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Sketch of R.M. Ryan

R.M. Ryan on Poetry and the Secret to Being a Writer

R.M. Ryan was a masters student when war changed his plans.

Ryan was a Masters of Fine Arts student at the University of Arkansas. The Vietnam War raged. And Ryan was drafted.

Sketch of R.M. Ryan

That’s when R.M. Ryan made a decision that, years later, led to his writing a memoir, There’s a Man with a Gun Over There.

Ryan’s published several books. He came to my attention through poetry, when I received a review copy of his latest collection, The Lost Roads Adventure Club (paid link).

The book came out in April 2017, published by LSU Press. You’ll find a poem from the collection after Ryan’s interview below.

In the interview, Ryan touches on poetry, aging, and the decision he made after being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War.

Enjoy the interview. And remember, writers whose work appears on Bidwell Hollow do not receive direct compensation. Please consider purchasing their books, or at least helping others discover them by sharing their work, or this interview, on social media. Thank you.

If you’re a published poet or author, you too could be featured on Bidwell Hollow. Reach out to me via the Contact form on this website.

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Q&A with R.M. Ryan

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I grew up in Wisconsin. I now live on the Sonoma Coast of California.

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As a kid, I had a vivid imagination and played for hours by myself. I remember building a car from scrap lumber, but I forgot to add windows. I also built a boat out of a washtub, but then it sank.

Later, I realized that projects like this were the perfect preparation for becoming a poet. I courted a kind of noble failure in my work. I also take everything seriously, even my sense of humor, so I don’t know if I have any real hobbies. Even walking serves my writing.

Your book, There’s a Man with a Gun Over There, is a novel largely based on your own experience. What compelled you to write it?

Its history is this: I was a student in an MFA program at the University of Arkansas and was drafted into the Army.  This was the era of the War in Vietnam, and I enlisted to go to the Army’s Language School in Monterey, Calif. and study German, which I figured would keep me out of the war.  I was a coward.

Well, I was successful in that regard but found myself working with old Nazis. My combat was moral, and I wanted to tell that story in There’s a Man with a Gun over There. Being in the Army is always dangerous, even in peaceful situations.

Did you have any unique challenges in writing There’s a Man with a Gun Over There?

Quote by R.M. Ryan: "I’m afraid that’s the secret to writing: simply writing."

Writing a memoir, even a fake one, is a tricky business. One has to be true to the times, even when making things up. I did quite a bit of research on that novel, and I got through the issues by sitting at my desk every day.

Alas, I’m afraid that’s the secret to writing: simply writing.

What is it about poetry that attracts you as a medium for expressing and sharing?

Poems are generally short, one idea done exquisitely. Novels are much more leisurely, kind of marathon of characters, place, and action. Poems are more of a sprint. Of course these disinctions can get lost in the face of poetic narratives and poetic novels.

Maybe we should stick with what Jeremy Bentham said: “Prose is when all the lines except the last go on to the end. Poetry is when some of them fall short of it.”

How does a poem form for you? Do you carry a notebook for when inspiration strikes?

Yes, I carry a notebook. I must have something like 10,000 pages of notes. 

R.M. Ryan quote: "It’s the ordinary that counts and sometimes, surprisingly,  becomes the precious."

When the mood strikes me, I write down everything that comes to mind, even the most banal thoughts. I try—and here is the exact word for a notebook—to notice everything. From grocery lists to the shapes of clouds. 

What gets in the way of most people who use notebooks is the search for the precious. It’s the ordinary that counts and sometimes, surprisingly, becomes the precious. Elizabeth Bishop was a master at this move.

I think about poems for a long time, but when I begin writing they come quickly or not at all. I often spend longer revising than I do creating the first draft.

The Lost Roads Adventure Club contains poems reflecting on your childhood, young adult years, and trips you’ve taken. What do you think is the importance and significance of reminiscence in your poetry?

Like many writers, I am fascinated by the past and my place in it.  I am constantly thinking of “the snows of yesterday.”

Are you writing or working on anything new that you can share with Bidwell Hollow readers?

I’ve a few poems going and am thinking of writing a fantasy about Buffalo Bill returning to save the US from itself, but I am 74 years old and have had three forms of cancer (luckily all in remission for five years), so I don’t know if I have energy for a novel. 

Even in restaurants, the waiters ask me to pay in advance.

Who are some writers that you admire?

I still think about the work of my friend and teacher from Washington University, Howard Nemerov. I read around in Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and the poems of Thomas Hardy.

Have you read any good books lately?

For some reason, I’ve quit reading much contemporary poetry.

Instead, I’m concentrating on history and biography—maybe because my wife Carol Sklenicka is a biographer. Her new biography of the writer Alice Adams is coming out in December. I would also recommend The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (paid link).

Anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about R.M. Ryan?

You can get an entirely different picture of me and my work at my Wikipedia site:

Thank you to R.M. Ryan for this interview. You, too, could be featured on this blog. Use this website’s contact form to reach out. 

This Lovely Dalliance

It surely looks like love,
these two geckos embracing.

Me watching from above
as the afternoon is fleeing.

He’s bigger, with an orange stripe.
She lies beneath him,

a dusky blue radiance.
He’s thrusting. Yipes.

It looks a lot more like us 
than I ever would have discussed.

He occasionally leans toward her head,
and she looks back at him,

both now undulating together up and down,
blind to what anyone has said.

Tender the way her radiance
fades and glows in this lovely dalliance.

Afterwards he puffs his bright orange bladder out,
and she lies there trembling like the evening sky.

So exquisite this moment is.
How lucky I was to see it there,

this tingle in the midst of time,
in this world where we all must die.

– “This Lovely Dalliance” from The Lost Roads Adventure Club (paid link). Copyright 2017 by R.M. Ryan. Published by LSU Press. Used with the permission of the author and publisher.

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