Issue 187, Winter 2008
Kay Ryan, who was named the sixteenth poet laureate of the United States in July, lives in Fairfax, California, where for more than thirty years she has taught remedial English part-time at the College of Marin at Kentfield. She is often referred to as a poetry “outsider” and underdog. She resists writing in the first person, preferring to write personal poems “in such a way that nobody has to know it.” In lieu of narrative and biography, she uses irony and humor to unravel the idiosyncrasies of language and the haplessness of human existence. She is fond of malapropisms and clichés, two linguistic devices that many poets consider taboo. She employs what she calls “recombinant rhyme”—hidden rhymes that appear in the middle, rather than at the end of her short lines. Her penchant for brevity has garnered her a reputation as a poet of “compression,” but Ryan disagrees. Although she says she likes to “squeeze things until they explode,” she insists “there’s a sense of air and ease in even the smallest of my poems.”
Ryan was born in 1945 and grew up in California. Her family eventually settled in Rosamond, a small town on the Mojave Desert. She studied at UCLA, and briefly pursued a Ph.D. in literary criticism until, she says, she became appalled by the idea of being “a doctor of something I couldn’t fix.” In 1976, on the occasion of the U.S. bicentennial, Ryan rode her bicycle on a four-thousand-mile trip, along back roads from Oregon to California, hoping that the trip would help her decide whether or not she wanted to be a writer. She says she was “resisting the claims that poetry was making on her,” but when she reached Colorado’s Hoosier Pass, she felt her mind sharpen “like a laser beam” on the fact that writing gave her “pleasure like nothing else.” She had found her answer, but she had no idea how to go about becoming a poet. For inspiration, she turned to an unlikely source, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! books, which taught her to “utilize the fanciful.” The books served as fodder for her eight-year, self-imposed apprenticeship, during which she wrote “a gazillion” poems before publishing her first collection in 1983.
Ryan says she was raised in a home where “being a poet would be thought of as putting on airs.” But she is less an outsider than an iconoclast for whom success came slowly. Ryan is the author of seven collections of poetry, and during the past fifteen years she has won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has been featured in Best American Poetry and on Entertainment Weekly’s “It List,” and one of her poems was recently engraved in a wall in the Central Park Zoo.
This interview took place over the course of four warm days in August at Ryan’s Marin County home, where she lives with her partner of thirty years, Carol Adair, and their cat, Ubu. Although Carol had recently been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy treatments, Ryan explained that they had agreed to press on with life and to invite everything in, including this interview and the poet laureateship. Being named poet laureate has granted Ryan a new degree of visibility in Fairfax. But, she says, “Nobody’s letting me cut in line at the post office or anything.” When I asked her a typical “poet laureate” question—How does one become a great poet?—she responded, “How would I know?”
What did you mean when you said that a poem should act like an empty suitcase?
It’s a clown suitcase: the clown flips open the suitcase and pulls out a ton of stuff. A poem is an empty suitcase that you can never quit emptying.
Do you ever try to be funny in your poems or does it happen by accident?
I insist on being light in the way that Calvino talks about it. How does he describe it? Here in Six Memos for the Next Millennium: “Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarified consistency.”
People have trouble with my work because they want to say it’s humorous the way Billy Collins’s poetry is humorous, and that it’s witty. But there’s something else, this cartoony thing. When I read my poems to any audience there’s a lot of laughing, but I always warn them that it’s a fairy gift and will turn scary when they get it home.
I can’t bear work that takes itself too seriously, but that doesn’t mean that my work isn’t serious.
Many critics compare you to Dickinson. Do you think you’re like Dickinson?
That question is like asking, Do you think you’re much like God? That’s not interesting to me. It might be interesting for others, but I feel like it makes me do the work that other people ought to do. Besides, how would you like to be compared to God?
When you rode your bicycle across the country you discovered you were meant to become a writer, but what are the practical ways you taught yourself to write?
I’d kept a journal of that trip and decided that I would get up every day and transcribe that journal, augment it and fix it up. What that gave me was the habit.
But once that was done I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d bought a tarot deck—this was the seventies—a standard one with a little accompanying book that explained how to read the cards, lay them out, shuffle them—all those things. But I’m not a student and was totally impatient with learning anything about the cards. I thought they were just interesting to look at. But I did use the book’s shuffling method, which was very elaborate, and in the morning I’d turn one card over and whatever that card was I would write a poem about it. The card might be Love, or it might be Death. My game, or project, was to write as many poems as there were cards in the deck. But since I couldn’t control which cards came up, I’d write some over and over again and some I’d never see. That gave me range. â€¨I always understood that to write poetry was to be totally exposed. But in the seventies I only had models of ripping off your clothes, and I couldn’t do that. My brain could be naked, but I didn’t want to be naked. Nor was I interested in the heart, or love. The tarot helped me see that I could write about anything—even love if required—and retain the illusion of not being exposed. If one is writing well, one is totally exposed. But at the same time, one has to feel thoroughly masked or protected.
And that was it? Your style was born?
No, I was still extremely prosy. The problem for me was that I willed my poetry at first. I had too much control. But in time the benevolences of metaphor and rhyme sent me down their rabbit holes, in new directions, so that my will—my intention—was sent hither and yon. And in that mix of intention and diversion, I could get a tiny inkling of things far beyond me.
How did you come up with what you’ve called recombinant rhyme?
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. In “Turtle,” for instance, I rhyme “afford” with “a four-oared,” referring to a four-oared helmet: “Who would be a turtle who could help it? / A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet, / she can ill afford the chances she must take / in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.” The rhymes are just jumping all around in there, holding everything together.
What’s recombinant rhyme? It’s like how they add a snip of the jellyfish’s glow-in-the-dark gene to bunnies and make them glow green; by snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem I found I could get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.
Did you ever write in form?
Never. I don’t have any gift for it. I find it kind of embarrassing. If Frost does it, if Larkin does it, I adore it and I fall before it. But for me, it would be like wearing the wrong clothes.