Desert Island Poems — 12 April, 2011

April 8, 2011

Our ‘Desert Island Poems’

12 April, 2011 — 6:30pm

Edinburgh Central Library, Boardroom


Edinburgh’s Reader in Residence, Ryan Van Winkle, and friends share favourite poems in a multimedia extravaganza… performance poet Harry Giles, master of scifi poetry Russell Jones, and SPL’s own Peggy Hughes.

Free, but booking essential – call Annie Bell on 0131 242 8046 or to reserve your place

I hope you can make it along to this special event. We’ll be reading from and showing clips of our favourite poems. Sure to be an eclectic and engaging evening of poetry fun. — R

Hayden Carruth and Raymond Carver

May 10, 2010

I admit, I found this hard to watch, Carruth seems frail and has to pause a lot. The last time I saw Hayden Carruth, he was able to stand by himself and we were both younger. But that goes without saying, I suppose, everything that has happened, happened when we were younger. Anyway, it was great to find this poem from one of my favourite writers about one of my favourite writers. I went looking for this because the American Poetry Review had a great Carruth supplement recently and I realized I hadn’t heard his voice since I was a teenager. So, it was a pleasure to find this and, you know, to learn that Carver was clumsy. Thanks youtubes! If you are looking for a great book of poems — I suggest “Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey” it remains on for my all-time favourites and I am sure most will fall into it with similar affection.


Where the Wild Things are — Serendipity in Searching

October 10, 2009


After reading Dave Eggers’ Max at Sea in the New Yorker — I had to tease myself a little with the trailer for the “Where the Wild Things Are” film. Eggers’ story, as you can read, gives Max a rather realistic backstory which some might argue is unnecessary. I would disagree — Max, in Eggers’ story, still seems very much like the boy I used to imagine I could be — if given a wolf costume, a codarie of monsters and some time out of the suburbia I grew up in.

However, in my google, not only did I find the clip of the film but I also found this lovely poem by one of my favourites – Wendell Berry –

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

found on The Sunday Poem Series.

And with that, we should all go outside and play for a little while.

“And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”

Meet me on Blackford Hill.


The Poem I Carry

October 8, 2009

The SPL wants to know what poem(s) you carry with you!

My favourite poems, the poems I carry with me literally and figuratively are something like scents. The way the smell of warm dust can remind me of the nook behind the hot water heater where my parents hid our Christmas presents, the way the smell of sunflowers can remind me of my first love’s sheets, the way the smoke of a bbq can conjure up Graduation Day, Syracuse 1999.

Well, poems are sometimes the same — at least the ones I really like. One of the poems I carry with me is Federico Garcia Lorca’s “New Heart” from his book Selected Verse. I bought the book on an inexplicable whim in Provincetown, Cape Cod – the last little town on a long Massachusetts peninsula.

Towards the end of my second summer home from University, some high-school friends and I drove down the traffic laden Route 6 from the town of Turo where we were staying in a peeling, sea-pale cottage filled with lifeguards – swimming in the heat and drinking in the dunes at night. Anyway, in Provincetown there was a little second-hand bookshop and Lorca grabbed my eye. Perhaps because his dark, intense face was on the spine and I was young and feeling dark and intense myself.

I bought the book. (The first book of poetry I can remember buying.) And late that night, after a lifeguard known only as The Major had given me the best sexual advice I’d yet had, when my friends had fallen asleep next to their beer cans and the embers of our fire glowed and popped, I opened to the first poem. It was the end of summer, there were loves and friends I would miss back up at University and, even then, I knew I might not see them again that year and maybe not the year after.

I read the first lines of “New Heartand I’ve carried them on the tip of my tongue ever since:

Like a snake, my heart
has shed its skin.

I hold it there in my hand,
full of honey and wounds.”

And the battered book itself has been carried with me many places – upstate New York, the green mountains of Vermont, Edinburgh and the coast of Spain where it felt very much at home with the with the smell of white sand, salt and seaweed.

A more recent poem I’ve discovered (and expect to carry with me for a long time to come) is Wendell Berry’s “How to be a Poet (to remind myself)” which I have taped to my bathroom mirror. To remind myself, of course.

The poem is in three parts – each one with a new invocation. The bit I quote most to myself is:

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.”

Stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in.”

Reminds me, always, to get away from the evil, glowing devil box the notion of which tells me I should wrap this up and go the three dimensional!

ryan carry a poem-3

If you have a poem you carry with you, and you’d like to share, we’d love to hear it. You can either respond to this post, or email

Here’s some guideline questions that might help:

  • Where and when did you first encounter the poem?

  • What did it mean to you then? How did it make you feel? Did it change you in any way?

  • What does it mean to you now?

  • Do you actually carry it? (e.g. in your head, on your ipod, in your wallet or diary, etc)

  • And would you be willing to take part in audio/video recording for our Carry a Poem site?

We’d be very glad to have your stories on board.”

So, what are you waiting for — let us know the poem you carry with you.

Scottish Poem of the Sea

October 3, 2009

I thought I’d share this short poem I recently found in an anthology called “Scottish Poems of the Sea” at the SPL. I used it at a Nothing But the Poem session but didn’t get to discuss it long enough.

Mansie Considers the Sea in the Manner of Hugh MacDiarmid

The sea, I think, I lazy

It just obeys the moon

— All the same I remember what Engels said:

‘Freedom is the consciousness of neccessity.’

Ian Hamilton Finlay

published in “Translated Kingdoms: Scottish Poems of the Sea” by NMSE – Publishing Ltd.

The next Nothing But the Poem is at the SPL on 6 October at 18.30. Maybe see you there?

Goin’ On a Holiday

September 5, 2009

Goin’ on a Holiday…

Well, by the time you read this I’ll be on my annual post-festival European Vacation. I’m heading to Berlin to visit the mysterious, musical mastermind, D-Rock and then will be heading east with the cartoonist Dan Meth. Here’s an example of what our conversations are likely to sound like:


Poetry is for Reading …

so I’m bringing along a couple of collections I’m anxious to read. I’ve got Sharon Old’s “One Secret Thing” already packed. I was very pleased to see Olds reading at the Edinburgh Book Festival and would recommend any of her books to anyone. These poems are honest, deceptively simple, and as visceral as a punch in the neck. I like her poems because they always have a little blood on them. And I mean that in the most beautiful, loving way.

Anya Yurchyshyn, at Esquire, said this: “Here’s one of my favourite poems from ‘One Secret Thing’, the second poem from Part Four: Cassiopeia. I’m not sure if I need to write anything ever again. She kinda covers it all.” Which echoes my sentiments exactly. This is the kind of poetry which, as a writer, simultaneously makes me want to write more, write everything, get it down, share it out and yet also makes me want to stop writing for fear that it has been done before, done better, deeper and with more resonance.

2. The Music

On the phone my mother says she has been sorting
Her late darling’s clothes—and it BREAKS
, and then there are soft sounds,
as if she’s ‘been lowered down, into
a river of music. I’m not unhappy,
she says, this is better for me than church
her voice through tears like the low singing
of a watered plant long not watered,
she lets me hear what she feels. I could be in a
cradle by the western shore of a sea, she could
be a young or an ancient mother.
Now I hear the melody
of the one bound to the mast. It had little
to do with me, her life, which lay
on my life, it was not really human life
but chemical, it was approximate landscape,
trenches and reaches, maybe it
was ordinary human life.
Now my mother sounds like me,

the way I sound to myself—one
who doesn’t know, who fails and hopes.
And I feel, now, that I had wanted never to stop blaming her,
like eating hard-shelled animals
at mid-molt. But not my mother
is like a tiny, shucked crier
in a tidepool beside my hand. I think
I had thought I would falter if I forgave my mother,
as if, then, I would lose her—and I do
feel lonely, now, to sense her beside me,
as if she is only a sister. And yet,
though I hear her sighs close by my ear,
my mother is in front of me somewhere, at a distance,
moving slowly toward the end of her life,
the shore of the eternal—she is solitary,
a woman alone, out ahead
of everyone I know, scout of the mortal, heart
breaking into solo.

Thanks to Esquire for posting this poem here.

Buy her new book here.

While searching for a good poem…

I found this lovely video of Olds reading Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” which is an amazing poem.

Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”

You can read the text along with the video at the Poetry Archive


I’m also bringing …

Sam Meekings’ “The Bestiary” which I started dipping into about a year ago. At the time, I found it shockingly gorgeous and was not surprised to find it calling out to me, begging to be brought abroad.

The book is broken up into two parts: Water and Air. What strikes me the most is that Meekings is able to do that brilliant thing where he can describe the natural world in a way that sits in your stomach. It’s not just a poem about A Frog or Oysters or Jellyfish – it is about death, love, age, childhood, memory, hope. Maybe this doesn’t sound so impressive but I often find myself reading poems about trees which are just, you know, about trees. (I’m not particularly interested in trees.)

Anyway, it is a highly enjoyable collection and hope others will get a chance to pick it up.

Here’s a good review from Horizon if you are interested.

I remember reading the “Air” section and finding it so gutting I thought my intestines were going to fall out. As a writer – I always in in awe of poets who can pull off lines like:

“all the things we never said came hissing out / and made me old in a second.”


“… the way to kill a thing is with words.”


“We lined up in silence, as if it were an altar / at which were given countless lives, // where the tresses and tears of our eyelids, fingers, lips / were all stitched to the hem of the sky.”

Me, I find I can’t pull off that kind line without sounding utterly disingenuous. The images are new and fresh and, yes, startling. His poem about hedgehogs almost made me cry.

Worth finding a copy. You can buy it here or can borrow it from the good ol’ SPL. Also, our multi-talented friend, Will Brady, did a great job on the cover design. Which is quite handsome.

Also in the bag…

  • Cold medicine. I always get ill when I’m trying to have a good time.

  • David Simon‘s book, Homicide. (Which Cannongate has just re-released here along with “The Corner”.) I read “The Corner” last year and was totally blown away by the epic quality of Simon’s reporting, his empathy is surpassed only by his attention to detail and intense research. Simon is the creator of The Wire (which, if you’ve not seen yet, I am deeply envious of you). I got to shake hands with him the other day at the Book Festival. Surprisingly, we had a really good little chat about the best place to get pizza in New Haven. I said Pepe’s. He said Sally’s. The eternal debate rages on. If this sounds strange – watch  :httpv://

  • A rough draft of my new manuscript. I hope to beat those boys into shape.

  • A very small camera.

Ryan is Reading at the Bowery Book Club

July 7, 2009


I will be reading at the Bowery’s monthly poetry night, The Bowery Book Club, on Wednesday the 15th of July. There will be short poems and there will be long introductions. Joining me in the reading room will be:

Kelli Boyles

Niki Andrikopolou

Natalia Herrero

Kate Charles

The reading starts at 8pm and is ABSOLUTELY FREE. Come and enjoy some fine poems and short stories.

Poetry is for Reading Part Three: “The Father” by Sharon Olds

June 25, 2009

oldsPoetry is for Reading pt. 3: The Father, Sharon Olds.

I keep dipping into this beautiful book about the death of Olds’ father. The poems are strikingly realistic and honest and have a universal quality to them. I love how Olds manages to capture all the moments of dying – of physical touching, memory and history – into her poems. The book, of course, risks becoming a home-movie or a sugar-coated ode to a loved one. However, Olds is defiant and original in her voice and it makes for an incredible, gut-churning read.

As I was reading the book I kept drifting back to my grandfather’s body lying in hospital and waiting to die. I recalled his shrunken form and how the spit crusted to his dry lips. I remember looking at him, remember words spoken between short breath and I wondered how impossible it might be to speak or write this, this passing. The days in the hospital just seemed so singularly personal and tragic that a poem either felt like it wasn’t big enough or felt massively too big, too weighty for what was essentially a simple thing, a natural and ultimate thing. I remember thinking, “I must remember this.”

If you have ever lost a loved one – this is a book to wrap yourself in again and again. The Father gave me some time with my own beloved and deceased. Like all great books, The Father is a little door that let’s you go some place you don’t normally go. I was grateful for the door.

The Mortal One

Three months after he lies dead, that
long yellow narrow body,
not like Christ but like one of his saints,
the naked ones in the paintings whose bodies are
done in gilt, all knees and raw ribs,
the ones who died of nettles, bile, the
one who died roasted over a slow fire—
three months later I take the pot of
tulip bulbs out of the closet
and set it on the table and take off the foil hood.
The shoots stand up like young green pencils,
and there in the room is the comfortable smell of rot,
the bulb that did not make it, marked with
ridges like an elephant’s notched foot,
I walk down the hall as if I were moving through the
long stem of the tulip toward the closed sheath.
In the kitchen I throw a palmful of peppercorns into the
as if I would grow a black tree from the soup,
I throw out the rotten chicken part,
glad again that we burned my father
before one single bloom of mold could
grow up
out of him,
maybe it had begun in his bowels but we burned his
the way you burn the long blue
scarf of the dead, and all their clothing,
cleansing with fire. How fast time goes
now that I’m happy, now that I know how to
think of his dead body every day
without shock, almost without grief,
to take it into each part of the day the
way a loom parts the vertical threads,
half to the left half to the right like the Red Sea and you
throw the shuttle through with the warp-thread
attached to the feet, that small gold figure of my father—
how often I saw him in paintings and did not know him,
the tiny naked dead one in the corner,
the mortal one.

Published by Knopf.

Ryan to Speak at Cambridge University – June 19.

June 17, 2009

America Week at Cambridge University: Will there be hotdogs?

America Week at Cambridge University: Will there be hotdogs?

I’ve been invited to speak at an event at Cambridge University. The event, I Hear America singing: an American Poetic Revue, is part of America Week at Clare Hall and features myself and the poet Tamar Yoseloff talking about and reading works from some of our favourite contemporary American poets. There will also be free American Wine!(But will there be hot dogs?)

The Event is Friday June 19th and starts at 8pm.

For those interested but unable to make it here is the list of poets & poems ‘ll be talking about. Most of these poems / poets can be found at the Scottish Poetry Library. Do come see me at my office hours on July 7th from 4 – 6pm if you want to find out more about the following poets / poems.

Here they are in no particular order:

* Marita Garin, Huskies

* Charles Bukowski, Trouble

* Etheridge Knight, Feeling Fucked Up (from his selected works)

* Robert Pinsky, The Want Bone

* CK Williams, Insight (from The Forward Book of Poetry 1998)

* Mark Doty, Where You Are (from Sweet Machine)

* Tom Sleigh, Newsreel (from Far Side of the Earth)

* Michael Burkard, Tooth (from Unsleeping)

* Wendell Berry, The Inlet (from Given)

*Joy Harjo, We Must Call A Meeting (from In Mad Love and War)

* Cornelius Eady, I Know (I’m Losing You)(from You Don’t Miss Your Water)

* Raymond Carver, Locking Yourself Out, Then Trying to Get Back In (from All of Us)

* Sharon Olds, The Glass, (from The Father)

* Hayden Carruth, The Quality of Wine (from Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey)

Poetry is for Reading Part Two: Poems for Spring

May 8, 2009

flowersPoetry is for Reading pt. 2: Poems for Spring. Clearing by Wendell Berry

Yes, it is Spring time. The sun is out and I have a splinter in my index finger from helping to weed a friend’s garden. With the sun on our necks and the promise of tomatoes, sweet peas, and yellow carrots (yes, yellow carrots!) sprouting in our brains we chatted about this and that, you know, the usual things: The G20, herbs that work with white fish and poetry, specifically about the garden poems of Emily Dickinson.

Now, try to forgive my ignorance, but I’d never realized that Dickinson was an avid gardener and I certainly never figured she might be more known during her life as a gardener than as a poet. However, the internet argues that this is the case and there is even a book about Dickinson and her relationship with her garden from the less argumentative Harvard University Press. If you need some kind of proof, I found this delightful poem called In the Garden.

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about a book I recently read cover to cover – Clearing by Wendell Berry. “None of us,” says Berry, “can in a true sense own land. We can only hold it in trust.” While I wouldn’t want to quote this line to someone who has gone through a foreclosure, I admit as someone who owns nothing that there’s a simple beauty to this notion.

Indeed, there is a philosophy growing in these poems and they offer a gentle direction for a way we may strive to live our lives. This slim and readable volume even begins with a quote from the I Ching: “what has been spoiled through man’s fault can be made good again through man’s work”. From there Berry describes in a plain-voiced poetic prose the land he and his wife hold and saved from ecological disaster via hard work. Listen:


If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.

Published by Harcourt, 1977

Find the book, tend the garden you hold dear, taste the dirt under your nails. I’m going to go find a pair of tweezers.