Ryan Kent has always had a warm, calming presence for me. I met him when I was still very young. We were bartending at Sabai, a job that neither of us would be at for long. We established common interests in lyrics and poetry, and went out to parties a time or two. It was then that I learned that he was also the vocalist for a metal band named Gritter, which is the only band in Richmond that has ever gotten me off of a barstool and to the front row, having never seen them before.
Gritter left the stage and left you wondering, “Who the fuck were those guys?” Ryan’s calm and gracious energy belied what I had seen of this man onstage, where he had been a guttural wizard, a raging fire trapped in skin. Ryan the man was Ryan the gentle poet. It wasn’t until he told me more about himself that I realized, “This is that fucking guy from Gritter!”
I run into Ryan every now and then, as we tumble through life. He has always had a smile for me and a warm hello. Every now and then, he has some words of wisdom, some solid advice.
I remember a time at two in the morning, when we were riding in the back of someone’s car to someone’s house, to drink someone’s booze and do someone’s blow. He told me I was gonna be somebody. He said I had grit, and wit, and gusto. I accepted the compliment like a sword pulled from stone. Despite the multiple felonies being planned in the car, I relaxed into the back seat as the guy driving paid attention to the road and his girlfriend paid attention to Ryan.
Ryan has always had words that make you feel good. He’s a poet that speaks and screams from the gut. These days he’s leaning more into the poetry (and sobriety), but I still see him unequivocally as both wizard and bard.
I went to go see him at Chop Suey Books on December 1 to pick up his new LP, Dying Comes With Age, and see the big man himself read some poetry. The night was opened by a reading of “Goodbye Fella,” a track from the LP, delivered by Randy Blythe of Lamb of God. He also reads the poem on Dying Comes With Age.
As Randy Blythe was reading, I thought about my 10th grade English teacher, who used to wax poetic about Edgar Allan Poe walking the streets of Richmond. She asked the class to bring in a protest song for an assignment back in the day, and I played Lamb Of God’s “Now You’ve Got Something to Die For.” Here I was now, a man in his early 30s, at a poetry reading on a Thursday night, listening to the same guy who screamed through those speakers reading softly to a quiet and curious crowd. Guess she learned me somethin.
Ryan read some unreleased material that night. It was on par with Dying Comes With Age: easygoing but hard-hitting, in his usual style. Accompanying Ryan was Tristan Brennis of Dumb Waiter, creating soundscapes with pedals and clarinet. The reeded tunnel of the woodwind created a more ethereal and reflective backdrop to his words than the visceral punch of the LP.
Many metal minds were part of that production. Soundscapes written by Jimmy Bower of Down and Eyehategod also featured a list of other contributors lending their voice and instruments to release the smoky inflection of Ryan’s wry and perceptive words. The swampy sludge of the guitar and the brooding delivery of the poetry reminded me of a man feeding another man, piece-by-piece, to alligators.
I caught up with Ryan the next day to talk about how he got around to making the heaviest spoken word album of the year.
George Wethington: Where, to you, is the intersection between metal and poetry? Did metal lead you to poetry, or is poetry something you expressed through metal for any particular reason?
Ryan Kent: Not really. I always liked heavier music, but I grew up in King George, Virginia, and it was all mainstream. I liked the heavier things, but I thought that I was listening to the heaviest stuff when it was Rage Against The Machine. I didn’t know. It was all that was around.
GW: The profundity of “Break Stuff” by Limp Bizkit. [Author laughs at own joke. Interviewee is nonplussed.]
RK: Yeah. That’s where I came from [musically].
RK: The poetry stuff kind of happened on its own. I just liked doing that. I was trying to write short stories, or trying to write books, or whatever, but nothing really took shape.
Ironically, metal did have something to do with it. It was just random how it happened. I was reading a lot of the Beats, and I was reading a lot of poetry, and I liked it, but something was missing. It was odd, but I kept doing it, thinking maybe I hadn’t found the right author.
I interviewed the lead singer of this band from Seattle called Himsa, his name was John Pettibone. He said, “Hey man, do you know Charles Bukowski?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” He said, “You should know him. You should check him out.”
Then I was in Borders, the bookstore, and I had a gift card. I was trying to think of something to get and I was like, “Oh, let me go check out that one guy.” I opened a book of poetry by Bukowski, and I don’t even remember what [poem] I read, but I read another one, and then I read another one. Then I was like, “I’m getting this.” Right after that I got everything by him that they had. And totally found that voice I was looking for. So that’s how they kind of go hand-in-hand, but it really didn’t at all.
GW: Did you resonate with Bukowski’s fatalist viewpoint? Was his troubled background something that drew him to you from a kindred spirit standpoint, or from a ferocity of emotion that you were lacking before?
RK: I think it’s a little bit of all of those. I think he was just saying what I wanted to hear. What I wanted to say. I also hadn’t lived a whole lot of life yet. I mean, I had did drugs, and I had partied, and I had worked at Alleykatz, but I hadn’t really lived a whole lot of life.
GW: You hadn’t been kicked in the teeth.
RK: I had been, but not in the grand scheme of things. People have been through way worse things than I was experiencing, but it still hurt.
GW: All life is suffering.
RK: [Nodding] Yeah. He was saying the things that I wanted to read about. I didn’t want to read about butterflies and academic material that I didn’t understand. I didn’t have to learn to read this man’s poetry, and I immediately got the nutrients of that. It was like eating a sandwich. I heard Bono say this thing about Bukowski and he was right, and it was [roughly] like, “Dude had no time for metaphor.”
In a lot of ways, that was really cool. It was like, get it over in the first round, man. Don’t waste everybody’s time. Just fucking knock him out in the beginning. And that’s what he did. And it definitely curved what I did.
GW: Do you think, in a way, the ferocity of emotion you felt from Bukowski also became apparent in heavier forms of music? Because I can say personally, what I read growing up resonated in a lot of ways, and I could find comfort in poetry, fiction, non-fiction, but it wasn’t until I heard someone really screaming into a microphone and exploring dissonance that I felt seen in a way that I could just let go. I was wondering if you also found a form of emotional release that progressed as you found music outside King George and the mainstream that was presented to you.
RK: Yeah. I wrote for The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, and the editor was Dave Smalley, the singer of Dag Nasty, and All, and Down By Law. He exposed me to a lot of music. I didn’t know much about punk rock. I randomly, on my own, listened to Bad Brains, because they were influences of Rage Against The Machine, and I had heard about them on MTV. So, I got Rock for Light and The Omega Sessions. It didn’t sound like Rage Against The Machine, but I liked it. And I kept it.
What happened with the heavier music is I discovered Eyehategod. I loved that band, and I had never heard anything like that. I started listening to it, but none of my friends listened to it.
I ended up playing metal when I moved to Richmond, and the guys that I met were about 10 years older than me. Somehow the band Eyehategod got brought up. And I was like, “You know who they are too?!” and they loved them. Next thing you know, I was their singer, and it kind of sounded like Eyehategod a little bit. But I continued to write. And that’s why they wanted me to be their singer. Because I wrote poems and stuff. I used to show it to them and everything.
When I joined my band, I thought I needed to put poetry on the back burner and make sure that I could write songs. In metal, you kind of get laughed at for poetry as a sissy. People make fun of you. Then I found out Mike Williams, who is the singer of Eyehategod, put out a book of poetry, called Cancer as a Social Activity. Suddenly it felt okay. Then I started doing my poetry again. I put out Poems for Dead People [his first poetry collection], and here we are.
GW: How do you think your next product is going to differ from what you have now?
RK: I’m basically done with the third installment of the trilogy I’m writing with Brett Lloyd.
GW: The first two are very good, by the way. You made me cry on the beach reading Some Of Us Love You.
RK: Thank you.
GW: I was on the fucking beach too, asshole. [Both laugh]
RK: I was explaining this to my girlfriend, because I was having some bad writers’ block and it sucked. She said “Well, I’m just going to bring up the elephant in the room… Do you think it’s because you’re happy?” And I was like, “You know? I think there is a lot of truth in that. I’m just gonna have to wait this out.”
GW: Nothing can ruin my art like a good woman.
RK: Seriously. I wasn’t having that pain in a relationship. So, all of a sudden, I just started writing this other stuff. It kind of made me feel good. I think a lot of us suffer from imposter syndrome. I have been writing since I was 19 and I still suffer from it. I’ve written for the mag [RVA Mag], you know, all kinds of stuff.
But it let me know that I was a writer. I was able to shift from this thing that I continue to talk about, into completely different stuff with a little more of a universal quality to it. Just growing up as a person.
I tried to make an analogy of it. Imagine that you’re standing on a bridge playing a clarinet and this dude comes up to you, and he takes your clarinet, and he throws it over the bridge. And he looks at you and he goes, “Clarinet is for fucking widows and pussies.” And then he gives you a saxophone and he says, “Play.”
Well, if you think about it, the saxophone and the clarinet are both woodwind instruments, so you already have the fundamentals of how to play both instruments. All it’s going to take is a little bit of time to nail down the mechanics of this saxophone, and you’ll be on your way. I was just given another instrument to write with. If you can play a woodwind, at least learn to play all of them.
That’s the cool thing about going back to school. I’m an older person now. I’m able to go back, read all this old stuff they are assigning, and am able to look at it with a different pair of eyes and a different mentality.
Believe it or not, where I used to scoff at academic material, I’m appreciating it more, and it’s influencing how I write in a different way. I’m not trying to sound like an academic in my work, it just sounds like I know what I’m talking about. If that makes any sense.
GW: Because you’re from a more experienced depth of life. It’s becoming pretty obvious in your writing that you’re moving past the point of self-awareness and arriving at the point of self. Everything is a bit less adulterated by your influences and more expressive of your truth. Which, I think, points to the fact that you are growing as a writer.
RK: Thank you. That’s absolutely what I want to do. You have a band that starts, and then you start sounding like this band that you like, and that’s why you started, so you sound like that. But if you just continue to sound like that and you don’t find your own voice, you’re missing the point.
GW: You become a pianola.
RK: You become a pianola.
Ryan Kent’s LP Dying Comes With Age is out now from Rare Bird Lit. Get it on white-black splatter vinyl from Rare Bird’s website, or listen to it wherever you stream music. The first two volumes of Ryan Kent and Brett Lloyd’s Dead Books Trilogy, Tomorrow Ruined Today and Some Of Us Love You, are also available from Rare Bird Lit’s website.