By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008
More than a decade and a half ago, despairing that her poems would ever find an audience, Kay Ryan found herself writing one about a turtle. It was about as personal as a Kay Ryan poem ever gets.
Ryan's appointment as the nation's new poet laureate, to be announced today by Librarian of Congress James Billington, will cap one of the most unusual careers in American letters. Hers is "a very original poetic voice," Billington says, "almost the antithesis of the things you hear booming at you every day."
Yet when she wrote the concluding lines of "Turtle," Ryan evoked a deeply pessimistic vision of her life's work:
. . . She lives
Below luck level, never imagining some lottery
Will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
The sport of truly chastened things.
Still a bit stunned to have risen so far above luck level, Ryan can't resist joking about her newly exalted status.
"I thought I might take it upon myself to prevent all bad poetry from being published during my reign," she says, speaking by phone from her home north of San Francisco, when asked if there is any special project she plans to undertake in her new role.
Then she tries to explain how a poet laureateship could happen to a 62-year-old woman who grew up in the small towns of central California ("the glamour-free zone"), learned to hide behind the role of class clown, got rejected by her college's poetry club, committed to writing poetry as a vocation only after she'd turned 30, refused to have anything to do with creative writing classes and has lived a deliberately quiet life in which she didn't cultivate connections within the literary establishment.
Her father was an oil well driller who died reading a get-rich-quick book when she was 19. Her mother did some elementary school teaching, but you couldn't describe the household as literary. Asked about the origin of her poetic impulse, Ryan talks about learning, as a child, that language "could have a powerful effect on others."
Take, for example, the time when, alone with a group of adults, she found herself describing "my sixth-grade teacher's bottom jiggling as she wrote on the blackboard."
"I caused a woman to spit her milk across the table," she recalls.
At UCLA, the poems she submitted were judged not to meet the poetry club's standards. She "leaped away, mortally stung," and afterward "stayed pretty remote from the joining business." Bachelor's and master's degrees in hand, she ended up teaching remedial English part time at the College of Marin -- a job she would keep for decades because it allowed her time to write. She wasn't yet seeing herself as a true poet, however.
That changed when she took a cross-country bike trip in 1976.
She was 30. Poetry, she had started to realize, was possessing her mind. Sentences had started rhyming in her head -- "the machine was going without my permission" -- and she wasn't happy about it. She understood that writing poetry "means that one is totally exposed. It requires everything of the writer." She wasn't sure she wanted to be that exposed.
Mulling this as she pedaled up 3,500-foot Hoosier Pass in the Colorado Rockies, she found herself slipping into a kind of boundary-free mental state. There were "no borders to me, no borders to anything," she explains, and she seized the opportunity to pose the question that had been troubling her:
"Should I be a writer?"
Back came an answering question that made everything clear:
"Do you like it?"
Yes, she did.
This didn't mean, of course, that making it happen was going to be easy. Back in California, still shying away from difficult themes "like heart," Ryan assigned herself a task: She would get out a pack of tarot cards, turn one card over every day and write a poem from it. "So I had to start dealing with these abstractions like love, death, the wheel of fortune."
It took her eight years to get a poem accepted at a serious poetry magazine and 10 more to get into the New Yorker. Ryan says she doesn't know how she could have endured the rejection without Carol Adair, the woman with whom she's shared her life for close to 30 years. They met when both were teaching classes at San Quentin State Prison.
"She would say, 'Give me a list,' " Ryan says, recalling how Adair would ask which poetry publications should be targeted. They'd send out 100 poems, and Adair would say, "Let's hope for one of a hundred." Tired of her partner "complaining about my work stacking up," Adair organized a group of friends to sponsor the private publication of Ryan's first book.
In 2004, during the brief period when San Francisco was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Ryan and Adair got married at San Francisco City Hall. "We did it again last week" at the Marin Civic Center, Ryan says -- "it's legal statewide this time" -- on the same day, coincidentally, that she found out about the laureateship.
Even with Adair's help, Ryan says, her career path "wasn't exactly the fast track." In 1985, she placed a book with what she calls a "legitimate" publisher, the respected but tiny Copper Beech Press, but "it just was met by profound silence."
For years, she tried to get picked up by a bigger publishing house. A near miss at what was then Harper & Row left her "absolutely dashed." In 1994, when she finally published "Flamingo Watching," the collection that includes "Turtle," it was once again with Copper Beech, and Ryan was "profoundly discouraged" to think that nine years of work would once again go unnoticed.
But it didn't. Gradually, "Flamingo Watching" got read, and Ryan became at least vaguely visible in the poetry world. Since then, she has published three more collections with Grove Press.
One who discovered her was the poet and critic Dana Gioia, now chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. As he wrote in a 1998 essay published in the Dark Horse literary magazine, Gioia got a review copy of "Flamingo Watching," read a few poems and found himself returning to the book again and again.
He was struck "by the unusual compression and density of Ryan's work." Her poems and her individual lines both tend to be short, but they are packed with meaning. Like Emily Dickinson, Gioia wrote, Ryan "has found a way of exploring ideas without losing either the musical impulse or imaginative intensity necessary to lyric poetry."
Today, Gioia calls Ryan simply "one of the finest poets writing in America," adding that she has "the gift of being simultaneously very funny and very wise."
Ryan herself doesn't have much to say about the lengths of the poems: "I just go till I've got it done."
As for the shortness of her lines, she says, "I like a lot of exposure. A word on either end of a line has exposure. I like the danger of that." She also loves to bury rhyme, rather than stick to end rhymes and notes that "short lines cause the rhyme to bounce around."
She tries to achieve "the quality of lightness" in her poems. She is aiming for "substance that evaporates," poetry not as a burden but as something "rising, entering the air. I want it to make us feel like we're taking in more oxygen when we breathe."
Ryan became seriously visible in 2004, when she won both a Guggenheim fellowship and the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. All this, and now the poet laureateship: While the laureate's official duties are minimal, recent holders of the office have taken it upon themselves to try to boost poetry's standing in the nation's cultural life.
Did she have to think twice about accepting the position, she is asked, given her lifelong desire to focus more on her writing than on being a public figure in the poetry world?
"I did," Ryan says. "I was afraid of sacrificing the good opinion of Emily Dickinson by being 'public, like a frog.' "