R.M. Ryan’s poems are not for the faint of heart. They saunter, they soar, they dive down to despair. Vaudeville in the Dark brings together poems written over the last thirty years – since his publisher, Louisiana State University Press, brought out his first volume in 1980. That was right after he abandoned graduate school for stockbroking. which he has now abandoned for a writer’s life.We talked about poetry, investments, and the lies of our times one afternoon in the northern California home where he lives with his biographer wife, Carol Sklenicka. – Carol Polsgrove, October 2010 [UPDATE: Rick’s autobiographical novel, There’s a Man with a Gun Over There, was published May 8, 2015.]
When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in the spring of 1964. I was a college freshman. I graduated from college in 1967 and went on to a creative writing program, and I was there for two years, and then I went into the army.
And then you came back to grad school?
I came back to graduate school to work on a Ph.D. in English and study with Howard Nemerov at Washington University in St. Louis.
Was writing poetry the main thing you wanted to do?
Yeah, I was really there to write poetry and the Ph.D. was just a dodge. I really wasn’t a scholar. I thought I would be interested in it, but I really wasn’t. I was too eccentric for that. I’m ABD but I ended up dropping it. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do.
And you became a stockbroker?
Yes. In 1974, I had $6,000 in savings. I gave it all to a stockbroker and two years later I had $40,000, which at the time in St. Louis was enough to buy a mansion. I thought, Wow, this is really something. I could do this, I could be an investor or in the financial world, and I could write poems on the side. I thought it would be a lot more interesting than being an English teacher. It was more interesting than being a teaching fellow, that’s for sure.
You kept writing poems –
Right, I kept writing poems. I got a job in the investment business in 1977. I was licensed in ’78, and my first book of poems [Goldilocks in Later Life] came out in 1980, two years later.
When you were writing poems when you were a stockbroker, was there a relationship between those two worlds?
I never saw a difference. I thought they were really the same. I really believe we all live in a lot of fictions, and I think people who are trained in symbols and literary studies are very good at reading those symbols if they put their minds to it. I think they often have a lot of astute things to say. You can pick up a lot of truth from novels and books of poetry. So while I didn’t always understand the exact language of business, at least not at the beginning, I think I understood the symbolism very well. I think symbolism is extremely important. I think during the recent financial meltdown, for instance, the symbolic idea of the United States as a banker to the world took hold and kind of saved our bacon, frankly.
How did it play out when you were making decisions about which stocks were going to go somewhere and which were not?
I always liked to find businesses that would be around in ten years – companies like, say, Intel, and Apple – those are very viable companies, and I think there’s a corporate identity. It’s ironic – the Supreme Court has just said that corporations are very much like people, which is a controversial decision, but people create identities, and those identities are very important. They define us, and it’s important to understand that. When you see people in psychotherapy, I think they’re having trouble understanding their own symbolism, it’s not working in some way. If you go back and read Freud and Jung – there’s an awful lot of stuff about symbolism. Perhaps this points to some sort of underlying reality. The stocks, I think, are a small example of this phenomenon. Companies have business identities, and you have to understand that as an investor. The story of the company and its future has to make sense. It’s the only thing that really worked for me. All the other so-called investment techniques never worked. I always thought they were nonsense.
So when you’re trying to understand a company’s identity, are you trying to understand whether it has a grip on its identity –
Yes, I think you try to do that. I always like to read companies’ annual reports, which are actually advertising documents, but they show how a company views itself. It’s very interesting to read, say, the annual report of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s company, and you can see how he understands what he’s going to do. And if he’s successful at that, the stock’s going to go up in value. On the other hand, you can read no end of annual reports from companies that clearly aren’t going anywhere. These are companies on, as a colleague of mine used to say, the glide path of the dead duck.
So you’re really reading this report as if it’s a narrative –a literary narrative.
Right. I think the same way people read novels and say, “That’s believable” or “That’s not believable.” I think it’s the same skill in business. And you’re not always going to be right. There are all sorts of examples of novels that failed when they came out but later became successful. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was not particularly celebrated in its own time, and Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier I don’t think really got a lot of attention when it came out. There are a number of occasions when the world is going to recognize something as good and it didn’t recognize it at the time. If you can find stocks like that, you’ll make a lot of money. Actually, Berkshire Hathaway is a perfect example of this phenomenon. No one really had much of a clue about Buffett back in the 1960’s, when he took over Berkshire Hathaway.
These are comments on how knowing literature – being a writer of literature (you’ve also written fiction and you’re writing a memoir) – how they’ve helped you as someone looking at investments. What about the other way around? How did your work in your investments affect your work as a writer, a poet, or a novelist, but we’re talking especially about poetry because you have your new book coming out.
I think frankly that it was easier for me to write fiction in the years when I was working. I heard a lot of stories. I lived in a world of stories. An analyst would say of a stock, “Oh, that’s a good story.” They would say, “Apple’s got a really good story. Have you heard the story of Intel? Have you heard the story of Intel’s new chip?” They’re narratives, and they’re in newspapers, and as sometimes newspaper people used to say, these corporate narratives would have legs.
Also in dealing with clients I really heard a lot of stories there. I heard a lot of stories about businesses and family stories, and I would come home just full of these things. I used to try to write some of those into fiction that I was working on. So it was a wonderful source of that.
Poetry requires more meditation, and there were several years when I didn’t write much poetry, because I needed some meditative time. It was hard to go in to the hustle and bustle of work and still be meditative, but it was great for fiction writing.
You wrote a novel and published it.
A woman who’s become a dear friend of mine – Naomi Wallace, who’s a screenwriter and playwright and MacArthur genius award winner – wanted to make that novel [The Golden Rules] into a movie. She is progressive politically and sees the book as a novel about the flaws in the American economic system. I now look back and I see that too. I was really wrapped up in the economic struggles in America, and I think that’s a very tough place to be. Getting ahead in America is not such an easy matter. It’s a very, very tough world out there even in the best of times. I enjoyed it at the time, but it’s tough slogging.
When you got out of it – which was how long ago?
I formally retired five years ago. I started cutting back at work seven or eight years ago. It’s been some time since I’ve been in that world.
So you have more meditative time?
And I’m writing more poems.
How hard was it to make the shift and create a new space for writing poetry?
I think that’s tough – a lot of people say, “I’d like to be a fulltime writer.” Well, being a fulltime writer means you’re sitting at a desk, probably in front of a computer, staring at the inside of your brain. That is very, very hard work. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. It’s much harder, in a way, than going to a job, where you’ve got somebody telling you what to do, you have an identity, you’ve got a water cooler you can hang around, you can go to other people’s offices or cubicles, and if you’re a writer you can’t do that.
And so you really had to create a new identity for yourself –
Right, and it was challenging, because this is no longer a part-time deal. Now I’ve also been, I think, very productive. I’m been doing the most creative work in the last few years I’ve ever done – I’ve finished a book of poems, I write rock and roll songs for a band, I’m a lyricist, and I’m just about done with this memoir, but I must say, being a full-time writer is not an easy path.
Have you found rituals or strategies for getting yourself started in the morning?
The best way to get started is to get started. Usually in the morning, I still read financial papers and I’ll answer emails. The other thing I’ve found: I get movies on the computer, and I actually listen to movies because I like cinematic techniques, I like the technique of cutting, the way images slam into one another. And that’s actually affected my poetry. I like that aesthetic so I find it very stimulating to watch certain movies, often that are far removed from what I’m working on.
A movie has to have some business going on all the time. There’s this rhythm that movies have. Visual artists talk about using geometric designs to help them compose, and I think there’s something like that in movies and probably in writing. I’m not smart enough to say what that is, but there is something – there’s a kind of patterning that is extremely important, it’s very helpful, and once you get that patterning it’s like stitching something or knitting something. While you’re making something really beautiful, what’s guiding you is the pattern, the design, and I think the work gets easier when you have that. Best of all, it gives a frame for whatever your own brilliance might be. That’s why starting a work is extremely hard, if you don’t have the pattern.
Do you not sometimes find the pattern once you –
I think often when you’re working, you find it. This is called style. Writers have a certain style, and if you achieve some fame and you violate this style, readers don’t like it. They want something similar to the last book. To use popular examples, there’s a John Grisham book, there’s a John Updike book, there’s a Saul Bellow book. If Saul Bellow had written a mystery novel, people would have been shocked, it would not have fit his pattern. I think I’m still finding my pattern, and I like that. When I find it, it’s very exciting, but the work getting there is really tough.
You talked about movies and the way your own images slam into one another, which is quite a bit like what happens in movies. It seems to me that one of the really compelling things about your poetry is that there’s sometimes a movement that may be very abrupt from one world to another world, and it may come through the images, or it may come through words. There’s a set of poems where you’re writing about your childhood and youth, and we’re in those days when you’re nine years old and then very quickly we’re shifted to the present.
Any writer – there are certain things that are attractive to the writer and certain things that are of interest. I am a person very, very caught up in memory. A writing friend of mine—he sadly died in February – and I used to talk all the time. About a year ago I was having a writing block. He said, “Ryan, why don’t you start writing about your grandmother? If you start writing about something that happened a long time ago, that always gets you going.” It’s true – the idea of lost childhood and lost innocence interests me a lot. I find that story quite poignant. It moves me. I hope it moves other people. I don’t think the fairy tales really end when we turn thirteen, I think they keep going on. What changes is the stakes get higher.
In what way?
We’re talking about real life and death. Some place in a poem I talk about the children not being able to find the breadcrumb path back home – Hansel and Gretel who leave breadcrumbs to get back home. What if some animal ate the breadcrumbs, then there wouldn’t be any easy route home. A lot of those Grimm stories are really parables about ordinary life at many stages. Getting eaten by the wolf could be a story about cancer. The patterns of those stories for me are always there. I always see them. And some of them are quite heartbreaking.
Your poems often seem heartbreaking and very fierce to me. I wonder since they hurt to read, if they hurt to write.
I don’t know if they hurt to write. I think it makes me feel good to write them, but sometimes living in my skin hurts, but I think everybody hurts. There’s a great line of Leonard Cohen’s – “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.” And I think that’s very true. I think if you start going around talking to people, they’re not all out there chuckling.
Is this a lie our culture tells us – that we’re cheerful?
I think our culture tries to keep us kind of opiated. Religion isn’t the only opiate of the masses. We have all sorts of other drugs – consumption, travel. Dr. Johnson used to talk about the fiction of experience. I think that many people live with a huge gnawing sense of emptiness and incompleteness, and they want redemption. We all want redemption. Some people get that from religion. People get it from a lot of different things.
Do you get it from poetry?
I get it from art. Also underneath it all I’m actually quite a spiritual person, I have a spiritual life, although I think when you get a spiritual life the emptiness can sometimes get bigger.
Why is that?
I think you begin to see that life has more dimensions than you first imagined; it gets bigger; it doesn’t get smaller. You begin to see that having a new car is not going to solve your problem. It might be a lot of fun but it’s not going to take care of that terrible emptiness.
Art and musicians are very central in this new book of poems. There’s one about Monet, for instance, and we have musicians like Charles Ives – these figures are not simple figures. They seem emotionally complex figures. You don’t seem to imply that art or music is triumphant and will bring us transcendence over our lack of meaning in life.
In the Charles Ives poem, there actually is a kind of hungering – “someone hailing from the other side.” That could be the other side of the river, or the other side of the river of death, or heaven, it could be the other side of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.” In the Monet poem, Monet talks about laughing instead of praying.
But I’m hoping that there is something – I find if art works really well, the Greeks call this catharsis, there’s a moment when things come together. The great master of this in English literature is Shakespeare. And there’s just this crescendo. I think of the end of Lear when he’s carrying Cordelia and trying to figure out whether she’s breathing. The whole weight of that play is there, and then he dies. The same way at the end of Hamlet. These are so powerful, and they’re very cleansing somehow. That happens in music, there’s a catharsis that happens in a lot of music. It can sometimes happen just with the resolution with a couple of notes. You get a feeling of release.
At the end of one of your poems you have some lines –
Two notes resolved into a third. I hear that in Bach – I have some old albums I listen to, Bach’s organ music, and – I think those tunes have an almost mathematical passion. I think this is probably what mathematicians sometimes feel when they’re doing new equations and something works for the first time, and you can hear it with Bach. He’ll put two or three notes up there and suddenly they’ll turn into something else. And it’s incredible.
I always imagine Bach – he had all these children that probably drove him crazy — and he’d probably get up very early in the morning to get away from his family, and I envision him sitting at one of these giant organs where the feet of the organist don’t even touch the floor, it almost would be like he’s floating in space. He hits a note and then another note, and then a third and it’s off and running. This organ music, it’s like his notebook – these are his notes, and these organ pieces are remarkable in that way. I sometimes listen to those when I’m working. They’re very energizing.
In your poems, things do resolve – there’s a similar sense.
I like that ending effect – on the door in this house, we have the end of [W. B. Yeats’] “Lapis Lazuli.” The way that poem moves – I think that is almost the most beautiful poem in English except maybe for Keats’ “Ode to Autumn.” The kind of movement they have – they’re so exquisite.
Do you have a favorite in the new book?
I don’t know if I do or not. That’s hard to say. I like “Notes on the Marvelous,” which is a statement about art. That’s actually taken from a Courbet – there’s a Courbet painting of a man standing in the ocean, waving his top hat at the ocean, which I just think is the most wonderful image.
That’s a very lyrical poem.
It’s a cheerful poem.
That’s where I got the image. It’s actually set – we lived in Milwaukee and it’s set on Lake Michigan.
Here’s a sad one – I like this one a lot, “The Miner’s Tale” That’s based on a New York Times story. It’s got a quote from a miner who was dying, Martin Toler – it picks up that detail. I read it – it just tore me up when I saw it. The poem came in one movement. Poems are like pots, you can feel them grow under your hands, but you’ve got this risk because you don’t want to have a heavy bottom and thick walls. When professionals feel pots they always check those things. You’re trying to make this grow and be a beautiful design but if the walls are too thin it’ll collapse on itself, and if the bottom is too thin it’ll tip over, and I could feel this poem growing under my fingers. I thought it was just perfect.
That’s the one that uses the lines of Chaucer.
So you used the line from a newspaper story and you use the lines from Chaucer. These are like “found lines.” You do this in other places in your poetry. Do you keep a notebook?
I keep extensive notebooks. I have probably seven or eight thousand pages of notebooks, once in a while I’ll go back through them – but these are just things that have been in my head.
Chaucer was in your head?
Yeah, I had to memorize Chaucer. When I was either in eleventh or twelfth grade, we all had to memorize the opening of the Canterbury Tales. It was a requirement at least in Wisconsin where I grew up, I think it was maybe even part of the state-mandated curriculum because I used to run into people, really surprising people, who knew lines from the Canterbury Tales– the poem mentions a guy working at a gas station who knew Chaucer, which I don’t think would happen any more.
These poems are from both your years of living in Wisconsin and your more recent time in California. Is there one group that predominates?
I find it easier in California to write about the landscape than I did in Wisconsin. I never had much luck with that. There are settings but – this poem, “The Miner’s” Tale, which was written in Wisconsin – it doesn’t really have a precise setting. It has settings in it but the background isn’t very important. And there are poems that are quite specifically set here in California – “Lady with a Jaguar” for instance, which is actually about the landscape. You know it’s cold in Wisconsin, you spend a lot of time inside, but as I say that, I see – “Floating Hearts” was set in Wisconsin, and “The Last Shape Possible” is about a dragonfly husk that I found on my lawn in Wisconsin, so maybe I’m wrong.
Why do you write poetry?
That’s a very good question, especially coming on the heels of my last answer where I begin to doubt myself. I think my poems begin with doubts, or with problems. I want to figure out the truth – which is a never-ending process. I also feel that poems come out of a physical urge. I just have to take care of it. It’s sort of like eating. I do it all the time. I’m always sketching things out. In fact when I’m working on a prose project I’ll sometimes get stuck and I’ll begin writing poems.
How would you like readers to read your poems? What kind of reader would you like to have for your poems?
I think these poems – many of them operate on the edge of humor and heartbreak, and I would like people to see that and experience it.
THE MINER’S TALE
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
in Mr. Hardy’s tenth-grade English class—
memorizing the Chaucer I’ve never forgotten.
Mr. Hardy always said we’d carry it
to our graves—the revenge of English teachers.
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.
When Mr. Hardy told the story of
the gas station mechanic—back in the dark—welding
—a Vulcan—Flying A the gasoline—
clang, clang—hammering away.
“An English teacher, huh? Listen to this:
And bathed every veyne in swich licour.”
He lifted his welder’s shield, his face a white mask
outlined by a spray of carbon black.
“I’ve got poetry inside of me
that I’ve carried from high school all the way to here.”
And commenced to tell the tale of him . . . .
and others, yes, at the Tabard, faste by the Belle . . .
just south of . . . where was it now?
The man in that three a.m. restaurant,
the woman shaking raindrops from her hair.
“There was a time,” the sergeant said.
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
The miner out of chances, out of breath
miles beneath Sago, West Virginia,
a Eurydice who’s never coming back
no matter now who sings for him.
“Tell all—I see them on the other side,”
Martin Toler Jr. wrote. “JR,”
he signed it, and this the miner’s final tale.
“I love you.” Dying, he could barely shape the words.
“It wasn’t bad, I just went to sleep.”
And smale foweles maken melodye.
We’ll never get them written, will we ever—
those perfect tales we carry to the grave—
those Aprils, Mr. Hardy, that perced to the roote.
— from Vaudeville in the Dark: Poems by R.M. Ryan, published by Louisiana State University Press, September 2010. Copyright R.M. Ryan.
I do not drink coffee, but found myself sitting in a coffee shop in Bodega Bay. I glanced around at the reading materials when a title caught my eye. The title was a line from “For What it’s Worth,” a song that dated the theme of this book to a time when I was young, with the possibility of war and I becoming acquainted. But I had no interest in yet another novel or memoir of this time – until I read the first few pages of this autographed copy. I purchased a plastic-wrapped, unopened edition, viewed some art on the wall by the author and retired, eventually to my hotel where I encountered a new, strong voice. Writing that was direct, yet lyrical and a book that was composed of chopped scenes abutting each other to weave a wonderful thread of narrative. Here was a marvelous author of whom I had no knowledge. On this site I read a poem and found myself captivated by the writing. While his published writing is limited, I am looking forward to reading each one of his works. – Michael Conner, November 2015