Friday, August 31, 2007
PhillySound Feature is an occassional blog-zine which focuses on the work of a single poet. Previous issues can be found in the ARCHIVE.
Issue #6 is dedicated to the work of Ryan Eckes. He is an amazing young upstart who is writing some of my favorite poems these days. Hope you enjoy his work as much as I do. If you don't, well I probably won't like what you're up to either,
editor of Issue #6
Ryan Eckes grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. He had a great arm, but he threw it out playing fastpitch stickball. Now he writes poems in South Philadelphia and adjuncts at Temple University and Philadelphia University. A chapbook entitled 'when i come here' is due out from Plan B Press this Fall. He carries an MA in Creative Writing from Temple University, and he hosts the Chapter & Verse Reading Series on 9th St. You can listen to some of his poems at PENNSOUND
by Ryan Eckes
a living thing, i move and am therefore dishonest. a 'sinner,' according to one of god’s billboards. 'one nation under me,' thunders another, one by one spat up by the horizon. one time i put a sticker with a picture of a bottle onto the pacific ocean of my globe, so as to capture much of that vast blue, and spun the globe as fast as i could. one time i pleaded with harry the security guard to stay in town to pursue the woman he loved. 'i can't do that!' he cried. 'don't you understand?' the last i saw him he told me i was looking more and more like abe lincoln. it started when i was six, i figure. something in the middle of the night had pulled me from bed to the window, and there was honest abe, warming up our white oldsmobile cutlass. my father, i thought, and went back to bed.
i said nothing on the el today when a toothless man
in an eagles jacket tried to teach an albanian girl how
to speak english. you pret-tee, me pret-tee. she shrunk
into the mouth of her seat, and i got off at girard and
met my brother. we stepped around the hole his wife
left in him, black puddles in the street, sidewalks drying
up, the air thick with it, dumb, like the cars. a bar was
open and a band was playing. a gas station was closed
and a pay phone was sleeping. insert a quarter it fell right
through back to you, yours—e pluribus unum, the tongue
all used up. what price communion? when i was a kid i
thought forgive meant the same as apologize. "have you
forgiven your brother?" the nun had asked. "no," i said,
"he should forgive me."
birds in the air, that one percent chance she might be pregnant. little parking ticket on big brown u.p.s. truck. earl just sitting there, day in and day out, guarding the laundromat. he says, i ain’t know where i'm goin. but his words seem to choke him as they wheeze their way out and appear faded, finally, like an old street sign, dissolving in the hum of dryers. i hide in the hum, the heat of june, the laissez-faire weather, and believe that i get away with myself. vanna white is in the t.v., smaller than my hand, turning letters in her sparkling white dress. timmy, a sweating beak-faced guy in a ratty t-shirt, shows up. earl puts him to work folding clothes. timmy makes smacking sounds with his caved-in mouth as he concentrates hard on his task, which he is not very good at. after a few minutes he looks up at me, as if he’d like to solve the puzzle, and we form a triangle for a moment, vanna, timmy, and i: hazard lights flashing. don't you think it's time we bring the troops home? he says. i nod, slowly, thinking i am glad that he is not touching my underwear. then he goes over to earl and mumbles something. earl hands him a couple of bucks without looking at him, and timmy takes off back down 10th street.
out the window
to stay very still, like the eyes of our dead language in the walls
of the cabin, the knots in the wood i might breathe through.
to be what happened, the roll of the creek, towards. the last
i saw you, getting up to look out the window. woe says go
and i leave. the leaves fill up the gutter. leaving is an inter-
ruption, which builds a house on the calm long enough to be
capable of windows. it takes one million years for a river
to move a grain of sand one hundred miles. i rub my eyes,
and it’s not rain, it’s just the shake from the trees. "how can we
survive out here?" they ask one another. "what year do you
think it is?"
INTERVIEW WITH POET Ryan Eckes
Questions by CAConrad
Keeping in mind every cell in our brains and bodies is made by and maintained by food, which foods would you like to take a moment to thank for the last poem your wrote? What do you have to say to your food (your body your life) about your poems?
I would like to thank coffee. Thank you coffee for making me feel like I can do anything. Though I do find your influence disturbing (while I'm not on coffee), you have made recent tasks, including writing, possible. What did I do before you, coffee? I've only been drinking you seriously for a year. I fear you've robbed me of my soul, which I can recover only for a few hours a day now by drinking you. Of course, it could just be the weather. I find that very few foods or drinks can alleviate the misery that is August in Philadelphia. Maybe a little pineapple or peach in the afternoon if I manage to crawl to the Italian Market without melting into the sidewalk.
Where's your favorite dirt in this world? Is it from a garden or yard from your past, or in some new place in your life now? What's this dirt like? Have you tasted it? What's it like dry? And wet? What have you seen grow in it? If you were to write a poem about this dirt what would the title be?
I've always liked baseball dirt better than any other dirt. When I was a little kid I wore down the grass in my parents' backyard playing wiffle ball - I tried to transform the yard into a baseball diamond. I was able to sculpt a little pitcher's mound, draw a batter's box, and I started a league with the other nine-year-olds in the neighborhood. A few weeks ago I went to a semi-pro baseball game and more than anything else I enjoyed the smell of the field. Watching the umpire dust off the plate, the groundskeeper rake the dirt between bases - these things make me want to play the game, which I haven't done in my adult life. I want to slide headfirst into third base. I always liked third base. Back in the day that's as far as I ever got. I mean, I even played third base. But back to dirt - actually, I seldom slid when I was a kid because the dirt in the playground fields was just regular dirt with rocks in it - not the soft thick professional stuff dreams are made of - so I skinned my knee when I tried to slide. But I loved that dirt anyway. Baseball was the first thing to ever inspire creativity in me. I like that in theory a baseball game can go on forever - there's no clock; it's timeless. People complain that baseball's too slow, too boring. Well, I say these people have been corrupted by TV and the big ugly superconsumer-hyperactivity-flashing billboard culture that gave us Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and other alliterations. I'll take an inning before I take a quarter or half. Anyway, the title of my poem about baseball dirt would be "dusty baker."
If you found out that sitting on the grave of an artist for 24 hours would lead you to write one of the best poems of your life, whose grave would you choose? Tell us what this artist's work means to you.
I would sit on the grave of William Carlos Williams. I've learned more from his work than from any non-living artist. His writing teaches me to pay attention to the world in front of me, the objects around me, the people talking to me, the people trying to avoid me. Williams's poems show the world for the motion that it is. I love how a Williams poem moves, how an image will emerge, grow out of the preceding image while transforming it. Spring and All is an aesthetic guide for me; that and Tender Buttons inspire me far more than other modernist work. But most of Williams's writing inspires me - his essays, arguments with Pound, trash-talking on Eliot, his autobiography - it all makes me want to write, and that's what I like - writing that makes me want to write. Granted - I am easily jaded and difficult to inspire. But Williams gives me a child's eyes - look - a whole world out there totally foreign, and right there in front of me - a fool I was to think I knew it, to think I had it down - look at all these fools. Williams's work makes me grateful to be a living thing. I'm grateful for the objects that are his poems. I'd happily visit his grave. And also Emerson's . . . but I'll stop there; enough with graves: THE WORLD IS . . .
You and I have talked a little bit about The Philadelphia Poetry Hotel that I intend to open one day, but we've never discussed The Philadelphia Poetry Laundromat. Maybe it will be on the bottom floor of the hotel, or next door, or across the street, I don't know. That doesn't matter. What's most important at the moment is what to name the cycles on the washing machines. I was thinking of naming each cycle after a poet. Would you help me out with this? We've got the FULL LOAD cycle, the GENTLE cycle, WASH cycle, SOAK cycle, SPIN cycle, RINSE cycle, and the FINAL SPIN cycle. What poets would you assign to each of these seven cycles?
A Poetry Laundromat is a great idea. Here's what I think: we call the full load cycle the Pound Cycle after Ezra Pound - or, as I like to call him, Ezra 2000 Pounds (aka, Ezra Ton) - since his work is so heavy. Or we call it the Cantos Cycle. As for the gentle cycle, how about Basho? The Basho cycle. The wash cycle: whose poetry cleanses? Hard to say. There's so much dirty poetry on my bookshelves. I think of truth as a kind of dirt, but I suppose one could say reading good poetry cleanses the soul, washes the mind of nonsense and falseness. In that case, there are too many choices. All right: how about the Walt Whitman cycle? The soak cycle = the Bernadette Mayer cycle. The spin cycle = the Frank O'Hara cycle, or Lunch Poem cycle. The rinse cycle is a tough one, like the wash cycle. Poetry that rinses, wrings out, dries out the excess (not to diss the previous cycle). The Oppen cycle? Maybe the Gil Ott cycle? I'm thinking sincerity here. Poetry that pares down. The final spin could be another NY-school poet, perhaps second-generation. I vote for the Padgett cycle.
COMMUNITY COMMENTARY on
Sueyeun Juliette Lee:
Ryan Eckes lives in a city which is not just the figure of a city but something more like a man. The man in the city, the one with the city, grows in it and sees, touches, feels, and sometimes speaks. The man in the city is actually several men, many lives welded together along highway overpasses, trolley tracks, sidewalks, and the narrow staircases that are the skeletons of old homes. It is an American city, a manly city, a place that cobbles together the old and down trodden, the very tired and the observant, a place that is meaningful because there are men and women and the music of their voices in it.
Ryan Eckes’s poems are a Philadelphia, a place where he has lived a long time and learned in. A place where he loves and continues to live and learn in. I live and am learning to love in Philadelphia, too, and Ryan’s poems are a human guidepost for how to succeed, to question what success could actually mean, an example of breathing in and walking through a place that is alive and deadly, alive and perfect, alive and deceitful, alive and always here and also somewhere else. In Ryan’s poems I can be both here and many people, to read “e pluribus unum” and also be the cutout face in that multitude.
I like to think of Ryan Eckes as Philadelphia’s John Godfrey, with a similar energy, human pathos, and keen eye for the emotional tableau that the city presents. Ryan’s poems have a stronger momentum towards a human collision in them, though, and don’t have quite the same rasp that Godfrey’s do. If you want a good example of thinking through where you live, read Ryan’s poems. Read Ryan’s poems.
When I first met poet Ryan Eckes I hadn't had a drink for almost five years; I didn't even accept champagne at my parents' twentieth anniversary a few months before. I met Ryan Eckes and on the Number 23 bus heading back toward South Philly he offered to buy me a pitcher of Lager and I said, "Sure."
After the third pitcher I was loose. Like George Thorogood and the Destroyers whiskey-shot-and-beer loose. And happy. We walked toward his apartment on Spruce, talking about road work and chemical defoliates, and because I'd never met a prose poet before I asked him many stupid questions about rhythm and line breaks and punctuation, all of which he answered in the steady, direct way he always answers, "Well, the thing is..."
I heard Ryan's poetry about a month later. I didn't (and still don't) have the vocabulary to explain why it made me feel so good. It felt exact. Like the poem had jarred loose the crank on my old View Master, the slide fell into place. Click. The slide fell into place. I held it up to the sun. Click. The slide fell into place.
That first day Ryan had taken me to Locust Bar, a pub that would be held up at gunpoint exactly two years later by cacos who offered to shoot everyone in the fucking head as soon as they'd been stuffed into the basement.
"Can you imagine it?" Ryan asked me during one of the last conversations I had with him before I left Philadelphia. That was a month ago. I miss Philly. More than I've missed many other places I've lived. In large part because of the way his poems taught me to see the city, clearly, Now in 3D Technicolor, kiddies.
ryan eckes' voice could only belong to ryan eckes because he has an unparalleled ability to channel how people speak and what is revealed when people say the things they say. the tones of the region, the city, the state, the country ring in his poems, which are also stories. ryan is a consummate storyteller; his characters move through treacherous worlds and are often treacherous themselves in their own average, quiet way. his characters' reveal through their speech and their actions the difficulty of living ethically in the world. ryan once said to me, "i write about bad people," which to me means that he writes about humans and the choices they make. but as much as ryan's poems are about speech and ethics, about class and the city, they don't settle for a common type of american realism. instead, the poems delve into the strange heart of reality; his metaphors turn the quotidian on its head. ryan brings out the odd beauty in the filthy, desolate city of philadelphia.
it was thru the internet that i found ryan's poems a couple, perhaps three, years ago. maybe it was longer than that. i don't know any longer. but i remember googling for more of his work as i am wont to do for my favorite poets. for ryan did become one of my favorite poets. i love the angular pitch and cinematic cuts to his texts. there is a hard-boiled pared-downess to the language that reminds me a bit of bukowski and noir movies, but that the writing is unafaid of experiment.
later we developed a friendship thru email. not only did i fall in love with the sound of his writing i also admired its look on the page/screen. the lower-case language, and how they are punctuated. he is a city poet. philadelphia is his city. a city i've visited only thru ryan's poems. the characters and situations of his texts are hard-working people. the slang is american slang, something that the good dr williams would appreciate.
ryan's poems are also travelogues in a way. they are continously on the move, even if the situations described in the poems are static. take for example the text 'e-z park'
i’m working a new lot, i feel like an ant with all the tall buildings around. a woman in shoulder pads keeps parking without paying because i lost her keys. your job is easy, she tells me. her attitude sticks around, is the stench from the port-o-potty the bums keep breaking into. if i gotta go, i go between cars, hope nobody sees. street merchants try to magnify through bullhorns, i charge three bucks extra for trucks and vans. a big customer pulls up, snorts don’t see too many white guys at places like these. the customer is white, the clouds are white, my cap is white, my shoes are black, the tires of the cars are black, abbas is black, he’s from guinea— i ask him about it, he says it’s very very far away. way up high across the street a woman waves down from a window as if her building’s on fire and she needs somebody down here to go up and save her.
even stuck in a dead-end job the narrator lives a fabulous inner-life and is intensely observant. the great japanese poet basho would recognize the poem. so would whitman.
finally, i got to meet ryan last august when he and his brother brandon passed thru northern california. i had the pleasure of playing host to them and took the brothers to my favorite cheap-ass taco joint - jimboys - for dinner. afterward we talked till the wee hrs of the morning about poetry, poets, movies, langauge and the pleasures of beer. we drank, in the phrase of berryman, a 'many few' brews. when i drove them to the airport the next morning ryan was telling me about the course he was preparing to teach at temple. and i was thinking, man, i'd love to take that course. instead of the teacher ryan eckes, i'm gonna have to be content with him as a poet and friend.