An Interview with Patrick Ryan Frank
By Julia Leverone
Originally from Michigan, Patrick Ryan Frank has his master’s degree in poetry from Boston University and studied theater and creative writing as an undergraduate at Northwestern. Since then, he has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Massachusetts Arts Council, and now holds a James A. Michener Fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin. In August of 2010, How the Losers Love What’s Lost won the Four Way Books Intro prize judged by Alan Shapiro. He was interviewed over email by Julia Leverone of Smartish Pace in October, 2010.
JL: Could you give an idea as to your background, and especially what your influences are?
PRF: I grew up in rural Michigan, on what had once been a farm but is now just a wide swath of weeds and derelict barns. I hated it at the time, and I’ve lived in big cities ever since (with the exception of a couple of stints at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown). While I always wanted to be an urban—and urbane—poet, I can’t quite pull myself completely from the fields.
My influences are pretty varied, sometimes embarrassingly so. I bought a shiny new copy of the Collected Auden my sophomore year of college; now it’s barely held together with duct tape. Though probably less noticeable than Auden, Stephen Dobyns had a pretty major impact on me when I started writing. I first read his book Cemetery Nights for a college acting class (theatre professors are omnivorous), and I was caught completely off guard by his use of unsettling narratives in a form that, until that point, I had considered best suited to the contemporary lyric. I imagine I’m one of very few people who would call Louise Bogan revelatory, but that’s how The Blue Estuaries affected me. Her severity lends such dignity to the personae she adopts, whether they’re victims or villains. “Medusa” is constantly in my mind.
JL: You’ve got a solid set of sound rules you follow in writing your poems, even though they’re not always traditional or reminiscent of an antecedent’s. “The Go-Go Boy Dancing on Stage” has a progression of sound introductions, echoes, and refrains, not always appearing at the end of a line, but usually contained within stanzas. In “Broken Bit,” you move from alliteration to assonance to a loosening of sounds, then back to assonance, and finally finish out the poem on mostly alliterative sounds. Additionally, rhythm always has a strong presence in your writing. What about sound pattern, and the form of your poems, lends towards a better understanding of meaning, to a sense of completion?
PRF: Thom Gunn once wrote that “the life of poetry is not just contained but is defined by its form.” Taking that perhaps too literally, I look at traditional meters and forms as enactments of the expectations placed upon a life, the assumed orderly procession of events. However, syntax and diction inevitably push against those structures, and metrical variation moves against formal expectations, creating a tension that is meant to evoke the collision between goals and reality, the hoped-for success and the fated disaster.
At least, that’s what I’m after. Another, less wordy answer would be that I just really enjoy rhyme and sound-play, and I’ve always felt more comfortable writing out of the template of meter. As an undergraduate, I took my first poetry class from the poet and critic Mary Kinzie, who was adamant that a writer learn the rules of the craft before trying to break them. I’m incredibly grateful for that training, even as I develop my own methods for structuring a poem.
JL: In “Singles’ Night at the Art Museum” and in others in How the Losers Love What’s Lost, you write the intersection between heightened life (strained life, life hoping to become just a little bit more) and relative disaster—the race-runner stumbles, the expectant pageant contestant isn’t announced as the winner, the men and women at singles’ night have so much to say and so much to gain by opening up, but can’t. The narrative is slow and meditative, emphasizing the devastation. We rarely see the coping, though. Why do you think that this particular slow- or still-shot of loss is one that you’re drawn to time and again, and what do you mean to achieve by not discussing what comes after? In other words, how do the “losers love what’s lost?”
PRF: My characters are moment-haunted. Each has missed an opportunity, made some mistake; what comes after is unexpected and inexplicable. While I have some poems about people living with bereavement and long prison terms and that sort of thing, I rarely write about how my characters cope with their problems because I don’t think that most of them do. I’m interested in how certain people can be defined, at least in a poem, by bad luck or bad decisions; how after their misfortune they are reduced to that misfortune. They become obsessed with those seconds in which something slightly different could have happened and the world could have gone on as before, could have gone in a better direction. Like a lyric poem, these characters endlessly inhabit a certain perfect instant, still beautiful with possibility.
Despite how it probably seems, I’m generally an upbeat and optimistic person. I wrote a book about losers not because I identify with them (though who doesn’t occasionally obsess over some bit of trouble?), but because, like everybody else, I root for the underdog. The beauty-pageant runner up and the lonely singles and the other failures and screw-ups want so earnestly and simply to be loved that it’s impossible not to love them.
JL: We might think about the slow-/still-shots of loss that you use as agents of silence, as thefts of voices, the losers having “burned clear through that hectic oil” of speech like in your “Inmate.” How do you work that silence into your writing?
PRF: I’ve never really thought of it as silence before, though I guess fixation is a form of silence, an inability to talk or think about anything else. The characters are reduced by the confines of the poems to their disasters: there’s nothing beyond the trouble, so there’s nothing else to say, nothing that could be said.
I find a great deal of poignancy in a character that doesn’t know how to express himself, or else chooses not to. Many of the people in my poems have lost control their lives and their surroundings, of everything except their own voices. Their words, and often their silences, become the only way in which they can position themselves within a noisy world.
JL: It seems that you’re also intrigued by the foreign, stepping into characters who belong to other “worlds” and times and allowing yourself to feel what they feel, like in “Las Manos de Juan Perón” or “Francisco de Orellana in the Unmapped Jungle.” How much do you rely on truth or what you’ve learned or can research, and how much do you rely on what you imagine? How do you make a place for what isn’t immediately, personally yours within your poetry?
PRF: It’s impossible to ignore the question of appropriation, of what gives me the right to adopt the voice of someone I’ve never met and with whom I have absolutely nothing in common. Some would say, somewhat convincingly, that by presuming to speak for other people I am disrespecting their ability to speak for themselves. But a poet’s primary duty is to his or her poem, not to someone else, not to the facts. I do my research and I respect the details insofar as they help me get to the honest heart of the poem, of what I, as a poet, want to say. I don’t claim to speak through my characters with absolute authority, and I certainly don’t claim to speak for them. I adore the poetic potential of personae, the ability to summon gravity or grace or narrative possibility through the temporary adoption of an identity. At the same time, I know that I’m not actually giving anyone a voice; whether it’s a go-go boy or a gangster’s girlfriend or a Spanish conquistador, it’s really just a mask that I’m wearing. The “I” of my poems is never me, but it’s never anyone else, either.
JL: How do you research or determine these subjects that you want to write about?
PRF: I really probably shouldn’t admit this, but I am severely addicted to Wikipedia. I spend hours on it, hitting the “Random Article” link over and over again. Sure, most of the entries seem to be about European soccer teams or comic-book superheroes, but it’s a great place to find inspiration. If I come across something that interests me (the Taman Shud case, for instance: a mysterious body found on an Australian beach with a code-filled copy of the Rubaiyat in his pocket), I usually have enough information in the Wikipedia article to start framing a poem. I have access to a good university library, too, for any further research. My goal is just to spur my imagination, though, and I do the research entirely to that end.
For the poems that aren’t about specific or historical individuals, inspiration usually comes from people that I encounter. I have friends who are or were gamblers or go-go boys, my mother is a widow; thinking about those people led me to poems about those identities, though not about the actual individuals.
Finally, there are some poems that just come from nothing but themselves, or perhaps from nothing at all. You’re thinking and you think of a word, and another word attaches itself to the first. Then comes a phrase, and then another, a subject and a structure, and then the whole thing is suddenly there.
JL: As far as the act of uncovering or building reality goes, “Broken Bit” is a beautifully careful construct—as many of your poems are—of a moment of abrupt change, the horse throwing its rider. You side-step the delivery of information using thick internal sounds, even when you’re most literal: “a horse hard-ridden throws its rider.” After that, the evasion increases—the throwing becomes the “moment between the dirt and sky,” and its aftermath is extended over an almost-three-couplet-long sentence (significant, in this seven-couplet poem). And so we arrive at the end: “The field is now a dangerous space, now strange, now each thing strains to gain a place.” There’s something especially eerie and lovely—and sad—about the idea of this edge being crossed into, or a breached threshold. How do you utilize borders like this to heighten the experiences you write about?
PRF: Once in a while, I get a bit gloomy and I imagine a very high cliff. Standing on top of the cliff are all the sufficiently happy and successful folks, sipping chilled white wine and eating hors d’oeuvres and admiring the lovely view. Once in a while, something goes wrong and someone slips or gets knocked over the edge. There’s a big pile of broken people groaning at the bottom. There’s no wine and not an hors d’oeuvre in sight.
This is basically the landscape of my work: a sharp line between the joyful world and everything else. Crossing that line is sudden and probably irrevocable, but also momentarily beautiful: the weightlessness, the cocktail napkins fluttering like doves. If it weren’t for the impossible height—the danger before the fall and the memory after—there would be no difference between the top of the cliff and the bottom of the ravine, no importance to either. I look for that great plummet in every poem I write.
JL: In “Medusa,” Bogan’s “dead scene forever now” with the “bell hung ready to strike” greatly resembles that irrevocable moment of passage. Where do you think you get that danger theme from?
PRF: I was a bored and boring child, spending most of my time reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and watching the four television stations that we received. I wonder if being a bookish child in a numbingly stable environment taught me to value that sense of danger that seemed entirely absent from my days but thoroughly lived in my books and my father’s beloved Westerns. At the time, I wanted a more dangerous life, a life in which decisions had real and terrible consequences. With hindsight, of course, I can see that I was really very lucky, but try telling that to a nine-year-old with a wistful streak and too much time on his hands.
JL: Could you talk specifically about the poem “Missing-Person Photograph,” which is exemplary of a moment of the sometimes immense stillness in your writing—and also an intense proximity, got to by a forceful slowing-down of the moment—a stillness that you manage to move out of, and then echo in the ending? Where did this poem come from, how did you write it?
PRF: I have a lot of poems about people who disappear, but I have several that are about the disappearance of a specific boy, the figure shown in “Missing-Person Photograph.” While the child in my poems is fictitious, he’s based in part on a boy named Randy Laufer, who had been my neighbor when I was very young. He disappeared in 1987, and a decade later, it was discovered that he had been abducted and brutally murdered. For most of my childhood, though, he was just a mysterious absence, someone who had been there and then simply wasn’t. It was a cautionary tale, but also, in my aforementioned boredom, an exciting one, colored by the knowledge that, under slightly different circumstances, it could just as easily have been me. The missing boy, surrounded by danger and possibility, seems to have metastasized in my psyche; he appears again and again in my work. He’s a tense combination of Randy and my younger self, a child stepping wholly out of the world and into something else entirely.
JL: Many of your poems consist of moments just before death; would you consider your writing to be elegiac?
PRF: I think everyone writes about what really affects them; the idea of a person facing death—or any sort of disaster—with dignity is really moving to me. That’s all that elegy is: the dignifying of death despite its ugly and awful particulars. The beauty of that, in the face of its ultimate pointlessness, captivates me. That’s probably why I wrote an entire book explicitly about loss, though I hope it has its moments of joy, as well.
JL: Finally, you frequently write the moment of loss into hinges or hooks at the endings of your poems. Sometimes the lines softly click shut (“Look at those stars. / Then silence. Then, Here’s the car” from “We Live to Love You More Each Day”); sometimes they swell into dark possibility (“I’ll be the white-haired stranger at the edge / of your wedding reception, whispering to myself” from “Pluto, Unplanet”); and sometimes they are violent, like in “The Go-Go Boy Dancing on Stage”: “I’ll lower myself to the crowd, / and open my legs like a butterfly knife / and hollow all of them out.” What is it about the placement of these moments at the end of your poems that furthers the particular sense of loss you’re after?
PRF: The end of a poem is like the point of a knife: it can make the deepest cut, or the finest; if it’s dull, the whole thing is nearly useless. That sounds pretty sinister, but it’s how I think about the structure of a poem. The last lines are far more important than the opening; anyone who tells you otherwise has a short attention span and should not be trusted with anything longer than a haiku.
I fear this will rob my process of some of its mystique—assuming it has any—but I tend to start with endings. Sometimes it’s a line or a phrase, sometimes it’s an image or just a feeling that I want to hit and hold and let linger on after the poem is finished. Once I have the ending, I write toward it. Half the time I discover that the poem wants to go somewhere else and that initial spark has to be scrapped. Either way, my goal is to get a reader to the middle of the poem’s ache and then leave him there.
Julia Leverone is in the University of Maryland’s MFA program. She writes and translates poetry, and graduated from Tufts in 2009 with a bachelor’s in Spanish. Julia lives in Mt. Rainier, MD.