Kay Ryan talks to Andy Kuhn
Andy Kuhn: You grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, in California, which you once memorably described as “glamour-free, ocean-free, hot, stinky, oil-rich, potato-rich.” And you’ve spoken elsewhere of your dad as an oil-well driller and a dreamer whose ship never quite came in. I understand that soon after he died you first started writing poetry–when you were nineteen?
Kay Ryan: Well, yes, I guess the shock of his death required better words.
AK: Did you pretty much keep writing steadily after that?
KR: I was very reluctant, I was truly, truly of two minds. There was one mind which was completely engaged in learning the craft of writing poetry, and was really not ever going to be satisfied with anything else, but there was another mind that absolutely didn’t want to be something that was as embarrassing and laughable as a poet. So I was truly resisting my calling, and I did resist until I was thirty. I dabbled, but I made sure that my poems were only funny, or only clever. It just took me a long time to agree to this enterprise. [Laughs]
AK: In an interview some years ago you were describing what it was like for you early on, I guess during this early period when you were resisting being a poet, and you said that poetry and in particular rhyme seemed to be taking over your mind. . . I don’t know if you realized it then–it was obviously intended to be conversation– but what you said was itself like one of your poems.
“I had this condition
of things rhyming
in my mind
without my permission.”
KR: [Laughs] I see—there, you’ve got it too! It’s a great disease, though. The longer I’ve lived with it, the more grateful I’ve been.
AK: So you devoted yourself, or re-devoted yourself at the age of thirty to working on the craft of being a poet—but I guess it would be fair to say that you were not an overnight sensation, as a poet . . . .
KR: I think we could say that! We could genuinely defend that observation, yeah . . .
AK: I’d even go so far as to say that, at this point, like it or not, you’ve become a patron saint of aspiring late-bloomers everywhere.
KR: I remember being so heartened to learn about writers who either were just never acknowledged in their lifetimes or received very late acknowledgement. It made me feel much better to know such things could happen, that it’s one of the ways things go.
AK: Do you see any actual advantages to having taken the slow path?
KR: In the long run I do. I think it’s good to be tested. I think it’s good to find out what you’re made of. I think it’s good to know why you’re doing it. After a certain point you’ve got to understand that you’re not doing it for wealth and glory, or dates, because it’s not working . . . I did it because it was the way I could be most excitingly engaged with my own mind. That sounds a little autistic, and maybe it is, but it was my way of thinking, and it continues to be. It’s my way of knowing anything.
AK: Certainly one of the things that has been required in that path, in your development as a poet, has been patience–which is the title of one of your poems. Would it be all right with you if we put it up on our web page?
wider than one
natives in their
is sustainable —
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
from the genuine
KR: I have a wonderful story about that poem. Did you know the cartoon “Boondocks,” the two cool little black kids? Aaron McGruder, I think was the cartoonist. My partner and I were reading the Sunday paper one morning and she says, “Read this aloud, Kay.” So I start reading it. The two brothers are talking to each other—Huey and Riley. And the revolutionary brother is always trying to get his thug brother to straighten up, and he says, “As the poet Kay Ryan once wrote—” and he quotes half of Patience! He quotes half of the poem! And he says to his thug brother, “So what do you think of that?” meaning the part about the “diamonds of patience.” And the thug brother says, “I want mine now.”
It was very cool. I of course have many laminated copies of that cartoon.
AK: I bet. How many poets could say that they’ve been memorialized that way?
KR: I’ll tell you, showing up in the funny papers, there is nothing better. After The New Yorker, being in the funny papers. And this was syndicated, this wasn’t local. I heard from people all over the country.
AK: Another thing that struck me about the poem, besides that it’s a lovely piece of work, and that it seems to express something about your own path, was to consider how it would have been received in a workshop . . . .
KR: That’s fun.
AK: You’ve steered clear of workshops, poetry workshops, and reading this poem it seems like a really good call. I don t know if you’re aware of how many different workshop rules that you broke in this single poem.
KR: Oh, tell me some!
AK: Well, right away with the title, “Patience.” I mean, you’re writing about an abstraction, so you’d get skewered for that right away. No abstractions. That’s rule number one.
KR: Okay, good. . . .
AK: The next one, the fact that you chose an abstraction, patience, that’s a virtue . . . . I mean people who can write about all kinds of nasty things without turning a hair would blush to the roots to hear anybody say anything about a virtue.
KR: Okay, excellent, good point . . . .
AK: Were you aware that writing about a virtue is a scandalous activity?
KR: I didn’t know that, because I really do like to write about certain virtues. I have a poem called “Why We Must Struggle,” and that is a not ironic poem. It is a poem in which I am trying to say, why we must struggle.
AK: Do you think of yourself as a moralist?
KR: I don’t think of myself as a moralist, although I have said sometimes that I was a faux-moralist. I think of myself as somebody trying to figure things out. I’m thinking, I’m just thinking. I’m interested in things that I just barely know—I have a little hint, a little wisp of something. And what interests me is that thing that I hardly know and probably hardly can know. But what I tend to do, I magnify it. I make it big, I say it more strongly, I maybe make it somewhat cartoon-like, in an effort to make its outlines clearer.
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AK: You’ve talked about the poets who you call the “talking-back poets,” about how “they get much of their energy from disagreeing or taking exception.” You put Robert Frost at the top of the list.
KR: Oh yeah. Emily Dickinson’s another one, giant talking-back poet.
AK: Who did you start out talking back to, and who are you talking back to these days?
KR: All the smart guys. And talking back doesn’t necessarily mean disagreeing, but it might mean picking out a line or two . . . . Somebody I’ve been reading a lot recently is Montaigne. I’m a late-life convert to Montaigne. I’ve been reading Walter Benjamin. I love to read Milan Kundera—his essays though, not his fiction. And I love to read Calvino, his essays. I had a giant jag for many years reading Nabokov. Brodsky—oh, lots of fun with Brodsky. Essays, again.
AK: In a long interview a few years back you said, almost in passing, that you didn’t read poetry. Is that really so?
KR: It’s pretty much so, and it’s quite embarrassing. I hate to have to confess, repeatedly. [Laughs]
AK: So to continue the cross-examination, when did you stop reading poetry?
KR: Certainly I read it as a young adult. When I was trying to get my chops, when I was in college, I got a BA and a Masters in English literature, and I read a lot of poetry. When you’re trying to learn your craft, you really have to be doing a lot of reading. I probably continued reading poetry until I was forty.
I’m not saying that I don’t read it now at all, because I certainly do. I’ve been reading Tranströmer, Zbigniew Herbert—I’m always reading, but what I mean is I don’t keep up with current writers at all. I read my favorites. I kind of went on an Emily Dickinson jag, not too long ago.
AK: Returning to her, because I understand she was one of your initial big influences.
KR: Oh, absolutely. Although Hopkins was the first poet that made me understand what poetry could really do . . . Brodsky talks about poetry being the great mental accelerator and that’s what I came to understand when I was about eighteen—that it really was a terrific brain thrill, to read, say, Hopkins.
AK: Your poems a lot of times have the kind of sonic denseness of Hopkins.
KR: Oh, well, thank you very much. I think the poems play with a lot of different tonal registers. They can be very flat, or they can have more curlicues—they can be more ripple-y [laughs].
AK: It was a contrarian sort of thing to be rhyming when you started writing poetry, and even now in a workshop you’d probably get some grief for how you handle rhyme–there’s too much for the free-verse partisans, and it’s too unpredictable for a lot of rhyming poets. But another way that you’ve been a contrarian, not just in your writing but how you live, is to come down very firmly on the side of sanity and temperance and not spilling your guts in print.
KR: Isn’t that amazing? Imagine that somebody has to affirm those things. It seems like those would be givens.
AK: I guess you didn’t go in so much for Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath . . . .
KR: No, not at all, not really. I admire their power, I admire their craft, their excellence. I didn’t pay too much attention to Lowell, but I looked at Anne Sexton some, and she can really wield a metaphor, she just has a terrific natural power. Unfortunately other people try to do that kind of thing and they write crap.
AK: How about the late Adrienne Rich?
KR: I certainly admired her when I was in my thirties, and I respect her very much. I couldn’t say that in any way she was an influence, other than being a woman poet who didn’t give up, who found her own voice, and in human terms was a wonderful, strong model of independence and artistic integrity, following her own path. . . . We all have styles to which we incline, or which are important for us to learn from, and others that aren’t.
AK: You wrote at one point that “feelings, attached feelings, are dead weight in a poem. Poems are to liberate our feelings rather than to bind them. If a poem sticks you to it, it has failed.” And yet your poems really do stick, I mean you make them stick.
KR: They might stick in your head, but they don’t make you feel stuck. I hope they would stick in your head, because really don’t we consider the definition of poetry to be “memorable language”?
But I don’t want a reader to feel trapped, or reduced, or burdened for having read something I wrote. I hope that you the reader will have a little more available energy. And feel sort of more like yourself.
You know how sometimes you’ll read something, and while you’re reading it the main part of you is thinking your own thoughts? And you consider it some of the most exciting reading that you do. I remember reading Milan Kundera essays, I was out at a beach—I can picture just where—and it was like my mind was going off on its own, having so much fun. I was closely reading the essays, but my mind was very busy with its own independent thoughts. Does that happen to you?
AK: Oh yeah. Do you have the experience of reading something and you start to feel almost a linguistic unrest in yourself, and you reach a point where you think, o-kay I’ve got to put this book down and pick up a pad right now?
KR: [Laughs] Yes, yes. I have my favorite books, and I can use them . . . Maybe it’s the way that some people use pornography, flip to a certain page . . . I might just read a paragraph or two. It just gets my brain up to speed, to read somebody really smart. To be in the company of Hannah Arendt, talking about Walter Benjamin, it does your brain a lot of good. It puts you in good company, it reminds you that there are some standards here.
AK: And it gives you permission to use high language.
KR: Yes. It gives you permission to be smart, to remember that there really is an ongoing world, of the dead and the living, an ongoing conversation that’s really a thrilling one.
# # #
AK: We’re both old enough to have experienced what a big deal it was when even Wite-out and electric typewriters came on the scene . . . .
KR: Oh yeah, Wite-out . . . . and remember the tape you’d put in and type over, for corrections?
AK: And the cartridges.
KR: Those were pretty late.
AK: Has word processing made any real difference to how you write poetry?
KR: Well, I mourn the loss of the electric typewriter. It sounds like you remember when there were good electric typewriters.
AK: There was the IBM Selectric, there was . . .
KR: I had a Silver Reed, oh God it was a great typewriter. I could compose on the typewriter because it was easy to strike out, or to write above, and change the margins, so I could really write drafts on a typewriter. But then typewriters became like half computers, and the page wasn’t visible, really—where the key was striking was buried someplace down in the typewriter, and it became completely impossible for me.
When my Silver Reed died, I couldn’t replace it. And I thought, well, I’ll try the computer, the word processor, but I could not do it. I have really bad handwriting, and it was much nicer if I could type, but I couldn’t do it, because when you change your mind, when you erase things–they’re gone. I couldn’t bear for things to be gone because I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to need them still. That might have been the good stuff, there’s no telling. I need all my messed-up drafts. So I had to go back to just yellow tablet, and that’s what I’ve done, ever since the computer took over. It compelled me backwards.
AK: Back to the pencil.
KR: Well, pen.
# # #
AK: Shortly after you accepted the appointment to be poet laureate, you said you wouldn’t be writing poetry while you had the job, and as it happened you accepted a re-appointment, so it lasted a couple of years. Did it turn out in fact that you didn’t write that whole time?
KR: Well, I wrote a little bit. But also the death of my partner coincided with that time, and so it was a terribly, terribly difficult time for me.
AK: I can imagine. Or I can try to imagine.
KR: Yeah, don’t even try. [Laughs] Just hope it doesn’t happen to you.
AK: You were with her for thirty-plus years.
KR: Yes. It was a terrible blow.
AK: I know that she was a devoted and a gifted teacher. Her name was Carol Adair.
KR: Carol Adair, a really gifted teacher. For her, teaching was a genuine art—in the way that writing poems is my art, teaching is her art.
Thinking about that, about her work and mine, pushed me to try to figure out just what an art is. And I’ve come around to thinking that an art is something that, when you do it, it nourishes you, it gives you more energy than it takes away. You want to do it more. It feeds you. It’s something to which you bring everything that happens in your life. Every experience feeds into your art. Your art can use everything that happens to you. And you never get tired of trying to refine it—you’re never through with it. You never reach the point where you say, “That’s done.” Maybe a piece of it’s done, but it always interests you to do it a different way, and do it more.
AK: I know that your last project together with Carol was selecting poems for The Best of It.
KR: And that was interrupted by her death. She wasn’t able to finish helping me to do that. That was very tough. I put the project aside for a while and then I took it up again.
AK: You’ve described her as, besides your life partner, as your lifelong editor. She read everything before you sent it out. Was she the one person whose opinion most mattered to you?
KR: It’s true. Now I don’t show it to anybody. I just have to decide on my own, if it’s worthy.
AK: Has it changed the feeling and the process of writing for you, since she’s been gone?
KR: Ahh, you know I profoundly miss having her to read the work. In many other ways I miss her too, but in terms of my writing, I do miss her.
I didn’t talk to her about the work. I would let piles of it gather up, and maybe once a month I’d say, “I’ve got a couple of poems I’d like to show you,” and I’d show them to her—several. She was really a tough reader, she would certainly tell me when she was thrilled, and she would tell me when there was a problem.
And I just hated problems. I only gave her things that I considered finished, and I just wanted to hear what she thought. But I just hated it when she would send me back to the drawing board. And she would. She’d say, “You know, this just breaks down here, Kay, you don’t have it in here yet.” Oh, God! Sometimes I could fix something, and sometimes I just couldn’t.
AK: You wouldn’t storm around the house or anything like that?
KR: No, no, I was just kind of personally crushed. And sometimes I defied her. I’ve got a poem called “Any Morning,” it’s in The Best Of It. I was just reading it last night at the San Francisco library. I was telling the story about how Carol just hated the ending. It says “why we never see it coming // like Hawaii” and she said, “Kay, that is so stupid, rhyming ‘why we’ and ‘Hawaii’” and I said, “I know it is, I really love it.” She said, “It’s terrible!” I said, “It’s terrible, I know it’s terrible. I love it!” We just had to agree to disagree on that one.
Sometimes she thought that I insisted on jokes that were stupid and beneath me. I made her very mad in the early years, because she thought that I was too much of a clown, and that I gave it all away. And she’s probably right—I preferred to be funny.
AK: Was that sort of easier, at that point?
KR: Yes, I was more protected. Being funny is good, because when people laugh, you know what effect you’re having. You live in a nice, safe world.
AK: They’re having a good time, you’re having a good time . . . .
KR: Everybody’s having a good time. The other emotional responses are less easily read.
AK: You think having her as a reader all those years kind of helped move you . . . .
KR: Oh, she kept my feet to the fire, shall we say. She wanted and required the best of me. [Laughs] She wouldn’t let me be quite as lightweight a person as I would have preferred, probably. But she got her job done, she did her job.