An Interview with Kay Ryan (2012)

On April 9 and 10, Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan visited the University of Connecticut as the 49th annual Wallace Stevens poet.  Amanda Norelli wrote an introduction for Ms. Ryan on the blog last week, which can be read here for those unfamiliar with Ryan’s accolades.  The interview was conducted by the Long River Review‘s Devin O’Hara.

In 2008 you told The Paris Review that “During the laureate year [you] won’t write poems. [You] won’t have any time. And [you] won’t have the freedom of mind that it takes to write poems. But that might give [you] an appetite to get some writing done later.” How does it feel to finally get back to writing?

I was the laureate for two years, it turned out, because that interview was in 2008, and I accepted another year in 2009.  Following those two years, it has felt really wonderful to be liberated from a lot of public engagement; I really think it does take a lot of empty time in order to write—with no obligations, no external demands—so, it’s been great.

Have you been busy juggling all of the other awards, appointments, and speeches you have to give?

You know, this is the first trip I’ve taken this year, so I’ve really been at home for three months without any external requirements.  In April I’m doing a lot because of poetry month, but it’s been great to have a lot of free time to “wool-gather.”

Have you encountered any difficulties and felt like you were rusty, or have you fallen naturally back into rhythm with your writing?

You know, I recently wrote a little poem in the last year or so called “Monk Style,” and it’s talking about Thelonious Monk. Do you know Thelonious Monk?

Wasn’t he a musician?

He was a jazz composer and piano player. I was listening to NPR at the time, and somebody was talking about Monk, probably a biographer.  He said that when Monk came in to record, it took him maybe forty-five minutes to get his stride, that it was hard for even Monk to play Monk, which I thought was so cool! I have this little poem I’ll say it for you:

(For an audio recording of this poem, click the link here: Kay Ryan- “Monk Style”)

I think I got it a little bit wrong; it’s hard to quote myself. But in any case, the point I’m trying to get at is that whatever in me it is that composes is always there and it doesn’t always get bigger, or littler, or change, but it requires a few tricks and some approaching in order to engage it. It’s kind of wonderful, a mystery to think that it’s something sort of busy with itself all the time, something that I can reenter, and yes, having more time makes that possible. But it always has to be reentered. I mean, I don’t know — maybe there are some people that get on a roll, but for me, every day is a new day; writing seems happily to be accessible to me.

You released The Best of It: New and Selected Poems last year to critical acclaim.  What made you feel that a “best of” collection was right at this point in your career as opposed to a book of entirely new material?  What do you feel a book like The Best of It signifies about your career as a poet?

Well, you know, that’s really a trick title. It does sound like I’m saying “this is the best of my work,” and of course, if I’m publishing a New and Selected it ought to be. I mean, what in the world else would it be besides what I consider the best of my work? But also in the book there is a little poem called “The Best of It.” May I read it to you?  It’s very different:

“The Best of It”

However carved up

or pared down we get,

we keep on making

the best of it as though

it doesn’t matter that

our acre’s down to

a square foot. As

though our garden

could be one bean

and we’d rejoice if

it flourishes, as

though one bean

could nourish us.

So this is about, you know, that old expression “making the best of it,” thinking about how people work so hard to make the best of it and keep trying to make the best of it. It’s a very different kind of poem. So what does the book signify about me as a writer? Well, I published it when I was sixty four. It’s sort of the highlights of my career to date, which one might imagine is the bulk of it in the sense that I probably have most of my writing years behind me. I don’t mean the best ones, but probably the majority of them, unless I live ridiculously long, which I have no interest in doing. So I guess that’s what it is, it’s saying, “This is it.”

Then, in essence, it’s the work you’re most proud of and want to show people?

Well, yeah. It’s the work that, in my mind, holds up the best. I left out two entire books when I put it together. It’s a combination of four others: Flamingo Watching (1994), Elephant Rocks (1997), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). With the first two books it was apprentice work; I was still figuring out how to do it, which took me a long time.

Is there any difference between Kay Ryan the performance poet and Kay Ryan the poet of written word?

Utterly. That’s a good question, because I feel that the great thing about writing for me is that I have access to levels of thought and discrimination that are entirely unavailable to me in other situations. In sitting down, in quiet, in manipulating language, that door is open, the key is turned. And in public or on stage, I am a show person, I enjoy making people laugh, and I do it. In a way it’s kind of deceptive; I present my poems in a way that shapes people’s understanding of them — it may make them look easier, more accessible. I don’t mean accessible in a bad way or a good way, just that they may seem more immediately knowable than they actually are. In other words, the reader might have to actually work with them longer to know them than I might make it seem, and I do that because I really love the exchange with an audience. I love generating a kind of sense of rapport and a sense that we are understanding these things together, that we are doing these things together. I hate leaving an audience out or leaving them behind, just talking at them; I want to engage them. Of course, the paradox is that if a poem is an interesting poem it’s not going to be gotten that way, you know? Some portion of it will be exchanged, but it is still going to remain a mysterious object and is still going to require or invite private contemplation. So yeah, I like to stand up and put on a good show. And it’s a much more… it’s just much more superficial. I think that my main interest in poetry is that I read it silently. I mean I don’t even like to go to poetry readings. I like to give them but not attend, because I like to read the work and I want the voice in my brain to do the work. How about you?

I like to read them out loud to myself, in my own space, in my own quiet. I can just make out the rhythm and rhyme a little better. The craft aspect comes more natural to me that way.

Yeah, I don’t really want the intervention of the writer’s voice. I want to see what’s there myself. I know I’m in the minority. I really am. It’s very popular to have poetry readings now and to think that’s a very good way to encounter poetry first. I might like to hear a poem read by its author if I’ve already read it, but maybe not. I mean, what would it be like to hear Emily Dickinson read her poems? I bet some of those were never said aloud at all. Never ever, ever, ever, said—never spoken.

So do you think that something is lost when an author reads her poetry, or is there something added?

Oh, that’s a very good question! Well, I think a very good reading can cover over the fact that there might not be much there. In other words, when you’re hearing a poem you’re hearing it in real time, you can’t go back, you can’t really investigate. Sometimes, something superficial works better than something profound, because the profound thing can’t be perceived in real time. It requires a different kind of time. So, what is superficial can seem very pleasing and work very well, but if you had to hear it repeatedly it might begin to pale. I think that things that are not deeply interesting can be wonderful presented. They can create an extremely agreeable living experience. And that’s a good in itself, but if we’re talking about poetry, that’s not what interests me. So there is value added there: perhaps the agreeable or interesting personality and the reading skills of the performer, plus the fact that you have a voice. To me one of the glories of the written word is that it is every voice. When I read something, it isn’t restricted to any particular voice, so it’s enlarged in that way.

How is reading to an academic college audience, like you will do tonight, different from reading to a younger, high school audience, like you will tomorrow?  Do you approach it differently?

I really try to pay attention to my audience. I will work harder tomorrow with a high school audience to make connections, probably. I mean, it won’t make a lot of difference, but there will be some. I might allow myself more…oh, actually it probably won’t make much difference at all. I work hard to make a connection in any case. I’ll feel it out when I’m there. Because high school audiences can be absolutely fantastic and just as sophisticated as a college audience. I’ve been in some very sophisticated high schools.

Do you think that there is an extra effort from a college audience to “get it” and engage instead of a high school audience that might just “enjoy it?”

It entirely depends on how they have been prepared, in a sense. Sometimes high school classes have studied the work. I was in a wonderful arts high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico with students drawn from all over the state from various Native American tribes, just everywhere. Students were chosen on their own artistic aptitude. They had to be auditioned. They were just leaping off their chairs, engaged. They had read the work and they were so eager to respond in every possible way, personally and intellectually. They were one of the most exciting audiences I’ve had, and they were kids. I mean that’s the wonderful thing about poetry, when it can be stripped of the fear factor. Sometimes that factor is learned in college because people think it’s a test, and they think they may fail that test. These kids were going at it hammer and tongs. They understood that it was for them. Poetry is for everybody, of course. So there might be a difference, but I’m not expecting one.

If you had to suggest a poet to Professor Pelizzon and The Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens to be next year’s fiftieth visiting poet, who would you suggest? 

Well gee, why don’t you get Seamus Heaney—I’m reading his Beowulf translation. I’d never read Beowulf before; it’s marvelous. I like it very, very much. Dragons, and monsters, and swords, and helmets, and gold, and treasure, and glory. I seem to like those things.

Is there anything you’d like to add? Maybe some advice for some of our young Long River Review poets?

I would say, expect to practice for a long time. Don’t be over-eager to publish before you’ve worked, before you’ve practiced, before you’ve got your chops. I think there’s an awful lot of impatience to see yourself in print. I think that it’s a very demanding, extended interest and occupation, and it should be thought of as something that one begins with an eye to the long haul. That’s what I think. I don’t think there’s any requirement to make it look like it’s your life. That certainly wasn’t the case with Wallace Stevens; it can be something that can be going on internally and very, very privately. I think one of the problems that young people are facing at this point is the loss of private life, the loss of private thought, where everything is instantly shared on Facebook or tweeted, and that the whole notion of an interior life may have become something very different than what it is for me. What do you think?

I share the same feeling. My friends think I’m weird for wanting time for myself to read a book, to think about it, to digest it. I just like to sit alone at breakfast and take it all in with my coffee. If I don’t do it I’m just not amiable for the rest of the day.

Yeah, if you don’t do something for yourself, it seems to be you can become really scattered — if you don’t have the habit of being interior or doing something that is entirely your own. Do you have Facebook?

I do.

And do you spend much time on it?

Yeah, sometimes in school it’s a great means of procrastination. It ends up being a lot of wasted time, so I force myself to pleasure read. It feels like a much more benign way to procrastinate.

Yeah, well, here’s another thing that I’d like you to remember that will console you: we don’t know what’s procrastinating and what’s your real work. In other words, what you may be thinking isn’t your real work right now might end up being your real work. And what you think is your real work now may not end up being so. At any time, there are a lot of assumptions about what are the requirements of the world or about how life is to be lived, and you always get to say, “Nah-uh.”  You always can, you can say, “This assumption isn’t my assumption.” I mean, I talk to a lot of people who feel pressured, required to, say, be on Facebook. They ask why I’m not on it. I mean, there are pressures, and they don’t have to be agreed to. And I’m not talking just about Facebook, just that you can always do otherwise.


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