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o Kay


“I love introductions. It’s a category in itself.”        -Kay Ryan

* * *

It is my hope for this modest post—the ambitious posts have ceased for the time being, to resume at a later date—to be your introduction to our greatest contemporary poet: Kay Ryan.

This is one of the best interviews I have ever read, and I just read it, so I’m in a good mood. It reminds me, as she herself alludes to, of the Kundera interviews in The Art of the Novel. Her poetry is constantly reminding me of Calvino and Kundera both, whom she appropriately cites as influences.


Why do you avoid the hot emotions that are often associated with confessional poetry?


If you put ice on your skin, your skin turns pink. Your body sends blood there. If you think about that in terms of writing, cool writing draws us, draws our heat.

Cool like Kafka as well. The night I found out about Kay Ryan I was at a reading in the cavernous hall of Grace Cathedral, atop Nob Hill, one blustery October night. A little old lady walked up to the podium and started reading some of the best poems I’d ever heard. It was a wonderfully fortuitous encounter. She was the first poet I’d ever heard read her poems twice. I hate it when poets don’t read their poems twice, as if we could possibly pick up all the meter and all the meaning in one pass.

Out of so many good poems, here’s one, from the same issue of The Paris Review:

The Walking Stick Insect

Eventually the
most accident-prone
or war-weary
walking sticks
are entirely
reduced to antennae
with which they
pick their way
appalled by

I don’t know if you can get it tighter than that. It’s so taut it takes the breath away, squeezes the air out. It’s like listening to a great joke, holding your breath, anticipating its release in laughter. Amy Hempel talks about timing her prose like a perfectly delivered joke. In verse you can control the entire process, and Ryan does, holding it for you, letting it out. You fill up like a balloon headed towards the ceiling before she lets it go with a pop. Like some infinite punchline, a punchline for which the reader imagines the joke.

Or another, better, definition:

“I don’t know if I’m interested in combating an idea or just loosening it up. You have to make some room for your mind. You have to open something up. And you can’t just slam it from the other side. You can’t say, That’s not right. This is right. You start fluffing it. You open up the picture, so you can know two things at once.”

As Dana Gioia puts it: “Ryan’s poems characteristically take the shape of an observation or idea in the process of clarifying itself.” Again, like the best jokes, it is thinking about something otherwise normal in a particular way, such as:


Birds that love
high trees
and winds
and riding
flailing branches
hate ledges
as gripless
and narrow,
so that a tail
is not just
no advantage
but ridiculous,
mashed vertical
against the wall.
You will have
seen the way
a bird who falls
on skimpy places
lifts into the air
again in seconds –
a gift denied
the rest of us
when our portion
isn’t generous.

It’s practically poetic legend that Ryan has, for more than thirty years, taught remedial English at a Marin County community college. As it turns out, you can search these things from anywhere.

“I think extravagance in your life takes the energy from possible extravagances in your mind.”

So says the sagacious Lady of Fairfax.

kay ryan

*The Literary acknowledges our debt of gratitude to Lorin Stein for making available all the Paris Review interviews online. Seriously a wonderful resource.


From → Readings

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