Shannon Perri Interviews Tatiana Ryckman
A writer of prose, poetry, and the indefinable, Tatiana Ryckman certainly has more than one or two tricks up her figurative—or handmade—sleeve. (In her spare time, she sews her own clothing.) She recently released a celebrated chapbook of flash fiction called Twenty-Something, and she edits for the independent, New York-based press, sunnyoutside. In addition to a few other projects, she is now at work on a vast narrative poem about infatuation.
Front Porch: I’ve heard you say this at one of your readings, and it seems to be true—you write a lot about food and sex. Why do you think that is? What draws you to various subject matter in general?
Tatiana Ryckman: Mostly, it’s what I write about because mostly, it’s what I think about. But also, food and sex are both very visceral subjects. It’s hard to say whether this is my attempt to get to the “heart” of a story, or my crutch. But I also suspect I stay close to the body because I grew up in a very repressive culture and was constantly told to deny my body, or that my female body was less-than the male body. Those are hard lessons to shake, and I suppose writing is where the shaking happens.
FP: In the third issue of the Austin-based arts magazine, fields, you state, “Sometimes I fear that I am a one-trick pony. That is to say, I write fiction and essays and poems, and in the end, the only real distinction seems to be which of these I call it. It’s a precarious place to position oneself as a writer—as a writer of nongenre.” I’m curious how your identity as a writer has shifted over the years. Was there a time when you felt compelled to categorize your work as either “poetry” or “fiction?” And, if so, what gave you the freedom to divorce from that type of thinking?
TR: There was definitely a time when I considered myself a fiction writer exclusively. I was neither reading nor writing outside of fiction, and I was totally okay with that. But then a friend gave me James Tates’ Return to the City of White Donkeys and there was no going back. I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson lately and I admire the way she blends genre without necessarily bending it. She brings things to light in her essays with a poetic sensibility. The thing I want to learn from poets—whether to use in poetry or fiction or nonfiction—is the invisible leap between ideas, the almost magical trick of suspending a reader in two places at once to create a place that is more than either.
FP: Your chapbook of flash fiction, Twenty-Something, which recently appeared on Lena Dunham’s Instagram page, is lovely. How did you choose the title? And what, in your words, organizes and unifies the collection?
TR: Thank you for the kind words! I am still waiting to hear from HBO about writing for Girls—all things in their own time, I guess.
The answer may be the reverse of your question, more or less. As I was readying the final draft and coming up with titles, I began asking myself the same thing: What unifies this seemingly disjointed pile of stories? And the thread I recognized running through them was a sort of neurosis, a quarter-life existential angst, and I felt all the characters were suffering through their twenties together—whether in a slice of pie or naked in their great-grandmother’s kitchen. I retroactively wrote the title story to try to bring that thread to the forefront for the reader as well. A boring bit of trivia: the paragraph-long story, Most Days, was the seed for the story Twenty-Something, but everyone I showed my early drafts to kept getting confused by that paragraph. I couldn’t quite bear to kill my darling, so I made it its own story and that’s where the cover imagery of repeating cats comes from.
FP: In addition to the cloak of a writer, you wear all sorts of hats: editor for sunnyoutside press, co-host of the literary podcast Written in Small Spaces, creative writing teacher, artist residency organizer, chicken-owner…. and I’m sure others. How do you manage the headspace? Do you find switching gears to be a challenge? Or, perhaps, energizing?
TR: What is between energizing and challenging? It’s true that the job of keeping track of my jobs occasionally takes over the tasks themselves. But I feel there is no hell quite as excruciating as having nothing to do. I haven’t been bored in a few decades and I’m thankful for it, but more than that, I can’t write when it’s what I have time for. Perhaps it’s an inability to have output without input.
FP: Now that you’re an editor for an independent press, and your own book came out with another indie press, ELJ Publications, do you find yourself reading more work from smaller presses? If so, what differences do you notice in the work coming out of independent publishing houses, compared to, say, HarperCollins? Who should we be reading?
TR: Should is a scary word, but I will do my best with it. We should be reading whatever the fuck we want. Just as we should be writing whatever the fuck we want, be it best sellers or indie chapbooks. That said, I think of buying books like casting a vote, it’s one small way in which I can support the community I hope will reciprocate and support me as I continue to publish.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned in my MFA was how to find what I want to read, which in turn has taught me what I want to write. Many of my favorite books come from a group of small presses that, for reasons I still don’t understand, have money—FSG, Tin House, Wave Books, and Graywolf, for example. Being independent allows them to take on new writers and riskier books than you’re likely to see with a large press like HarperCollins, while having money allows them to promote those works in very real and meaningful ways, such that even my parents have probably read a book from a “small press” without realizing it. That said, I work for sunnyoutside because they produce beautiful books by great writers. It’s a thing small presses do because they love it—much like writing itself.
FP: What are you working on now?
TR: I’m working on a few things, but it all seems like sweeping things I’ve written into different piles. Foremost on my mind, is a collection of prose poems/vignettes from infatuation— one of those vignettes was recently published in Hobart. I’m also compiling flash essays for a chapbook and working on another sillier, conceptual chapbook idea…we’ll see where that goes.
When I feel empty—which is different, I think, than writer’s block—I try to rope visual artists into working with me on projects, so I am beholden to someone. For example, LK James and I are rewriting and illustrating the Tarot into one cohesive narrative. Elizabeth Schmuhl (whose fucking beautiful book, Presto Agitato: A Dictionary of Modern Movement, just came out with Zoo Cake press) and I have been sending each other “jokes” to illustrate, and Clayton Kalman illustrated a short collection of stories I wrote about meat—those “Chance Meatings” will be out in the next issue of Heavy Feather Review.
FP: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
TR: The first sentence. It gives the illusion of ease.
Tatiana Ryckman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of the chapbook Twenty-Something and assistant editor at sunnyoutside press. More at tatianaryckman.com.