STARLIGHT, PHILADELPHIA seeks to cast a glow of starlight around the Philadelphia Poetry Community & its people.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


                                              Ryan Eckes is a keen observer of the whole world.
                                              (photo credit Seth Klinger)

art as experience
by Ryan Eckes

in passing john calls john dewey j-dew, which makes everything infinitely
more watchable. go phillies like a bus, half hours, half flowers, to valu-
plus for flip-flops and a new notebook—marble, like my stoop. i stand
on the book, its title, valu-plus, arrived home on a sticker, yellow, with
a price: a buck, a holler. after that we’re free to have our hazards. love
ages me, but not that two people were murdered a half block from me
this week. the barista lays down a napkin and spoon even when you’re
just getting it to go. front-to-back three years ago a night this november
i tore thru splay anthem while this place was called something else, and
i thought i felt the whole world sail thru a map in my chest, knocked on
wood a lesson: bare hands, bare hands, no lie: you’ll never understand
yourself in isolation. a hair on your selfish city’s chest, you will mistake
selfishness for independence again. again, you will catch yourself being
a republican to yourself. if i’m beaten, who can tell.  not me, anymore.
not me, anymore.

It is difficult to think about Philadelphia poetry without Ryan Eckes’ name coming to the forefront of the mind.  Ryan’s poems are very Philadelphia – I cannot think of many other poets whose poems breathe the charge of the city & its many dimensions the way Ryan’s do.  When I read Ryan’s poems, or am lucky enough to hear him read them, I am mentally transported to places in the city – walking around Philadelphia – being part of its people, its vibrancy, its songs, but also its underbelly.  Ryan’s poems are celebratory, but also not full of the celebrational delusion that so many others have filled into their poetries of place.  His poems have a realistic quality that ignites a reader’s senses, that make one aware of the city’s currents & how they filter through a narrow window, or a tiny moment.  For this reason, I am always blown away when I read one of Ryan’s poems.  They say so much in small increments, and can be read in many directions.

Ryan also contributes much to the community of Philadelphia poetry.  He co-curates (with poet Stan Mir) The Chapter & Verse Reading Series at Chapter House Café in South Philadelphia, which is one of the best poetry series that I have witnessed since I started attending poetry series over a decade ago.  He brings poets from all over the country to Philadelphia, so we are lucky enough to hear so many amazing poets read thanks to Ryan.

I feel that if you haven’t read the poetry of Ryan Eckes, that you are missing out.  His poems are nothing less than brilliant, heart wrenching, suffocating, & real.  I hope you enjoy this interview with the amazing Ryan Eckes.

Debrah:  Ryan, I am very excited by the twists & turns of "art as experience."  When reading this poem, & when reading your work in general, I definitely feel "the whole world sail thru a map in my chest."  Is this poem part of a larger series?  

Also, in this poem, you reference Nathaniel Mackey's splay anthem.  Were you inspired by Mackey in writing this poem?

Ryan:   Hey Debrah, thanks for inviting me to do this. 

The poem isn't part of a specific series, but it'll be part of my next manuscript, which I'll probably call Valu-Plus, after the store that recently went out of business. "art as experience" was one of the first poems I wrote last fall after I finished writing my last manuscript, and I was trying to sort of regenerate. I wanted to see what would happen if I attempted to write a poem the way I did four, five years earlier, when I wrote mostly prose poems. I would think of them as little motion machines that were also stories, and the process of writing them was both meditation and storytelling, a give and take of making something up as you go. As I wrote I'd try to let one sentence lead me to the next by repeating the sentence in my head and listening for the truest thing about it and pulling something out of it, which would be the next sentence, and I'd keep going like that until I felt that I'd arrived and had some kind of motion machine you could ride when you read it. Hence the twists and turns. The poem turned out different from my older prose poems, of course, because I'm a different person now, but the experience and reward of it was similar.

It's funny you point out that particular phrase, "the whole world sail thru a map in my chest," since that's the phrase I'm least comfortable with, least sure about. It's just that on a purely aesthetic level, I don't know if I like it. But I guess it does its job where it is. I was trying to describe as concretely as possible what I experienced while reading Splay Anthem for the first time, and what I had was some big feeling of endless sadness mixed with possibility, an overwhelming sense of reality, which I called "everything", or "the world", which is a better word, and saw it as a boat, in part because of Mackey's imagery, moving swiftly through the map of water inside me that I imagine's always there, that I won't explain. I felt kind of splayed. I wasn't thinking of Mackey when I started writing the poem--he just came up when I was thinking about a corner I was sitting on, where I'd first read Splay Anthem--but in general, yeah, that book has been inspiring. It's one I've gone back to again and again--there's no end to it. Ever read his preface to that book? It's wonderful. And what a great thing to say, "splay anthem."

Debrah:  I just looked all around my home for my copy of splay anthem.  I really thought I had a copy, but maybe it's just registered in my mind as a book I own because I know I should.  I will have to remedy that!  What is it about the preface to Mackey's splay anthem that you admire the most?

I really enjoy your description of prose poems as "little motion machines."  There is a lot of motion in "art as experience":  "in passing," "go phillies like a bus," "arrived home," "just getting it to go,"  "sail thru a map" ...  So, I definitely get this feeling of moving while reading this piece...  moving in many directions, & in many ways.  The title alone, describing art as an experience, connotes motion to me as experience is a kind of moving through...  Do you feel that prose poetry is an easier poetic vessel through which to deliver the feeling of motion?  How do you designate whether you will write a prose poem versus another form?  Or is it something that just happens?

Ryan: Oh, sorry--I don't mean to make you go rummaging for a reference. I was just rambling a little toward the end of that response. What sticks with me from Mackey's preface is a definition of poetry he borrows from the Kaluli, an indigenous group of people in Papua New Guinea. He describes a funeral song, a ritual and myth about broken kinship, from which poetry and music originate. He suggests that poetry is simultaneously elegiac and restorative, "not only lamenting violated connection but aiming to reestablish connection, as if the entropy that gives rise to [poetry and music] is never to be given the last word." You get that cyclical motion in Mackey's poetry, in the sound as much as the story, the cosmogony.

Since I was a kid I've often felt slowed, or stuck, or static--it's hard to explain—a heaviness on me, as if there were too much gravity, too much of some force pinning me to the floor, which makes me tired. And I think that we live a very static-producing, final-word culture that inhibits exploration and curiosity and human connection in general, so motion has been an important word for me in resisting those forces, and writing and reading has been a way to do that, to feel alive. Prose isn't the only way that works for me. Line-based writing also does the job. The main difference is the unit--when I work in prose the sentence is the unit, and I tend to focus a little more on narrative and a little less on music--but just a little--while the line-based poems are usually made of short lines with quicker turns. What determines if it'll be a prose poem or not is whatever I start with. If it's a pair of lines in my head, I'll just keep writing lines (Ted Greenwald's been a big influence there). I try to get the feeling of motion from anything I'm writing.
Recently, thanks to Conrad, I got interested in the 19th century architect Frank Furness, who built many buildings in Philadelphia. Furness wanted his buildings to convey motion, to exhibit natural elements, to be as alive as possible. I found a fascinating biography called Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind, by Michael J. Lewis, that makes connections between Furness' personal experiences and the designs of his buildings. Here's a snippet of a quote from it from my notebook: "His walls were not so much static murals as living conduits whose underlying physical drama was infinitely more exciting than any color that might be applied to the surface." The book was enough to inspire me to try to break out of my own conventions by writing a poem based primarily on the violence I felt moving through me, and I wound up with an ugly thing that's both prose and verse--the first section is shaped like a tornado, by accident. I had a good time.

Debrah:  Wow, what you reference from Mackey's introduction to splay anthem sounds amazing & important, this notion that poetry is simultaneously elegiac & restorative.  That the "entropy which gives rise to poetry & music is never to be given the last word."  I agree that we do live in this culture that really privileges "the last word."  The last word, is, perhaps, meaningless when dealing with art forms that require, or give off, the feeling of motion -- of release & restoration -- this double function of poetry & song.  Do you think it's important for poems to resist having "last word" resolution?  

I am thus moved to look at the final moments of "art as experience":  "you will mistake selfishness for independence again.  again, you will catch yourself being a republican to yourself.  if i'm beaten, who can tell.  not me, anymore.  not me, anymore."  This repetition that is enacted here -- the repetition of the word "again," as well as the repetition of the poem's final sentiment, "not me, anymore,"  allows for the poem to cycle at its denouement.  What were your intentions with this repetition?  And the political humor in this last bit is also amazing.  Do you think poetry ought to be political at times, or no?

Ryan: Well, I think a writer should always be pushing his own consciousness, and that there's really no end to learning, so I see one poem as just part of a larger motion and when one thing's done I keep digging deeper into the world. I'm not necessarily against a single poem having "closure" or anything like that. When I say "last word" culture, I think of American moneyworship and bossworship, the anti-intellectual murder machine that our corporate media and government happily foster, telling us that the way things are is just the way things are, period, questions and protest are a waste of time, pleasure is more important than thinking and you deserve it, now go ahead and buy your happiness somewhere. I think everyone should be resisting that culture. In general, there is a serious lack of political consciousness in the U.S., so I'm all for any efforts to call attention to injustice. Poetry, music and art are not outside of politics, not immune from it, and because art is emotional, it can be useful for making people think more about "the way things are," and about their connection to everyone with lungs.

I'm someone who tends to build up a lot of political anger and class resentment, so I need to vent sometimes, and poetry helps with that. The idea of "therapeutic" art gets a bad rap (b/c we are strong independent americans!), so what if instead I stick with the word "restorative" like Mackey the academic? I use poetry to restore myself, and to communicate with others, hopefully, in doing so, and even make them laugh! Repetition, lately, works, and I've used that move at the end of a few poems over the last year or so. There was no specific intention there--I felt like I had to say that twice, and it sounded right--not me, anymore, not me, anymore. It's kind of my way of singing, and disappearing into something greater than what I know. 

Debrah:  Ryan, thanks very much for your thoughts on these topics.  For the final question, since this interview is for Starlight, Philadelphia, could you please speak to how the city of Philadelphia has informed your poetry?  Do you think there is anything unique to Philadelphia poetry?   

Ryan: Having lived here my whole life, I imagine I've got nothing but Philadelphia coming out of me most of the time. I doubt I could count all the ways it's informed how I do what I do. To understand it, I've tried to write about the city in many ways, repeating and responding to overheard talk, channeling friends' voices, neighbors' voices, telling their stories, my family's stories, trying to pick up the overlooked, walking songs through the city every day, sitting on a corner or sitting at a window, describing what I see right in front of me, writing letters to dead people, dwelling, dwelling on race and racism, and on violence, on winning and losing, and losing and losing, and love and love. I think I've looked and listened and let it all back out and whatever's in the writing is the city that's done what it's done to me, and you can see that even in the way I'm answering your questions probably. Some day I'd like to write my own paean to place--I'd like to make a poem as great and true to this place as Lorine Niedecker did to Black Hawk Island.

Philadelphia sort of demands that you be part of it, that you contribute to it--it's not the kind of big metropolitan city made for the individual person to live as if the individual were the actual place and the city there simply to do the individual's bidding (that sick capitalist thing). I think anyone who's spent any significant time here knows that. It's a city of resistance and confluence, and that shows up in a lot of the poetry that's written here. If you're a poet, Philly's a real nice place to be--because of its histories, which are often visible, which you can get lost and found in--but also because there are so many writers here--real good ones, too, that you can have real conversations with--I'm very grateful for that. There's a confluence of different poetic traditions among our community that I see as revolving around a shared social consciousness and commitment to a better world.

Debrah:  I think you are doing a very good job of bringing the spirit of Philadelphia into your poetic work, giving a piece of the city to all who read your poems.  Thanks for chatting Ryan!!

Ryan Eckes lives in South Philadelphia. His book Old News will be published this summer by Furniture Press. More of his poetry can be found on his blog,, and in various journals. Along with Stan Mir, he organizes the Chapter & Verse Reading Series.  He works as an adjunct English professor at Temple University and other places.