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  • Alistair Braidwood

Van the Man: The Poetry of Ryan Van Winkle…

I’m trying to educate myself in the ways of contemporary Scottish poetry as it has been a hole in my cultural knowledge. When it came to poetry I didn’t know much but I knew what I liked, and that would see me returning to old friends and favourites such as Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard and Don Patterson, but I have been determined to remedy this. The recent anthology of Scottish Islands poetry, These Islands We Sing (see This Island Earth…) is a fantastic collection which includes many poets who I had never before read, and I have also been familiarising myself with the work of Jackie Kay (whose novel Trumpet is a must read), Robin Robertson, Dilys Rose, John Burnside and Ron Butlin on the recommendation of my Scottish poetry guru Roz Davies. As far as tasks go this has been one of the more pleasant and enriching, and there will be a Scots Whay Hae! Scottish poetry podcast in the near future to discuss these poets and more.

One name which has been at the forefront of Scottish poetry over the last year or so is Ryan Van Winkle. He’s the Reader in Residence at The Scottish Poetry Library, although I believe he’s on sabbatical at the moment, but you can still listen, and subscribe, to his poetry podcasts. I first came across his work when his poem ‘One Year the Door Will Open’ was the opening piece in The Year of Open Doors collection of poetry and prose and I’ve finally got round to reading his collection from last year, Tomorrow, We Will Live Here. Van Winkle is an American and this collection is an evocative, sensual, and at times cinematic journey through place and past. Here’s an example from the poem ‘Hunter Boys & Girls at the Stream’:

The boy watches from the muscled hill. All around is green but the water cuts dark. The girls are deer grazing, smoking long cigarettes. They have not shaved for him, the hills, the water. On their mouths is the taste of mint, he is sure the cigarettes have been stolen from Mother.

This is a scene which could be directed by Peter Bogdanovich or Robert Altman, and many of his poems place you in scenes which non-Americans will only recognise from afar. But, like Springsteen, Van Winkle sets a broad scene before focusing on individuals’ lives and loves, and how place, whether natural or man-made, effects those that inhabit. The cover seems like a nod to Grant Wood’s famous painting ‘American Gothic’, although in this case the couple are looking back into the distance rather than facing front. For anyone with an interest in American culture (and surely that must be everyone to a degree) this collection can only improve your understanding and strengthen those bonds.

Other highlights are ‘Necessary Astronomy’, ‘Bluegrass’, ‘Open the Connections, She Says’ and the collection of verse that make up ‘Unfinished Rooms’. The poems have an understanding of nature that reminds me of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and the poet I am most in mind of is Ted Hughes. Like all of the above there is an ache for times past. I’m sure there are more apposite comparisons, but you have to admit that Springsteen, Grassic Gibbon and Hughes would be a dinner party to behold. There’d be a hell of a fight for the last piece of pudding.

I digress. Here is Van Winkle talking about Tomorrow, We Will Live Here followed by some of his words put to music in collaboration with Ragland:

You can find all about Ryan Van Winkle by going to his excellent website where there is lots to explore, but I would suggest engaging with his poetry the old fashioned way, in the form of a paperback which you can buy at Amazon, the The Scots Whay Hae! Local Shop and all good bookshops.

He is also part of The Forest collective whose website you should really take a look at.


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