“There’s no quicksand in the creek,” I said./ Aunt Helen stopped and glared at me.* – Ryan Gibbs
Call it a mystery! Call it serendipity! When I first read Ryan Gibbs’s “Quicksand”, an honourable mention short story in Indelible (a 2006 Cranberry Tree Press contest anthology), I was curious. Who was this phantom local writer and why was he hiding at the local college versus socializing with like-minded scribes from the literary community?
Super sleuth-college colleague-local poet Lois Nantais tracked his whereabouts and eventually nudged him to attend a Spoken Word event in the Turret Room of the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts. Gibbs’s kind demeanor immediately left a huge impact on those in attendance.
When Nantais and Ena Forbes stepped down from hosting this popular open mic event, he joined the organizing team as the new co-host.
For six years (September 2007 to June 2013), this Lambton College English Professor played a major role in Sarnia’s literary scene. Spoken Word, a vital forum for emerging and professional local talent as well as those interested in the arts, was held on the last Friday of every month except July and August.
During that time, Gibbs exhibited a flair for making readers feel comfortable. His experience with teaching college students made him the perfect emcee and his ability to speak on his feet was something that others in the audience wished to emulate. Certainly, even at his young age, he was a role model for me, although this may be a surprise to him.
Upon reflection, the protagonist in his “Quicksand” story now reminds me of an even younger version of Gibbs: adventurous, mysterious, the making of a sleuth! Without spoiling the plot and ending, let me just say that Gibbs (the adult) continues to seek truth in his surroundings and to have compassion for others.
For example, in “watercolour poet”, his tribute poem to the late Peggy Fletcher, he wrote: she stained a blank canvas in tears and/shaped them with meticulous strokes/delving deep into our prismatic hearts/illuminating colours we had never seen.
His love for animals shines in his popular children’s poem “My Kitty Cat”. Even though he states that his cat hunts me down throughout the house/As though I were a hiding mouse, the poem ends with She licks my feet to make amends,/Letting me know we are still friends.
As a storyteller/poet, he gathers facts, swirls ideas/images/words in his head, and then precisely records the final product on paper or his computer. He often uses an element of surprise and/or darkness in his work as shown in his opening lines: Didn’t I tell you I’m the best from his poem “Maestro” published in The Saving Bannister, Volume 23 and I broke into your house/And lived in your place: from his poem “Just to be You” printed in Delicious.
As a person, he’s reliable and a pleasure to work with.
After he stepped down from his co-hosting position in 2013 to pursue his PhD in Literature at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, several of the regular Spoken Word attendees lost track of him. Where did he go? Was he still writing? Or had his literary goals changed? Did the study halls of academia swallow him up?
The mystery has been solved.
For those living in or within driving distance to London, mark your calendars. Gibbs will join poet/performer/spoken word artist David Stones for Couplets #12: a collaborative poetry reading to be held Thursday, August 24, 2017 from 6 to 7 p.m. at The Arts Project, 203 Dundas Street. The teaser on Stones’s Twitter account asks, “What do #DavidStonesPoet and #RyanGibbs have in common with Shakespeare and Chaucer?…Find out…” I can’t wait.
In anticipation of his reading, I contacted Ryan via e-mail to catch up with his news. Below are his responses to my questions:
Ryan, welcome back to the literary scene! So much has happened since your 2013 retirement as co-host for Spoken Word. You moved away from the Sarnia area. You started and finished classes at Western. You moved back to teach in Sarnia and then you eventually changed your home base and settled back in London. Did these changes hamper or stimulate your writing? Please expand.
These changes ultimately stimulated my writing. I’ve been torn between the two locations, but London seems the right home for me. There are more literary events here, and it is also closer to Toronto, a city I have been frequenting a lot lately.
Without ruining the surprise, what can people expect to see and/or hear during your Couplets performance in London with Toronto/Stratford poet David Stones?
People can expect a great evening. David and I have been working on the program for weeks now. His experience as a spoken word poet has made me reflect upon the difference between a poetry reading and a poetry performance. I’m looking forward to interpreting my poetry differently and to sharing new work for the first time.
Writing poetry is often a labour of love and yet one of your poems was discovered by the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Assessment in the United States and is now part of their testing program. You were paid a nice sum for the poem’s use. How did this news impact your future writing?
It encouraged me to send my work out – you never know where it will end up. Even before it was picked up by STAAR, “My Kitty Cat” was a poem I was known for at poetry readings, so it seems fitting that it should be my most recognized work. Its success reminds me of the value in simplicity.
When you first joined a local writers group under the leadership of the late Peggy Fletcher, you were workshopping a young adult fantasy novel. Your characterization, setting, dialogue, and sentence structure were strong and you were taking a correspondence course on Writing For Children/Young Adults. Somewhere along the line, like many of us, you turned to poetry and had additional publishing success in that area. You are now a member of Sarnia’s After Hours Poets and an associate member of the League of Canadian Poets. What genre have you enjoyed writing the most? Why does it appeal to you?
I enjoy all genres. I’ve been writing poetry exclusively lately, and that’s because of time restrictions balancing academic and creative writing with teaching. But I hope to write more fiction, particularly travel writing.
That doesn’t surprise me. You’ve become a world traveller and it seems like every summer you are off to another historic or exotic place. Out of all the trips you have taken, which location or setting has inspired you the most? Please explain why.
Paris. There is something magical about the City of Lights. I first visited Paris five years ago and returned there this summer to join the Left Bank Writers Retreat. Writing in Tuileries Garden, visiting art museums, and eating in cafés were all inspirational. I frequently return to these places in my imagination.
What other activities inspire your writing? Who are your favourite writer/s or mentor/s? What trait/s do you admire in these people?
Reading. I’ve done a lot of reading in my doctoral studies and have compiled a list of ideas for poems and stories. One of my favourite poets is former poet laureate of Ireland, Paula Meehan. I attended a reading of hers last year in Allihies, Ireland, and it inspired me to write. Her poems are lyrically narrative, and she remains humble despite her accolades.
Share your writing process with me. Do you have a specific routine or do you just write when the muse nudges you? Is there a certain place where you like to write? Please elaborate.
I used to write when inspired, but I’ve found that results in too infrequent writing, so I try to write a little each day. Early morning and late evening are best – times closest to dreaming – which is why I often write in bed.
In a sentence or two, tell me a little more about the dissertation that you are currently working on? How’s that going?
My dissertation focuses on the redress politics behind contemporary Canadian internment narratives and how literature serves as an intermediary between state interests and ethnocultural advocacy groups. The writing process is long, but I continue to make progress. I’m heading to Halifax this weekend to give a paper at Dalhousie University on Behind Barbed Wire: Creative Works on the Internment of Italian Canadians, a text that features two Sarnia writers, Delia De Santis and Venera Fazio. My interest in their work inspired my dissertation.
Sounds like an ambitious but important project! What’s next for Ryan Gibbs in terms of your life and/or your literary aspirations?
Hopefully, books. My upcoming Couplets performance has caused me to look over the extent of my poems and consider putting together a manuscript. As well, I’ll be revisiting my novel again when I attend a writing workshop with Toronto editor and creative writing instructor Brian Henry at Algonquin Park next month.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m writing vignettes about my travels. I’ve been inspired by the writing exercises I did in Paris this summer. I’m also feeling the influence of my dissertation work as I’m starting with my trip to Italy a few years ago. This trip marked the first time I left the tour to explore Cerveteri, Sicily, and Sardinia on my own.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?
I haven’t disappeared. I continue to write and go to events. I’m planning to attend London’s Open Mic and Sarnia’s Open Stage next month.
I’m glad. It will be great to see you again! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and literary news. I wish you continued success for your future goals and projects. Safe travels. May you get a huge turnout for your reading.
Ryan Gibbs lives in London, Ontario, and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Western Ontario. He works as an English professor and coordinator at Lambton College in nearby Sarnia, where he is a member of the After Hours Poets and has read his poetry in the City Council as part of the nation-wide Mayor’s Poetry City Challenge. His poems have appeared in Tower Poetry, The Windsor Review, and the anthologies Under the Mulberry Tree and Whisky Sour City. His children’s poetry has been included in the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness.
Additional information about Couplets: London’s collaborative poetry series can be found here.