RVA Mag #38 is on the streets now! Here’s the first article, in which Ryan Kent, the author behind Poems for Dead People, talks rock bottom, writing, and redemption with the release of his latest book.
You know the tune: boy grows up on dreams of baseball, falling asleep to bedtime stories of a future riding into battle, saving the princess, starring in his own fairytale. Boy wakes up 30 years later, in an abandoned house full of empty beer cans and cigarette butts, with his baseball bat in a pile of broken glass. With a divorce and a drinking problem, slouched over a space heater, he writes poetry in an old fur coat. It could end there. It probably should have ended there, logically.
This story, felt by those whose childhoods took similarly-unexpected turns, is the story of Ryan Kent: a Richmond artist whose work has become increasingly recognized throughout local poetic and musical communities.
Kent recently released his third collection of poetry, Hit Me When I’m Pretty. His poems are blunt; comical out of necessity, and told with a mortician’s smile alongside vulnerability. The new book, like Kent, is sober and unflinching. It’s the kind of thing that can only be written by someone who hasn’t been seized by morbid fascination, but instead walked the path of death and changed direction. That path began with his first book, Poems for Dead People.
“I got that idea when I wrote a random poem after Norman Mailer died,” Kent said. “I had an autographed copy of Time of Our Time. I wanted to see how many people had put their things up for sale. There was a lot of stuff — it just put it in my head that if you have a name for yourself, you really aren’t anything until someone can exploit you.”
Kent started writing poetry as a teenager, but those early pieces weren’t the angsty ruminations that you might expect from someone who would end up earning cautious comparisons to Bukowski in his later years.
“The shit that I wrote back then was bad, man. It was flowery and whimsical,” Kent said. “You know, dance, dance, dance, tree tops, fly, fly, fly. That kind of shit. I didn’t really know what poetry was, all I knew was what I learned in school. It just didn’t resonate deeply with me. The things that I related to were songs by Nirvana and Soundgarden.”
“Then I read Allen Ginsberg, and it was completely different. It helped show the mechanism. It helped wake that up a little bit. I didn’t really do anything but swim team and baseball. And when I didn’t do that anymore, I had no substance. And I decided I was going to be a writer; I really loved it,” Kent said. “I loved reading books and collecting books, and those became my heroes in the same way as Jose Canseco, Greg Maddux, Jeff Bagwell, Shaquille O’Neal — all those guys were my heroes. These guys didn’t let me down. A lot of ‘em were already dead.”
Richmond abounds with outlets for spoken word artists for whom performance is an integral aspect of their work. But Kent is not a spoken word artist. He’s more of a storyteller with a passion for line breaks.
“I like going up and just telling the story,” Kent said. “Secretly Y’all — I did that once and that was cool. Everything has to be done off the cuff.”
Secretly Y’all is a local organization in Richmond that hosts live storytelling events every other month for the community to participate in and attend. Similar to many spoken word poetry events, listeners gather in a close room and performers are given a theme: but rather than pre-written poems, Secretly Y’all speakers are chosen randomly from names voluntarily thrown into a hat, and share their personal truths from memory in a full story.
“You tell this true story about the topic they decide,” Kent said. “Some people are just great storytellers. Like when you go sit at the bar, and they just rattle off all this stuff that they did 20 years ago. And man, beer is so easy to drink when you’re sitting next to that person.”
That kind of training doesn’t come with certification, but with an awestruck history of storytelling credibility. There is a belief in the clarity of hindsight among barstool storytellers, like Kent and his heroes: the idea that you have to give yourself over to the absurdity of chaos and despair, so that one day you might dig your way out and make sense of it all.
If there’s an overarching narrative to Kent’s collections, it’s certainly that.
“The first [book] was cathartic for me. I wrote about people that I actually knew, and people that fascinated me. I could relate it to my own life,” Kent said. “But it was mostly done from a deep ache in my childhood, while the other two focused on my new periods. And those all have a glow of heartbreak, in one way or another.”
Growing up in a small family, Kent’s formative experiences with loss revolved around the deaths of holiday relatives he only saw once a year — and nevertheless, still found himself mourning.
Macabre fixation isn’t exactly a novel concept in the literary world, but Kent’s approach to it offers a life-affirming honesty that doesn’t rely on sugary positivity. The antihero of his own botched American Dream, Kent’s narrative style plucks at the mundane nature of everyday life. It finds tragedy in the miraculous and, more significantly, doesn’t distinguish between the two.
“I think I just look at how profound someone’s story is,” Kent said. “The person sitting next to you at the stoplight, it’s some lady with a purple shirt on, and she’s in some Geo Metro that’s still running. I don’t know how. You just happen to glance over at her. She’s just some person. And she will have an end, and her story will be over. Everybody’s got some story that that would mean something to other people, regardless of whether that story is good or bad.”
“One of the Poems for Dead People is called ‘You’ll Never Make It as a Singer.’ It was about this rockabilly performer named Eddie Bond. He was in the rockabilly Hall of Fame, he wrote songs for like 40 years. And he is best known for being the man who rejected Elvis Presley.”
“[When] Elvis Presley tried out for his band, he said, ‘You better stick to truck driving, you’ll never make it as a singer.’ So his legacy was being the one who rejected The Man Who Would Be King. He did all that to be remembered for the mistake he made. Maybe he wasn’t right for his band. We’ll never know. That mistake overshadowed everything. Isn’t that the story of every human being?”
Kent became accustomed to being vulnerable as he started posting his poems online, and later joined a band — a similar outlet for expressing his words. Once his wife left him, he noted that he “kind of flew on.” Without a care, he moved forward, but in a self-destructive manner. It was around this time that his second book, This Is Why I Am Insane, started coming together. And everything else in his life fell apart.
Sleeping on the couch without heat or a bed, Kent resided in an abandoned house. His best work came out of this accumulation of life’s bad decisions, as he almost literally slept in the bed that he made.
“It was a cave,” Kent said. “It was awesome because I could smoke cigarettes inside, I could drink inside, I could play music as loud as I wanted, swing my baseball bat around. I didn’t have any heat, so I had space heaters. I had electricity, no running water. The bathroom and the kitchen were both demolished. And I loved it. I would sit there and smoke cigarettes in a fucking fur coat in the wintertime and just get trashed. It was like camping, camping by myself.”
“I was at the bottom, but not that hard. Real bottom is when you have no other choice. I had fuckin’ choices. I could have been somewhere else. I chose that. That was all I knew I wanted to do at the time.”
If This Is Why I Am Insane welled up from a whiskey-colored pit of metal riffs and heartbreak, Hit Me When I’m Pretty is a process of silence and acceptance. There are no Eat, Pray, Love-style motivational morals. No peachy preaching about flowers sprouting from soils, watered with liquid that doesn’t have an alcohol content. Nothing is suddenly and magically great. But it is better.
“I was pushing a lot of people away from me. I was really angry. I was hurt. People always used to tell me, you’re a functioning alcoholic, barely functioning. And I started looking at how there’s always a crisis in my life,” Kent said. “There’s always some fucking problem, and what’s always in my life is alcohol. I remember sitting at the Fasmart across from Millie’s on Main Street. I was going to get a six-pack of Hamm’s for like, $3.99, and there’s this dude outside asking for a dollar. I got a sandwich. I gave the man a dollar, and got back in my car. And then I just didn’t drink. Then I didn’t drink the next day. And it wasn’t really hard, because I was just fucking over it. And then a month went by, and I looked at the track record of the past month, and the month before. And the only thing that had been removed was alcohol.”
“I’m still going through shit. It’s not like a bunch of happy stuff. I’ve read some happy poems by Billy Collins that I really like,” Kent said, “but the ones that always hit me the most were the ones that had a heavy air of poignancy. In that, I saw a type of beauty in something that’s heartbreaking and sad.”
Typed almost entirely on a cell phone notepad app — according to Kent, the only way to accommodate his ADD — Hit Me When I’m Pretty isn’t a story about redemption. But it is itself a kind of triumph; not over mundanity, but through it.
One poem that stands out to readers in Kent’s latest book: two dudes watching a dog eat shit.
“Two dudes watching a dog eat shit. Yeah. It was actually glorious,” Kent said. “Really, it’s taking a picture of how low someone is, that watching this dog eat shit was just unexpected and funny. It’s like a little break in the monotony of darkness. And that’s kind of where I was in my life. So doing it this time, it was some sober thoughts about ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life?’”
The new book may be a sense of relief for Kent, or it may just be step one of everything else coming. Like a CD coming out of a brand-new cover, all scratched up after six months, the latest piece of art can often feels like the artist’s peak… until, down the road, it lays a foundation for their best work. Getting better is the focus, and real writers can put it into words and break your heart with it.
For Hit Me When I’m Pretty, the spark for the title came from an artistic whim.
“It just popped into my head,” Kent said. “There’s this quote I heard a long time ago, it was Jose Marti — I might be wrong, but it was ‘It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.’ It was the same idea, that if you’re gonna knock me down, do it when I’m doing well. Do it when I’m doing good.”
“Or at least let me stand up and fix my fucking hair.”
Interview by R. Anthony Harris, words by S. Preston Duncan. Top Photo by R. Anthony Harris. Other photos via Poems By This Fool/Facebook