Connections Features In-Depth Interview with Ryan on Community Colleges, Poet’s Struggles
With a personal belief that community colleges save lives and minds, US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan kicks off National Poetry Month at the College of Southern Maryland in her continued push to highlight community colleges as vital educational institutions. As part of the college’s Connections Literary Series, Ryan will read poems from several of her collections, including the forthcoming “The Best of It,” beginning at 7:30 p.m., April 2, at CSM’s La Plata Campus.
Ryan, a community college professor in northern California, was born in California in 1945 and grew up in small towns along the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert. She holds a bachelor and master degree in English from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and an associate degree from Antelope Valley College.
The poet may be thought of as a man or woman alone, an artist working through threads of thought and weaving images out of thin air, and as an author of several collections of poetry, Ryan says it takes “a lot of wool to make a poem.” She notes that wool can come in many forms; the time to reflect, the casting of an idea, an engaged student and even the belief that someone has in you, your work and your dream.
Her collections include “The Niagara River,” “Say Uncle,” “Elephant Rocks” and “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems,” which will be published by Grove Press this spring.
The recipient of numerous awards including the Ruth Lilly Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Ingram Merrill Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and four Pushcart Prizes, she has been included in “The Best American Poetry” collection four times and in “The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997” anthology. In 2006, she was named the chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a post she will hold until 2012.
In 2008, Ryan was appointed the Library of Congress’ 16th poet laureate. The position, also known as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, is appointed annually by the Library of Congress for a term running from October to May, though many laureates’ tenure has lasted multiple terms. The poet laureate seeks to “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry” through readings, events and the creation of a national project.
Ryan has dedicated her tenure to honoring her spouse and teaching partner of 30 years, Carol Adair, who passed away from cancer in January 2009. In October 2009, Ryan unveiled The Community College Poetry Project; a three-tiered project she hopes will encourage and promote the importance of poetry and community college programs.
The Community College Poetry Project includes “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy,” http://www.loc.gov/poetry/mindsjoy/, a web site by the Library of Congress that will feature poetry submitted by community colleges and a National Poetry Day on Community College Campuses on April 1 that will include events, readings and a conference call/webcast.
Ryan has lived in Marin County, California and taught foundation English skills at the College of Marin for more than 30 years.
In preparation for CSM’s Connections program, Ryan discussed the importance of community colleges and her work and struggles as a poet.
CSM: Have you been surprised by the reception of your work since you’ve become poet laureate?
Ryan: It had started changing before that. Obviously, I couldn’t have become poet laureate if the work wasn’t finding an audience. The laureateship is a great honor and distinction in that it has an affect on people that aren’t very intimate with American poetry. It’s like if my neighbor were a NASCAR champion. I would be impressed, just as a NASCAR champion might be impressed that I am the laureate but really neither one of us knows or understands what the other does.
CSM: As someone who calls herself a modern hermit, how has serving as the poet laureate changed you, your writing habits and your perception of your career path?
Ryan: I am pretty old. I am 64. I’m not really worried about my future career path. Being laureate has made it very difficult to write because it is very occupying — readings, interviews, travel. But this would have been a difficult time anyway because of Carol’s death. So in a way, it is difficult to sort out what’s occurred because of the laureateship and what has happened because Carol isn’t here.
CSM: The focus of your tenure as poet laureate has been community colleges. As someone who teaches at a community college, and whose partner did as well, could you talk a little about the importance of community colleges in America?
Ryan: I’ve made it my project as the laureate to simply advocate and praise junior and community colleges. I guess it’s like saying that I am really in favor of oxygen as an element needed for human happiness but I really do believe that community colleges are so essential to our country and they are taken for granted, underfunded and often un-respected. I wanted to show the nation that all these teachers and students in these community colleges are doing wonderful, life-changing work. They deserve the utmost respect. I consider community colleges as nitrogen fixing agents in the soil; they are converting people and communities into something rich and productive.
CSM: You teach remedial and introductory English classes at the College of Marin, a community college, correct?
Ryan: I always did but I haven’t been doing it the last couple of years. I did it part-time for well over 30, probably 33 years. I would teach nine units and then have a lot of undefined time to gather wool for my poetry. You know, it takes a lot of wool to make a poem.
CSM: What have you learned by teaching these classes?
Ryan: Teaching English skills is gratifying because the acquisition of the ability to read and write is the access to one’s mind, one’s self. When you learn how to write an orderly paragraph, you have not only learned to write but how to think and you’ve developed a platform for thinking further.
In choosing to advocate community colleges, I have met so many teachers/instructors who have tears in their eyes and are so grateful that we are bringing their work into the spotlight. They say their schools are exciting, gratifying places to work.
What’s interesting is that so many of these teachers are in the same position that I was in, in that they are teaching evening classes and the students are coming in in their scrubs, their work clothes, or they have a child who might be in the corner of the class coloring. These are exciting students to work with. They have a terrific appetite for what they were getting — an education. The exchange in a community college classroom is like bread, giving people bread.
CSM: What is one misconception people have about community colleges?
Ryan: That the quality of education is inferior to a four-year school. I happen to think it is better because the instructors and students have a closer relationship. It is very likely that a community college instructor will know your name and be more accessible. I graduated from community college in the Mohave Desert (Antelope Valley College) and I was so excited to get away to UCLA thinking I would be rubbing shoulders with Nobel Prize winners, etc., but I ended up rubbing shoulders with teaching assistants. Even in upper division courses, I found it impossible to make contact with the instructors. It was very alienating and frustrating.
Looking back I had a great time at that little school; it had 800 students. Carol always used to say that “people have little cups; all you have to do is fill their little cup with knowledge. You don’t have to have a Nobel to do it; being a good instructor is more important.”
CSM: Your poems have been labeled short, accessible and the like and yet by your own admission there is a lot going on beneath the surface including multiple meanings, inside jokes and recombinant rhymes. What are your intentions as a writer?
Ryan: I go in thinking there is something I want to understand or there’s a place I want to arrive at, something that is troubling my mind that needs clarifying and I keep writing until I have solved it or until it fails and I give up. You know, most poems don’t work for one reason or another. I write an awful lot of material that will never be seen.
CSM: Do you have any lines over the years that you have kept that you wish you could find a home for?
Ryan: I am really crazy about malapropisms (replacing a word with a similar sounding word). I have used “No Rest for the Idle” and I have a poem called “Green Behind the Ears” that came about because someone said it instead of wet behind the ears, and I thought that was a really beautiful turn-of phrase. There is another title I have been saving for years which is that “I am at the end of my straw.” I thought “I am at the end of my straw” would be a great topic for a poem, but I haven’t written it yet.
CSM: You’ve mentioned in several articles that you never wanted the typical poetic life and that poetry for you has been a personal pursuit. What has poetry taught you about yourself?
Ryan: I’ve learned that I am actually less superficial than I think. Well, if you talk to me in regular life, I tend to bounce things off at fairly ground level but through poems I find understandings that I am otherwise incapable of articulating. For me talking is kind of frustrating. It is hard to get at anything substantial. It is easy to say things that one has said before, you know, we sort of tar paper over things with our conversations while poetry allows for deep exploration.
CSM: You tend to read mainly essays rather than poetry/fiction etc. How does reading essays on writing, its aesthetics, construction, etc. influence your work?
Ryan: I think it primarily influences my work in the sense that it is intellectual companionship. These writers think at an exciting level for me. It makes my brain work at a deep level and accelerates my thinking.
CSM: What does writing in free verse offer you as a writer?
Ryan: I don’t know if I would call it free verse. When I think of free verse, I certainly don’t think of something as highly rhymed as my work.
When I am writing, each word that I use in some sense calls to other words. It calls to its sound family so that all of these words come clamoring, take my mind into new directions. I am trying to do one thing, say trying to describe an aspect of loss, trying to explain it, and then all sorts of words become present in my mind that take my thinking in new directions even as I am still trying to go along that original path. So, I get redirected by rhyme. It is a very fortunate thing. As Milan Kundera noted, “Writing has to be better than our regular mind; some operation has to occur by which we are made better than ourselves.” So for me one of the great properties of rhyme is that it simply enlarges my thinking.
CSM: Did you have problems when you were first incorporating rhyme into your work, because for a long time it was considered a faux pas?
Ryan: Two things were great impediments to my reception as a poet. One was my deep affection for very playful, unpredictable rhymes. The other was that I like jokes and amusement in my poems. I don’t know if my poems are as amusing as they used to be but I always need to amuse myself in some way. So the tone of my poems might have seemed not sufficiently grave to those who need poetry to be this serious pursuit. I think poetry can deal with grave matters without being grave.
CSM: Many of your poems seem to lack descriptive adjectives. Is this intentional?
Ryan: Is that right?
CSM: You don’t describe things extensively, though you do use some adjectives like “green” regularly.
Ryan: I love to hear this–did you count my words? You know somebody did that once; they had a computer program that analyzed word usage. It is so weird. I don’t remember what they found but I would love it if green showed up as a major word. I was thinking of Elizabeth Bishop recently and she uses the word pink a lot.
CSM: What is your favorite thing about being a poet?
Ryan: Having access to parts of my mind that I can’t reach in any other way. I love writing and it is still a perfect source of private amusement for me.
CSM: You took on the second year of the laureateship in order to help you get through the loss of Carol, and I was wondering if the poetry is still coming to you anyway, if there are poems at the back of your brain going OK, let’s write/talk about this?
Ryan: I am the kind of writer that I don’t know if I have anything to write about until I sit down to start. I don’t seem to be the type of person who is knitting away at some project in the back of my mind. It may be that I am but I am lucky that if I sit down and put a few words down, I have a general direction to proceed.
CSM: What is the hardest thing for you to do as a poet?
Ryan: Interesting. I don’t know if I have ever been asked this before. I think the hardest thing is giving up on a poem that isn’t working. I often get invested in an idea and what I try to do is recognize when something has gotten blogged down, overly elaborate, stiff, or if it smells too much of the lamp; in other words, it is overworked. I’ll put away those pages and I try to start completely over on that same idea but I go about it in another way. Sometimes after all of that frustration, I will be able to do something simpler that works.
CSM: You have said that your late spouse, Carol Adair was your strongest advocate and your single companion in your poetry life. How did she support and sustain your work as a writer on a daily basis and how has her death affected your work?
Ryan: You just asked a question that will take me the rest of my life to answer but I will try to answer it superficially. She helped me over the almost endless hump of trying to get my work accepted. We started living together in 1979, and there were many years, probably half of that time, I was getting nowhere. Carol would insist that I give her packages of my work, a list of publications and she would send them out for me because it was so discouraging for me. She would say “OK, we’ll send out 100 packages and hope for one acceptance; one in a hundred that would be our goal. Harden your heart,” she’d tell me. Carol made it possible; I would just be too discouraged. She helped me continue. She was the backbone; she always believed in the work and never doubted it, even the early work that I, myself, didn’t think was very impressive. There are times I wonder why she believed in it. I don’t know what would have happened to my life and work had she not been there.
Since 1990, the Connections Literary Series has held readings featuring national award-winning contemporary writers, poets and artists who share their work and time with residents of Southern Maryland. All readings begin at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $5, general admission. Tickets are available through the CSM Box Office, 301-934-7828. For information, call 301-934-7864 or 301-870-2309, 240-725-5499 or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7864 or visit http://www.csmd.edu/Connections/.
involved some art,
some hokum, and
at least a brief
man and metal
during which the
chains were not
so much broken
as he and they
blended. At the
end of each such
mix he had to
extract himself. It
was the hardest
part to get right
back into the
By Kay Ryan, “The Niagara River,” 2005.
Originally published in “Poetry,” November 2004.