Patrick Ryan Frank is the author of How the Losers Love What's Lost, which won the 2010 Intro Prize from Four Way Books; and The Opposite of People, to be published by Four Way Books in the fall of 2015. He was recently a Fulbright Fellow to Iceland.
For more information, go to patrickryanfrank.com.
His poems "A Roomful of Widows" and "A Gambler Prays" appear in the 2011 issue of the Roanoke Review. Stephanie Spector speaks with Patrick below.
How did you become a writer?
It was arrogance. I had wanted to be an actor, and I was sure I was going to be a movie star—not a heartthrob or anything like that, but a high B-list best-friend or quirky-neighbor type, with frequent and critically acclaimed serious roles in independent dramas. I really liked the idea of being other people, even though I wasn’t all that sure of how to be myself, and I still might not be. So I was a theatre major in college, with a bunch of small roles in big shows. It became apparent, though, that I wasn’t cut out for it. I was too introverted for auditions, too controlling for improv, too self-conscious to ever act fully within one moment. These are terrible qualities in an actor, but not necessarily handicaps for a writer.
I had always written poems and terrible short stories, but they were mostly means of self-identification, to show myself and others that I was “sensitive.” When it was clear that I was struggling as an actor, a professor suggested writing, first plays and then poems. I could still inhabit other personalities, but with more subtlety, grace, and control. While I could almost never really express anything complex or true as a body on stage, I could sometimes get it right in words on paper.
So I became a writer in college. I was insufferable, of course, always with a notebook and feelings. And obviously I was still arrogant, absolutely sure that I would write deep and affecting poems, and that I’d be able to make a career of it, and a name for myself. But doesn’t every writer have to think that, to believe that what he or she is doing actually matters? Art requires ego, all that un-earned pride. Anyone who claims otherwise is a master of false modesty. We are all arrogant and self-absorbed and somewhat insufferable. It makes us dicey party guests, but it allows us to interact with the world on our own bizarre terms.
When were you first fascinated by “people who are so fully some certain thing?”
Do kids understand nuance? I certainly didn’t. When I was little, everyone had just one quality to define them: the funny uncle, the mean teacher, the girl whose brother shot out her right eye. Everything they did they did because of that one definition. I used to wonder what my thing would be, what quirk would make me into a person. Reading Dickens and watching bad movies and plays didn’t help: characters had specific characteristics and roles to play, and those were the rules they lived in.
Of course, I got older and figured out that my aunt was a bit more than just her impressive string of divorces, and that the kid in school had more to him than his scars. Still, though, I’m interested in how people are defined, by others and by themselves—how they write specific roles for themselves and then fully act them out. I still spend a lot of time wondering what one thing strangers think of me. Bald guy? Fussily dressed gay man? That poet dude?
You break lines effortlessly. I’m thinking about the rhyme and assonance in A Gambler Prays: on every hand, the men / around me folding. Let / the waitresses all be redheads, thin / and grinning, gathered to watch me bet. How do you decide where to break a line or play with sound? Are these skills you consciously learned?
My earliest poems were awkward and ungainly and self-important, and so was I. I’m pretty sure I paired “god” and “mud” on multiple occasions, and I won’t even tell you how much I abused the word “sorrow.” I feel so bad for the teachers who had to endure all of those heavy-handed rhymes and dumb phrasings. But I had a college professor, the poet Mary Kinzie, who was absolutely saintly in her endurance. She made me read Louise Bogan and Thom Gunn, Auden and Frost, and even gave me a tolerant nod when I dove too far into Sylvia Plath’s complicated sonnets. My early poetry classes were all about sound and stress, understanding the music under the words. After that, I was never able to separate them fully.
Do you read or show your poems to others while they’re still in progress?
Oh, god, no. Cringing causes wrinkles.
I’m somewhat obsessive. If I start a poem, I generally won’t leave my computer until I get it exactly as I want it, or think I want it. I’m a pretty harsh critic, too, so I can mostly tell when a poem isn’t ready, or is only ready to be exiled to the cold depths of my hard drive. When I was in grad school, the idea of bringing a truly rough poem to a workshop was just terrifying, so I would polish and polish and sometimes polish the life right out of it. I’ve usually been too embarrassed by the obviousness of my mistakes to make any sense of the suggestions of how to fix them.
On rare occasions, though, I’ve been able to smother my ego long enough to share unfinished work. I once read, in front of a large crowd, a very long and awkwardly explicit sequence of poems about the man who murdered Gianni Versace. There were some rough patches, but enough people seemed interested that I was encouraged to finish writing the thing. I sometimes have to remind myself that poets don’t just share work for praise or even help, but just for the reminder that what they’re doing can be done.
Talk about your experience writing your new book, The Opposite of People. What are you most excited about?
I’m really, really proud of this new book, of the direction it’s gone. I wanted to stretch a bit from the personas and sad-sack narratives of my first collection, How the Losers Love What’s Lost, but I was still interested in the idea that our lives are often, easily, outside of our control. Building on that old narcissistic dream of being an actor, as well as a desire to refer to Netflix as “research,” I decided to write a book about movies and TV shows, about how what we watch makes us who we are.
I doubt that I’m the only person who thinks of living in cinematic terms. Here’s the shopping montage; here’s the slow second act; here’s the scene in a dark parking garage. I sometimes feel like I’m rehearsing my own life story’s film adaptation.
Movies have wormed their way into my soul. More and more, though, I wonder if they are my soul. But how does anybody know how to behave or what to feel, except through what they’ve seen on the screen? We flirt on dates as if we’re in a romantic comedy, and we know it’s working because we’ve seen those same reactions, that smile and the arched eyebrow, on TV. We’ve learned how to be people from actors playing people. We act like actors.
So I wrote a book about the world that doesn’t exist except when there’s a camera rolling. There are poems about action stars and monsters and starlets, specific actors and films, and lots of poems about commercials. There are plenty of persona poems, of course, but vanity also led me to cast myself in several of the roles: I play an alien, a hard-boiled detective, a sad astronaut. And I finally achieved one of my career goals: writing a poem about ‘90s infomercial psychic Miss Cleo.
You did a Fulbright in Iceland. Why did you choose Iceland? What memorable differences or similarities did you notice between Icelandic and American culture?
As a kid, I was really into Norse mythology. It was colorful and exciting and pathetic—all those gods who knew how they were going to die, and had no way to avoid it. In college, I read a bunch of Auden’s odd translations of ancient Norse poems, and found the strange travel guide that he and Louis MacNeice wrote on a long trip around Iceland. They spent most of their time there complaining and bickering, but they would occasionally describe the landscape and the culture, in verse and prose, and it was fascinating. Though it took me years to get around to applying, I always knew that if I did a Fulbright project, I would want to do it there.
My project was to go to Iceland and write poems looking at climate change through the lens of Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse of fire and flood. Iceland’s glaciers are melting at a calamitous rate, leaving a strange landscape even stranger. While I was there, I met with folklorists and glaciologists, I climbed a volcano, hiked through elf-haunted stone fields. I took thousands of photos.
Living in Iceland was amazing and quite easy. Iceland and the U.S. have close cultural ties; almost every Icelander speaks English fluently, and most can recite whole episodes of Friends at a moment’s notice. There are differences, of course. Icelanders always seem to be impeccably dressed, regardless of the occasion or time of day, and they tend to find Americans distressingly casual. They seem rather optimistic and somewhat unconcerned with safety hazards. There was a playground near the harbor built entirely out of jagged, rusty construction scraps. And they have an extremely literary culture: one in ten Icelanders will write at least one book. I think it’s because the language is so beautiful and complicated; mastering it must engender a love of words.
Did you write in Iceland? Do you think where you write a poem affects how it’s written?
I wrote a bit while I was in Iceland, but I mostly just did research and enjoyed being there. I know some writers work best within the moment of inspiration, in the setting that inspires them. I’m not like that. I tend to write about events well after the fact, after they’ve planted themselves somewhere in the back of my head and started to sprout. I need distance and perspective, or else it’s all just a big mess. So I’m actually writing about Iceland now, long after my Fulbright year has passed. It’s entirely possible that I’m not writing about the actual landscape of Iceland, but instead about the version of it that exists in my memory.
What question have you always wanted to be asked as a writer?
Is it worth it? Is being a poet really worth all that trouble? It’s the question non-writers are generally too polite to ask, and that writers are generally too uncomfortable to answer. There will always be far better poets out there than me, thank god, but I know I’m one of the lucky ones: I’ve finagled a few fellowships and residencies, my friends are emotionally supportive, my family is still bemused. Still, in order to do the thing I love, I have no time to do the thing I love: I spend most of my waking hours guiltily not writing, instead grading papers for my low-paying adjunct job (which I know I’m fortunate to have) in the hopes that I will someday have a slightly better-paying job with more security that might—might—give me enough time to actually write. And then what will I get out of that? Another book; the occasional bit of ego-nourishing praise; the ability to say, “I’m a poet,” in order to start or end a party conversation, depending on the party; and that rarest bit of joy that comes from feeling you’ve finally said something in a new, right way. These are all great, but they probably won’t pay for my dental insurance, make the world noticeably better, or keep me from wondering if maybe I should have been an architect after all.
So is being a poet worth it? No, not really. But that’s why I respect all the people who do it anyway. As often as not, I wish I’d gone some other route, because poetry is a foolish and frustrating career, full of disappointment and jealousy and desperation. But it still feels sometimes important, just occasionally wonderful. We’re a lot like gamblers. Nobody walks into a casino honestly thinking he’s going to beat the house, but there’s still that hope, idiotic and noble. We all just want, stupidly, joyfully, to put down the right card at just the right moment.