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U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan speaks, teaches at Stanford

One of America's foremost poets discusses time, fame, writing and the "ultimate virtue" of lightness.

L.A. Cicero Kay Ryan

U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan gave a reading and a colloquium in addition to teaching a class this quarter.

BY CYNTHIA HAVEN

Fame becomes her.

U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan seems more mellow, more acclimatized to the limelight than she was a decade ago. Stanford's current Mohr Visiting Poet is much more open and generous onstage; she has moved outside her own private world to embrace her audience.

It's tempting to say fame came quickly, but Ryan was already middle-aged when she received the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, both in 2004, with the poet laureate honor four years later. All raised her visibility from an obscure Marin poet (in the way almost all Americans poets are obscure) to a national treasure. The Poetry Foundation has called her "one of the great living American poets."

The writer, who has been compared with Emily Dickinson, gave a reading on campus in February and a colloquium in March; she is also teaching a once-a-week class. Her under-the-radar popularity caught the Stanford Bookstore off guard – the book table at her appearances sold out, moving a record 50 hardcovers of this month's The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. Not bad, at $24 a copy. And never bad for poetry.

Irish poet Eavan Boland, director of Stanford's Creative Writing Program, praised "the menace and meaning and music of a Kay Ryan poem," and hailed Ryan's "really powerful signature effect – a dark and jeweled poetic practice."

But Stanford's eminent visitor is taking her subversive renown in characteristic stride: At a reading, she exulted that her newest collection finally has an index.

It was a clear indication that although the present may be different, she is rooted in her past; Ryan, the thoughtful daughter of a well-driller, is a child of the "glamour-free" Mojave Desert.

L.A. Cicero Kay Ryan recalls a childhood dream in which she was chasing a piece of paper. 'And I know it had the most beautiful poem in the world on it.'

Kay Ryan recalls a childhood dream in which she was chasing a piece of paper. "And I know it had the most beautiful poem in the world on it."

"My mind is quite empty, and that is the way I like it," Ryan told an audience in Cubberley Auditorium. She tagged herself the "sheriff of emptiness":

Emptiness cannot be
compressed.  Nor can it
fight abuse…

She once thought about growing up to be a carpenter, or perhaps a stand-up comedian.

A temperamental attraction

Ryan makes much of what she calls "the ultimate virtue" of lightness. In 2004 – the year of the Guggenheim and Lilly Prize – she told this writer: "It's the object of my life to get things to float. Because I like it. Because it's a relief. Because it is relief."

She hasn't changed her tune: "Tragedy accumulates. Lightness can't. It goes up," she told her Cubberley audience, before reading her poem "Ledge." ("I like to read my poems," she admits. "They amuse me.")

You will have
seen the way
a bird who falls
on skimpy places
lifts into the air
again in seconds –

"I always found the comic more difficult and exacting and more capable of carrying weight than the grave," she added. "Truly a temperamental attraction."

Similarly, she confessed that she liked to write when she doesn't know much about the subject at hand – "which is really handy for me, because I never know much."

Inevitably, some of the questions at the public events centered on her fame itself and her current role as poet laureate, a very public role for a very private woman. She admitted her reservations about the position: "I didn't want to talk about things I didn't want to talk about. I didn't want to represent American poetry. So I haven't."

Addressing the tendency for poet laureates to champion a cause, Ryan responded: "I think there is something troubling about the association of poetry and doing good. Poetry is poetry. It's savage. It's selfish. It's opportunistic. It's not a nice thing."

"There's a nicey-nice thing about the poet laureate," she said. "I did take on a small bit of niceness," by deciding to be an advocate for community colleges. Noting that "the quality of teachers is shockingly good," she called them today's "miracle workers."

She should know. For decades, she has taught basic English skills (she has described the level as "my friend, the comma") in the College of Marin – as did her partner, Carol Adair. She and Adair met while both were teaching at San Quentin in 1979; Ryan has called it a "prison romance."

If the poet seems softer, a bit more extroverted, she has paid for it heavily. Adair died last year after a four-year battle with cancer. Adair had encouraged Ryan to take the poet laureate post, and then extend the gig for a second term.

A 'gigantic capacity for failure and humiliation'

Ryan has described herself as a confirmed mono-tasker. "I'm a very habitual person. I've lived in the same house and written in the same house for 30 years."

Not surprisingly, she advocates regular hours and habits for writers: "You have to make it real for you." She added, "You have to have a gigantic capacity for failure and humiliation. You got it? You're in."

She may have dreamt of becoming a carpenter, with no ambitions to write, but when she was about 10, she had "an amazing dream where I was chasing a piece of paper. It was rolling and tumbling and I'm running in the street trying to catch it," she recalled. "And I know it had the most beautiful poem in the world on it."

"Things are operating in us and we don't have any idea," she said.

That was at 10. It would be two decades before she decided to take her writing seriously as a vocation – perhaps she is still seeking that elusive, perfect poem she chased down the street as a child.

Fame may become her, but it has not been a friend to her poetry. She admitted the two years she has been poet laureate have been poetically arid ones.

"It terrifies me how busy writers are – you have to protect yourself so much. Nobody is going to do it for you – nobody. Nobody is saying, 'Please give us more poems. We need more poems in this world,'" she said. Then she describes the attitude that worked for her so many years ago.

"You've got to say, 'This is genuine for me. It's important for me.' These are the walls around it."

Why We Must Struggle

If we had not struggled
as hard as we can
at our strongest
how will we sense
the shape of our losses
or know what sustains
us longest or name
what change costs us,
saying how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble,
how loss activates
a latent double, how
we can feed
as upon nectar
upon need?

 

THE BEST OF IT © 2010 by Kay Ryan, and reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc. Poems originally appeared in SAY UNCLE © 2000 by Kay Ryan 

Media Contact

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu