A Chat with Ryan Havely

Ryan Havely’s poem, “Lost in the Rust Belt,” was published in the fourth issue of Niche. You can read his poem here. Meanwhile, we’ve invited Ryan for a brief chat, and he very kindly agreed.

NICHE: First, when and why did you begin to write poetry?

RYAN HAVELY: If I’m remembering correctly, I wrote poems as early as third grade. I remember winning an elementary school contest in Mrs. Ledbetter’s class. She was one of the first teachers who encouraged my creativity, rather than punishing me for it. I wrote long before I actually knew anything about poetry, or what a poem was. When I was a jaded twelve year old, I read poems by Jim Morrison and basically imitated him. I wouldn’t realize until years later that his poetry, frankly, wasn’t very good. I don’t know if I can pinpoint the reasons I wrote. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of language. I like that we can use every day words to make people feel how we want them to feel–to present our own perspectives to the world with as much or as little guidance for the reader as we see fit. We have no true emotion without language, in a way. Without language, we’re limited to grunts and gestures. We can convey a certain level of happiness or frustration or grief with grunts and gestures, but we need language to project our exact states of mind, to wholeheartedly share our perspectives with each other. That’s what good poetry does.

NICHE: Who have been some of your inspirations, and do they influence your own work?

RYAN HAVELY: I’m not ashamed to say my work has been influenced by nearly every poet I’ve encountered. In my classes, I sometimes upset students because I make them read and discuss published work for the first several weeks of class, in the interest of making sure they know what poetry is before they write it and turn it in for a grade. We don’t need to read to emulate, but we

should read to witness all the possibilities of the language. The best mechanic takes apart and rebuilds as many different cars, from as many different eras and places as possible, before he designs and builds his own. Would you go to a heart surgeon, I ask my students, whose resume reads, only, “My girlfriend says I’m a good surgeon…”? That’s my long-winded way of saying yes, they influence my work. “They” include Philip Levine, Richard Hugo, WS Merwin, ee cummings, Sharon Olds, Heather McHugh, Wislawa Szymborska, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, and Frank Stanford…and that’s only a partial list.

NICHE: In your poem, “How To Get Lost In the Rust Belt,” you implement the use of second person, which naturally implicates the reader in the emotion and action. And yet, the details you use are very specifically tied to place. How do you keep poetry personal while keeping the poem accessible to an outside audience?

RYAN HAVELY: I tend to write a lot of poems focused on particular places, and the power those places have over our lives. When doing so, I try to make the place as much a character as a setting. In this poem, I felt the second person, when paired with the present tense, would work if the poem was largely imperative Had the poem begun, “You didn’t go to Pittsburgh…” and continued in the past tense without the commands, it may not have worked. Second person point of view doesn’t have to be imperative, but I wanted to use the imperative mood to make the poem almost epistolary, a kind-of warning or downtrodden instructional booklet. In the end, I, or my speaker (in case I’m not the speaker in that poem) says, “You can break down anywhere you like.

There is nothing here to keep you whole.” That’s good advice for anybody looking to sink, to get knocked about a little.

NICHE: One of the distinctions I see between poetry and prose is the use of condensed images. As a writer, do you struggle with making images seem unique and unfamiliar? What advice would you give poets who struggle with un-familiarizing images?

RYAN HAVELY: I actually struggle greatly with trying to keep images fresh and new. The only thing I have a harder time with is coming up with a good title. However, finding the right image, meaning an unborn, un-compromised, un-jaded image, is a pleasant struggle. When I write, I hear everything I’ve ever read, see it whirling in my brain like a merry-go-round, and I won’t move forward with something until I’m certain I’ve come up with it on my own. My advice to any writer struggling with images is this: don’t paint a picture of what you see, or of what’s there…paint a picture of what it looks like specifically to you. If you’re trying to describe the rain outside a window, and you can’t think of anything better than cats and dogs, and you think, “That IS what it looks like to me, like raining cats and dogs,” then you might consider doing something else for a living, or, at the very least, never writing about rain again. We have a limited number of words, so you’re sometimes going to write something similar to something somebody else has written, but if you aren’t confident that you invented the image, don’t use it. Also, consider the definition of metaphor and simile: Direct (metaphor) or Indirect (simile) comparison of TWO UNLIKE THINGS. UNLIKE THINGS. That’s important. If you want to create a meaningful image, something that resonates with readers, that they can connect with emotionally (or spiritually, or intellectually, etc.), even if they would have never considered seeing whatever you’re describing the way you described it, make the act of writing the image painful. Make it hurt you. Don’t

move forward until your eyes are puffy and blood drips from one ear. Don’t be lazy. Do the work. Sacrifice your sanity for the poem. (Not all images are figurative, by the way. For description that isn’t figurative, just be specific, but not wordy.)

NICHE: What has teaching writing taught you about writing it?

RYAN HAVELY: I realized almost immediately (anybody who hasn’t realized this, or who realized it and resented or refused it, is pompous, is your enemy, and can not be trusted) that I can learn about writing, mine and others’ , from anybody. When I was in graduate school, Richard Robbins and Roger Sheffer, two of my mentors, occasionally let us workshop their poems, so when I finally got a regular gig teaching creative writing, I followed suit. Sometimes the best ear for a poem you can’t get quite right is an untrained ear, or an ear in training. I’ve also been inundated with guilt since I taught my first creative writing class however many years ago. “Write and read every day,” I tell my students, because I’m a hypocrite and a liar. When I teach a writing class, I’m immediately reminded of how easily a person can become distracted, or simply lazy. I can’t count how many times a student has asked, “So, do YOU write something every day?” Suddenly, I’m faced with a choice: Lie, or Contradict Myself?

NICHE: Is there anything else you want our readers to know?

RYAN HAVELY: I‘ve probably rambled long enough, but I’d happily answer follow-up questions or specific questions about the poem.

NICHE: What advice would you give aspiring poets, especially those seeking publication?

RYAN HAVELY: Firstly, be prepared to suffer hundreds of rejection letters, perhaps more, before you see a single publication. I published the first poem I ever submitted. I’m not bragging. It was a pretty terrible lucky break because I assumed it would be easy after that, but I didn’t see another publication for at least a year, and that year was torture. Getting the first one published made me think I’d publish them all. If you want to publish in this game, you have to learn to brush off the rejection slips. I would also caution you against self-publication. You can pay to publish your own book, but that is often seen as a bit pathetic, almost like cheating, and it’s not nearly as rewarding as working hard, submitting batch after batch after batch, and getting that first copy of the magazine in the mail when you finally get something published. When you get something accepted by a publisher you didn’t have to pay, the work has a stronger validation.

Lots of magazines claim they want cutting edge or new or exciting work, but they publish the same old gobbeldy-gook as every other magazine. What many of them really want is a poem with a Latin word in the title, regardless of how bad it is. Don’t cave in to their perverted demands.

If you’re a student, I can’t stress enough how much you need to read those who came before you and revise your own work. I get students every semester who refuse to revise, or think changing a comma to a dash is a revision. You might get a bad teacher here or there, but for the most part, anybody teaching a college-level creative writing class has earned that spot, and he or she knows the craft. Don’t think that because your friends love your poetry, it’s awesome poetry. None of us write as well as we probably can, but those of us who are serious about writing aren’t afraid to cut lines, make changes, scrap ideas, etc. Remember, if something isn’t working in a poem, you can always take it out and make it part of a different poem. And don’t use a thesaurus. For God’s sake, don’t use a thesaurus.

Lastly, if you haven’t at least published SOMETHING in a fairly reputable literary magazine, don’t walk in to your poetry class and tell your professor you’re a poet and you don’t really need the class. Generally, the best writers in poetry classes don’t realize they’re good writers…yet.

This interview was originally posted on Niche’s website on  August 5, 2014

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