Don’t forget to check out our Kay Ryan folio in DB11!
“Okay, well, I guess I’m having too much fun.”
—Kay Ryan, speaking at the JCCSF
This past Monday the 22nd, current U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan came to speak at the Jewish Community Center here in my adopted hometown, San Francisco. The Californian native, now a longtime Marin resident, spoke of her Southern Californian upbringing, read from new and selected works, and charmed the full house with her rollicking stage presence. Creative and scholarly accomplishments have not precluded a refreshing candor. Kay Ryan is a poet you can kick back with.
Before attending the reading, I took another look at our Kay Ryan folio to re-brief myself on the fundamentals of her aesthetic. As an example of Kay Ryan’s approachability, she dutifully remembered both Drunken Boat and the Jane Collins interview that opens our folio. I had quoted my favorite bit from that interview: “Start hard.” Kay Ryan nodded. “Ah, yes,” she told me. “Always start hard.”
But I’ve always been a bit of an awkward case around celebrities. When Billy Crystal appeared for a book signing at the dearly departed Cody’s Books, I gushed my way up to him. And then as I was leaving his table, autographed 700 Sundays in hand, I tripped over myself and landed flat on my ass in front of Mr. Crystal, his entourage, and the long line of fans who had been waiting all morning. When I met Jane Smiley at the San Francisco Writers Conference, my starstruck silence and woozy grin prompted this response: “So, you’re a little shy.” It doesn’t get any better with Connie Willis at Comic-Con. At a discussion panel for her novel Passage, I sputtered out a question that resulted in this grumble from the audience: “Gee, thanks for giving away the ending, kid.” At the book signing that followed Kay Ryan’s lecture, I wasn’t courageous enough to force my way through the unspoken policy of no photographs. Though I did get a chance to briefly speak with Ms. Ryan, here is my only collected evidence from that night (click the image for a larger size):
Start hard. Probably more than her magnificent poetry, those two words have stuck with me as the mantra for the unfortunate profession of writing. Dive headfirst into the roughest waters. Embrace hardship. But if Ms. Ryan’s two-word advice inspires the will to soldier onward, then her poetry and her delivery at the JCCSF provide a kind of meaningful comic relief. When a poet muses about flamingos, you know you’re in for the ride of your life. When a U.S. Poet Laureate jokes about sleeping with the Librarian of Congress, you know that her writing is a talent that isn’t reserved for a narrow few. Reminiscing about her early career, Ms. Ryan mentioned the existence of an unpublished work based on each card in the Tarot deck. She had intended for it to be a simple writing exercise, but then she got the idea to turn it into a book. It even had a title: Face Up. “I sent it to the Tarot company. I thought they’d be amused,” she recalled. “They turned out to be less excited.”
Though comic, I thought the anecdote inspiring. “I didn’t know how to write,” Ryan said of her beginnings. She also described herself as someone who is completely unteachable. Calling herself an autodidact, the Tarot card exercise was her method of teaching herself how to write.
How serious does a poet have to act? Should a poet walk around with a scholarly and impenetrable air? Kay Ryan’s poems are as serious as they are witty, and to that end, many critics have described her as an outsider of “mainstream” poetry. I’m not sure if this is an academic way of saying that Kay Ryan is fluff. It’s really an unfortunate assessment, because her nuanced handling of rhyme and meter is spectacularly educated. Her work is written as a devotion to form as much as it is written to be read.
I wish I had the money to buy both The Best of It and The Jam Jar Lifeboat and Other Novelties Exposed, both of which were available for purchase at the lecture, courtesy Green Apple Books. The former is Ms. Ryan’s newest collection. (In fact, you can find ‘Star Block’ in our folio.) She also brought up the latter during her lecture, in which she explained that the collection was inspired by, of all things, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!. This was enough of an enticement for me to buy Jam Jar, but to tell you the truth, I was also stricken by how the layout appealingly resembles a children’s book. I do love my children’s books, and one day when I’m filthy rich, I want to collect them like Sarah Michelle Gellar, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress who has apparently used her celebrity earnings to fund an admirable hobby like collecting children’s books. In the meantime, would someone be willing to extend to me a long-term loan of The Best of It? The venerable San Francisco Public Library system doesn’t seem to have it in circulation… yet.
By Joe Ramelo, Social Media Assistant.
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