Catching Up with Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate, at the National Book Festival

At the National Book Festival last Saturday, we ducked into the writers' tent to catch up with Kay Ryan, 64, who was named the nation's 16th Poet Laureate last year. Her next public reading takes place on October 21 at 7pm at the Library of Congress' Coolidge Auditorium.

I've read that you write in long hand, beginning in the morning, in bed.

I do! I write in bed, and so one of the real torments of the laureateship is having to put clothes on so often.

Did you get a new Laureate wardrobe?

I'm wearing it right now. I find that a black suit is very useful--I can go to poets' funerals! I can go almost anywhere!

You've expressed some frustration about being compared almost exclusively to other women poets. So I'm curious as to what you think the benefits, and the... oh, what's the opposite of benefits?

Disadvantages? The advantages and disadvantages!

The advantages and disadvantages...

The benefits and the denefits.

Exactly.

What are the denefits.

Yes.

Of what?

Of having a women's canon, or of thinking about writing in those terms?

It isn't interesting to me. It is not a way that I sort poetry. I sort poetry by the feel it gives my brain. It has nothing to do with gender. I would put Emily Dickinson at the very top of the list, however... People appreciate poetry for many reasons other than poetry. Like, they like the fact that it talks about God, or that it talks about flowers, or that it talks about horses. Or they like it because it's written by women, or by Portuguese people... But I'm interested in--I don't even know what to call it--the essential feel element that doesn't have anything to do with gender.

Do you get recognized now?

I do! I was at a festival recently at Yosemite, and I was standing in line to use the bathroom. This was up in the Tuolumne Meadows, and the people said, You go first! And I said, Oh I couldn't possibly. They said, You must! There was quite a line, and I said, This is great! And then at the reading, I said: Auden said that poetry makes nothing happen, but that's not true--I got cuts in the bathroom line. But it is a little odd. I feel that my food selections at the local health food store are scrutinized a little too seriously.

[Following a discussion of how poems can sometimes point to truths that we'd never previously thought of as truths] It's funny how poems create things, for readers.

And for the writer, too. And one thing I would like to say, and I think every writer here would say the same thing, is that I'm not special. When you are in the condition of writing, when you have a pen, you have a piece of paper, and you begin putting words together, the words have their own life. And the sounds of the words, the rhymes, and the metaphors--they take you in directions that make you better than you are...

You have to look back at the poem and go, how was that done? And it's done in collaboration with language. Language half invents. And I would say the particular tools of metaphor and rhyme, in my case. I should add another element, and that is argument. I have a strong desire in my work to have it get somewhere, even if it's just the illusion of somewhere.

Is there anyone you were particularly excited to meet at the Festival?

Marilynne Robinson. I was absolutely thrilled to meet her. I tried to stand next to her in the group picture, but some people got in the way, so I was thwarted.

--Ruth McCann

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  September 28, 2009; 5:00 AM ET National Book Festival
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Marilynne Robinson does seem to have a drawing power like few others--a cute story about Poet Laureate Kay Ryan and the picture. Michael Dirda mentioned his main regret in not being able to attend this year was the chance to meet her.

I think maybe it stems from the fact that we all loved "Housekeeping" so much and when decades went by without a second novel, we became convinced (and saddened) that we likely had another Harper Lee on our hands. How wrong we were!

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | September 28, 2009 10:40 AM

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