Jim Ryder is a lumbering man with a booming voice. There’s not much that’s subtle about him—he talks about his former addictions and current mental health concerns bluntly; he’s frank when he talks about his talent. Not much subtle at all, until you get to his poetry, layered with meaning and references and wit.
For Jim Ryder, there's no difference between a rapper and a bard
As we talk, he considers his artistic influences (he lists as many rappers as writers), stories of his childhood (not always pretty), and recites poetry to drive points home.
Despite his charm and good-humoured mischieviousness, he has a dark side, too. It’s evident in his work, poems with a hint of self-loathing and a touch of despair. But they’re never entirely helpless or hopeless. The word defiance comes up a few times, like why he’s titled his new chapbook Cygnet, which he self-published with the help of a Downtown Eastside community small arts grant. The title stems from a relationship with an elementary school teacher who he says used to call him ugly. Cygnet is the word for a baby swan—the title works to turn her image of him around.
Ryder grew up in Prince George. “We were pretty poor, at least for the first 10 to 12 years of my life,” he says. “The community was good to us. We weren’t a charity case, but we got a hamper at Christmas.”
He eventually moved to Vancouver to get away from drug and alcohol problems taking shape at home. “I thought it would be best to change my surroundings, see if that worked. And it did.” It’s been decades since he’s used cocaine or alcohol.
But addiction and living on a fixed income in the V6A area code aren’t his biggest battles—it’s his mental health. “For most of the ‘90s, I was profoundly mentally ill,” he says, but now he’s been able to find treatment that’s working. “I string together more good days in a row than bad.”
In 2006, pneumonia led to a month- long, life-threatening coma. After an eight-week stint in the hospital, his perspective had shifted. It took two more years to fully recover and in 2008, he put his pen to paper and started to write, an act, he says, that saved his life.
“Two things that come naturally to me are interpretive clarity and economy of expression,” he says. “In a lot of ways, my poems come fully formed into my head and I just write them down, not to minimize my talent.”
His poems are best enjoyed out loud— he has a sonorous, musical reading voice that evokes his hip-hop influences. In Cygnet, the poems range in topic but largely touch on survival, and what sustains a life. Despite the seeming simplicity of his poems, they are anything but.
“My writing addresses complicated issues that have no easy answers,” he explains. “That’s the backbone of what I do.”
Attitude of Gratitude
From Jim Ryder’s Cygnet, 2014
Many friends in this world have helped me on my way,
with the things that they do
and the words that they say.
They’ve been there from start to finish
on my long and painful road,
with the gentlest of encouragement
when I weary from the load.
I sometimes wonder to myself: “What’s their motive for this task?”
Then I realize, quite quickly,
that’s not the question to be asked.
But, rather: “What can I do
to show my thanks for their love,
that shines down constantly like the very sun above?”
A gift would be, in comparison,
like a base and gaudy bauble
and this poem is not enough
even if the sentiment is novel.
So, how do I begin
to balance out the scales?
Maybe, tell you of the people
who became the heroes of my tales?
Yet, I’m not sure that’s right,
they never did it for the credit,
they didn’t tell me that they loved me
so I could tell you that they said it.
No, it would have to be action
because I can’t rely on words
and it’s through the acts of others that I soar with the birds.
I think I know what I can do
to help others who need a hand:
Lift them off their knees
and support them ‘til they stand.
ABOUT THE PHOTO: Jim Ryder's poetry has been published several times in Megaphone and in its annual literary anthology, Voices of the Street. He's pictured here reading at the Voices launch at Vancouver's Cafe Deux Soleils in April 2014. Photo: Leigh Eldridge.