Our “Fellows Friday” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.
This week, we speak to Ryan Eckes (2016), whose narrative-driven poetry is, in his words, “a possible form of history:” a way to document the voices and conditions of urban life. In his latest book, Valu-Plus (2014), Eckes examines his hometown of Philadelphia, as he imaginatively makes use of corporate language, workplace correspondence, and other non-poetic texts, “in search of free expression and experience,” he says. An avid labor organizer in education, Eckes is currently at work on a book about the influence of public and private transit on the conditions of city life.
How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to this choice?
College got me into reading fiction intensely. I took a class during my first year called “Existentialism in Literature”—I had no idea what that meant, but it was at 4 p.m., which was a good time for me then. That class pretty much opened the door. Soon after, I started writing my own stories. And in my last year of college (this was at Penn State, 1999) I took a poetry class with C.S. Giscombe and made a couple of close friends who loved writing as much as I did. I haven’t stopped writing poems since.
Your poetry surveys the urban landscape, and you’re currently at work on a book about the influence of public and private transit on city life. What you trying to convey with your work?
We live in this era of gentrification in which we experience constant erasure of history and community, so I’m interested in possibilities of collective power that can cut a different path—alternatives to capitalism and hyper-consumerism—as well as better understanding how we got here. I read and write toward another way of living, which I feel inside me and in conversation with people . The writing ends up necessarily political and is therefore often a documentation of what’s actually happening in the city.
What is your daily art-making routine?
Coffee first, then the news, then emails. Then some pacing. Then I sit down, look at what I wrote yesterday and continue, or re-write, or veer in another direction. Generally, I split the day between writing and reading (mostly poetry and history) in my apartment, and sitting there thinking about why I feel the way I do, how strange it is to be a living thing in the world. I try to take one long walk a day to air the brain out, let things in. At night, at least a couple of times a week, I hang out with friends—that’s a big part of the process, actually—the ongoing connection to people close to me. I also go to a lot of poetry readings.
What is perfection to you, in the context of your work?
When I finish something and can think about something else.
Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this art scene distinctive?
I’ve always lived in Philadelphia, and I have friends and family here, so it’s easy to choose it. But it’s incredible luck that Philly has this vibrant poetry scene that’s made poetry a thing you can live deeply here. The last 16 years have been another education for me. Part of what’s made the scene distinct is a tradition of working-class consciousness. Somehow we’ve managed to sustain that.
What are the primary vehicles you use to support your practice—what makes it possible?
Well, the Pew Fellowship right now is a huge help because it’s giving me more time to make new work. For most of the last decade, I’ve cobbled together a living as an adjunct professor at various colleges, and carved out slivers of time to write.
What music are you listening to and/or which books are on your bedside table?
My apartment is a mess of books. A few in the rotation right now: The Consequences of My Body by Maged Zaher; Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat by Will Alexander; The Poetry Deal by Diane di Prima; Tripwire 10 (journal); The Traffic Power Structure by Planka.nu; History of Shit by Dominique Laporte; The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement by Stanley Aronowitz; Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Y. Davis; Strike! by Jeremy Brecher; talking at the boundaries by David Antin.
As for music: lately I’ve been listening to Brandon Eckes, my brother, who works under the name Seesaw Well.
What is your biggest motivator as an artist? What is your biggest fear?
Writing is a spiritual thing. I’m compelled to do it. It’s more about need than motivation. My biggest fear is we will end the world soon.
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