Cooling the Surface, Tending the Cracks: An Interview with Kay Ryan
This interview took place in March of 2006, when Kay Ryan read in the Poets at Pace reading series
in Pleasantville, NY.
J.C. I have a lot of questions for you, but I’m not sure where to start. I thought I’d ask the harder ones first.
K.R. You’re right. Start hard.
J.C. You have a very particular style in your poems—a kind of signature use of rhyme and meter and line length—and, reading through your books, I think I noticed a kind of evolution in that style, so I wanted to ask you about that. From your early books to the most recent one, The Niagara River, the lines seemed to have evolved by becoming shorter within each new book. In the earlier books, like Strangely Marked Metal and Flamingo Watching, there are some poems with longer lines—no poems that you would say have long lines, but longer lines. Why have your lines become shorter and shorter, and what do you feel you get out of that short line?
K.R. The poems are so small. If I have a narrow line and lots of them, I feel that it may slow the reader down so the poem’s not over so fast. Also I like the danger; the short line has so much edge. I can’t bury a weak word. Also I find that the really short line allows me to hide rhyme. I’m not opposed to end rhyme, but I don’t like to see very much of it. I like to bounce the rhyme among word parts and have it show up in different places, and the little line allows me to do that. Also, I think it just looks nice on the page. You mentioned an evolution, but I guess it just pleased me to write with these shorter lines and so I’ve done it more and more. It’s funny. It’s not like there was a time when I said, “I think I’ll make my poems narrower.” They just seemed to start getting that way.
J.C. How are lines of that shorter length a medium for the ideas in the poem? Do you see a connection between the line length and what you are trying to say in the poems? Is that line length the way that you need to say those things?
K.R. Now that’s a really hard question. I would say that there’s something I love very much in poetry and now that I’m thinking about this I would even connect it to William Carlos Williams, who has a very narrow line. I never thought of myself as having copied his line consciously, but one of the many things I admire in Williams, and a thing that I love about poetry and aspire to have in my poetry, is a terrific sense of lightness. I can’t stand the pounding, drumming, assaulting, kind of poetry. I just love the unemphasized casualness in Williams. I think I associate the lightness of the appearance on the page with another kind of lightness—not lightness of intention, but lightness of delivery. Does that make sense?
J.C. It does. I think the short line is a very hard length to work in. If each line has to have a kind of equal weight or equal lightness or equivalent vibration—
K.R. One of the things I find in lineation—one of the most bedeviling parts of writing—is just this: where is the natural break? Are breaks natural? It’s not something that I feel I’ve entirely mastered. Often when I read other people’s poems, I don’t particularly see any inevitability in their line arrangements—sometimes yes and sometimes no. Mine are partially just habit. I’ll try a line a variety of ways—any one of which might work. I don’t know that they are always inevitable, but I try to make them inevitable. I don’t want anything in a poem to be not thought about. If one writes to have work read—and since I publish, I do—then it’s my responsibility to try to make every aspect of what I do meaningful, even if the meaning is “this is a joke.”
J.C. Do you make any of those line-break decisions metrically, with a rhythmic intent?
K.R. I do. You know, my poems have patches of different kinds of rhythm in them. They may have a rhythm and then maybe a counter-rhythm. There’s nothing that I could exactly name, but I do have a strong sense of when a line is rhythmically right or wrong, and I will change it to get the rhythm right, but I couldn’t exactly tell you what it was. I like things to clunk sometimes; I like to have a patch that’ll go ‘thunk,’ and then I’ll like something that —I don’t know— might be iambic or have some other foot to it for a bit. I’m always going back and forth with the rhythms in a poem. It is always a concern of mine.
J.C. I think I can also see changes in your use of rhyme over the years. In earlier works like Flamingo Watching and Elephant Rocks, the poems seem to have a different quality of rhyme than in some of the later work. Some of the earlier rhyme seems more chiming. I heard the rhyme in my head more in those earlier works. In the later books, like Say Uncle and The Niagara River, there seems to be more slant rhyme and more of what might be called sound communities, groups of sounds coming together. Do you agree?
K.R. That might be something that you’d notice more than I would. I do know that not too long ago, it seemed to me to become almost as interesting to deny rhyme as to gratify it. By which I mean that certain words seem to beg for a rhyme, beg to be rhymed. In a way, it seemed to become interesting to me not to gratify that urge. I’m not sure why, but there might be a little less rhyme in my poems than there used to be. I like rhyming. I like ridiculous rhyme. I like puns. I like extremely obvious rhymes and extremely cunning, sneaky, impossible or grotesque rhymes. They are all good to me.
J.C. So you think you evolved more towards rhyming the less obvious word—not doing the one that’s calling out for it and doing another one instead?
K.R. I don’t even know. The idea of my rhyming evolution is something you would notice more than I would. When you’re living in yourself, you just think you’re continuing to be who you’ve been.
J.C. There’s a story I love about Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton meeting in a writing workshop where they were both students. They were writing a lot of sonnets, and they would sit there with their rhyming dictionaries and go after rhymes. How does rhyme come to you or where do you go to find it?
K.R. I’m glad you mentioned this. I have never used a rhyming dictionary in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever even opened one. To me, they’re anathema. However, I don’t think that should apply to anyone else. I was looking at the book Alice Quinn edited of Elizabeth Bishop’s drafts and fragments. It includes Bishop’s unfinished poems and notebooks and things like that. Sometimes Bishop would have a series of rhyme words running down on the right hand side of a page she was working on or she’d have possible rhymes all lined up, without the lines written. I could no more work that way than the man in the moon. For me, rhyme arises out of the first line that doesn’t rhyme with anything. I never start with a rhyme. Rhyming occurs in the process of thinking. I’ll be trying to get somewhere with my idea, and then rhyme comes and waylays me and makes me go in other directions. I think that’s a magical property—maybe a mystical property—of rhyme. It shakes me loose from my intentions.
J.C. You wrote a review of Grace Schulman’s edition of Marianne Moore’s poems for The Yale Review and a lot of the things you said about Moore resonate with my reading of your poetry. I wanted to read you a few passages and ask you how some of the comments you made about Moore might describe your own work. Here’s a passage where you write about Moore’s sense of embarrassment:
Perhaps beneath the strata of embarrassment is the embarrassment of having feelings at all. It is embarrassing to be human, and of course Marianne Moore frequently slips into the form of some better-protected animal, less porous and translucent. Embarrassment about being human may be a deeper provocation to artistic production than we usually think.
You talk about how Moore “will describe the roles of plants, animals and things up close; she will dissect human behavior from a distance.” In your poems, you fastidiously avoid the “I” and there is, I always feel, a particular kind of intellectual distance within the poems, even poems that seem more emotional like one of my favorite poems, “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard,” which is a kind of rare Kay Ryan poem because it has a person in it.
K.R. You’re right to point out that poem as unusual. I always feel a little odd about it. It’s not quite the kind of poem that I would prefer to write. And you’re also right that I avoid the ‘I’ in my poems, almost completely. When I was first thinking about being a poet, I was very reluctant because I didn’t want the kind of exposure that many poets seemed to welcome. I didn’t want the romantic posture. I didn’t want confession. I didn’t want to be Anne Sexton. I was embarrassed by all of that, and yet I felt very drawn to write. I had to find a way to talk about things that mattered to me in a cooler way—chill the material in order to work with it. I have often thought I could never bring in the physical details of my daily life like—oh, I don’t know—the tiles in my bathroom, for instance. It bores me to think about writing like that. As soon as you let a little bit of ordinary reality in, the whole thing comes sweeping in and then how in the world would I ever get free enough to write. I always knew I could never find—in using the materials of immediate experience—a way to be free or large or playful in the way that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile. I’ve always needed some way to cool the material, but I don’t think that my poems are without feeling. Sometimes of course my doubting self accuses me of writing chilly work, but I’m not really convinced.
J.C. I don’t think your poems chilly, but they certainly present emotions that have been reflected through intellect. It’s a question of the kind of emotional experience the poems offer to the reader. The poems seem to be saying “Let’s think about how this feels” rather than “Feel this.”
K.R. Well, I’m going to offer you another argument. Let’s say that you’re holding an ice cube—what happens to your hand is that all the heat in your body goes to your hand and your palm gets red. Your warmth goes to that cold place. I think it is possible to produce work that has a very cool surface, but that is emotionally evocative. It’s all a matter of temperament isn’t it? We only have our own constitution to write from. We’re helpless to do otherwise; if we try to, we just fail. But for me, I feel very easily assaulted by work that radiates a lot of emotional heat. Make mine Larkin, or Transtromer. “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” is a little hot, you know?
J.C. You say that “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” doesn’t fit you in a way, so how did it make it in to your published canon? How do you write a poem like that, which has some of your signatures, but is significantly different, and then choose to publish it, first in The New Yorker and then in your collection The Niagara River?
K.R. Well, there are a lot of things that I deep six right away. Most things I write don’t pass muster. I was kind of carried away in that poem. It really is about my mother, written many years after her death, although it’s generalized. I didn’t follow any facts exactly—well that’s obvious; nobody really wears a light switch down to nothing or wears knobs down to nothing. I guess I saved the poem because I was overcome by its beauty. But it is an extremity. For one thing, it’s extremely long—over a page. But still, it has many of the earmarks of my usual work. The poem says not our circumstances but our objects shouldn’t be so hard. Our lives should make more marks. That wordplay is kind of characteristic. The poem isn’t literal, but it still gives you the rich feeling of somebody’s life vanishing without much of a trace, even of wear. I got a letter from someone who read that poem in The New Yorker. He said that his mother had worn the linoleum out in front of her sink. That’s why he liked the poem (having misread the poem, since no marks do get left in the poem.) But see, these are the things I’m not very interested in having people moved by. Somebody else can have people moved by those things. That isn’t really my ambition.
J.C. Here’s another quote from your review of Moore’s poems:
The great critic Randal Jarrell, in trying to describe what about Marianne Moore’s poetry put readers off, listed her extraordinary discrimination, precision and restraint—the odd propriety of her imagination. He adored her work, by the way. There has got to be a fanaticism. It doesn’t matter; it can be a fanaticism of fastidiousness, but there has to be some private path; the reader just can’t follow all the way. There must be a crack in the poet of some sort. There has to be a deep, privately potent and un-mendable crack, and the poet must forever try to mend it.
I thought I’d ask you what you see as the fanaticism or the crack that your poems work at mending. Like Moore, you have a style that’s very much yours and that has continued to strengthen in that way over time. What is the fanaticism that’s part of your path or crack?
K.R. I think it’s absolutely essential that I not be able to answer that. I imagine the crack as something like those fissures that are open in the bottom of the sea. I think it is a mystery, and that Marianne Moore would never have been able to say what it was that kept her unable to be satisfied. I mean, I think it’s got to be something that you can simply never solve and that you can never satisfy and that you keep attempting to mend. I don’t think that’s the only reason to write, but I do think there’s always some kind of fanatical, un-mendable origin in people who turn out to write —to be lifetime writers, lifetime poets. What do you think?
J.C. I agree that with Moore it was a fanaticism of fastidiousness, but maybe we can’t know what that fanaticism is…
K.R. …in ourselves.
J.C. Yes, we can’t see what in ourselves we are trying to mend or hold together. Maybe the fanaticism is in the tenacity of the attempt.
K.R. Yes. To try to make something work that never quite will. In that essay, I also say that a poet of great stature—like Marianne Moore—is defined by what she has to give up. Her poems give up all the intermediary things that make life okay—all the easing, the padding, the smoothing—and keep the edges. She has to keep only the things that are essential to her. She jettisons everything else, and that makes her poems very hard to read—I mean, that lack of compromise in her. I think that it is essential to not pad, to keep just those things that seem like they have to be there. Sometimes my poems seem very simple and extremely readable on the surface, so that they don’t in that way parallel Marianne Moore’s, that’s for sure, but they have to have elements of the poet’s tenacity, like that feeling that I have about lightness. I absolutely think that poetry is supposed to make us, when we have experienced it, feel more ourselves. In other words, you Jane, you read my poems; you feel more like Jane. Does that make sense?
J.C. It does. Do you know the book by Lewis Hyde…
K.R. …The Gift? Oh yeah!
J.C. Hyde makes an argument that the artistic work exists in a kind of economy of exchange, but that it is not a commodity. He argues that the work of art is a kind of gift to its audience—the reader, the viewer, the listener, depending on what kind of work of art it is. Is what you described—that a poem should make a reader more themselves—the gift that you’re giving your readers?
K.R. Well, I’d like that to be so. But you made me think of something else. I think—despite my attention to a particular argument in my poems or some idea I’m working out—that something essential in poetry is completely free of subject matter. For example, a poem about grief doesn’t necessarily have the effect on us of making us feel grief; it can have a different and an aesthetic effect upon us, and I’m very interested in that effect. It is never—I’m thinking of Joseph Brodsky now—it’s never something that makes you feel heavier and more burdened. Brodsky talks about it as mental acceleration, the mental acceleration that exists in poetry, and it’s precious to him. I see poems working the way one heart can start beating like another heart, things start going in rhythm with each other. In a sense, a poem offers us a rhythm that our own body, our own mind, can match for a minute, can share for a minute. It can be a kind of acceleration. Honestly, I’m not equal to my poems. I read them, and they actually free me. They are freer than I am—much freer than I am.
J.C. Are you saying that when you read your poems after you’ve finished writing them there is some kind of dual consciousness? You are with yourself as this other person who wrote the poem?
K.R. I almost immediately forget having written my poems. I can forget them the same day. I can learn them later, especially standing up and reading them repeatedly—that helps me learn them. But my mind is a very compartmentalized mind: that person who writes the poems isn’t really available to me otherwise. When I read the poems, I’m reading a different Kay Ryan than the me I am the rest of the time.
J.C. You have a prose piece in the April 2005 Poetry magazine entitled “The Double” where you describe yourself as two people: a poet whom you describe as “godlike writer of poems, serenely independent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” and then her cousin, who does things like the laundry, the dishes, and finds good journals for the poet to be published in.
K.R. “The Double,” yeah. One of the great reasons to write is that I really don’t have access to that condition—that independence from needs— any other way. I can only exercise that feeling by writing. I don’t think that’s unusual. That’s got to be part of why we do it—for that magical relationship with the language where it starts talking to you. You put your quarter in the machine—you invest in some way—but then, things beyond you start happening. And there’s no way to make that happen except putting in the quarter.
J.C. What is that process of putting in the quarter for you? Where does a poem begin for you? Marianne Moore collected material endlessly and had boxes of material to use for poems and would pull something out to begin a new poem.
K.R. And they were infinitely rearrange-able, right? Over the course of her life, Moore published the same poems in different magazines in a variety of forms over and over and over again. A poem might be published in four different ways. She’d take them apart and put them together and have these fragments.
J.C. Yes, and she just had a box where she clipped things from newspapers and other sources and she would look in it and decide ‘Today I’ll write a poem about—’
K.R. But you know it wouldn’t really happen “today.” She took such—well, she might start it today—but it must have taken her a long time to write those poems. However, I do write a poem in a day. Of course, every poem has a different beginning, but to generalize I might begin a poem with just a word. For example, in Say Uncle I have a poem called “Blandeur.” It starts, “If it please God, / let less happen.” For that poem I found the word ‘blandeur’ (which of course is a coinage) on a little Post-it note beside my bed. I guess it came to me in the night I had written it down because I thought how funny it was—you know, the opposite of grandeur. Blandeur is something I seek a great deal of—a relief from intensity—so it became a poem asking for relief from intensity. It became a little prayer to make life less vivid. Let’s go back to the thing I was trying to describe about how I try to use coolness in my poems. That argument about the need for relief from the world’s grandeur is a funny, cool kind of an argument, but the underside of it is this: “Look at the irrepressible glory and grandeur of the world, the intolerable grandeur of it.”
J.C. Is that actually what blandeur means?
K.R. There was no such word. It seemed to me a very funny thing to say. And now that I’ve said it, my ambition is that it should enter the dictionary.
I’ve got another poem called “Reverse Drama” that says
Lightning, but not bright.
Thunder, but not loud.
in the sky connects
to something on the ground
in ways we don’t expect
and more or less miss except
through reverse drama:
things were heightened
and now they’re calmer.
So, I have all this seeking-relief-from-intensity in my poems. I think it’s probably a highly unpopular sort of position to take. I think to be so disposed probably puts me in a really tiny minority of people, but they may make up more of the poetry reading public than the Roller Derby public.
J.C. Something that you admire in Marianne Moore is also one of the things that many people admire about your poetry: the tension between complexity and clarity. Your poems may have a surface that’s accessible and simple, but they are deeply intellectual and strive for complexity, for many layers beneath that smooth surface. How do you negotiate that tension? What are you looking to do in your poems with that tension between the complex and the clear?
K.R. I really do think it’s constitutional. I was a child of modest people: my father was an oil well driller; my mother was an elementary school teacher until she had children. My father didn’t finish high school. I admired my Danish father and grandfather. They were the kind of men who hitched their foot up on the back bumper of a truck for a nice long conversation that often started out with, “You take it, a fella had a thousand dollars…” and then they’d talk about how you could go into this or that business if you had a thousand dollars. The point I’m trying to get to ultimately, and this probably also comes from my mother’s side, is that we had a great suspicion of putting on airs, of putting on pretenses. That was a very bad thing to do. I have a great suspicion of airs and a desire to be as clear as I can possibly be. But I also have—less so as I age—an explosive mind—a mind that can think very fast, although uselessly for the most part. If I could have a simple surface with stars being born underground that would please me a great deal. I have to say that it’s entirely constitutional. Annie Dillard, whom I admire very much, once said at a lecture I attended that she felt sorry for contemporary poets because if they had unpacked their poems and made essays out of what was in the poems, they could have been read more, they could have had a larger audience. And I thought about that. I was sort of stricken by it because I knew there was something wrong with what she was saying. I believe there’s something wrong with that idea. This is it: if those poems really were compressed in such a way—that they felt like they needed so much unpacking, if they were too clotted or intense—then she was absolutely right: they shouldn’t be poems. My feeling is that a poem should both be dense and weightless. If it feels too packed, it is too packed. I’m always trying to negotiate those borders between simple and simple minded, full but not crammed full. I sometimes read my poems and think, “Oh God, they look so helpless there on the page. They just look so insignificant.”
J.C. But deceptively so because I don’t think they’re easy poems to read. They are poems that require a certain kind of attention because they’re generally asking bigger philosophical or intellectual or theoretical questions.
K.R. Well, one of the nice things is, they’re short enough so you can go back. You’re at the end in twenty seconds.
J.C. That’s a gift that you’ve given us—more time.
K.R. I just don’t have an interest in long poems myself. But none of it can be arbitrary. You can’t will yourself to write short poems. You can’t just cut the poem off or strip it down because you want it short. The short poem has to be generous. They have to be short big poems, at least for me.
J.C. Early in your career, people described you as an outsider and I think you’ve even used the word yourself. Do you still feel that way despite the success and acclaim your work has found?
K.R. Well, it’s pretty damn hard. No. My success has put me in a terrible bind because what do you do when your entire life has been shaped by being on the outside and then you’re not? It’s kind of a noble experiment—or ignoble experiment—to see what I’m made of: will I be corrupted by attention? I don’t know if it will change me or if it has. It’s hard to tell. It’s nice to stay in good hotels, though.
J.C. I’ve heard that you were kicked out of, or not allowed to join, the poetry club at UCLA when you were a student there, and it sounds like such a great story. Would you tell it to me?
K.R. Oh, it isn’t really a great story at all. I was very shy and very modest about my writing. When I went to UCLA, I was taking a degree in English Literature. There was a poetry club, and there was an envelope on the outside of the advisor’s door where you could put your submission to be considered for the club. I was rejected. I put my poems in and I was rejected. There was no fuss, just a private humiliation. I never was really much of joiner anyhow. I say that now but then I look back: I tried to join that club, but they wouldn’t have me. Later, I tried to join a poetry group when I came to teach at the College of Marin. I finally knew a poet by that time. I was 25, and I met Rosalie Moore there, and I was very impressed. She had been a Yale Younger Poet, chosen by Auden. She had a couple of Guggenheims and here I was, this kid. I knew she was in a poetry group and I thought “Well, maybe it would be good to be in that group,” but they wouldn’t have me either. So, I didn’t get into that. But I have to remember those things—that there were times when I made kind of a weak, feeble, effort to be a part of the group. I’ve been an imperfect isolate.
J.C. If you were to write something like Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” what advice would you give to someone beginning a career in poetry?
K.R. A few years ago, I read in San Francisco: it was an evening with Garrison Keillor and Billy Collins. At the end, they opened it up for questions, and a young woman addressed a question to Billy and me. She said that she was a cook and that she wanted to quit her job cooking and enter a creative writing program full time and really concentrate on her writing in that way. She wanted to know if we had any advice for her. I said to Billy, “I’ll take this one.” I said, “Stay a cook.” I really meant that. The genuine thing in us is much too fragile to tolerate the kind of peer pressure or superior pressure of most writing programs or workshops. What we have to take care of, really protect, is something very unshaped, that we hardly even know. A lot of the job that one has to do as a writer is to protect the thing that doesn’t match the world. I know how that sounds, but I do see great danger in people copying others and listening too much to opinions of other people when they’re too impressionable.