On Wednesday, October 18, Temple alumnus and Philadelphia poet Ryan Eckes will participate in the Libraries’ Beyond the Page public programming series as the first featured artist in our Midday Arts Series. Join us at 1:00 PM in the Paley Library Lecture Hall (1210 Polett Walk, Ground Floor) to hear Ryan read from his latest manuscript, General Motors. All programs are free and open to all.
I was lucky to catch up with Ryan ahead of his reading, to ask him about his work and life at Temple and in Philadelphia.
Beckie: Can you share with us the story of your journey from Temple grad student to published poet?
Ryan: I started in Temple’s MA poetry program in 2005 when I was 26. I wanted a break from waged work and more time to write poetry, and that’s what I got: two years of immersion in reading and writing—and teaching. A teaching assistantship paid for me to be there (which led to my work as an adjunct). Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Jena Osman were great teachers, as were a few classmates who remain friends today. The experience did not lead immediately or directly to any “success,” but I learned the importance of being in conversation with other writers. I overcame my shyness a bit and started going to more poetry readings to continue my education, which I regard as endless. Being part of a community of writers helps to sustain you over time, especially in a larger culture that does not value poetry or history.
B: In that time, you’ve also published two books and are working on your latest poetry manuscript, General Motors. This collection centers around labor and the influence of public and private transportation on city life. What made you interested in exploring these themes?
R: The book grew from my interest in the GM conspiracy to dismantle public transit in the 20th century, my family’s long history of working for SEPTA/PTC, and my own experience as a union activist and organizer. We live in an automobile society that has shaped just about every aspect of our lives, including the way we see one another, communicate with one another and dispose of one another. I’m interested in how the privatization of public goods and services impacts our relationships and our abilities to survive. In my writing I like to point at the injustices we live inside of and ask questions that make people aware of themselves. And I try to imagine better worlds—that’s the hardest part.
B: How would you describe being a working poet in the city of Philadelphia?
R: Fumbling with language in your head as you walk and ride through the city while also trying to get outside of your head. Fumbling with language in your head as you work your job while also trying to quit your job. Fumbling with language in your head as you talk to people while also trying to love those people. Fumbling with language in your head as you read and read and finally scribble the breath onto paper. Finally reading the poem out loud somewhere and feeling completely alive.
B: That’s such a fascinating insight into how ever-present language is in your daily life. I wonder about the Pew Fellowship you were awarded last year—congratulations by the way! What did that award enable you to do?
R: Thank you. The Pew has given me some very precious time to think and read and write. I’ve been able to finish writing a book that I would otherwise probably still be working on. The grant has allowed me to travel a bit, too. I visited Chile last year for the first time and got to hang out with my friend Carlos Soto-Román who introduced me to other poets there. That never would have happened on adjunct pay!
B: Yes, finding the time and space to work is so important! What other advice do you have for other aspiring poets?
R: My advice is to not think of yourself as an “aspiring” poet. I never did. After I fell in love with poetry, I just started writing and never stopped. I didn’t know where it was going to lead (still don’t). My advice is read widely and keep writing and don’t listen to people who say what you’re doing has no value—remember that capitalist culture is absurd. Stay in touch with the thing inside you that compels you to make something, and trust that thing. And don’t get an MFA unless the university pays for it.