Interview: RYLER DUSTIN
1. What have you been up to? Do you have anything coming up you want to talk about?
I’ve mostly written poetry in the past. I have a book of poems published with a press called Write Bloody, and there are some videos of me online. Right now, I’m excited about the novel I’m working on as the resident of the Jack Kerouac House here in Orlando.
2. How did you get involved with writing and poetry?
I first fell in love with poetry because of a poetry open mic in my hometown of Bellingham, a little north of Seattle. It was the first time poetry wasn’t presented as a puzzle to be solved or a sort of metaphorical “code.” Instead, I saw real people being vulnerable in a courageous way. Because of that, I started reading contemporary poetry. I still have to sift through a lot of it, to be honest, before I find work that I really like—but when I do, it’s worth it.
3. What do you say when people ask you “what do you do?”
I tell them I’m a writer; at that point, a person will often ask me what I mean, like, “Are you a journalist? Are you like Tom Clancy?” If I say that I’m a poet they become even more confused. But once I explain how I fell in love with poetry, and that there is plenty of poetry written today that doesn’t necessarily sound like Shakespeare, they are usually pretty interested. Yesterday an Uber driver asked, “So, poetry is like… when you are a man and you write something for a woman, right?” All I could think to say was, “Yeah, I do that sometimes.” Haha.
4. Where do you derive your inspiration from?
I think, like most writers, it comes primarily from reading writing that I love. Before I work on the novel, I’ll usually read a page or two from an author whose voice heightens my sense of what language can do—someone likes James Salter or Ursula K. le Guin.
I am also deeply inspired by science—not necessarily how it is coopted or demonized politically, but the actual undertaking of this wildly humble endeavor, this radically humble attempt to simply learn what the universe is and how it behaves.
Finally I’d say that I often think about someone I love and imagine writing to them—this novel, The Horsemender, began as a story I’d tell my niece, who loves horses. With poetry I imagine saying to someone, using the best words I can, something important and meaningful, something to briefly stay the current of our lives.
5. What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?
I think, again, most people are taught that poetry is a riddle. And if they aren’t taught that, they’re still only exposed to poetry that was written a long time ago. Even Robert Frost, for example, wrote a little different than we would in this decade—if you imitate him, you sound a bit artificial. So people have this idea that precisely this kind of artificial, anachronistic language is “poetic.”
And then, even if a person is exposed to contemporary work and taught to engage it openly, not like they need some kind of decoder ring, they are often turned off because they pick up a book or literary journal that doesn’t suit their taste. Literary journals, in fact, almost never actually say what their aesthetic is. A journal that likes very experimental, fractured work doesn’t say that, they just say they like work that is “interesting.” A journal that likes more direct or conversational work, the kind of work I tend to write, will just say that it looks for “the best work from new and established writers” or something. It’s like a bizarre pact. Only writers even know which journals publish what.
So there is this incredible range in poetry—in what it can do, in what it can care about, in how it can say. It’d be like someone saying, “Oh, I don’t know what to read, I’ll take a shot at fiction today.” Does that mean Romance novels, regional literary works, historical naval fiction, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, etc.? What if they needed to read The Road and got Infinite Jest?
6. What's something that continues to interest you about your work?
Wow, what a wonderful question. I should ask myself this more often; I should ask it of my students.
I continue to be interested in musical speech—not just sonically rich language but the sort of speech that can open a space in a room or across a kitchen table, the sort of language that has the momentum of sincerity.
I’m also very interested in ecological writing—that’s what I’m doing in this novel. I’m writing about communities and insects and trees and other forms of life in a world that has evolved to the stresses of manmade change.
At the same time, the novel is about what I’d call the ecology of knowledge. Knowledge, like life, “evolves.” For example, in the margins of a veterinary manual in my novel, the protagonist’s forebears have inscribed treatments for various diseases. The history of the world can be seen there: the treatments changed as technology declined and then as certain herbs went extinct; the notes, which had originally contained information about the lore of herbs or the cultures from which various treatments arose, became more to-the-point and shorthand as space in the margins grew limited; the handwriting became worse because writing became so rare. Much of the novel explores myths and stories—the names and myths surrounding herbs that the protagonist is taught to recognize—names which like the plants have mutated over time. There are various splinter religions and theories about what happened to our society, and they all have little alleles of truth in them, which go on changing and taking on lives of their own.
We see this process even today, in our extremely “low pressure” ecology of knowledge—by “low pressure” I mean that we are currently very good at preserving information. For example, Shakespeare is only changing a little right now—we have Kurosawa adaptations, and “Spark Notes” versions, etc. Shakespeare probably changed a great deal in the decades during and after Shakespeare’s lifetime, when the plays were transmitted through word-of-mouth, and when devastating plagues and war made the ecology of knowledge more volatile, highly selected (like, what did people remember?) and therefore prone to mutation.
7. What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about writers or poets?
I think slam poetry is having a profound impact. I love slam. I also have some real reservations about it. But it is exerting pressure on the entire poetic community in the sense that poets must now realize what they seem to constantly forget, at least in relatively stable historical periods, ones without obvious and immediate crises: that people without advanced literary degrees actually need poetry in their lives.
8. What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the literary world?
I’d stand by the above.
9. Please tell us about your training and how you transitioned to where you are today.
The first recognition I received was in slam because that is the most open format, in that literally anyone can sign up, and there are no bios read or “networks” that can be cultivated. I didn’t know anyone with a poetry degree; I didn’t know what that was. In slam, none of that matters: it’s just you, three minutes, and a roomful of people (often drunk). That’s a pretty ideal audience if you want to become good at certain elements of poetry. It forces you to really care about what you’re saying, at least if you’re humble in the sense that you don’t want to waste people’s time. From there I read poetry and continued to fall in love with poems. A professor, the poet Bruce Beasley, told me that you could actually go to school for poetry, and teach, and have your school paid for if you were lucky. So I quit taking Dental Hygiene prerequisites and started down the path of teaching writing, which is what I’m doing now and how I will probably support myself in the future as I continue to write.
10. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m most proud after I finish a good poem; then a period of doubt sets in; then if the poem is affirmed by someone I respect, or the sincere enthusiasm of a random person, I feel proud again. Then it sort of dwindles and I have to find another reason to call myself a writer.
11. What is your state of mind when you are creating?
At best, there’s a moment of real stillness before I write. It’s the most sacred feeling. It’s hard to describe and I don’t find it all that often because my life is currently very busy. It’s usually around 5 or 6 PM. The world seems pardoned in that time. The anxieties of motion seem to fall away and I feel visited by what I’d call perspective. I mean this in a very literal way—I simply see how things truly are. The basics. We are on a hunk of cooling rock. People suffer terribly because we can’t fathom the concept of interconnection. I will die. I share that truth with all others. This life is not something to “make,” just as the idea that we have to “make something of ourselves” is absurd and trespasses on the profound gift we’re given here, now, no strings attached. If that makes sense. It’s just that my capacity to notice things wakes up. I notice what something tastes like. I notice the sadness in the face of someone I’m walking past.
12. Does your social and political climate impact your artistic expression?
It does—I mean the above statement is quite radical in its implications. I lived in Spain a couple of years ago and they would say, “The Spanish work to live. Americans live to work.” That’s probably a gross generalization but the point is that I’m studying poetry right now at a university, and I feel such intense pressure from all sides—training protocols, community engagement projects, my teaching work, my course work, the need to develop a strong curriculum vitae by going to conferences, etc. I constantly fall out of touch with the idea of “space” or “silence.” I feel really privileged and grateful to be where I’m at. But I’m also sort of looking around and thinking, “I am getting a degree in poetry. This is literally school for the art of noticing things. What must be happening to normal people going for, say, business or agriculture or working to support their kids? How in the hell are we supposed to make healthy political decisions? To reflect on ourselves and our country? To think about the way we talk to others? To think about the anxieties we have and how we’re letting them shape us into people who commit violence, directly or indirectly?”