Photo by Tom Roster
U.S. Poet Laureate talks about her teaching career, her reaction to that initial phone call from the Library of Congress, and, of course, poetry. [21:52]
[Take Five theme woven in and out of a montage of voices talking about the arts]
Kay Ryan: I demand a lot of sound from a poem.Joe Haj: The arts are filled with people who are nontraditional thinkers.Jo Reed: The arts are a wonderful window onto the soul of America.Stan Lee: I started ending my columns by saying Excelsior![Brubeck fades to piano piece by Todd Barton]Azar Nafisi: Reading awakens your senses. Kay Ryan: If you write well, you are utterly exposed.Olivia de Havilland: A voice said, "This is George Cukor."Brenda Wineapple: Its value will never be diminished.Marilynne Robison: The oldest art we have is narrative literature.Lee Childs: The arts are what makes us human.Tim O'Brien: There is a reason that fiction exists.[Piano fades to Rain by the Birmingham Sunlights]David Newell: Theatre can really change people's lives; it can be profoundly about human experience.[Rain fades into Zydeco by Queen Ida]Queen Ida: They crowned me Queen Ida, queen of the zydeco music.<"Take Five" theme music playing in background>Announcer: The National Endowment for the Arts presents Artworks.<"Take Five" music fades out>
Jo Reed: Welcome to ArtWorks, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed. In 2008, Kay Ryan was appointed the 16th U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress. And today, you'll hear why. Her poems are short, often funny, but boy, do they have power. Kay Ryan: This poem is titled "A Certain Kind Of Eden." And it's another one of those poems where I'm interested in how we feel free, but we're not. I'm always assuming that I can start over any time and have a clean slate. But something deeper in my mind suggests that that isn't likely. "A Certain Kind of Eden":
A Certain Kind of Eden
It seems as though you could, but
you can't go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It's all too deep for that.
You've overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you're given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them --
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then, a stronger rope,
The greenest, saddest, strongest
kind of hope.
Jo Reed: You know, it always strikes me that poetry, out of all the literary genres, is the most paradoxical. Because I think it's the most private. And then, it's also the most public, because it's the genre that the writers most often read. They read their own work. You read your own work. And so both are true, simultaneously.
Kay Ryan: It is paradoxical. I don't think any poetry is written that isn't primarily written to the self, in a way. At least, I would say that about my work. I'm always talking to myself. But I seem to want somebody else to listen to it. I need, I do want an audience. So it's a strange thing. It's a very private conversation that then, you make public, kind of, like, the starfish flipping its stomach out. <laughs>
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Kay Ryan: I think they do that. And, and yeah, I think they do it to avoid being eaten. They flop a bit of themselves out to be devoured. So I'm hoping it'll work that way for me. You know, I'll lose a few stomachs, but I'll survive, in general, the year of being the Laureate.
Jo Reed: It took you a while to decide to embrace your poetry, if you will. You knew you were writing poetry, but you weren't really committed to it. And you took a bicycle trip cross-country.
Kay Ryan: That's right. The thing about poetry or being a poet was, it was very embarrassing to me. It seemed, you know, there was, sort of, the Byronic, romantic, cloak-wearing, dramatic self-dramatizing figure of the poet. And in the 60's and 70's there was the terrible spate of confession going on, which was so inimical to my nature that I didn't really want any part of that. I wanted to protect myself and protect my feelings. And I thought I knew that if you're going to be a poet, you are going to be able, you are going to have to make yourself entirely transparent in a sense. Your, your poetry has to be transparent. If you write well, you are utterly exposed. And so for a long time, I simply didn't want to be the person who wasn't just a funny person. I wanted to be a joke telling person. I wanted to be somebody with a pickup truck. And it would've been much more comfortable to, say, be a carpenter or- or maybe, an electrician than a poet. Something that you could, you could hold up your head and have conversation about. "Yep. Been having a lot of trouble getting really good quality copper pipe these days." You know, give you something practical to talk about.
Jo Reed: As opposed to <laughs> "I've been looking for a good verb." <laughs>
Kay Ryan: That's right. That's right.
Jo Reed: The poems that you write, you described them as, sort of, snack-sized poems.
Kay Ryan: Well, yes. And at the banquet, I suppose mine would be the canapÃ©s, right?
Jo Reed: But I was thinking about that. Because I think, maybe, truffles or a jalapeno pepper, where a little bit goes quite a long way.
Kay Ryan: Well, I like to console myself that there is maybe, in some new scientific world apparent size has absolutely nothing to do with actual size. I think there's got to be a theory of that sort, don't you think? Or that there is an inverse relationship between apparent size and actual size. So I think I write poems, short poems, just because that's exactly the length that pleases my mind. I mean, I write, I write until I have come to the end of that investigation. And it tends to not take very long.
Jo Reed: Though, I've also read you can go through 17 drafts.
Kay Ryan: Oh, easily.
Jo Reed: So clearly you work....through that.
Kay Ryan: Yeah, I've kind of, thought of my brain as one of these linear accelerators. <laughs> You know, I have to get the matter really hot in my brain. And get it to, sort of, glue together in new configurations. I have a lot of things going on in a poem. Despite its brevity, I have a variety of demands that I make of a poem. Not consciously, but I wouldn't be satisfied if they weren't there, including a great deal of sound amusement. There are rhymes and rhymes of many degrees of torment and torture. I sometimes call my rhyme recombinant rhyme, like recombinant DNA, where, you know, pieces of this and that are patched together to form new monsters. My brother once read my...he wasn't much of a poetry reader. But he dutifully sat down with one of my books and read it straight through from beginning to end. And he said, "When I was reading this work, I didn't have any idea that it rhymed." But he said, "Now that I finished it, it seems like it all rhymed." And I thought that was the greatest thing he could say. I love all rhymes. I love the pratfalls. I love the elegant subtle rhymes. I love to think of a pun as a form of rhyme. But okay. So anyhow, I demand a lot of sound from a poem. I also feel that a poem needs to get some place. I'm not just amusing myself and making a sound painting. I do have meaning in my poems. I am trying to figure something
out in some way or another. I am thinking about ideas. I'm trying to get to some point. I'm trying to have a sense of drive in my work, forward motion. And it's gotta have sound in it that pleases me. And also, exact language.
Jo Reed: The poems themselves, as we said, are short. And there's a stripping down, often, within them, the language that seems simple. And I'm thinking of "That Will to Divest," I'm thinking of "Great Thoughts," in which you take these ideas, and you just strip away, strip away, strip away.
Kay Ryan: You know, in my mind, I'm not actually stripping away. I mean, it's not like I start with something larger and get down to the essence. That's just how I think. It's not like I start with a big pile of research, or a bunch of complex thoughts. I start with one little tiny fragment of, maybe, oh, I hate to use the word "inspiration." But some little phrase that thrills me and just seems alive to me in some way. And then, it just grows from there. It's maybe, kind of like a, a pearl grows around a piece of sand. Something nacreous that develops around an original irritation. Lots of times irritation is a source of poetry, I think, for everybody, certainly for me. I'm often saying, "No, no. It's not..." you know, a lot of my poems start with "no." Or they say, "No." They're fighting with something. And I think a lot of poetry fights with the given. I certainly know that mine fights with the given.
Jo Reed: And I think your titles have that sense of play. Again, we, we look at "Blandeur" or "Death By Fruit."
Kay Ryan: <laughs>
Jo Reed: And ... but both of them are very serious poems. They're not funny.
Kay Ryan: No. They're very serious poems. But I don't separate the funny from the serious. I absolutely don't. I don't see any distance between the, the ridiculous and the sublime. I think the sublime is ridiculous and the ridiculous is sublime.
Jo Reed: Where did you come up with the word that you invented?
Kay Ryan: Blandeur. Blandeur is just the opposite of grandeur. And I found it on a yellow Post-It beside my bed in the morning. So I guess it was a little middle of the night inspiration. So I thought about what blandeur would be. And another one of my characteristic ambitions is to have less and to make, to make the world less sensational, to reduce the excess input. I remember onceâthis is a terribly sad story. Once a couple leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge and left in their car a note, which said, among other things, "Life was too vivid for us." And this is a poem for people who find life excessively vivid. "Blandeur":
If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth's
the Grand Canyon.
to arable land,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.
And so many times I'm calling for less, kind of the anti Oliver Twist, you know, "Less please." Wasn't it Oliver Twist, who holds up his bowl and says, "More please?" Yeah, I'm holding up my bowl and saying, "Take some out, please." <laughs> "Make life quieter." That's really the impulse in Blandeur. It's saying: lessen the grandeur of life. Of course, the opposite is exposed. By the asking for less, you expose how much there is.
Jo Reed: Well, that's the paradox that I think is operating in a lot of your work, these contradictions. Big thoughts and, sort of, snack sizes, and...
Jo Reed: ...meditations on forgetting, on waste. And the one I was just so taken with was "Agreement." And I actually would like you to read that if you don't...
Kay Ryan: Love to. It's a particularly short poem, even by Kay Ryan standards.
Jo Reed: But it says so much.
Kay Ryan: "Agreement":
of agreement are
immediate as sugar --
a melting of
the granular, a syrup
that lingers, shared,
Many prefer it."
Let me read it again.
I, of course, am one of the disagreers, or one of the ones who says, "No, wait. No." I get a kick out of some of the rhymes in there: granular and singular; sugar, linger; prefer it and syrup. I like that. So there are all kinds of sneaky little things that go on in there.
Jo Reed: In "Agreement," as in "Forgetting" and "Waste," you look at the other sides of these concepts. You, sort of, turn them around, where agreement is always seen as this benign, very positive thing.
Kay Ryan: You know, I think that most writing is an effort to save one's life. I think we are trying to find a place where we can live. You know, mark out a little territory for ourselves that is congenial to us. So that lots of times, my poems are trying to find a place where I can breathe. I affirm the things that I don't find affirmed elsewhere. But I need them. Such as, maybe, taking a little bit of a critical view of agreement. It could be a little bit saccharine, can't it?
Jo Reed: Well, as a disagreer...
Jo Reed: ...I would say absolutely. <laughs> You teach remedial English in California.
Kay Ryan: I'm not teaching it currently. But I have taught it for well over 30 years.
Jo Reed: Tell me about your students. Who do you teach?
Kay Ryan: I teach many second language students. I teach in a community college. I teach students who maybe had a hard time in high school, maybe stayed away from school for a while. Now, they feel the desire to come back and get some skills that they didn't get. I teach at the level of the paragraph, achieving a good paragraph by the end of the semester. Nice topic sentence, main supports, clear transitions, crispy, crunchy details, basic grammar, basic reading skills. My students might get a job at the bank. They might keep a job. They might work at the, at the drugstore. They might be on their way, the beginning of a four-year career or- or graduate work. But very often, they are the people who make our lives work.
Jo Reed: And do you find that the teaching adds or gives something to your poetry? Or do you keep it very separate?
Kay Ryan: Well, you know, one of the things it's always given to my poetry, it's given me time for it. Teaching English part time in a community college doesn't make a lot of money. But it's better than a lot of things you can do to get enough money to get along. You know, it's clean indoor work that pays decently. So it's allowed me to write. It's allowed me to have a lot of free time, because I never taught more than nine units, and sometimes fewer. But the additional thing that teaching at that level particularly
provided me was a chance to really hone my metaphor making skills. Because if there's anything a teacher wants to do and has to do, it's to communicate this thing in some way, so that it goes across that dead air, and goes into that other mind. So I would stretch everywhere for metaphors to explain the semicolon's use or what a topic sentence really does in a sentence, I mean, in a paragraph. So I was constantly making my metaphors more available. You know, it kept me from getting overly refined.
Jo Reed: I was thinking highfalutin'.
Kay Ryan: Yeah, yeah. So, I learned that, I learned not to make assumptions and to write simply. And to have respect for, for the minds of these people. All they are is untrained. They're not stupid. They're intelligent. They just don't have these skills that other people have.
Jo Reed: When you first started writing poetry, was there a poet or poets that you read that made you think this is what I want to do?
Kay Ryan: Well, I didn't want to do it. I really ran from, from poetry, until I was 30. I mean, I dabbled, but I didn't want that kind of exposure. You know, I came from Danish people and blue-collar workers. And it was an embarrassing thing to think of oneself as something as self-aggrandizing and self-occupied as a poet.
Jo Reed: But what about -- what made you start the dabbling?
Kay Ryan: Oh, because really language was my natural medium. And it was ultimately irresistible. I think I found that I didn't have any way to talk to myself, except through poetry. You know, there were depths, there were depths of, of thinking that I could not have access to in any possible way, except through poetry. And that remains true. I have a strangely empty mind. I don't think, for the most part. I mean, if you ask me, I'm, kind of, like, -- you know, you put a coin in me and then, you know, the cup of coffee comes out. But if you weren't talking to me, I wouldn't be thinking. I'm thinking now because you're making me think. But in that way, poetry makes me think. If I'm on my own, I don't, I don't think. I have a very empty mind.
Jo Reed: Poetry allows you to think. Can we just step back and think what poetry allows us, the big us, to do, perhaps that other literature doesn't? Why is poetry important?
Kay Ryan: Joseph Brodsky called poetry "the great accelerator of the mind." He has extremely grand claims for poetry, which I actually share. I think I've said a couple of times, and I still believe it that a novel is something you read when you're killing time. A poem is what you read when time's killing you. I think that it is the most profound, and I'm not speaking of my own, I'm speaking of the poem, the, the ideal poem. It is the most economical, cleanest, speediest, route into yourself. You're more you. A poem makes you more yourself. A poem that you have read is truly your possession. I mean, if you've read it and had a relationship with it, it becomes your possession, to the point that you might resent something the poet would say about it. Like, if I love a poem, I don't want to hear the poet read it. I don't want to know the poet's thoughts on that poem. It is my possession. And I have a kind of a communication with the poet who exists in my mind who wrote it that I don't want to share with this mortal. Even if the mortal were still alive. I wouldn't like to meet Emily Dickinson. I want my Emily Dickinson.
Jo Reed: <laughs> Kay Ryan, thank you so much.
Kay Ryan: My pleasure.<Take Five up and under>
Jo Reed: That was U.S. Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan You've been listening to ArtWorks, produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov; next week, a conversation with jazz great Hank Jones.
To find out more how art works in communities across the country, check out the Art Works blog.
The music you hear is Paul Desmond's Take Five performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and used courtesy of Desmond Music and Derry Music Company.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Other credits, not noted in the show out loud:
"A Certain Kind of Eden","Agreement" and "Blandeur" written and read by Kay Ryan, used with her permission.
"A Certain Kind of Eden," Flamingo Watching, Copper Beech Press, 1994.
"Agreement" and "Blandeur" from Say Uncle, Grove Press, 2000.