Kerry Ryan’s first collection of poetry, The Sleeping Life, was published by The Muses’ Company in 2008 and nominated for the Aqua Lansdowne Prize for Poetry in 2009. She has has poetry published in a number of journals, including Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and Carousel. Her second collection, Vs., was released by Anvil Press in 2010.
ALL photos of Toronto News Girls Boxing Club taken by Jorge Antonio Vallejos for blackcoffeepoet.com.
BCP: Why poetry?
KR: As a reader I love fiction but, as a writer, I feel most drawn to poetry. I like the intense focus on language and image, the challenge of its economy. Plus, you don’t have to deal with pesky inconveniences like plot and character.
BCP: What is your process?
KR: I never know how to answer that question – I still feel like I’m winging it every time I write.
Usually a poem begins with a little nugget of something – a word that I just love rolling around, a phrase or a very simple image. Then I build out from there and see where it takes me. After I have a draft I usually put it away for a while – days or weeks, sometimes months – then start editing it when I feel less emotionally attached. Quite often the image or word that incited the poem ends up being cut – as if its purpose was just to launch a piece.
I’m not in a writers’ group right now, but from time to time I have a chance to workshop, or get feedback from other folks, and that can be helpful.
BCP: How long have you been writing poetry?
KR: I wrote pretty angsty, awful stuff in high school, then took a creative writing class in University that set me on a more serious path. I didn’t get up the nerve to start publishing until a few years after that – almost ten years ago.
BCP: Who are your influences?
KR: For me, it’s more a case “what” than “who.” My writing is very influenced by my immediate environment – the things, people, weather, etc, around me. There are lots of writers whom I admire and envy, but if their work seeps into mine, it’s purely unconscious. (I was embarrassed to realize, well after it was published, that one of my poems cribbed a few words from Leonard Cohen. Oops!)
BCP: How did the idea of Vs. come about? Why did you choose to write Vs.? How long were you working on the manuscript?
KR: I didn’t get the idea for a collection of poems about boxing and then set out to write it; it grew quite organically. About three years ago, I joined a boxing gym near where I work and started going to classes on my lunch hour. It was a complete departure from anything I’d done before, but I liked the physical challenge of it and the sense of camaraderie and support at the club was really inspiring. The classes involved lots of boxing-related and technical training – heavy bag, punching drills, lots of push-ups and skipping, but not much actual contact. And that was fine with me, since I’d intended to live my life without ever hitting, or being hit by, anyone. So, I surprised even myself when I signed up to train for a white collar boxing match at the club.
Transitioning from the gym to the ring was much more mentally and physically demanding than I’d expected. I fell back on poetry to help myself through the process – partly to get my mind on the same page as my body, but also to help myself understand why I was taking it on in the first place.
So, I wrote several poems in the weeks leading up to the fight and, by then, was so immersed in the concept I just kept going. I thought it might become one section of a collection, or maybe a chapbook, but the poems kept coming.
Once I realized it could be its own book, the manuscript came together very quickly. I had a first draft within about six months and spent another two or three months editing before sending it to publishers.
BCP: Your poetry in Vs. is emotional, honest, and stimulating. What were you trying to convey to your readers?
KR: I didn’t think about audience much during the writing, it was more about trying to answer some questions for myself, like: “Why am I doing this?” “What if I get hurt?” “Is this really me?”
But now, when I think about the book, and especially when I read from it, I hope that it will encourage others to challenge themselves, and their own concept of themselves, however they might choose to do so. I also hope it changes some preconceptions about boxing – it’s a very technical and beautiful sport – and show that it’s a wonderful, empowering opportunity for women.
BCP: Was it hard finding a publisher for a book of poems about women’s boxing?
KR: I was expecting it might take years to find a publisher and, then, equally long before it appeared in print. I completely lucked out! I sent it out to a small handful of presses, and had a few encouraging rejection letters, before sending a query to Anvil Press in March of 2010. I had an e-mail back right away asking to see the full manuscript and, a week after that, it was accepted for publication – that fall. It was flukey and lightning-fast, as far as publishing goes, but very exciting.
BCP: Did your fighting spirit from the boxing gym play a part in your writing?
KR: Yes, in may ways, it did. The intensity of the training process really carried over into my writing and helped me focus. And, because I was so immersed in boxing physically, and spending much of my time thinking/worrying about my fight, it was only natural that it carried into my writing.
There’s also a very important lesson that I’ve learned at the boxing club and now apply to my life as a writer: “suck it up.” It’s amazing what good advice that is when the writing is difficult or you get a rejection letter in the mail.
BCP: International Women’s Day is this week. What does IWD mean to you? How does women’s boxing fit in to IWD?
KR: I can’t say that I celebrate International Women’s Day in any special way – though I’m glad that there is one! I think women’s boxing, like IWD, reminds us all that there are all kinds of roles and opportunities for women and that women belong anywhere they want to be.
BCP: Do you see poetry as a form of activism?
KR: I think it can be a form of activism, though I don’t look at my own writing that way. I don’t think my poems are going to change the world; I’m just sharing my experience and hope that resonates in some way for people.
BCP: Are you still training boxing? What do boxing and poetry have in common? When you watch fights do you see things in the ring that you also see on the page?
KR: Yes, I still train, though I haven’t had another fight since the one I wrote about in Vs.
There are lots of connections between boxing and poetry. First, the language around boxing is very concise, immediate and powerful – the way it must be in a poem. No energy can be wasted by either. A poem should be taut, precise, filled with tension, hard-hitting – just like a boxer. A boxer and a poet must have the same kind of self-discipline, self-reliance and tenacity.
BCP: Did your fellow boxers know you were writing Vs.? How did the men at your gym react to the book?
KR: I didn’t talk a lot about the book as I was working on it, but both men and women at the club have responded very positively. I think some are surprised to see their sport presented in terms of poetry, but they’ve been very supportive.
BCP: What are you working on now?
KR: It’s odds and sods right now until I build some momentum. I have a few random pieces coming out in lit mags over the next little while – Prairie Fire, The New Quarterlyand The Antigonish Review. I’ve got a couple of larger projects in the very, very early stages and I’m currently trying to cobble together some funding to develop them. There are a lot of businessy parts of being a writer – submitting work, applying for grants, doing research – and I’m in that phase now.
BCP: When do you expect to have a third collection of poetry published?
KR: That’s really hard to say. Even when I do get a manuscript together, it all depends on what publishers are looking for at that time, what else is out there, etc. I hope I’ll have a third collection some day. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky so far. My first book came out in 2008, about eight months after it was accepted. Same with Vs. last year. So, I’m pretty sure I’m due a comeuppance – the next one will probably take ten years or something!
BCP: What do you want the boxing and non-boxing communities to get from reading your poems?
KR: Poetry is a pretty tough sell for anyone, but I hope Vs. encourages both audiences – not that they’re mutually exclusive – to explore new territory and expand comfort zones. I hope the subject matter draws some people to poetry that wouldn’t normally read it and that the form introduces a more literary crowd to the world of the physical.
BCP: What advice do you have for other writers out there who are having difficulties with their writing, or who have yet to see their work in print, or who are afraid to perform their poetry?
KR: I think it’s important to remember that writing isn’t a hobby; it’s hard work and you have to want to do it. Writing can be lonely, frustrating, thrilling, demoralizing and freeing – sometimes all within an hour. You have to put the time in.
I think the most important things for a new writer to work on are finding your own voice and building a thick skin. Sharing your work – whether through publishing or readings – can make you feel incredibly vulnerable. No matter how good your work is, you’ll probably get a rejection letter, or someone talking through your reading. Writing is so subjective. You can’t get too worried about what other people think, unless they’re saying nice things – savour that!
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday March 11, 2011 for a reading of Kerry Ryan’s poems at Toronto News Girls Boxing Club.