Interview With Kay Ryan

Kay Ryan read at the Katonah Poetry Series on 5/13/2012.


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.


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.