Alumnus finds ‘truth’ in poetry

A 2007 master’s of poetry alumnus recently finished the manuscript for his book, “General Motors.”

Ryan Eckes, a poet and adjunct English instructor at Temple, sits among his book collection in his third-floor apartment in South Philadelphia on Saturday. | SYDNEY SCHAEFER / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Ryan Eckes documents his life through poetry.

In one, he recalls the sound of his neighbor, Frank, calling to his dog Ginger as they walk down the street. In another poem, Ekes captures the experience of waiting at a bus stop near his house with a man who resembles Gabriel García Márquez, a Colombian writer.

“I’m interested in poetry that’s documentary-like, so I’ve always kind of had a journalistic thread in my poetry,” said Eckes, a 2007 master’s of poetry alumnus. “I like reportage. I’m interested in making meaning, making new meaning. I’m interested in truth, and the truth is an ever-evolving thing.”

Eckes, a poet and adjunct English instructor, recently finished the manuscript for his fourth poetry book, “General Motors,” which focuses on transportation’s impact on city life. He read from the manuscript earlier this month during Paley’s second annual Midday Arts Series, which features literary readings and arts events. He’s written three other books prior to this one.

This manuscript is a product of a year’s worth of writing. Eckes was able to take a break from teaching to focus on writing after he was awarded a fellowship last year from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, a Philadelphia arts and culture nonprofit.

“We look for artists with a distinctive voice, whose work is marked by excellence, imagination and courage, and Ryan had that,” said Melissa Franklin, the director of Pew fellowships.

Ryan Eckes, a 2007 master’s of poetry alumnus and English adjunct instructor, flips through one of his poetry brainstorming books in his South Philadelphia apartment on Saturday. | SYDNEY SCHAEFER / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Eckes discovered his love for poetry in his last year as an undergraduate student at Pennsylvania State University in 1999. He took a class with poet and essayist C.S. Giscombe, who introduced him to poems he had never read before.

Reading mid-20th century poetry, like that of the New York School — an informal group of poets, painters and other artists in the ’50s and ’60s — molded his poetic influences.

He’s also inspired by poets like Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka and Frank O’Hara.

“They did things with language that I didn’t know was possible,” Eckes said. “They blew open my world.”

“I started writing poems because I was filled with this sense of possibility in language,” he added.

After graduating from Penn State with a degree in English, Eckes worked various jobs from proofreading to teaching to working in retail.

“All the jobs I had were really just to support myself so I could do what I wanted,” Eckes said.

In 2005, Eckes’ increasing desire to immerse himself in poetry and take a break from his job teaching English as a second language led him to apply to Temple’s MFA creative writing program.

While at Temple, he was offered a teaching assistant position to pay for his education. He eventually became an adjunct instructor at Temple and several other schools, like the University of the Arts, the Community College of Philadelphia and Rowan University.

As an observation-based writer, Eckes combines overheard conversation, personal dialogue and slang with surreal and often dream-like images of Philadelphia, where he grew up.

“He turns these everyday moments, commonly used expressions, commonly used phrasings and presents them in completely new ways,” said Stanley Mir McDonald, an English professor who has collaborated with Eckes. “He has a very keen sense of how to turn everyday speech on its head.”

Like his other works, “General Motors” focuses on life in the city, specifically on public transportation and labor. He was inspired to write his latest manuscript by his family’s long history of working for SEPTA and his more recent work as a union organizer at Temple.

we’re doing unpaid work in the courtroom while temple university’s
lawyer attacks us for being poor…but we just sit there and we can’t be fired for just
sitting there, for being a poet, for being a union. which is an army
of lovers.

2007 Master’s of poetry alumnus, adjunct English instructor
from his poem “CHASE SCENE”

For Eckes, who has an interest in urban planning and public transportation, there is something fascinating about the infrastructure of the city and writing about how life in Philadelphia could have been.

Eckes said he believes Philadelphia’s subway system would have been more vast if General Motors hadn’t been so popular at the time.

Eckes is not only interested in thinking about what could have been, but what can still happen today in Philadelphia.

Nearly three years ago, Eckes helped organize a movement at Temple that allowed adjunct instructors to become members of the Temple Association of University Professionals, giving them stronger job security and benefits. TAUP was originally only for full-time faculty.

Adjuncts received their first contract as part of the union this fall.

“It seemed really daunting in the beginning,” Eckes said. “Temple’s a huge school. [The administration] fought us hard, and there are a lot of adjuncts here, so that was a big fight that I learned a lot from.”

In much of “General Motors,” Eckes documents this struggle:

“we’re doing unpaid work in the courtroom while temple university’s

lawyer attacks us for being poor…but we just sit there and we can’t be fired for just

sitting there, for being a poet, for being a union. which is an army

of lovers.”

As Eckes searches for a publisher for “General Motors,” he plans to continue to write poetry books.

“Philadelphia happens to have a great community of poets and writers who have helped sustain me,” Eckes said. “So there’s community and then having to push yourself to keep the faith that what you’re doing is worth it.”

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