APIARY’s Events Editor Alina Pleskova recently spent some time talking with her former professor, Philadelphia (and APIARY 1) poet Ryan Eckes, and learned how he got into poetry, how he almost became a journalist and his real motivation behind offering extra credit for attending poetry readings.
In 2007, I enrolled in an undergraduate poetry workshop (my very first) at Temple University. Immersion in poetry was becoming a major part of my life at the time– I mean, I certainly wasn’t getting a liberal arts degree for the money– but I hadn’t yet begun to think of a poem as something that existed off the page… or really, outside of the classroom. And here’s where Ryan Eckes– who happened to be the course instructor that semester– comes in. Ryan offered extra credit to students who attended local poetry readings– but in retrospect, I suspect it had little to do with helping us boost our grades. He wanted us (again, I suspect) to see poetry as it deserves to be seen: participatory and active. Vital, even. As much a part of our city’s living landscape as its taxicabs and skyscrapers and flowerbeds and dive bars.
If I were to plot my literary trajectory on a timeline, that spring of 2007 would be the precise point at which poetry lifted off the page and entered the realm of the warm-blooded. And here I am, several years later, realizing that Ryan was essentially the impetus for my involvement in our city’s literary scene. This got me wondering about Ryan’s own trajectory as a poet… and so, with the documentarian spirit of his latest book, Old News, in mind, I set out to uncover the history of Ryan’s relationship with poetry, and his poetry’s relationship with Philadelphia.
Alina: Let’s talk about the parts of your personal history that exist outside of bio blurbs– the un-Googleable parts, starting with something I’d never heard you mention before we began this conversation: your brief foray into journalism.
Ryan Eckes: I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started college.. I thought that I could write about music, which I wasn’t very good at because I realized… well, I didn’t PLAY music, so…
A: …You didn’t have a good working vocabulary?
R: I was just trying to describe music that I liked, and then I realized I was just describing my own taste, which is just… idiotic. But then I also thought, well, I could write about sports, and I was just getting into politics at the time. But my opinions were just really ill-informed and ridiculous…
A: Ha! You recognized this about yourself?
R: Yeah, and I didn’t enjoy it. I just got assignments for lame shit that was happening on campus… and that was good practice, I guess, but it helped me realize, you know, that I don’t actually like doing this. I didn’t get as into it as I thought I would.
People were trashing journalism at the time as a career. This was 1996, so I decided not to keep going with that after a couple semesters. But I kept taking English classes because I liked what some professors had me reading, so… I told you before, I took this class called Existentialism in Literature. I started to enjoy reading when I took that class, when I was seventeen, first semester in college. I just took it by chance because it was one of the only classes that was available and it sounded cool. I didn’t know what the fuck existentialism was, so I registered for that. [I] read ‘The Stranger’ by Camus, had never heard of it– it blew my mind. The last scene where he tells off the priest, I thought it was great… it made me cry. Read Kafka, Hemingway for the first time… Sartre…
A: What a class. I mean, that’ll mold your taste…
R: Yeah. And it was me and ten seniors. I struggled through the writing; I didn’t have many skills. I mean, I was alright, but I wasn’t at college level yet. I was a freshman and the rest of them were seniors. Professor Kimball, that was the professor’s name, she was amazing. She worked with me, and I think I ended up getting a B minus in the class, which was nice of her.
But anyway, from then on, it was like the world was opened up to me. ‘Cause in high school I didn’t really read anything good. After that class, it was like “Oh man, there’s lots of things out there I could read and get into.” So I took a few more English classes and decided eventually, you know, after the journalism thing got boring… oh, and I had an interest in psychology for a bit, but I took a few more classes and thought it was kind of dull, so I thought, “English it is.” Then I got into writing fiction short stories when I was like, nineteen. And then my last year of college, I had some electives so I took Postmodern American Poetry and an introductory creative writing poetry workshop with Ken Rumble, and then an advanced one with C.S. Giscombe and after that… I haven’t stopped writing poems since then.
A: So it all stemmed from that intro class? You took it and thought, “A-ha, finally, this is the container for my writing.”
R: Yeah, senior year. I didn’t know that the kind of poetry…
A: That you wanted to write existed?
R: Right. I didn’t know. I didn’t read Frank O’Hara until I was twenty years old. And then I read that and was like, shit.. Amiri Baraka, John Ashbery, all that 60′s New York School stuff. And then the Beats. And that was enough. I just had this sense of possibility about language. It felt like I could make shit happen– I could have an experience that was sublime. An aesthetic experience, but through language. And get into politics as well. I got way more interested in it [poetry] than fiction pretty quickly.
A: So, timeline-wise, we’re now at the end of your undergrad tenure at Penn State. You’re heavily into poetry. How’d you get involved in Philadelphia’s literary scene?
R: I finished up college, moved back to Philly.. And I just started going to readings at Robin’s, lots of open mics.. Sometimes I would read something, too. And I started going regularly to the poetry readings at La Tazza in Old City, which was a series run by Frank Sherlock and Greg Fuchs. This was in 2000-2001.
A: You just started showing up, not knowing anybody? Like, “Poetry’s happening here… I’m going to go to it?”
R: Yeah, I found out about it through the City Paper. And actually, I also did a little research online so I knew about Ixnay Press… I found out about it around the same time. There were a bunch of presses linked online through Duration Press. Anyway, that’s how I got connected a little bit. I got a sense of what was happening in experimental poetry at the time through this website, via some of the poets I read during my last year at college. So I knew of some poets through Ixnay’s magazine, and I knew that Ixnay was connected to the La Tazza series. A lot of the poets that were published in Ixnay were reading at La Tazza. And that’s how I first heard of Frank Sherlock and CA Conrad, Gil Ott, and some other people, some New York poets.
And so, I would go to those readings sometimes, and I was very shy. Sometimes I would go with a friend who wasn’t into poetry, sometimes I would go alone. I would just sit in the back, listen, and then I would go home. Most of the people there were a lot older. I was 21, and everyone else seemed to be 30 or older. That’s probably not true, but when you’re 21, even someone who’s 25 seems a lot older than you. But anyway, I was shy… I’ve never been the kind of person who just introduces myself to someone out of the blue.
A: Well, especially if it seems as though everyone knows each other already.
R: It did seem that way. But I did eventually talk to Frank there, and I would see him once in a while at Dirty Frank’s. I started hanging out regularly there when I moved to Center City in 2002-2003. So basically, through La Tazza and Robin’s and Ixnay and some things online, I got a sense of contemporary experimental poetry. So I would show up to readings once in a while. And I remember in 2003, a bunch of anti-war poetry readings started popping up in the lead-up to the Iraq War. There were a bunch of really awesome readings happening in the city at the time…
A: And when did you end up at Temple?
R: That was Fall 2005. I’d been teaching ESL for over two years, and I’d been married for about a year. My wife had just gotten a really good job, and I felt kind of stuck in my job, stuck with my poetry. I only really had a handful of friends who were writers… just a few.
I remember Jena Osman calling me to offer a teaching assistantship. She said, “your tuition will be paid, and you’ll get a stipend of $13,500 a year, and you just have to teach each semester.” I was like, “Can you say that again?” It sounded too good to be true: you’re gonna pay me? You’re gonna pay my tuition and let me teach classes? I was like I’m in. I am in.
Seven years ago, I got that phone call. Those were celebratory times… That did a lot for me. I got real into poetry, read a shit ton— I just learned a lot, you know? It felt like I picked up where I left off at Penn State, where I had just gotten a taste of poetry at the end. And then, at Temple, I just got immersed in modernism, post-modernism… and I was with people who were really serious about poetry. And all my work– I just had endless work to do, all related to poetry, and it was intense. I was really stressed out, but it was great. I learned a lot in a little bit of time. And because I had to work so hard on writing every day, I just got better fast.
And during that time, I went to every reading that was happening at Temple and Penn, and anything that was related to contemporary experimental poetry. So, I would see Frank and Conrad and other poets all the time.
A: How about the Chapterhouse series, how did you get involved with that?
R: Steve Dolph, who I met at Temple, started that in 2006, in the middle of that program. It was a few featured readers, then an open mic. It was mostly Temple-focused, and then it sort of branched out. It was just for a year, then he moved to LA with his girlfriend.
I took over in 2007, in the fall, ’cause he asked me, like, “I want this to keep going.” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll run it, that sounds like fun. I never ran a reading series before.”
A: Just like that, huh?
R: Just like that! I thought about it for maybe two seconds, over tacos, then I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”
A: Were there many other reading series in Philly at the time?
R: Not like there are now, no. But it was at the same time that the Night Flag series, run by Frank, had slowed down. So there was kind of a gap… a demand. There was an opportunity to have a regular poetry reading series. When I took it over, it was like 50/50 fiction-poetry. Maybe even more fiction-heavy. I mean, it’s called Chapter & Verse and Steve was a fiction writer.
A: Oh, so you’re the one who made it poetry-centric?
R: I definitely made it poetry-centric. It became poetry-centric within a few months. I mean, my idea was to have at least one poet and at least one fiction writer every reading, and ideally at least three readers each time. That was the original idea of the series, but it became more focused on poetry.
A: What was the first reading you hosted?
R: Linh Dinh and Ish Klein.
A: Hey, I went to that! You told my class we’d get extra credit if we went.
R: I was so proud of myself! I was like, yeah man, I got Ish Klein and Linh Dinh. Dottie Lasky read that fall, Jim Cory, Christian TeBordo… I remember thinking, these are some really good readings. And then it was like, alright, everyone I know has read. I can’t remember how the out of town visiting writers started happening. I think friends started suggesting people, like “Hey, you should invite this poet…” and I did. Basically, the idea was: I’m going to make every reading fucking awesome, and people are going to come.
A: Ha! So, chronologically speaking, here we are: you’re entrenched in the Philadelphia poetry scene. Like, you’re involved from every angle: you’re teaching, you’re writing, you’re going to readings, you’re hosting readings… When did Philadelphia start making its way into your poems?
R: Oh, it was always there. It always made sense to me to write from experience.
A: Right. But there are poets from Philadelphia who write about Philadelphia, and readers wouldn’t necessarily know it. In his blurb for your book, Eric Baus wrote, “Old News is a real city,” and I think that’s a perfect way of summing it up.
R: Well, I’ve always been interested in the city. I was influenced by New York School poets but also Charles Simic and Russell Edson when I was younger. I liked surrealism and realism, and the idea of a prose poem. I took a lot of stabs at prose poems. I felt like anything was possible in that form. I felt like I could say anything I wanted. I wanted to tell a story. And I wanted this energy that was like “Kora in Hell” from William Carlos Williams, this fire behind the poems. That’s what led me to writing the way I do.
A: So, I know this isn’t a novel concept– the New York School poets certainly did it, as did many, many writers before, but I’m curious about this in relation to your poetry: why is it important to you to include specific names– the real names of buildings, streets, people? Say, someone not from Philadelphia reads the word, ‘Passyunk.’
R: Names give you a sense of the texture of a place. Even if I’ve never been to a place called ‘Passyunk’, if I have that and other names, maybe repeated, you get a sense of place. I can’t imagine writing without names.
A: There’s something distinctly Philadelphian about your poems; I mean, the naming places is one anchor, but that’s too obvious– there’s something else– I can’t put my finger on it; maybe you could tell me? I mean, class comes up a lot… and– maybe this is too reductive and obvious– Philadelphia dialect. Not in a hokey way, but it’s there.
R: Yeah, I write about class conflicts a lot. I’ve always been drawn to conflict, since way back… And I’m interested in how people talk. I’ve always incorporated a lot of dialogue into my poems. I like to write down things that my friends say when they’re hanging out. I still do that. I mean, a lot of my material is just things people say. Friends, and things I overhear when I’m just sitting around. I remember thinking early on that it was so fun to make that into art. Anyway, when you’re getting into the ways people talk, you’re getting into the place, the essence of it, and how people think. That’s what I like to do, and that’s probably why the poems are associated with Philly so much.
A: And finally, what do you like about being a poet in Philadelphia? Or to put it another way, what makes Philadelphia a great city for a poet?
R: Well, I’ve never lived in another city, so maybe I’m not a good barometer for it. But I love living in a city with so many good poets, and so many people who are committed to poetry for life. I like that. And community’s valued here– people live their values. The poets I know try to live the world they want to see. And there’s an ethics in much of the poetry here, and I think that’s connected to a kind of formal rigor. I was just talking to Brandon Holmquest about this—he lives in Chicago now but he’s still a Philly poet—I was arguing with him about it. I think you can see it stylistically. There’s a line-by-line rigor, an urgency, a challenge to political reality as is.
And here’s a huge thing about Philly: people have each other’s backs here. That’s how you know you’re in a community. You give to each other. I feel very comfortable in that kind of situation. There are always a few assholes, but you know, I ignore them. There’s too much to be inspired by, and I’m always learning from people here.
by Ryan Eckes
a popgun’s a popgun
little mussolini landlord
on his cell phone
for his yuppies puppied
up on the deck built
just for the rising
rent some mexicans
put windows into
from the scaffolds
you wanna be better
than the years winding
round a clock & dropping
off the wall as bottle
caps into a trash can
of a white kid who
says why drink & drive
when you can smoke
from his bike
now there’s a poem
it’s been all day
this thought of finally
throwing eggs at the rise
& fall of the dull
talk of watered plants
& puppies of those
across the street you’ll
never know & now
don’t have to
in the shot breeze
you might live for
round a clock & dropping
just for the rising
of a white kid who says
a popgun’s a popgun
that’s from emerson
when you can smoke & fly
from the scaffolds
you’ll never know
a poem finally
of the dull talk
of watered years
winding up the thought
of throwing plants & puppies
from the scaffolds