that you’d planted. Talk about these different conceptions of that space and how they fall differently for older generations vs. younger, in changing neighborhoods, and so on. This seems like a conscious concern of the poems and it intersects in interesting ways with the personal, cultural issues that also come up.
RE: Funny story—that tree we planted, which appeared to have died by the time I moved out of that house and which I mention near the end of the book as a metaphor for the dead relationship, ended up surviving. I noticed a year or so later it was still there, growing, which turned out a nice personal coda, for me, that the literal tree behind the vehicle of the metaphor withstood the tenor (the broken marriage, permanent)—as if life resisted language stubbornly and actively as it does pavement, as if life did what I wanted poetry to, while the little tree in the poem’s no worse for it, since it’s not the same tree. It was a reminder, or lesson, even, that life—i.e., what grows out of the ground—will fictionalize whatever you do, make a cartoon of you, and you can roll with that fact as best you can or get steamrolled. I’ll go ahead here and define wildness, for a human, as rolling with that fact.
I painted Frankie as the worst, I think, mostly out of what I saw in him that I disliked in myself—his concrete nature, you could say, which I can sympathize with. I could see the absurdity of planting a tree on that tiny sidewalk, and I felt insecure in that it was something people new to the neighborhood were doing (it was my ex-wife’s idea, who isn’t from Philly, nor USA) and I didn’t want to be seen as a stereotypical young person from outside the city—but to an older guy like Frankie, I was, since I’m from the Northeast, a newer, suburban-like part of the city (built for cars, spread out with shopping centers rather than corner stores, etc). I understood his distrust of beauty, which is tied to class identification and anti-intellectual masculinity, and his excessive trust of nativeness (Philly is one of those places where people like to live in the same neighborhood their whole lives). The difference is that I hate my own—and his—distrust of beauty (hence poetry). Also, I’m not this born-again racist. Those differences outweighed my desire to try to show him our commonality, which I was unable to do anyway. So I’ve got this book now that might offer a window into how all that tension, fear and miscommunication works. Maybe I should I leave a copy of it in his mailbox?
DH: Now I wonder if you could extend that theme of “space” out from your book and talk about the particular poetic space of Philadelphia, which likewise seems important here. I read this as a cultural artifact of a poetic community, in a way. You thank poets (in the acknowledgments) like CA Conrad, Frank Sherlock, Stan Mir, Rachel Blau DuPlessis—poets inside and outside the academy, but all nestled in the “Philly scene.” How important was that community to the development of a project like this, and how does it inform your poetry in other ways?
RE: Those poets’ voices are in my head, their sound and sense, and I keep absorbing them. There’s always both conscious and unconscious dialogue going on, and poetry comes of that naturally. It comes of what I read, hear, and who I talk with all the time. From 2005-07, while in Temple’s creative writing program, I read many books of poetry that were conceived as books (or “projects”), so I’m sure that was an influence, though I can’t trace Old News to one specific influence. But the poets you named there, and others, are deeply invested in place, including this city, and it shows up in their work. No doubt their commitments and poetics have rubbed off on me.
While working on the manuscript I wrote after Old News (Common Sense), there were moments I would read over what I’d written and think, “Am I just ripping off The City Real and Imagined?” I wasn’t, of course, but I was definitely after that lyric intensity and could hear Frank and CA in my poems, especially in the months after their book had come out and I couldn’t get enough of it. Song & Glass by Stan and Passyunk Lost by Kevin Varrone had also come out at that same time, I remember—all this wonderful shit at once, I could hardly stand it. If my poems are any good, I’m indebted to them. There’s some great company around here.
DH: Turning that question around: your own role in the community, how you inform it. You and Stan Mir run a series called “Chapter and Verse Reading Series,” and you seem engaged in lots of ways with what’s going on there. Looking at it from the outside, it seems like a really vibrant and varied scene, one I’ve been hearing great things about for years. Temple has obviously been a center of cutting-edge stuff for a long time, and now with Charles Bernstein at UPenn, there is a contemporary poetics community springing up there, too. CA Conrad’s “somatics” and other figures (like those mentioned above) just seem to represent some of the most exciting stuff going on anywhere these days. How do you fit in, especially as someone who’s both born and raised in Philly and part of the academic world as well?
RE: That’s an interesting question. Well, I’m active mostly outside the academy. As an adjunct, occasionally I teach an undergraduate workshop at Temple where I enjoy messing up kids’ lives by introducing them to poetry. But in general I’m getting coffee or beer with writers and speculating about the world situation or what we’re doing tonight, or borrowing their books to camel up. I would say that is how I fit in. And there’s the reading series, which is great because of Stan. I show up at the Kelly Writers House when my work schedule doesn’t impede—Michelle Taransky, Sarah Dowling and Julia Bloch (when she was here) have made great things happen there. And there’s Kim Gek Lin Short and Debrah Morkun and the con/crescent dudes, Nick DeBoer and Jamie Townsend, always bringing good poets to town to read at various venues. We all try to keep it lively and alive, and I do what I can in that. I try to make things happen, basically, and that includes writing poems.
from Old News
The Evening Bulletin, Monday, May 7, 1923:
FORGETS CHILD ON TRAIN
Sleepy Father Leaves Four-Year-Old Son
andrew gray said he had
taken his boy
to the aquarium
and was so tired
when they boarded
the elevated train
for home he had
the boy who
was looking out
hurried out of
at a party an academic who doesn’t teach asked me what i write about. i drew a blank and remembered my first grade teacher, mrs blank. she would never say blank — she would say space, fill in the space. in class we watched the challenger space shuttle lift off and explode into nothing on the screen. there were no answers. when asked to stand and say my name, i said big blue O, which was wrong. the world was a big blue O. it challenged you to fill in the space with a summary, and the teacher gave you an A for effort, which began with an E and felt like jogging the inside of an O to make something go, make the O go fast, not slow.