“I think Louise Glück (the 2003-04 Laureate) gave one interview to the New York Timesabout how she wouldn’t give any more interviews. She’s my god.” —Kay Ryan
At the time this essay was written, current U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan was not available for interview, though contacts at the Steven Barclay Agency responded kindly and promptly to my request. The following essay examines what is and is not known about the poet and her Laureateship. It is based on published interviews and articles, experiences at her readings in Washington DC, and, most importantly, her poetry. Kay Ryan’s laureateship was announced in July 2008. She took office in November 2008, and in April of 2009 it was announced that Ryan had chosen to retain the office for a second term.
Ryan, a self-taught, self-declared “outsider,” is an unexpected choice for the lofty position. Ryan has likened the experience to being rewarded for staying in your pajamas. In her essay entitled “I Go to AWP,” published in Poetry, Ryan confesses: “I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers conferences. It’s been a point of honor: the whole cooperative workshopping thing, not for me. I have never taken a creative writing class, I have never taught a creative writing class, and I have never gone, and will never go, to anything like AWP, I have often said.” In her Poetry essay she goes on to say, “Make mine the desert saints, the pole-sitters, the endurance cyclists, the artist who paints rocks cast from bronze so that they look exactly like the rocks they were cast from; you can’t tell the difference when they’re side by side.” Though she may prefer folk culture to the high-brow and overly academic literary community, her work is meticulously handcrafted with tightly-whittled lines that surprise and delight. She accomplishes this effect through the use of what she calls, in an interview with the Marin Independent Journal, “recombinant rhyme.”
“Recombinant” is a word used to describe the double ladder structure of DNA. It is as if the genetic code of all rhyming words has been written in Ryan’s being, and her role is to use her poetic superpowers to decode it. She searches to uncover rhymes wherever they may be hiding, usually somewhere in the middle of things. On her path to genetic discovery, she comes across rhyme cousins, like: margins/denizens/raisins; see “Creatures of Margins” published in Elephant Rocks. Her lines unexpectedly snap and pop in a sometimes jarring way like a person chewing gum on public transportation. Ryan’s poems give the reader the satisfaction of producing a great bubble and the pleasure of its pop.
At age 19, Ryan began to write poetry upon the death of her father. In 1983, she self-published her first collection called Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends. When asked by an interviewer at the College of Marin (where Ryan has taught remedial English for over thirty years), “What inspired you to self-publish your first book?” Ryan’s response is, “The self-publication wasn’t inspiration; it was utter hopelessness that anybody else was ever going to publish my poems.” Her two subsequent books (Strangely Marked Metal and Flamingo Watching) were published by Copper Beech Press, out of Providence, Rhode Island. After that, she published Elephant Rocks (1996) Say Uncle (2000) and The Niagara River (2005) with Grove Press. Virtually unrecognized for many years, Ryan became widely known after winning the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2004. She has also received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
I first encountered Ryan in January of 2008 when she gave a reading at the distinguished Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. She was introduced by then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia. From the moment she took the stage, her famed sly wit was apparent. In addition to reading poems from her various collections, she spoke of her quiet life, growing up in the San Joaquin Valley. Ryan, born 1945 in San Jose, California, talked with fondness of her family who would consider a life of poetry writing somewhat frivolous. Attendees of the reading received a broadside of her poem “Dog Leg” that included a sketch she made of a dog and bird. Ryan spoke of her little drawings and how she included a different graphic on the front on her holiday cards every year. Of course, the images are puzzles for their recipients. She described one of her favorites which depicted a pickup truck with a pitchfork in the back and two birds in the cab. Gioia confessed upon his receipt of the card he could not guess the meaning. “Fork hauling birds,” Ryan recalled with pride. After the reading, she signed books and spoke candidly with fans. Upon my telling her that she is my all-time favorite poet, Ryan insisted that I need to read more.
My next encounter with Ryan was at the National Book Festival held in late October 2008. Ryan was to begin officially as U.S. Poet Laureate that November and joked that her participation in the event was “gratis.” She was again introduced by Gioia (a huge Kay Ryan fan), who was introduced by the current Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington. In lieu of the gray polar fleece vest that she wore at the Folger reading, Ryan was dressed in a black suit. She referred to her outfit as her “new clothes” for her “newly exalted condition.” Ironically, she has a poem of the same title, based on the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, which far preceded her current condition (“New Clothes” is published in Elephant Rocks). In the question-and-answer period following her Book Festival reading, she recalled that as a child she was invited to dinner in a place where she knew very few people and ended up causing someone to spit their milk out across the table in reaction to something she had said. This is not the stuff of stuffy literary figures, and is hard evidence of Ryan’s exuberant character (sly wit may be an understatement).
Do not take this to mean that Ryan takes her appreciation of literature lightly. In an interview with Colette Bancroft, book editor of the Saint Petersburg Times, Ryan states, “The first time we read a poem, we’re not really reading it, we’re deciding whether to read it. If you can understand a poem on first reading, either you didn’t really read it or it isn’t really a poem.” If stranded on a desert island, you would be wise to bring a collection of Ryan’s poems as they are both highly accessible, even to staunch non-poetry-lovers, and also have the literary sustenance to be read, reread and read again.
Ryan reveals that she has never written in poetic form. In an interview published in The Paris Review, she says, “I don’t have any gift for it. I find it kind of embarrassing.” This is not to say that the contemporary American poet’s work is best described by the term free verse. Her work is the antithesis of prosy. In her “I Go to AWP” essay she criticizes “bulk,” particularly bulk of the literary kind. Ryan states, “What we have here before us is the exhilaration of bulk: bulk bags, bulk panels, bulk poets. Even though this is Canada, we are having an American experience: the American romance with bulk…A Costco sense of proportion is understanding that you have to get enough bulk to fill up your pickup-bed-sized shopping cart.” Ryan prefers writing poetry sans bulk. In an interview with Richard Halstead of the Marin Independent Journal, Ryan discusses her unique, nonce form: “I like it because it is the most dangerous shape…If your line is about three words long, nearly every word is on one edge or the other. You can’t hide anything. Any crap is going to show.” Her work can be seen as a diamond in the rough amongst the bulk of American poetry (Dana Gioia referred to Ryan as a diamond in the rough as part of his introduction at the 2008 National Book Festival.)
Generally, the Office of the U.S. Poet Laureate falls under the sole vestige of the Library of Congress and has little affiliation with the Presidential Administration. However, one might examine Ryan’s two-term Laureateship from the perspective of a political crossroads. Ryan stood at the eve of her Laureateship at the podium of the poetry tent of the National Book Festival, behind her a “Laura Bush, Library of Congress” banner. Over the course of Ryan’s Laureateship, America elected a new president whose campaign calls to mind one word: hope. But before President Barack Obama was even a state senator, Ryan wrote a poem entitled “Hope.” One cannot help but wonder with so much change afoot, could the Laureateship be different?
“”Hope” appears in Ryan’s 1996 collection Elephant Rocks and was first published in the The New Yorker. Elephant Rocks exhibits Ryan’s signature style: short, or thin, lines that contain “recombinant rhyme.” Her lines get even thinner in subsequent volumes, such as The Niagara River (2005). The Niagara River contains a poem aptly titled “Thin” (selected for Best American Poetry 2006, guest edited by Billy Collins). In an interview published in the Winter 2008 Issue of The Paris Review, Ryan says of her unique rhyme style: “When I started writing nobody rhymed—it was in utter disrepute. Yet rhyme was a siren to me. I had this condition of things rhyming in my mind without my permission. Still I couldn’t take end-rhyme seriously, which meant I had to find other ways—I stashed my rhymes at the wrong ends of lines and in the middles—the front of one word would rhyme with the back of another one, or one word might be identical to three words.” On the surface, the “hope” Ryan describes in her poem differs wildly from its portrayal in the popular media during the recent Presidential Election.
What’s the use
and diffuse as hope—
In “Hope,” the words “use” and “diffuse” are examples of Ryan’s “stashed-away” rhymes. The poem’s message exhibits Ryan’s appreciation of the practical and tangible, seen in her criticism of literary high culture and her overwhelming experience at AWP. Here hope is “diffuse,” which she rhymes with her opening line of: “What’s the use.” At first it seems hope is “use”-less. She reinforces the notion that hope is not something that you literally hang on to. She rhymes it with “isotope”—an off-balance molecular particle. And then there is the sly rhyme of “envelope” and “hope.” Perhaps the envelope describes that which contains the name of the next Best Actress or Miss USA (though it seems more likely that Ryan is apt to be interested in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” were she to watch television). The lines “what isn’t in/the envelope/just before/it isn’t” call to mind the image of receiving word back from a journal via an envelope you have self-stamped and addressed. For a long period Ryan’s work went unrecognized. One can easily imagine how such envelopes can pile up over decades. “Hope” is a somewhat mysterious substance, an “almost twin.” There is something about “hope” that cannot quite be pinned down. It is a feeling, however fleeting, that on its own accomplishes nothing, “the always tabled/righting of the present.” The final end word “”present” is an eerie off-rhyme of “isn’t,” which appears twice in the preceding lines of this very concise poem.
Recently, both Ryan and President Barack Obama aligned on one issue in particular, not art, but community college. Within his first year in office, President Obama held the first ever White House Poetry Slam and has announced plans to invest $12 billion in community colleges through the American Graduation Initiative. Before she attended UCLA, Ryan graduated from Antelope Valley Junior College. In a College of Marin news release, Ryan speaks to her personal experience: “Only after I had gone off to that real college—UCLA—did I realize what a terrific education I had received at my little 800-student community college. First, it was a real community. My teachers at AVC knew me by name; I had real relationships with them. They had expectations of me and I tried hard to meet them. Second, the teachers were really good; including the wonderful English teacher who sent me off in the direction my life has taken. I got a fine education fifteen miles from home.” She is also adamant about valuing her role as a community college educator. In her interview with Collette Bancroft in March 2009, Ryan says: “I’m very, very proud of teaching remedial English in a community college.” She goes on to say, “I wasn’t dealing with those entitled students that you’re just entertaining. I was teaching survival skills.” It is clear Ryan values the pragmatic. When asked if she taught her students poetry, her reaction is that her instruction of poetry would “taint” it somehow. One bold attendee of the Folger reading asked: “Do your students know who you are?” Ryan’s reaction was non-affirmative.
In summer 2009, President Obama traveled to Macomb, Michigan to announce his American Graduation Initiative. Of community colleges, President Obama said in his address, “This is training to install solar panels and build those wind turbines we were talking about and develop a smarter electricity grid. And this is the kind of education that more and more Americans are using to improve their skills and broaden their horizons…community colleges are an undervalued asset in our country.” He went on to enlist the help of Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, who has been a community college educator for over 16 years (about half as long as Ryan). It seems likely that we could see at some point in the not-so-near-off future Ryan standing in front of a “Jill Biden” backdrop presiding over the first ever National Community College Poetry Competition. However, there is some contrary evidence. In her May 2009 article “Poetry not all unicorns and flowers, says poet laureate Kay Ryan,” Collette Bancroft of the Tampa Bay Times writes, “Ryan says she does want to use the position as a bully pulpit to advocate for community colleges, which she calls ‘a great ignored treasure.'” Yet, a more recent August 2009 article from the New Jersey Newshour describes Ryan as “a powerful advocate for community colleges” under the subheading “Poet laureate advocates for education, careful attention to words.”
In addition to being a community college educator, Kay Ryan’s laureateship is remarkable because she is the first openly lesbian woman to serve as U.S. Poet Laureate and the tenth woman, including Elizabeth Bishop, to serve in the position since 1937. As one news source bluntly put it, “The 16th Poet Laureate of the United States is a lesbian.” Because Ryan’s work is more epistemological than political or personal, this fact may go easily overlooked by her broad readership, despite the dedication of her books which plainly state “For Carol.” In interviews and discussions following her readings, Ryan mentions her life partner, Carol Adair, as a source of support for her work when she was largely unnoticed in the literary world. Of Ryan’s work ethic, Adair stated in an interview, published in the Marin Independent Journal, “She wrote every day, and she wasn’t even good yet. That takes so much guts.”
Ryan and Adair met in 1977 when they were both teaching at San Quentin State Prison, as part of a program at the College of Marin. Both Ryan and Adair were colleagues in the English Department. They were together for thirty-plus years and married twice, once at San Francisco City Hall in 2004 and again in the summer of 2008 at the Marin Civic Center. Each time, they were at the forefront of the legalization of same-sex marriages. In an article published in the Marin Independent Journal shortly after the announcement of Ryan’s Laureateship, details of their “prison romance” appear. Adair recalls upon encountering Ryan, “I did not know the gender of the person, and that thrilled me for some reason.” Of Ryan, Adair says, “Kay is the only person I’ve ever been attracted to in my life, although I had boyfriends and husbands and children.” Serendipitously or ceremoniously, Ryan learned that she had been offered the position of U.S. Poet Laureate on the same day as the couple’s 2008 wedding.
Of being offered the U.S. Laureate position, Ryan has said, “Carol really wanted me to do it, but it was a very difficult time. I wasn’t able to do any writing for a long time.” The opportunity came at a moment when her partner was in “very ill health.” Ryan has said, “I don’t invite change. I think change is something that should be thrust upon us.” Despite her attitude toward change, Ryan’s life certainly has changed as a result of her Laureateship in terms of readings and engagements. She has said that she hasn’t had time to write as much. But the most critical change for Ryan came in January 2009 when her longtime partner Carol Adair passed away after a battle with bladder cancer. In the months following, Ryan announced that she would continue on for a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate through April 2010. In an Associated Press article published shortly after her impending Laureateship was announced in July 2008, Ryan states:”This [Laureateship] is probably going to keep me so occupied that it will discourage any contact with the deeper mind. But my deeper mind needs a break.” It is logical to venture that this second term as Laureate may be a way of dealing with the loss of her partner, Carol Adair.
Perhaps this is an example of neuroplasticity, a fascinating principle by which brain cells can take on an entirely different activity in the event of loss and need. This concept is the focal point of Ryan’s poem “Why We Must Struggle,” which opens with the statement: “If we have 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 cost us,” (published in Say Uncle). As Ryan signed my name (written on Post-it tacked to the title page) in my copy of her book. I shared with her that I read the poem at a local spoken word memorial reading for late DC activist Cheryl Ann Spector. She appreciated the sentiment.
To have an openly lesbian Laureate is exciting. To have an openly lesbian, and androgynous Laureate are bonus points for the queer community. Nonetheless, articles on Ryan are more apt to contain the adjectives “sly”or “outsider”” rather than “androgynous lesbian.” In certain ways Ryan’s role as a lesbian Laureate can be likened to an elephant in the room. In her poem of the same title (“The Elephant in the Room”) Ryan writes, “It’s not so much/a complete elephant/as an elephant sense…There are just/places in the room/that we bounce off/when we come up/against; not something/we feel we have to announce.” The double-negative of the penultimate line (“against; not something”) harkens to Ryan’s position in the literary and queer communities. Though she is open about her romantic relationship with Adair, she has not been anthologized along with other contemporary gay poets. Perhaps her “quiet” and “outsider” lifestyle prevents this connection from being made. One wonders if this will change in the future.
Of writing about emotional topics Ryan has said to Richard Halstead: “Death, I’ve never minded that so much,” and “Love, I minded because it’s just so icky, so overdone. I just didn’t want to touch it.” Indeed, Ryan’s work is broader than the subject of sexuality (as are the bodies of work of queer artists in general) and focuses predominantly on nature and, to a degree, science. When her work does include human imagery, the “people” are more likely to be elves or tar babies (see Ryan’s poems “Bad Day” and “Tar Babies”). The astute, and perhaps searching, reader may find a glimmer of sex in Ryan’s poem “Expectations,” which concludes in the lines. “The [creek] bed is ready/but no rain yet.”
Though she consistently gives readings and has traveled to the District on multiple occasions, the mission of her Laureateship (should she choose to accept one) remains unclear. In her May 2009 interview with Collette Bancroft, Ryan said, “I don’t like poetry being associated with kindness. Poetry is a savage and a selfish beast.” In a March interview with PBS, Ryan expressed that as Laureate her schedule “exploded” and she has not had time for writing.” Happily, in her interview with Bancroft she stated that she has begun writing again with the help of mornings without email and the phone turned off.
Early in her Laureateship, a second edition of Ryan’s Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed was put out by Red Berry Editions. Of her first term, the Library of Congress reports: “During the 2008-2009 literary season, Ryan appeared at the Library of Congress National Book Festival and at several Library poetry events. She also served as a panelist at the ‘Robert Burns at 250′ conference sponsored by the Library’s American Folklife Center and the government of Scotland. She selected two gifted young poets to receive the prestigious 2009 Witter Bynner Fellowships in Poetry from the Library of Congress.” Among other additional events she has read with Billy Collins at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, in Santa Rosa, California. As Laureate she has certainly proved an attraction, packing the Calvin Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building. The reading, free and open to the public, drew a crowd generally reserved in DC for high-powered politicians and indie musicians.
Now a “”midterm” Laureate, it would be nice to see tangible (and practical) goals from Ryan. Perhaps she will find a way to tie her talent for poetry more directly to the new investments in community colleges, but she has in the past spoken about her enjoyment of her distinct roles. Back at the ’08 Book Festival, Ryan was asked what she would do in her new position. She described her beautiful office, her nice chair, and the rug rolled in the corner due to a leak in the ceiling. It’s clear she appreciates the physical office as well as her role in it. She then spoke of funding for all the branch public libraries and keeping them open (7-days-a-week!). She offered herself up to say a sentence on television spots for the issue. Imagine, “I’m your U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, saying…branch libraries” [thumbs up optional]. Albeit an off-the-cuff response to the question, I would thoroughly enjoy seeing progress made on this issue around the country. A July 2008 Associated Press article quotes Ryan as being “crazy about libraries—right down to the bookmobile” and that she expects to do something in this area, but a concrete plan has yet to be announced publicly. Over the course of Ryan’s second term, I sincerely hope that she is available for interview so that we may possibly discuss this along with other matters of her mysterious persona. Out of Ryan’s appreciation for things that are small, I want to ask her to start with Washington, DC. Ms. Ryan, if you are reading this, please meet me on a sunny Sunday afternoon in front of open doors to Washington, DC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library.
“I Go To AWP,”Kay Ryan, Poetry, 2005. http://www.poetrymagazine.org/magazine/0705/comment_171211.html
“Kay Ryan rises to the top despite her refusal to compromise,” Richard Halstead, Marin Independent Journal, September, 23, 2007. http://www.marinij.com/ci_6975060
“Who2Biography Kay Ryan Poet,”Answers.com. http://www.answers.com/topic/kay-ryan
“U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan Talks About the Art of Teaching,” Cathy Summa-Wolfe, College of Marin, 2008. http://www.marin.cc.ca.us/News/press_release/071708.htm
“The Art of Poetry,” No. 94,” The Paris Review, Winter 2008. http://www.theparisreview.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5889
“Poet Kay Ryan is named poet laureate of US for year,” Associated Press, July 7, 2008.
“Kay Ryan—National Book Festival 2008,” YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhxI7orNB8g0
“U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan Talks About the Art of Teaching,” Collette Bancroft, Saint Petersburg Times, March 29, 2009. http://www.tampabay.com/features/books/article986720.ece
“Library of Congress Appoints Kay Ryan to Second Term as U.S. Poet Laureate,” News from the Library of Congress, April 13, 2009 http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2009/09-073.html
“Poetry not all unicorns and flowers, says poet laureate Kay Ryan,” Collette Bancroft, Saint Petersburg Times, March 29, 2009. http://www.tampabay.com/features/books/article986720.ece
“The United States Poet Laureate,” Barbara Sharpe, Bella Online, 2009. http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art17239.asp
“Remarks by the President on the American Graduation Initiative,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, July 14, 2009. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-on-the-American-Graduation-Initiative-in-Warren-MI/
“US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan: Ambassador for American poetry,” Adam Phillips, New Jersey Newshour, August 4, 2009. http://www.newjerseynewsroom.com/style/us-poet-laureate-kay-ryan-ambassador-for-american-poetry
Kay Ryan’s Poetry
Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, Taylor Street Press, Fairfax, CA, 1983.
Strangely Marked Metal, Copper Beech Press, Providence, RI, 1985.
Flamingo Watching, Copper Beech Press, Providence, RI, 1994.
Elephant Rocks, Grove Press, New York, 1996.
Say Uncle, Grove Press, New York, 2000.
The Niagara River, Grove Press, New York, 2005.
Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed, Red Berry Editions, 2008.
Originally published in Volume 10:4, Fall 2009.
Danielle Evennou grew up in suburban New Jersey. For over a decade, she has hosted poetry readings, workshops, and open mics in Washington, DC. Her poetry and memoirs have appeared in apt, Dryland, Gargoyle, Blue Collar Review, Split Lip Magazine. She is the author of the chapbook Difficult Trick (Dancing Girl Press, 2017). Her website is http://www.whatevennou.com. To read more by this author, see her essay on mothertongue from the Literary Organizations Issue; and her poem in the Mapping the City issue.