The Elephant in the Room:
at the Library of Congress.
photo credit: Library of Congress
"I think Louise Glück (the 2003-04 Laureate)
gave one interview to the New York Times about how she wouldn't
give any more interviews. She's my god." —Kay Ryan
At the time this essay was written, current US Poet
Laureate, Kay Ryan, was not available for interview. Though contacts
at the Steven Barclay Agency responded kindly and promptly to my request.
The following essay examines what is and is not known about the poet
and her Laureateship. It is based on published interviews and
articles, experiences at her readings in Washington DC, and, most importantly,
her poetry. Kay Ryan's laureateship was announced in July 2008.
She took office in November 2008, and in April of 2009 it was announced
that Ryan had chosen to retain the office for a second term.
Ryan, a self-taught, self-declared "outsider,"
is an unexpected choice for the lofty position. Ryan has likened
the experience to being rewarded for staying in your pajamas.
In her essay entitled "I Go to AWP," published in Poetry,
Ryan confesses: "I have always understood myself to be a person
who does not go to writers conferences. It's been a point of honor:
the whole cooperative workshopping thing, not for me. I have never
taken a creative writing class, I have never taught a creative writing
class, and I have never gone, and will never go, to anything like AWP,
I have often said." In her Poetry essay she goes on to
say, "Make mine the desert saints, the pole-sitters, the endurance cyclists,
the artist who paints rocks cast from bronze so that they look exactly
like the rocks they were cast from; you can't tell the difference when
they're side by side." Though she may prefer folk culture to the
high-brow and overly academic literary community, her work is meticulously
handcrafted with tightly-whittled lines that surprise and delight.
She accomplishes this effect through the use of what she calls, in an
interview with the Marin Independent Journal, "recombinant
"Recombinant" is a word used to describe the
double ladder structure of DNA. It is as if the genetic code of
all rhyming words has been written in Ryan's being, and her role is
to use her poetic superpowers to decode it. She searches to uncover
rhymes wherever they may be hiding, usually somewhere in the middle
of things. On her path to genetic discovery, she comes across
rhyme cousins, like: margins/denizens/raisins; see "Creatures of
Margins" published in Elephant Rocks. Her lines
unexpectedly snap and pop in a sometimes jarring way like a person chewing
gum on public transportation. Ryan's poems give the reader the
satisfaction of producing a great bubble and the pleasure of its pop.
At age 19, Ryan began to write poetry upon the death
of her father. In 1983, she self-published her first collection
called Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends. When asked by an interviewer
at the College of Marin (where Ryan has taught remedial English for
over thirty years), "What inspired you to self-publish your first
book?" Ryan's response is, "The self-publication wasn't inspiration;
it was utter hopelessness that anybody else was ever going to publish
my poems." Her two subsequent books (Strangely Marked Metal
and Flamingo Watching) were published by Copper Beech Press,
out of Providence, Rhode Island. After that she published Elephant
Rocks (1996) Say Uncle (2000) and The Niagara River
(2005) out of Grove Press. Virtually unrecognized for many years,
Ryan became widely known after winning the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in
2004. She has also received awards from the National Endowment
for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
I first encountered Ryan in January of 2008 when she
gave a reading at the distinguished Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington
DC. She was introduced by then chairman of the National Endowment
for the Arts, Dana Gioia. From the moment she
took the stage, her famed sly wit was apparent. In addition to
reading poems from her various collections, she spoke of her quiet life,
growing up in the San Joaquin Valley. Ryan, born 1945 in San Jose,
CA talked with fondness of her family who would consider a life of poetry
writing somewhat frivolous. Attendees of the reading received
a broadside of her poem "Dog Leg" that included a sketch she
made of a dog and bird. Ryan spoke of her little drawings and how she
included a different graphic on the front on her holiday cards every
year. Of course, the images are puzzles for their recipients.
She described one of her favorites which depicted a pickup truck with
a pitchfork in the back and two birds in the cab. Gioia confessed
upon his receipt of the card he could not guess the meaning. "Fork
hauling birds," Ryan recalled with pride. After the reading,
she signed books and spoke candidly with fans. Upon my telling
her that she is my all-time favorite poet, Ryan insisted that I need
to read more.
My next encounter with Ryan was at the National Book Festival held in
late October 2008. Ryan was to begin officially as US Poet Laureate
that November and joked that her participation in the event was "gratis."
She was again introduced by Gioia (a huge Kay Ryan fan), who was introduced
by the current Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington. In
lieu of the gray polar fleece vest that she wore at the Folger reading,
Ryan was dressed in a black suit. She referred to her outfit as
her "new clothes" for her "newly exalted condition."
Ironically, she has a poem of the same title, based on the story of
The Emperor's New Clothes, which far preceded her current condition
("New Clothes" is published in Elephant Rocks).
In the question-and-answer period following her Book Festival reading,
she recalled that as a child she was invited to dinner in a place where
she knew very few people and ended up causing someone to spit their
milk out across the table in reaction to something she had said.
This is not the stuff of stuffy literary figures, and is hard evidence
of Ryan's exuberant character (sly wit may be an understatement).
Do not take this to mean that Ryan takes her appreciation
of literature lightly. In an interview with Colette Bancroft,
book editor of the Saint Petersburg Times, Ryan states, "The
first time we read a poem, we're not really reading it, we're deciding
whether to read it. If you can understand a poem on first reading,
either you didn't really read it or it isn't really a poem." If
stranded on a desert island, you would be wise to bring a collection
of Ryan's poems as they are both highly accessible, even to staunch
non-poetry-lovers, and also have the literary sustenance to be read,
reread and read again.
Ryan reveals that she has never written in poetic form.
In an interview published in The Paris Review, she says, "I
don't have any gift for it. I find it kind of embarrassing."
This is not to say that the contemporary American poet's work is best
described by the term free verse. Her work is the antithesis of
prosy. In her "I Go to AWP" essay she criticizes "bulk," particularly
bulk of the literary kind. Ryan states, "What we have here
before us is the exhilaration of bulk: bulk bags, bulk panels,
bulk poets. Even though this is Canada, we are having an American experience:
the American romance with bulk...A Costco sense of proportion is understanding
that you have to get enough bulk to fill up your pickup-bed-sized shopping
cart." Ryan prefers writing poetry sans bulk. In an interview
with Richard Halstead of the Marin Independent Journal, Ryan
discusses her unique, nonce form: "I like it because it is the
most dangerous shape...If your line is about three words long, nearly
every word is on one edge or the other. You can't hide anything. Any
crap is going to show." Her work can be seen as a diamond in the rough
amongst the bulk of American poetry (Dana Gioia referred to Ryan as
a diamond in the rough as part of his introduction at the 2008 National
Generally, the Office of the US Poet Laureate falls
under the sole vestige of the Library of Congress and has little affiliation
with the Presidential Administration. However, one might examine
Ryan's two-term Laureateship from the perspective of a political crossroads.
Ryan stood at the eve of her Laureateship at the podium of the poetry
tent of the National Book Festival, behind her a "Laura Bush, Library
of Congress" banner. Over the course of Ryan's Laureateship,
America elected a new president whose campaign calls to mind one word:
hope. But before President Obama was even a state senator, Ryan
wrote a poem entitled "Hope." One cannot help but wonder with
so much change afoot, could the Laureateship be different?
“"Hope" appears in Ryan's 1996 collection
Elephant Rocks and was first published in the The New
Yorker. Elephant Rocks exhibits Ryan's signature
style: short, or thin, lines that contain "recombinant rhyme."
Her lines get even thinner in subsequent volumes, such as The Niagara
River (2005). The Niagara River contains a poem
aptly titled "Thin" (selected for Best American Poetry 2006,
guest edited by Billy Collins). In an interview
published in the Winter 2008 Issue of The Paris Review, Ryan
says of her unique rhyme style: "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."
On the surface, the "hope" Ryan describes in her poem differs
wildly from its portrayal in the popular media during the recent Presidential
What's the use
and diffuse as hope—
In "Hope," the words "use" and "diffuse"
are examples of Ryan's "stashed-away" rhymes. The poem's
message exhibits Ryan's appreciation of the practical and tangible,
seen in her criticism of literary high culture and her overwhelming
experience at AWP. Here hope is "diffuse," which she
rhymes with her opening line of: "What's the use." At first
it seems hope is "use"-less. She reinforces the notion
that hope is not something that you literally hang on to. She
rhymes it with "isotope"—an off-balance molecular particle.
And then there is the sly rhyme of "envelope" and "hope."
Perhaps the envelope describes that which contains the name of the next
Best Actress or Miss USA (though it seems more likely that Ryan is apt
to be interested in "Ripley's Believe It or Not" were she
to watch television). The lines "what isn't in/the envelope/just
before/it isn't" call to mind the image of receiving word back
from a journal via an envelope you have self-stamped and addressed.
For a long period Ryan's work went unrecognized. One can easily
imagine how such envelopes can pile up over decades. "Hope"
is a somewhat mysterious substance, an "almost twin." There
is something about "hope" that cannot quite be pinned down.
It is a feeling, however fleeting, that on its own accomplishes nothing,
"the always tabled/righting of the present." The final end
word “"present" is an eerie off-rhyme of "isn't,"
which appears twice in the preceding lines of this very concise poem.
Recently, both Ryan and President Barack Obama aligned
on one issue in particular, not art, but community college. Within
his first year in office, President Obama held the first ever White
House Poetry Slam and has announced plans to invest $12 billion in community
colleges through the American Graduation Initiative. Before she
attended UCLA, Ryan graduated from Antelope Valley Junior College.
In a College of Marin news release, Ryan speaks to her personal experience:
"Only after I had gone off to that real college—UCLA—did
I realize what a terrific education I had received at my little 800-student
community college. First, it was a real community. My teachers at AVC
knew me by name; I had real relationships with them. They had expectations
of me and I tried hard to meet them. Second, the teachers were really
good; including the wonderful English teacher who sent me off in the
direction my life has taken. I got a fine education fifteen miles from
home." She is also adamant about valuing her role as a community
college educator. In her interview with Collette Bancroft in March
2009, Ryan says: "I'm very, very proud of teaching remedial English
in a community college." She goes on to say, "I wasn't dealing with
those entitled students that you're just entertaining. I was teaching
survival skills." It is clear Ryan values the pragmatic.
When asked if she taught her students poetry, her reaction is that her
instruction of poetry would "taint" it somehow. One bold attendee
of the Folger reading asked: "Do your students know who you are?"
Ryan's reaction was non-affirmative.
In summer 2009, President Obama traveled to Macomb,
MI to announce his American Graduation Initiative. Of community
colleges, President Obama said in his address, "This is training to
install solar panels and build those wind turbines we were talking about
and develop a smarter electricity grid. And this is the kind of
education that more and more Americans are using to improve their skills
and broaden their horizons...community colleges are an undervalued asset
in our country." He went on to enlist the help of Dr. Jill Biden,
wife of Vice President Joe Biden, who has been a community college educator
for over 16 years (about half as long as Ryan). It seems likely
that we could see at some point in the not-so-near-off future Ryan standing
in front of a "Jill Biden" backdrop presiding over the first ever National
Community College Poetry Competition. However, there is some contrary
evidence. In her May 2009 article "Poetry not all unicorns
and flowers, says poet laureate Kay Ryan," Collette Bancroft of
the Tampa Bay Times writes, "Ryan says she does want to
use the position as a bully pulpit to advocate for community colleges,
which she calls 'a great ignored treasure.'" Yet, a more recent
August 2009 article from the New Jersey Newshour describes
Ryan as "a powerful advocate for community colleges" under
the subheading "Poet laureate advocates for education, careful
attention to words."
In addition to being a community college educator, Kay
Ryan's laureateship is remarkable because she is the first openly lesbian
woman to serve as US Poet Laureate and the tenth woman, including Elizabeth
Bishop, to serve in the position since 1937. As one
news source bluntly put it, "The 16th Poet Laureate of the United
States is a lesbian." Because Ryan's work is more epistemological
than political or personal, this fact may go easily overlooked by her
broad readership, despite the dedication of her books which plainly
state "For Carol." In interviews and discussions following
her readings, Ryan mentions her life partner, Carol Adair, as a source
of support for her work when she was largely unnoticed in the literary
world. Of Ryan's work ethic, Adair stated in an interview, published
in the Marin Independent Journal, "She wrote every day, and
she wasn't even good yet. That takes so much guts."
Ryan and Adair met in 1977 when they were both teaching
at San Quentin State Prison, as part of a program at the College of
Marin. Both Ryan and Adair were colleagues in the English Department.
They were together for thirty-plus years and married twice, once at
San Francisco City Hall in 2004 and again in the summer of 2008 at the
Marin Civic Center. Each time, they were at the forefront of the
legalization of same-sex marriages. In an article published in
the Marin Independent Journal shortly after the announcement
of Ryan's Laureateship, details of their "prison romance" appear.
Adair recalls upon encountering Ryan, "I did not know the gender of
the person, and that thrilled me for some reason." Of Ryan, Adair says,
"Kay is the only person I've ever been attracted to in my life, although
I had boyfriends and husbands and children." Serendipitously or
ceremoniously, Ryan learned that she had been offered the position of
US Poet Laureate on the same day as the couple's 2008 wedding.
Of being offered the US Laureate position, Ryan has
said, "Carol really wanted me to do it, but it was a very difficult
time. I wasn't able to do any writing for a long time." The opportunity
came at a moment when her partner was in "very ill health."
Ryan has said, "I don't invite change. I think change is something
that should be thrust upon us." Despite her attitude toward change,
Ryan's life certainly has changed as a result of her Laureateship in
terms of readings and engagements. She has said that she hasn't
had time to write as much. But the most critical change for Ryan
came in January 2009 when her longtime partner Carol Adair passed away
after a battle with bladder cancer. In the months following, Ryan
announced that she would continue on for a second term as US Poet Laureate
through April 2010. In an Associated Press article published shortly
after her impending Laureateship was announced in July 2008, Ryan states:"This
[Laureateship] is probably going to keep me so occupied that it will
discourage any contact with the deeper mind. But my deeper mind needs
a break." It is logical to venture that this second term as Laureate
may be a way of dealing with the loss of her partner, Carol Adair.
Perhaps this is an example of neuroplasticity, a fascinating
principle by which brain cells can take on an entirely different activity
in the event of loss and need. This concept is the focal point
of Ryan's poem "Why We Must Struggle," which opens with the
statement: "If we have not struggled/as hard as we can/at our strongest/how
will we sense/the shape of our losses/or know what sustains/us longest
or name/what change cost us," (published in Say Uncle).
As Ryan signed my name (written on Post-it tacked to the title page)
in my copy of her book I shared with her that I read the poem at a local
spoken word memorial reading for late DC activist Cheryl Ann Spector.
She appreciated the sentiment.
To have an openly lesbian Laureate is exciting.
To have an openly lesbian, and androgynous Laureate are bonus points
for the queer community. Nonetheless, articles on Ryan are more
apt to contain the adjectives "sly"or "outsider”"
rather than "androgynous lesbian." In certain ways Ryan's
role as a lesbian Laureate can be likened to an elephant in the room.
In her poem of the same title ("The Elephant in the Room")
Ryan writes, "It's not so much/a complete elephant/as an elephant
sense…There are just/places in the room/that we bounce off/when
we come up/against; not something/we feel we have to announce."
The double-negative of the penultimate line ("against; not something")
harkens to Ryan's position in the literary and queer communities.
Though she is open about her romantic relationship with Adair, she has
not been anthologized along with other contemporary gay poets.
Perhaps her "quiet" and "outsider" lifestyle prevents
this connection from being made. One wonders if this will change
in the future.
Of writing about emotional topics Ryan has said to Richard
Halstead: "Death, I've never minded that so much," and "Love, I minded
because it's just so icky, so overdone. I just didn't want to touch
it." Indeed, Ryan's work is broader than the subject of sexuality
(as are the bodies of work of queer artists in general) and focuses
predominantly on nature and, to a degree, science. When her work
does include human imagery, the "people" are more likely to
be elves or tar babies (see Ryan's poems "Bad Day" and "Tar
Babies"). The astute, and perhaps searching, reader may find
a glimmer of sex in Ryan's poem "Expectations," which concludes
in the lines. "The [creek] bed is ready/but no rain yet."
Though she consistently gives readings and has traveled
to the District on multiple occasions, the mission of her Laureateship
(should she choose to accept one) remains unclear. In her May
2009 interview with Collette Bancroft, Ryan said, "I don't like
poetry being associated with kindness. Poetry is a savage and a selfish
beast." In a March interview with PBS, Ryan expressed that as Laureate
her schedule "exploded” and she has not had time for writing."
Happily, in her interview with Bancroft she stated that she has begun
writing again with the help of mornings without email and the phone
Early in her Laureateship, a second edition of Ryan's
Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed was put out
by Red Berry Editions. Of her first term, the Library of Congress
reports: "During the 2008-2009 literary season, Ryan appeared at
the Library of Congress National Book Festival and at several Library
poetry events. She also served as a panelist at the 'Robert Burns at
250' conference sponsored by the Library's American Folklife Center
and the government of Scotland. She selected two gifted young poets
to receive the prestigious 2009 Witter Bynner Fellowships in Poetry
from the Library of Congress." Among other additional events she
has read with Billy Collins at the Wells Fargo Center
for the Arts, in Santa Rosa, CA. As Laureate she has certainly proved
an attraction, packing the Calvin Coolidge Auditorium of the Library
of Congress' Thomas Jefferson Building. The reading, free and
open to the public, drew a crowd generally reserved in DC for high-powered
politicians and indie musicians.
Now a “"midterm"Laureate, it would be
nice to see tangible (and practical) goals from Ryan. Perhaps
she will find a way to tie her talent for poetry more directly to the
new investments in community colleges, but she has in the past spoken
about her enjoyment of her distinct roles. Back at the '08 Book
Festival, Ryan was asked what she would do in her new position.
She described her beautiful office, her nice chair, and the rug rolled
in the corner due to a leak in the ceiling. It's clear she appreciates
the physical office as well as her role in it. She then spoke
of funding for all the branch public libraries and keeping them open
(7-days-a-week!). She offered herself up to say a sentence on
television spots for the issue. Imagine, "I'm your US Poet
Laureate Kay Ryan, saying…branch libraries" [thumbs up optional].
Albeit an off-the-cuff response to the question, I would thoroughly
enjoy seeing progress made on this issue around the country. A
July 2008 Associated Press article quotes Ryan as being "crazy
about libraries—right down to the bookmobile" and that she
expects to do something in this area, but a concrete plan has yet to
be announced publicly. Over the course of Ryan's second term,
I sincerely hope that she is available for interview so that we may
possibly discuss this along with other matters of her mysterious persona.
Out of Ryan's appreciation for things that are small, I want to ask
her to start with Washington, DC. Ms. Ryan, if you are reading
this, please meet me on a sunny Sunday afternoon in front of open doors
to Washington, DC's Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library.
"I Go To AWP,"Kay Ryan, Poetry, 2005.
"Kay Ryan rises to the top despite her refusal to compromise,"
Richard Halstead, Marin Independent Journal, September, 23,
"Who2Biography Kay Ryan Poet,"Answers.com. http://www.answers.com/topic/kay-ryan
"U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan Talks About the Art of Teaching,"
Cathy Summa-Wolfe, College of Marin, 2008. http://www.marin.cc.ca.us/News/press_release/071708.htm
"The Art of Poetry," No. 94,” The Paris Review,
Winter 2008. http://www.theparisreview.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5889
"Poet Kay Ryan is named poet laureate of US for year," Associated
Press, July 7, 2008.
"Kay Ryan—National Book Festival 2008," YouTube.
"U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan Talks About the Art of Teaching,"
Collette Bancroft, Saint Petersburg Times, March 29, 2009.
"Library of Congress Appoints Kay Ryan to Second Term as U.S. Poet
Laureate," News from the Library of Congress, April 13,
"Poetry not all unicorns and flowers, says poet laureate Kay Ryan,"
Collette Bancroft, Saint Petersburg Times, March 29, 2009.
"The United States Poet Laureate," Barbara Sharpe, Bella
Online, 2009. http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art17239.asp
"Remarks by the President on the American Graduation Initiative,"
The White House Office of the Press Secretary, July 14, 2009.
"US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan: Ambassador for American poetry,"
Adam Phillips, New Jersey Newshour, August 4, 2009. http://www.newjerseynewsroom.com/style/us-poet-laureate-kay-ryan-ambassador-for-american-poetry
Kay Ryan's Poetry
Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, Taylor Street Press, Fairfax, CA,
Strangely Marked Metal, Copper Beech Press, Providence, RI,
Flamingo Watching, Copper Beech Press, Providence, RI, 1994.
Elephant Rocks, Grove Press, New York, 1996.
Say Uncle, Grove Press, New York, 2000.
The Niagara River, Grove Press, New York, 2005.
Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed, Red Berry Editions,
Evennou is an ex-cheerleader from
Central New Jersey. She serves as board president of the DC women's
spoken word organization mothertongue, and is a co-host of Sparkle: a queer-driven
reading series for all. She has featured at Queering Sound, Capital
Pride, Poetic Situations, Sparkle, and performs regularly at open mics
in DC. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers University,
where she studied creative writing with poets Evie Shockley and Susan
L. Miller. Her poems have appeared in Blue Collar Review
and Objet d'Art.
in Volume 10.4, Fall 2009
Read more by this author:
Evennou on mothertongue: Literary Organizations Issue