The Monday before last I went to Herbst Theater to hear Kay Ryan, recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her latest collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.
Sydney Goldstein, the founder of City Arts & Lectures, came out and said how thrilled she was to celebrate their 30th anniversary by presenting Kay Ryan, whom she had known back when they were both working at the College of Marin and trying to become other things. Ryan would be interviewed by Steven Winn (who did a good job of creating a conversation and not falling back on dully obvious questions), but before that she came out and read several of her poems, interspersed with comments and background.
She said she did this because her poems are so short, so she had to fill the time a bit, but that was one of her many jokes (she is a droll, deadpan delight, but I also guessed that she might be someone who frequently uses humor as a fence or shield as well as a way to connect) since her comments were consistently illuminating and often hilarious, except when they weren’t hilarious – she read one poem about loss, I think called Never, and her opening sounded like her other openings and there was some laughter and she looked up and said sharply, “That isn’t funny.” I think she felt a bit abashed about that because she joked later about trapping people into thinking she was always funny and then verbally slapping them. But she was right, it wasn't a comic poem and when you read her concentrated poems you need to be alert to nuance.
It is a definite quality of her poems that they seem wry and witty and satirical but then take a sharp turn at the end, ending up at a place that has been implicit all along even if you didn’t realize that’s where you were going, and sometimes the place is darker than others. She mentioned the concentration and effort it takes to weave all the threads of her poems together.
During the Q&A someone asked her if she had to write in longhand or could use a typewriter. Ryan pointed out that there really aren’t typewriters anymore; she used to use one, which she liked because the words were clear and there was plenty of space around them for movement and revision without losing them the way you do when you revise on the computer. So when computers came around she had to go backward technologically and I think now writes with pen and paper so she can keep what she’s written and rejected in case she decides to unreject it. Winn asked her if she read her poems out loud as she wrote them, since sound often guides her. She said that she tended to sound words in her head as she reads anyway, so in effect if not actuality she did that.
She also said she had a short attention span, was a bower-bird when it came to reading (being unable to get through long Russian novels but delighting in mystery stories because they brought her mind to a spacious empty place), and would be unable to write a poem in such traditional forms as the villanelle or the sestina (though she admired those who could write them, they just aren’t something she can do). She mentioned reading "a lot of dead poets." But her poems are actually perhaps even more complex than those using traditional forms, but in a different way – she doesn’t have the traditional structure of a villanelle or sestina to guide her, though she did say rhyme was useful to her in opening up directions she may not have thought of.
She now considers twelve poems a year a good output. She read some poems that might not ultimately make the cut with her, so we were getting what was more or less an exclusive. I like it when writers do that, and add comments to what they read; I don’t find straightforward readings all that interesting, since I already know how to read and if it’s just a matter of being read to there doesn’t seem to be much point, unless maybe you can get your book signed. But Ryan put on quite a show for us and also signed books afterward.
She read a poem that I think she was still working on, about speaking even when you don’t know what you’re going to say, which seemed to strike a chord with the audience, judging from the many mmmm’s of enlightenment in the crowd, but I don’t think it’s always such good advice – of course, I also had the impression that it was good advice for her, since Ryan had found it difficult to find her way to her vocation as a poet: she came from a very non-literary background and initially couldn’t even bring herself to say she wanted to be a poet, which sounded too high-falutin’; instead she thought of it as being a “writer.” She told a fascinating story about bicycling across America in 1976 (on the “bikecentennial” path, which I didn’t even know existed) and going through several states and feeling nothing and then reaching a strange euphoric state in I think the mountains of Colorado. She compared the state to “the peace that passeth understanding,” saying she finally understood the phrase, and she asked the universe if she should be a writer. She received a four-word answer: “Do you like it?”
About those mmmm's of enlightenment: Winn asked her if she liked laughter as a response, and she did, and then he said the little mmmm's of internal revelation were the sound he liked but she said they unnerved her. Since that sound/reaction has always bugged me ("look at me, everyone! I get it!") I found this endearing.
Ryans’ poems are brief and often comic but expand and deepen in the mind once you take them in. In this she reminds me of Wislawa Szymborska. Winn mentioned poets Ryan is frequently compared to; Szymborska was not one of them but inevitably Emily Dickinson was. Winn said he thought this had a lot to do with gender, which is no doubt true. Ryan joked that it was the clothing (she was wearing pants, tailored jacket, and shirt, all in dark shades, and not the Amherst poet’s white dress). Ryan dislikes the comparison because, as she accurately pointed out, there is no way you can win in a comparison with Dickinson, who is one of the two gods of American poetry (the other of course being Whitman).
In talking more about poets, Winn said wittily that “of all the poets since Robert Lowell, she is the least like Robert Lowell” which got a laugh and led to a discussion of confessional poetry. Ryan is not of that school but of course all poetry is confessional poetry; it’s difficult for me at least to read the “confessions” of Lowell, Plath, and Sexton and not be aware that they are actually carefully building aesthetic constructs out of their life-material – and appealing or intriguing as the construct might be, a large portion of its appeal for a large portion of whatever readership poetry has is simply prurient rather than sensuous or intellectual.
Ryan’s poems may seem more or less “objective” but are I find full of deeper emotion than more obvious sob stories about drunkenness, adultery, etc. She read one about hills that was almost shockingly sensual, and there are several profound elegies: the one I mentioned earlier, about realizing you would never see someone again, which I’m guessing was written after the death of her long-time partner, Carol Adair, and After Zeno, which she wrote after her father’s death, which is one of the earliest of her poems that she retains – she said she wrote that one and then it was years before she got back to that level again.
It seems that the default pronoun of choice in her poems (where traditionally one would put “he,” allegedly implying all humanity, and where a modern would probably put “he or she”) is always “she,” even in cases where historically the individual is most likely male, as in the poem about the cabalists. She talked about liking them because of their strange numerological way of reading. In general there seems a contrarian streak in Ryan, to such an extent that she felt she had to tell us she wasn’t purely guided by a need to be contrary. I think it’s just not accepting the standard unthinking way of thinking. She mentioned the drab hemp-and-whole-grain crunchy granola oil-separating peanut butter world of the 70s and how she liked instead the artificial and decorative and even the flamboyant. She read her delightful Flamingo poem and talked about how the second line contains the word “furbelows” (which she felt she had to define for us, saying she had probably read it in Clarissa, which made me chuckle internally just on general principle because that’s one of my favorite novels) to rhyme with “flamingo goes,” and the “goes” itself probably came from the last syllable of flamingo. That’s how rhyme and word sounds lead her into a poem.
Part of her contrarian thinking seems to be her distance from the standard “literary establishment,” with which she seems to have sort of a love/hate relationship. I wonder how or if that will change now that she is a Poet Laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner; fortunately for her equilibrium, poets are always outsiders in the larger America. It was her partner Carol who helped her organize her attempts to get published, making them more methodical and therefore less personal. There were many rejections, which they expected, hoping only for the occasional acceptance. She once paid I think $60 to attend a writer’s workshop run by Alice Quinn, the former Poetry Editor of the New Yorker, and ended up not going, even though she had spent the money and, as she put it, she’s very cheap.
She did once write Quinn saying that though Quinn didn’t like her work now, she would in several years. Quinn reminded her of this at a party several years ago and said it had been true. Ryan had forgotten it but was relieved it had turned out to be true because, as she said, you always feel like such a fool when you do something like that. And indeed we only hear of these stories when they have happy endings and I always wonder how many people have written such letters but nothing ever changes except that time passes.
Afterwards there was a book signing, which I always love. I had made sure to buy a hardback copy of her new collection several weeks earlier. As I suspected they would, they had only the recently published paperback for sale at the signing. Ryan dazzled me by pronouncing my last name correctly on first seeing it, which almost no one ever does (it rhymes with “jazz”). I was going to look up and possibly link to the poems I mention here, but instead just buy her book and have the pleasure of discovering them for yourself.