Contributor Spotlight: Ryler Dustin

Ryler Dustin’s poem “First Star” is featured in Issue 75 of the Bellingham Review

What would you like to share with our readers about the work you contributed to the Bellingham Review?

This poem was one I had been trying to write for years. I think it’s often challenging to write about a long, significant relationship because there’s so much history, so much material to work with. You share one detail, and find that it doesn’t make sense without context, which ends up requiring yet more context, etc. What the writer is tasked with in those instances is to step back and suss out the heart of it. My relationship with the beloved in this poem lasted for about two years, and any attempt to narrativize it seems to fall short. We were both just finishing high school, and faced a lot of challenges, some of which bleed through near the middle of this poem. But in the end, this poem is really about one moment, the moment when you realize what love is: to be struck by someone’s vulnerability before the world. From the ultimate failure of this relationship came something beautiful. We learned the definition of love, which I think of as the light of the stars we saw—something very tenuous that has journeyed from very far away, as far away as another person’s experience from your own.

Tell us about your writing life.

I began writing when I was a kid, mostly in lieu of homework. I wrote stories about aliens and far-off planets, wizards and extra dimensions. I didn’t discover poetry—contemporary poetry, that is—until I came to an open mic. This open mic took place in Bellingham, actually, where I grew up and where the events in this poem took place. This reading, Poetry Night, exposed me to poetry as direct vulnerability. I saw people speaking openly about what mattered most to them, and their eloquence seemed an urgent matter, a byproduct of that earnestness. For me, that has remained the beating heart of poetry, the thing that it provides better than any other tool in our culture. It satisfies our need for human speech. And the music of speech is still important to me. I’d say that I write, most often, from the ear.

Which non-writing aspect(s) of your life most influences your writing?

One thing I’m continually inspired by is the scientific endeavor. I think science is often misunderstood as impersonal, uncreative, robotic—and indeed, I think it probably sounds strange to mention science as an inspiration relating to such a personal poem. But the backdrop of empirical truth—the size of the universe, the vast scope of time, the remarkably against-the-odds triumph of being here at all and then finding another to hold hands with or sit across a table from—that frames, for me, the importance of real connection. We must cling to each other in this huge, expanding universe. I was in high school when I met the beloved in this poem, and we couldn’t hold fast to each other, but we learned how to try, and we grew into full people because of that attempt. I also think that the work of poetry and science are similar. Both are concerned, first and foremost, with fostering the art of listening. I can’t think of anything more courageous than to try to understand the universe, to set aside our thoughts of what it should be like, of what might comfort or aggrandize us, and to simply look and listen and try to get to know this place in which we find ourselves. And increasingly what science is discovering, as it listens attentively to what the universe tells us, is that the universe isn’t actually outside of us. It’s interwoven with us. We try to draw neat little boxes around ourselves, to say, “this is me and that is not,” but those lines are arbitrary. We wouldn’t be who we are without other organisms inside of us that affect our mood, our mental functions. That’s just one example. So what science is trying to tell us is what poetry is trying to tell us—we exist only in relationship. All of this—listening, relationship—is deeply threatening to bigotry, hatred, and tradition valued for its own sake. This is why science and poetry are both suppressed in certain circles, and, I feel, it is debilitating that they’re often presented as being at odds with one another.

What writing advice has stayed with you?

A friend once passed along something supposedly said by the poet Rachel Hadas: “Call it like you see it. You’ll see more after that.” That returns to me again and again as the truest maxim for the writing process. You embark, you inquire, and you document the journey. If you know the exact shape a poem will take before you write it, it will be a bad poem. Ross Gay, at a reading in Detroit, said something similar, that poetry is a recording of a thought process. This is a pretty old, simple idea. But much of what we do now in society is about sculpting our image, our marketability, and so the idea of valuing the process of discovery itself is actually one of the most radical things poetry can do. I also like how calling it “like you see it” emphasizes truth, accuracy, as the aim. I don’t think that to aim toward truth implies that truth can be objectively captured. Truth is a relationship, not a static group of fixed points. But so often poetry has been described as a beautiful illusion, a construction, and it helps me, as a writer, to think about honesty and accuracy much more than to think about making something beautiful. That also strikes me, right now, as radical—to find beauty in the attempt toward truth, not just in the attempt toward beauty.

What is your favorite book (or essay, poem, short story)? Favorite writer(s)?

Jack Gilbert was my first favorite and remains present for me always. His line, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew,” is something I thought of when trying to find the words for this poem. Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who we lost last year, is another favorite. Marie Howe, including her new book, Magdalene, is another. Beyond poetry, my middle school self still revels in the imaginations of Ursula Le Guin, and M. John Harrison’s Light and The Pastel City.

What are you reading right now?

I’m loving Matthew Zapruder’s Sun Bear. Yaa Gayasi’s novel, Homegoing, is breathtaking. I’ve been really enjoying my friend Danny Sherrard’s novel, Najma. I keep hearing about the novel The Book of Joan and it’s next on my list.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next?

I’m working on a second poetry collection, as well as a novel set in a dust bowl-era American future, called The Horsemender.

Anything else our readers might want to know about you?

I love nature documentaries, biking at night, and recently discovered they still make those dessert cups that combine orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream.

Where can our readers connect with you online?

I’m currently living off-grid for the Margery Davis Boyden Writing Residency, but you can email me at and I would love to respond when I’m in town.

RYLER DUSTIN earned his MFA in writing from the University of Houston and is a PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. He has performed on the final stage of the Individual World Poetry Slam and his poetry appears or is forthcoming in The Southern ReviewIron HorseNew South, and elsewhere. His book, Heavy Lead Birdsong, is available from Write Bloody.

Featured Image: “Prague” by Dana Macarena