US Poet Laureate Lauds Community Colleges For Taking a Chance on Everyone

U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan enjoys a quiet moment to prepare for her reading as part of the Connections Literary Series at the College of Southern Maryland April 2.

Ryan’s Poetry of Mind’s Joy Initiative Brings Her to Appreciative CSM Audience

To a standing-room-only crowd gathered April 2 as part of the College of Southern Maryland’s Connections Literary Series, U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan offered the back-stories, epigraphs and inspirations from her collection of poetry, and commended the work of community colleges to an audience who unanimously nodded in agreement.

Ryan was introduced by CSM’s Literature Professor Neal Dwyer, who said that a student once asked ‘What makes a really good poet?’

“Maybe the same traits that make someone a really good person,” said Dwyer. “Traits like patience, dedication, curiosity, a belief in one’s self, attention to detail, the love of life and a sense of humor. As soon as you meet Kay Ryan you know that she has these qualities. She could have easily lived a quiet life in Northern California and never written a single line. Instead she rode her bike on a 4,000-mile trip and poetry found her. Thirty years later, she’s the country’s leading poet and we’re all the better for it.”

“I’m a complete believer in community colleges and we are underappreciated,” Ryan said. “We don’t get a lot of respect. We don’t get great funding.”

Ryan described how she graduated from a little community college, “not as nice as this one, for sure,” adding that “When I went away to UCLA—which I could not wait to do, to get away from a little podunk community college—I thought I would be rubbing shoulders with Nobel Prize winners and all sorts of elevated scholars. Well, I had a lot of [teacher assistants]. I had a lot of classes that had 300 students. I transferred as a junior and I was completely alienated. I survived and I got my degree, but I came to understand that I had a much richer, more intimate educational experience at my little community college, which by the way had 800 students. And I had an English teacher by the name of Miss Foley who truly inflamed my love of poetry.

“I like to say that [community colleges] get the ‘wild cards’; we get the surprises. You don’t know who’s going to be in community college. We take a chance on everyone and it pays off,” she said.

Ryan read from “The Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed,” a collection of poems inspired by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! as well as pieces from her new book “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.”

Bethany Yellets, 16, of Lexington Park attended the reading for extra credit for her English 1020 taught by CSM Professor Wayne Karlin, one of the Connections’ organizers, but she didn’t need much of an incentive. A full-time student at CSM preparing to enter the college’s nursing program, Yellets read and liked “The Turtle,” which Ryan expounded on for her guests. “’The Turtle,’ is almost silly,” said Yellets. “The timing is fascinating—it is silly but it is deep.”

Of Ryan’s visit to CSM Yellets said, “It is awesome that she is travelling around the country to community colleges rather than big state universities. It is a great project.”

            The project Yellets spoke of was Ryan’s Poetry of the Mind’s Joy Initiative she began in her final year as poet laureate. Ryan also created Community College Poetry Day to draw attention to the role of poetry in community colleges and to the central, yet largely unacknowledged, role community colleges play in the life of our nation, said Dwyer.

            CSM’s literary magazine, “Connections,” and the Connections Series of literary lectures were developed in 1990. “So often you hear about a program and it goes for several years and then it dies. But this is a program that continues to mature and continues to bring outstanding artists to this college.” said CSM President Dr. Brad Gottfried.

            The next Connections event will be a reading of selections by contributors to the Spring 2010 Connections Literary Magazine. The magazine is a regional journal published twice a year that features poetry, short stories, artwork and photography of Southern Maryland. The reading will begin at 7:30 p.m., April 30 at the La Plata Campus, Learning Resources Building, Room LR-102. For information, visit