Poet Kay Ryan: A profile
Kay Ryan may be the only American poet who describes her writing process as "a self-imposed emergency," the artistic equivalent of finding a loved one pinned under a 3,000-pound car. These "emergencies," she says, allow her to tap into abilities she wouldn't normally have, much like a father who single-handedly lifts a vehicle off his child. In Ms. Ryan's case, however, what has survived because of her efforts over the past three decades is a singular voice and vision. Her poems - with their compact size and technical precision, their wit and sharp intelligence - have been praised by critics for their ability to do and say things that none of her contemporaries can match.Skip to next paragraph
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Prize committees have also taken notice. This past spring she won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowshipand the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize, which acknowledges an extraordinary body of work.
"This feels like the most remarkable validation of what I've been doing for so many years," she says in a phone interview. The triumph is all the sweeter given that Ryan, now approaching retirement, recalls beingdenied admission to the poetry club at UCLA when she was a student there because she was considered too much of an outsider.
Today, the "outsider" is smiling broadly. Yet what may resonate most with other poets is the courage she has shown, year after year, to embrace those "emergencies" and follow them wherever they've led, even when it seemed that no one but her life partner, Carol, seemed to care.
Ryan clearly remembers one of her first "self-imposed emergencies." She and a friend had left California on a 4,000-mile cross-country bicycle trip, which would give her time to think about whether to devote herself to poetry as a vocation. She had been writing for more than 10 years, ever since her father's death when she was 19. Yet in the preceding few months, as she recalls, "I really found that poetry was taking over my mind." One night, as she read a book of prose, "everything seemed to rhyme."
As the friends pedaled through Colorado, the repetitive, rhythmic exercise gave Ryan a sense of oneness with her surroundings, as if "I could pass through the pine trees and they through me." She suddenly felt as if she "knew everything," she says. "I wasn't bound by the ordinary structures of ego."
In that moment of heightened awareness, Ryan, who is not religious, asked the universe whether she should be a writer.
The answer she got was clear and surprising: "Do you like it?"
Yes, she realized, she liked writing better than anything else.
Since then, Ryan has fashioned a life conducive to poetry, one in which the essential elements of that bike trip - repetition, expansiveness, and large intellectual leaps - shape both her daily routine and her voice as a writer.
Practically speaking, that means a lifestyle with few obligations. Thus, she has taught the same subject - remedial English - at College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif., for the past 33 years. She limits her classes to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
"I've tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy," she says, explaining that the simpler her routine, the more complex her thinking can be. Her poems function much the same way, with deep currents underlying a simple-looking surface, as in "Hope" from the collection "Elephant Rocks":
What's the use
and diffuse as hope -
of going on:
what isn't in
the always tabled
righting of the present.