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Poet explores darker side of life

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Posted: Monday, March 24, 2014 9:09 pm

Patrick Ryan Frank may not consider himself a dark horse, but he’s quick to admit how intriguing it is to explore the psyche of people who are placing dead last in the rat race of life.

“As a culture, and just as humans, we have sort of a built in sense of sympathy for the underdog,” said Frank, who is the current writer-in-residence at Lynchburg College and recently performed his work at the school. “We find them sort of fascinating in a pitiable way, but also reassuring. It makes us feel better about ourselves, but also reminds us how easily things can go wrong.”

In his 2012 book, “How the Losers Love What's Lost,” a collection of poetry that analyzes the intricacies of being a true long shot, he plunges inside the lives of a series of characters who are wading their way through an abundance of issues: loneliness, alcoholism, detachment, regret, homophobia and bad fortune, to name a few.

Like most artists, Frank is an astute observer, often peeking into the intimate world of his subjects in authentically personal ways, painting detailed portraits that illustrate the many shades of their personalities and struggles.

These people are tormented, lost, disappointed, trying to fathom the unfathomable, which is just one of several realities that compel us, the reader, to root for them.

“The syllabus that he submitted with his application was all about persona and the art of the mask, the idea of putting on all these different roles and then speaking through different voices,” said LC English professor Allison Wilkins, who also is the chair of the Thornton committee, which selects the writer-in-residence for the college.

“I wanted to take the class. So did a couple of the other committee members, and we thought, ‘Yes. This is who we want.’”

Born and raised in rural Michigan, the 32-year-old author studied poetry and playwriting at Northwestern University, earning his bachelor’s in theater in 2003 before receiving his master’s of art from Boston University.

After taking a job in publishing for a spell, he traveled to New England, living in an artist colony in the summer hot spot of Provincetown.

“It was a lot of wandering around on the sand dunes in the middle of winter,” Frank said of the two years he spent on the northern tip of Cape Cod. “But it’s a beautiful area, and I got a lot of writing done and met a lot of other amazing artists. It was pretty phenomenal, and I dug my own clams. So I now know how to do that, if nothing else.”

He eventually went back to graduate school in Austin, studying at the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, an experience that ultimately led him to Reykjavik, Iceland, where he taught at the University of Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar.

Naturally, Frank did what he could to stay warm.

“I was swimming a lot,” he said. “People spend a lot of time in hot tubs there. It’s their main thing.”

If the compositions in his book are any indication, then the frosty side of our earthly existence should be nothing remarkably foreign to him. He clearly has a certain level of comfort with examining the dire, bleak avenues of his characters’ souls. In particular, one poem entitled “Just Some Noise” strikes a fairly chilling chord, when it introduces the dispiriting tale of a one-armed man.

“Bad luck and circumstance: no money for prosthetics, just a metal hook and medications against the stares,” Frank wrote. “Now this: sore-armed in the dark, embarrassed, cold … all he wanted was that little thrill of seeing people happy, just that one little sliver of someone else's fun.”

Although it’s quite melancholy, the language he uses is clear and accessible.

“His poetry has a combination of precision and finesse,” said Laura Long, a professor of English at LC. “At the same time, he asks questions and presents a sense of chaos. We were really impressed with the quality of his work.”

Frank’s next book, “The Opposite of People,” due out next year, probes the fall from grace of various movie stars and television celebrities, focusing on the moments in their lives where things like ingesting white powders, hanging out with the wrong crowd and other grisly events take center stage. He follows the booze-soaked hobnobbing, the Elizabeth Taylor-esque nightmares, the heroine’s collapse.

It’s fair to say he doesn’t shy away from much.

“I have a poem about Marilyn Monroe, but it’s at sort of a dark, drug-[addled] period of her life when she was dancing with Truman Capote,” Frank said. “I’m actually a really sort of chipper person, but I find dark things in everything. I think it’s more interesting to me because I’m not necessarily a morbid person. But it’s a really wonderful act of sympathy and empathy to put yourself in that place.”

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