Posts Tagged ‘“Kay Ryan”’

Seth Abramson dons “Kick me!” sign; makes list of top 200 advocates for poetry.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013
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Jane-Hirshfield

Jane made the cut.

Seth Abramson is an intrepid man in a country that publishes 20,000 books of poetry each decade, among 75,000 poets (who counts them, and how?) Here’s why: he has issued a list of “The Top 200 Advocates for Poetry (2013)” in the Huffington Post – it’s here, as well as on dartboards across the U.S.  We all love lists, of course, and everyone has an opinion on how they should be done – this one, particularly.  Two hundred is long enough to give the impression that everyone ought to be included, but short enough that not everyone can be. So Abramson’s gesture is akin to wearing a “Kick me!” sign on your back. He begins by almost apologizing: “The poets favored by one reader will invariably not be the poets favored by another; in fact, it’s getting harder and harder to find two readers whose reading interests or even reading lists exhibit much overlap at all. Too many such lists, such as the widely- and justly-panned one recently published by Flavorwire, exhibit obvious age, race, ethnicity, and (particularly) geographic biases.”  We would like to fault him, first of all, for hyphening an adverb that ends in “ly,” which is never done – moreover, it’s dangerous to begin a list by dissing someone else’s. In that way, you’ve made your first enemy already.

Wilbur2

Lifetime achievement, for sure.

He continues for some paragraphs in the same vein: “As a contemporary poetry reviewer who publishes his review-essays in The Huffington Post, I have no special access to knowledge of who is or isn’t doing the most to be an advocate for American poetry (a term I define very broadly) on a national or global scale. While I’m lucky to have access to many more published poetry collections than most poets or poetry readers do, as like any reviewer I regularly receive poetry collections in the mail from U.S. and international publishers, because the list below isn’t intended to detail who’s presently writing the best poetry, but is rather simply a list of who’s doing the best to advocate for American poetry by any and all means (including by writing it, but by no means limited to the authorial function), I’m not in a much better position than others are to generate a list of the most influential poetry advocates in America and beyond.”

Well, sure, I guess.  That said, we were pleased to see a number of friends and colleagues on the list – Kay Ryan, Jane Hirshfield,  W.S. Merwin, Don Share, Ron Silliman, Helen Vendler, Heather McHugh, Allison Joseph, Eavan Boland, Mark McGurl – and nonagenarian Richard Wilbur, a lifetime achievement award, for sure.

hirsch

Where’s Ed?

Abramson qualifies that “the list below is neither exhaustive nor authoritative nor superlative. I have no doubt that I’ve missed a number of important names, due either to forgetfulness or an unconscious bias or simply (and most likely) sheer ignorance of who’s doing what across the vast landscape of American literature. … Those poets and allies of poetry offering contributions to American poetry commensurate with the contributions of the individuals listed below should therefore consider themselves honorary members of the ‘Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry” list as well.’

RSGWYNNThen he issued this invitation: “I strongly encourage readers of this list to contribute their own names to the comment section below the article.”  Needless to say, there were a number of people ready to take him up on the offer, including other friends’ names.  What?  No Edward Hirsch?  What?  No Robert Hass?  And no mention of Dana Gioia, whose work at the NEA was tireless?

Naturally, Humble Moi didn’t make the list – but to my surprise, I did make it in the first few comments in the section afterward, for which I’m grateful to R.S. Gwynn, another friend, who did make the list:

“I’m happy to be listed here (even though I’d like to be known as ‘poet and critic’) but I miss the presence of such names as Alfred Corn, the late Tom Disch, Dana Gioia, Cynthia Haven, X. J. Kennedy, and David Mason, all of whom are (or were in Tom’s case) great advocates.

As a small plug, I’d like to mention that I edited a book of the works of modernist poet-critics some years ago. Its title?  The Advocates of Poetry.

Just for that, here’s a picture of Sam Gwynn’s book, which discusses John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, John Ciardi, and Robert Penn Warren – great advocates of poetry all.

 

The movie: President Obama honors National Medal winners

Thursday, July 11th, 2013
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Yayyyyy Kay!

Yesterday we wrote about the National Medal for the Humanities winners.  And today we have pitchas.  Here’s Kay Ryan, looking spiffy, accepting the award at the White House ceremony.

But wait a minute!  We hadn’t mentioned the National Medal for the Arts yet … or rather we did, because George Lucas and Tony Kushner were in fact winners of the arts medal, not the humanities medal.

jennyJust to sort everything out, here’s the complete list for both:

2012 National Medal of Arts: Herb Alpert, Lin Arison, Joan Myers Brown, Renée Fleming,  Ernest J. Gaines, Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Kushner, George Lucas, Elaine May, Laurie Olin, Allen Toussaint, and the Washington Performing Arts Society, Washington, DC.

2012 National Humanities Medal: Edward L. Ayers, William G. Bowen, Jill Ker Conway, Natalie Zemon Davis, Frank Deford, Joan Didion, Robert Putnam, Marilynne Robinson, Kay Ryan, Robert B. Silvers, Anna Deavere Smith, Camilo José Vergara.

Another familiar face is buried behind the “Washington Performing Arts Society”:  President and CEO Jennifer Bilfield (not Jenny Bellfield, as the subtitle says)  accepts the award on behalf of the organization in photo at right – you can read more about the society here.

But bleccchhh… some of the bland clichés that were offered to presumably reward excellence and innovation in the texts!  Robinson writes about “universal truths about what it means to be human.” The Washington Performing Arts Society has “inspired generations of young performers to follow their passion” – and follow their bliss, too, I’ll bet.  Silvers, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, “elevated the book review to a literary art form.”  So what about Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, and a few others writing well before the NYRB launch in 1963?

We have the pitchas, but we also have the movie.  Kay accepts the award from President Obama at 28.05 below.  Jenny is at 20.42.

National Humanities Medal: New honors, familiar faces – including Kay Ryan!

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013
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"Witty and accessible," for sure. (Photo L.A. Cicero)

“Witty and accessible,” for sure. (Photo L.A. Cicero)

Yesterday (or was it the day before?) we wrote about California as a literary epicenter.  What could be more timely, then, than the announcement that Marin poet Kay Ryan is among those who will receive the National Humanities Medal this year?  (We’ve written about her oh, here and here and here and here.)  Here’s what Steve Moyer at the NEH said about the Pulitzer Prize winner, MacArthur Fellow, and former U.S. poet laureate:

Her work is accessible and witty, marked by mordant humor and word play, but with serious intent and long-lasting impact on readers. “I want something to get done in a poem,” she said recently in a telephone interview. “I want to know something I didn’t know.” Her use of what she has termed recombinant rhyme is one of her defining characteristics. Her tightly woven verse (lines are sometimes no more than two or three syllables) can ponder a philosophical conundrum, crystallize an irony, or hold up for brief yet piercing examination the opposing poles of a contradiction. Poet and editor J. D. McClatchy has said of Ryan’s work, “Her poems are compact, exhilarating, strange affairs, like Satie miniatures or Cornell boxes.” …

Ryan, born in San Jose, California, in 1945, grew up in towns in the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert, where she was something of a class clown and from childhood had a “rapaciousness for language.” Her father worked as a ranch hand, an oil driller, and a prospector on a chromium claim. He died when Ryan was nineteen, prompting “After Zeno,” an unsentimental meditation on lives that overlap until the day when suddenly, they no longer do. The four-stanza poem begins, “When he was / I was. / But I still am / And he is still.” After positing questions about time and plurality, the poem—her first—concludes, “There’s no sense / In past tense.”  …

Surprisingly, Ryan says she reads little poetry, fiction, or history, opting instead for the “belle lettrists,”—essays on literature by Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Joseph Brodsky. She prefers not to read fellow poets because, as she slyly puts it, “Like eucalyptus trees, they poison the soil beneath them so nothing else can grow there.” Ryan has other reading tics. She doesn’t like electronic reading devices, she chuckles, because she feels compelled to physically deface a book by taking notes in the margins.

Kushner, too.

Kushner, too.

And the future of poetry? “It will change platforms maybe, but I don’t worry about poetry or people reading poetry. It will survive because it’s pleasurable and is the most expedient method for certain kinds of exchange.”

It’s always pleasant to see friends’ names on the list … or even acquaintances.  I’ve interviewed playwright Tony Kushner before, in an article about his former mentor, Carl Weber.  It was a fun interview, though it took eons to schedule through intermediaries.  Another famous Californian, George Lucas, will be awarded, as will playwright Anna Deavere Smith and author Joan Didion will also be awarded, and Robert B. Silvers (of New York Review of Books fame).

Other winners include: Edward L. Ayers, William G. Bowen, Jill Ker Conway, Natalie Zemon Davis, Frank Deford, Robert Putnam, Marilynne Robinson, and Camilo José Vergara.

The awards ceremony will take place … tomorrow!

“Truth is the strongest weapon,” says N. Korean poet Jang Jin Sung

Sunday, July 1st, 2012
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Kim Jong Il's favorite poet

One of the more haunting moments in author Adam Johnson‘s interview with Charlie Rose is when he describes the impossibility of the plight of North Koreans – these are “people who have never seen a stop light before; they don’t know how many works,” says the author of the acclaimed Orphan Master’s Son.  As he has pointed out elsewhere, most of the stories we have are from the areas outside the capital. The citizens of Pyongyang have already “made it.”  So what is life like among North Korea’s upper classes?

“The cadres of the past had very traditional mentalities. They are people who lived thinking, “Anything for the party and the General…” The cadres, with the change in generations, started to think about their security. Corruption and self-interest stemmed from that.

In actuality, the North Korean cadres are the first ones to have changed internally. On the outside, they maintain their security by serving the regime, but internally, they will be the first ones to abandon it if the circumstances permit.”

These are the observations of Kim Jong Il‘s favorite state poet,  Jang Jin Sung, who defected in 2004.  He will be attending an international poetry festival during the upcoming London Olympics, from  July 27 to Aug. 12 (Kay Ryan will also attend).  The man who once wrote official poetry for the Workers’ Party newspaper now writes about executions, hunger, and desperate lives, according to an Associated Press article.  In a Daily NK interview four years ago, he said:

North Korea is a country which allowed 3 million people to die during a peacetime period. The fact that the administration still exists is a shameful thing. North Korea is a country which calls the period which produced 3,000,000 starvation victims the “March of Tribulation.” If Hitler was a despot who massacred foreign citizens, Kim Jong Il is a despot who has slaughtered his own people. If this truth is not made known, we cannot find justice.

Jang said he led a privileged life in Pyongyang and once dined with Kim.  He was instructed to avoid looking into the leader’s eyes and instead to stare at his second shirt button. After more contact with Kim, Jang said he soon stopped believing that he was “this godlike leader of this wonderful country.”

He said that poets had a special role to play in the regime:  “Because of the paper shortage in North Korea, poems were the most efficient, economical way to spread propaganda,” he said.

While working in the propaganda ministry, he was able to read South Korean books. He crossed the river to China. Although he was hunted by the North Korea, South Korea found him first (needless to say, he now works under an assumed name). He worked for the South Korean intelligence for seven years before setting up his own online newspaper about North Korea earlier this year.  Now he says “Truth is the strongest weapon.”

A few of the poet’s poems are shown in the video below – but only in Korean.  The soundtrack has a lovely rendition of  Handel‘s immortal cry for liberty, “Lascia Ch’io Pianga,” sung by South Korean singer Jung Se Hoon. Lovely, that is, till the end – I don’t know why they felt the need to junk up the orchestration at the end. (Go here for Cecilia Bartoli‘s interpretation.)

Congratulations, Kay Ryan and A.E. Stallings!

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011
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"Let there be lightness" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Who could be more deserving of a MacArthur “Genius” Award than Kay Ryan?  (We’ve written about her here and here and here – and my 2004 San Francisco Magazine essay on her, “Let There Be Lightness,” is here.)

Here’s what the New York Times had to say:

“Kay Ryan, 65, a former poet laureate of the United States who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry this year, said the money provided a certain “mental ease,” as she continues to write and to advocate for community colleges, where she has taught remedial English skills for decades.” [For you Bay Area denizens out there, she taught at the College of Marin – ED.]

In Athens (Photo: John Psaropoulos)

“I was very, very surprised,” said Ms. Ryan, who lives in Fairfax, Calif. “I had certainly thought I was over the hill. Obviously these people think I’ve got five more good years in me.”

But here’s the other half of the news:  A.E. Stallings has also been awarded.  I sent my congratulations to both, Alicia via Facebook, Kay by “regular” email.  And also a note to Dana Gioia, who has promoted Kay’s work since way back when she was a relatively unknown Marin poet.  His reaction?  “Great news for two fabulous poets.”

Time to finally get a copy of Alicia’s 2007 verse translation of Lucretius‘s De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things).  Yes, I’m that far behind.

 Postscript on 9/21:  And happy birthday too, Kay!

In the aftermath of the Google books decision: disappointment … and persistence

Thursday, April 21st, 2011
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No prophet

U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin‘s rejection of a deal between Google and book publishers happened while I was in New York City.  You can read about it here.  The federal judge in Manhattan said the deal, which would allow the search engine company share digitized copies,  “goes too far” and would give Google “a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission.”

It took a few weeks, but Andrew Herkovic at the Stanford University Libraries has issued his characteristically graceful comment on the Google brouhaha in his newsletter:

BooksIn the wake of last month’s judicial rejection of the proposed settlement of litigation between Google Books and various publishers and authors, there are only two firm facts that can be confidently stated about what’s next: first, nobody, with the possible exception of the litigants, knows anything; and second, the litigants aren’t talking. Thus we have the conditions for rampant public speculation, and many have risen to this temptation. I shall not.

Instead, I remind readers that the scanning of millions of books by the Google Books project has never abated, either at Stanford or among the many other participating libraries. Every weekday, a truckload of books goes to Google and a like number come back from them, in a smoothly choreographed process that assures both safekeeping and tracking of the books. The total to date is in the vicinity of two million volumes, and we anticipate continuing this process for years to come. We do not know how or even if any given book will be used by Google, but we are certain of the utility to Stanford in having our holdings preserved and being made searchable through digitization. We are hopeful of additional beneficial outcomes for Stanford.

The key word in Stanford’s public reaction to the demise of the proposed settlement was “disappointment.” That, almost five years after the class-action suits were initiated against the project, there is no resolution whatever is certainly disappointing; any decision might seem preferable to none. That a startling vision of public access to a vast amount of text as articulated in the proposed settlement has been occluded is another disappointment. That the “orphan works” and other copyright issues remain in limbo is a lesser disappointment, if only because efforts are underway to address them by legislative rather than judicial means. However, the key word I wish you to take away is “persistence.” We persist in scanning books through Google (as well as in our own labs). We persist in developing techniques to help scholars use digitized texts. We may be confident that the litigants will persist in seeking some eventual resolution to the court case. We persist in hoping that the discordance between copyright law and the realities of the digital age will be harmonized, at least with regard to printed literatures, before the century is much further along. We persist in fulfilling a vision and mission that depend on both digital and artefactual means of providing and preserving information.

Looking forward, but unprophetically,

Andrew Herkovic

Clare in NYC

A couple of postscripts:  Speaking of New York, I’ve added a photograph of Clare Cavanagh at last month’s Czesław Miłosz centennary event at the 92nd Street Y – thanks to David A. Goldfarb and his camera.

And, after reading my piece on Kay Ryan‘s Pulitzer, Dave Lull kindly sent me yesterday a Wall Street Journal “Speakeasy” Q&A with Kay Ryan, in which she says:

I never, ever worry about poetry or its survival because it’s the very nature of a poem to be that language that does survive. Poems are even better than tweets – they don’t require any electronic equipment. They can lodge right in your brain. They are by nature short. You don’t even have to remember all of them — you can remember just a phrase. That can be something you can turn to in any emergency, good or bad. You’ll pluck out a little group of words, just maybe a phrase, and that’s exactly what poetry is for. It’s for the things that really last. Because it lasts.

Kay Ryan wins the Pulitzer Prize: “I would like my work to be weightless.”

Monday, April 18th, 2011
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In praise of lightness: Marin's self-sytled "Sheriff of Emptiness" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Kay Ryan has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.  I wrote about the Marin poet here during a recent visit to Stanford.  I blogged some outtakes from my interview with her eight years ago here. And I’ve written about her elsewhere, too – oh, for San Francisco Magazine, in an October 2004 article, “Let There Be Lightness,” which isn’t, alas, online.  (Postscript on 4/19:  It is online now – here.)

An excerpt from that piece, in honor of the occasion:

A bubble. The foam on a stein of beer. A tulip quivering on a slender stem. A feather, to counterpoise the world’s density, inertia, heaviness.

Lightness is a much underrated virtue, and a much misunderstood one. “Lightness” does not mean being vapid or intellectually shallow. It means looking at the world from a different perspective, with a different system of weights and measures. Marin County poet Kay Ryan—a very quiet writer who is suddenly creating a lot of noise—does exactly that in her poems.

It’s a pickle, this life.
Even shut down to a trickle
it carries every kind of particle
that causes strife on a grander scale….

The lightness of atoms inhabits Ryan’s fey, easy-on-the-ear poetry, which wins her instant fans at her occasional, low-key readings. She explains what she’s after this way: “It’s the object of my life to get things to float. Because I like it. Because it’s a relief. It is relief. It’s freedom. So I would like my work to be weightless.”

But in today’s grim and weighty world, she’s been rebuked with charges of insubstantiality, even frivolity. Library Journal gave Ryan’s 1994 book of poems, Flamingo Watching, a stern “not recommended,” commenting, “Ryan’s cramped syllabics have a monotonous density that too often mistakes sound for sense… these poems are derivative and lacking in substance.”

The winning book

There’s nothing frivolous, however, about the attention Ryan has been getting lately, finally, after decades of writing and six books of poetry, including 2000’s Say Uncle. Within a few months last spring, she won both a $40,000 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and the $100,000 Ruth Lilly prize from Chicago’s esteemed Poetry magazine.  The award, praising a “singularity and sustained integrity that are very, very rare,” establishes her in an enviably successful firmament that includes Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, Anthony Hecht, John Ashbery, and W.S. Merwin—heavyweights all.

One thinks of Ashbery’s avant-garde experimentalism. One thinks of the erudite Hecht’s dark and troubled formal verses. One thinks of Rich’s heavy-duty poems on poverty, racism, lesbianism, violence. Or of Levine’s obsessions with working-class life in Detroit, or Merwin’s dreamy, densely imagistic poems, with their long lines. One thinks of millions of poems everywhere, trying to impress you with their suffering and how very seriously they take themselves. Clearly, Ryan is hacking out a path of her own, but with a scalpel, not a machete.

She’s not so much treating serious things lightly as she is turning the world upside down—not being drawn into its heaviness, not letting its heaviness inhabit her. In a sense, she’s been keeping the darkness of the world from extending its territory, which is a signal act of defiance, perhaps more so than that of many “protest” poems. (Witness the leaden dullness of so much of the work in the Poets Against the War movement.) Ryan’s poems may shimmer on the surface— and how is that a bad thing?—but they are compelling in the quiet knowledge they bear.

You can read the rest here.

***

Congratulations to Bruce Norris, whose Clybourne Park, won the Pulitzer for drama.  We had the pleasure – and it was indeed a pleasure – of seeing the smart, politically incorrect play a few months ago at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.  The San Francisco Chronicle‘s little man was out of his seat clapping, and Robert Hurwitt had this to say:

The jokes, lobbed like grenades, are more offensive than funny. The reactions to them are hilarious. And revealing. For us, as for the characters in Bruce Norris’ scathingly observed “Clybourne Park,” the only thing more cringe-inducing than a tiptoe around the taboo topic of race is confronting it.

As seen Thursday, “Clybourne” is the kind of trouble-making comedy of manners that tears the lid off good intentions and hypocrisies to amusing and salutary effect. And it’s being performed to discomforting perfection by the ACT cast in the pinpoint-precision stagings of California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone in his company debut.

Attitudes toward gender, patriotism, marriage, the touchy topic of real estate and various ethnicities come under fire, but race is the elephant in the room. That would be the spacious living room of the house in Chicago’s (fictional) Clybourne Park, which undergoes its own remarkable transformation …

A Swedish award for a Swede? Ladbrokes has spoken…

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010
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79-year-old perennial Nordic bridesmaid

Tomas Tranströmer is the odds-on favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Ladbrokes has spoken, putting his chances at 5 to 1.  However, Bill Coyle at the Contemporary Poetry Review states the problem this way:

Every year, as the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature approaches, partisans of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer hold a collective breath, hoping against hope. A win for their man is unlikely for a number of reasons. One is the residual fallout from 1974 when the Swedish Academy gave the prize to two of its own members, Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson. Both were fine writers, but the appearance of nepotism was impossible to avoid. No Swede—no Scandinavian—has won the prize since.

Reuters observes that “Poetry dominates the bookmakers’ list” and that “American writers set to be overlooked again” — unless, of course, you consider perennial American Nobel bridesmaid Joyce Carol Oates, ranked #12, or perennial groomsman Philip Roth, at #15.  Thomas Pynchon is #16.  Note that none of the Americans are poets.  At least not primarily.

Does Bjørg-the-Cyborg pick the winners?

“Tomas Transtromer must surely be in pole position,” said David Williams of Ladbrokes. “He’s long been mentioned for the prize and we feel his work finally deserves this recognition.”  Probably an indication he won’t get it.  (You can read a few of his poems at The Owls website here.)

There’s an obscure Paraguayan playright — Nestor Amarilla — rumored to be shortlisted.  No one’s ever heard of her, which would be in keeping with recent prizewinners.  Do I sense another wicked Ted Gioia parody coming?  Read his “Shocking Revelation: Nobel Lit Prize Has Been Picked by a Robot since 1994!”  (His slightly more sober “Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe” here.

The man in the #2 favorite spot leaves me with divided feelings — it would be nice to see Polish poet Adam Zagajewski bag the prize — but the award has a way of turning lives upside down. (Read An Invisible Rope for some firsthand stories about what it did to Czesław Miłosz in 1980.)  I remember Zagajewski kindly serving as my sherpa in literary Kraków — and, well, I’m selfish.  Which is to say, I would miss his friendship.

I reviewed his book for the San Francisco Chronicle (and no, I didn’t write the headline) — I’m chuffed that it inspired Kay Ryan to write to the newspaper:  “It was a thrill to read Cynthia Haven’s brilliant review the poet Adam Zagajewski’s book of essays, A Defense of Ardor, in this past Sunday’s Book Review. Almost never do I come across something about poetry that has the sting and bite of poetry in it.  Zagajewski comes straight through Haven’s elegant and deeply informed prose.  More of these brainy reviews please; more Cynthia Haven, please.”  I hope they published it.  I honestly can’t recall.  Oscar Villalon sent it to me.  God knows one gets enough slaps and punches.

I also profiled Adam for the Poetry Foundation magazine here — an article that still gets a lot of hits.

I remember meeting Adam for tea in Krakow’s main square, and being thrilled by the squadrons of pigeons.  Adam assured me loftily that they were very stupid creatures.  And, as a newcomer to his town, he showed me the Jagiellonian University,  as the light was fading…

"Only others save us..."

When I asked him about the future of poetry and poetry-lovers in the world of tweets and sound bites he said this (which didn’t make it into the final cut of the Poetry Foundation article):  “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

I keep this on my desk:

Only others save us,
even though solitude tastes like
opium. The others are not hell,
if you see them early, with their
foreheads pure, cleansed by dreams.

— Adam Zagajewski, “In the Beauty Created by Others”

The “Sheriff of Emptiness”

Monday, March 8th, 2010
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Kay Ryan (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Kay Ryan, our current U.S. poet laureate, calls herself the “Sheriff of Emptiness.” I wrote about her today here.

I met Kay years ago, through Dana Gioia, another North Bay poet.  We had an interview at Kay’s Fairfax home in July 2004.  I had described the meeting in my notes this way:

“Ryan is waiting for me, but not idly.  She is re-grouting the colorful Puebla-style tiles, on the risers of her entryway.  She is short and solidly built.   In khaki shorts and a black t-shirt, however, she appears scrappier, more muscular than she might appear more fully dressed at her readings.  Her longtime companion, Carol, is in Mexico, and Kay is alone in her brisk, clean house.  She is alone, except for Wally, a pale-colored, ancient cat who is mostly bones and fur  – so old he has lost most of his senses, but not his sense of friendliness, and is nevertheless currently in disfavor.”  [He had urinated on something, as I recall — ED.]

Wally, alas, died soon after my visit.  But my connection with Kay lasted longer.  I remember her recalling her family’s move to the Mojave: “It was hot, it was empty.  I didn’t have any friends.  And it took me awhile to come to like it.  But now I really do feel I have the desert in my blood.”  Much like her poem “Blandeur,” she said,  “ I like the emptiness, I like the lack of features.  I like its featurelessness.  I like how any event is a big event.”

And I remember this comment about her 30-year teaching stint at the College of Marin:

Back to Marin .. you teaching remedial writing?

I teach very basic English skills.

I think the way you described it when I first met you was, “My Friend, the Comma.”

I introduce them to the concept of indenting.  We learn to capitalize certain words, and not capitalize others.  I go up through the paragraph – writing a paragraph with a topic sentence and primary supports.

Who are your students?51VW9lkcaxL._SL500_AA240_

They range from high school students to people in their fifties.  Many second-language students.  Lots of people who got off-course one way or another, through drugs, or through just a variety of difficulties in their life, so they didn’t get basic skills.  I like the people I work with.  I’ve never wanted to teach any advanced courses.  I like the sort of life-and-death teaching.  These are survival courses.  And I don’t like spoiled people.  I don’t like to do for people what they could do for themselves.  These people aren’t spoiled.  They’re not saying, “Entertain me.” They’re here to get what they need to have their gardening business.  Some are going ahead in school.  But for some…to get a job at Long’s.  To be able to write a note at the bank where they work.

I still admire Kay’s respectful and thoroughly practical outlook towards teaching the students who need it most.

Speaking of the desert — here’s the cover of Kay’s new book, out this month:  The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.