Kay Ryan (born 1945)
U.S. Poet Laureate (2008-2010)
Kay Ryan

Stanford Colloquium
The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series

Margaret Jacks Hall, Building 460,
Room 426 (Terrace Room), Stanford University

Tuesday, March 2, 2010, 11:00 am-11:50 am

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: The Terrace Room (4th floor) of Margaret Jacks Hall was filled to capacity for Kay Ryan's Poetry Colloquium. I arrived at 10:40 am and sat in my usual seat in the second row at the extreme left side next to the pillar. It was nice to see my colleague and friend Bill Morrison here. Bill attended his first poetry reading when Robert Pinsky was here in 2007. Bill told me after Kay's Reading last week that she's truly a sincere and open person. Stanford's Creative Writing Director Eavan Boland told the audience how we enjoyed Kay's Reading, and gave the floor immediately to Kay and asked the first question. Below are my notes scribbled during Kay's Colloquium. Web links and reference denoted in [brackets] are my additions with "(?)..." indicating gaps in my notes.

Q&A Session:

Q (Eavan Boland): Students in your class mentioned your emphasis on lightness in poetry. What do you mean by lightness?

Kay: Light poetry is good poetry. I could be flip. Despite (?)... any good poem is light. Gerald Manley Hopkins poems— instead of being burdensome have more fluidity and space in them. The greatest compliment from a Stegner Fellow who read one of my poems and felt smarter, cranked up, and more energized. There are certain qualities such as cool surface to the poem. People's heart comes to that coolness, people like to warm up in finding something impersonal that leaves more room for other people.

Q (Tobias Wolff): Your poem "Easter Island" can't be read without the impersonal epigraph from Jon Carroll on the people of Easter Island [The people of the island built those amazing stone statues, and in the process cut down every last tree. No trees, no wood for houses and fires; no protection from erosion; no useful species, and so on. — Jon Carroll, San Francisco Chronicle].

Kay: Toby made a good point. I partly agree with not using first person so much and writing about my life. Whatever we do, we're always saying something. Impersonality saying "I" a lot. It doesn't work for me. It's all right for others. It's so sticky if I use pronouns.

Q: Are the poems you want to read similar to the poems you want to write?

Kay: I like to read my poems, jokes, and rhymes. You don't mean read aloud. I like to read short poems. I don't read a lot of contemporary poets. I read the classic poems— source of writing from myself.

Q: Could you give an example of a heavy poem?

Kay: You're killing me. Rodin's sculptures are heavy. His Burghers of Calais seems so dark.

Q: How soon does sound enter into your poems?

Kay: The second word. I always think something, so it happens in the second line. Rhyme mates start immediately. Set of gorillas attacking. Bonus answer: Metaphors does this to me. The boat wants to sail and doesn't want to sink. You try to do things.

Q: Can you say something about verbal music?

Kay: Whether you could have just sounds. Could be nonsense— the genre based on sense, give great pleasure. Have to surf.

Q: You talked about stand-up comeday adn greeting cards.

Kay: I went wrong— how did it come to this? When I was ten, had dream chasing a white piece of paper tumbling in the street. The paper had a good poem on it. By the time I got to UC Irvine, felt I was a misfit. I want to be superficial so I won't expose myself. This is a love poem— If you're the evening sky, and I was passing by, Another (?)... I have to hurry there juvenile (?)... Gradually I tried to be a carpenter, do things physically in the world. By the time I was in my mid-20's, my brain was doing rhymes. Went on a bicycle trip across the United States. I didn't have a calling. During the 4000 miles ride, went over the Rockies and had an experience over the High Passes— becoming one with everyone. I asked myself "Why waste this? Maybe I should be a writer." Then I heard the Answer: "Do you like it?" So I said "I really do!" I would take it on. Rejected profundity and exposure. It took 20-30 years to do it at age 30.

Q: Any writers you like?

Kay: Tobias Wolff's formula 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 [short story, memoir, novel]. I like Richard Brautigan. I like Eugene Field [1850-1895] (He's still writing ?). I was crazy about William Carlos Williams.

Q: ?

Kay: Sometimes a catty is a kitten. It just perks. Birds and mice. Sometimes you need a vice. In my new book, I left out my two earlier books [Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends (1983) and Strangely Marked Metal (1985)].

Q (Eavan Boland): Some poets rewrite their poems. Do you?

Kay: Marianne Moore constantly rewrote her poems. It's just like getting face tuck and some don't know when to stop. In my latest book The Best of It [2010], I didn't do it historically or put in poems people would like.

Q: How to decide to sequence your poems in a book?

Kay: In The Best of It the book has a different order. The way a poem fits on the page is important. I have to make sure a poem that goes to a second page stands on the left side.

Q: Stylistic?

Kay: Was it Oscar Wilde who said "not progressing, not changing"? I had no idea what my poem would look like. Wrote a poem about giraffe doing splits, they won't survive. Wrote poems using Tarot cards. My poems were wider and longer. I have a poem "Drop in the Bucket" (p. 192) that has a reversal in it— things turn around.

At first
each drop
makes its
own pock
against the tin.
In time
there is a thin
which is
till there's
a quantity
of water
with its
own skin
and sense
of purpose,
shocked at
each new violation
of its surface.

Whatever one does in time, that has a life of its own. Your own work would say "We don't do that."

Q: Has been Poet Laureate good or bad for writing?

Kay: Yes. I stopped writing. Writing requires wool gathering.

Q: Could you talk about "Flamingo Watching" poem (p. 33)?

Kay: "Wherever the flamingo goes, / she brings a city's worth / of furblows..."
I have $20 words next to 50¢ ones. This was written at a time of great suspicions of anything smart and ornamental. The only thing trusted is peanut butter with oil coming to the top, and burlap. Anything brilliant and flexible could be mistrusted. Battle cry for who? It's a counter-statement.

Q (Nancy Mohr): You lived in different places. How does that affect your poetry?

Kay: Desert or frosted (?) places don't matter. Need quiet. I'm a habitual person, I've written in the same bed for 30 years. Need proximity to good air.

Q: Some idea on your writing process?

Kay: I don't like what I write. I cannot like it. I write a poem in 3-4 hours. I put all the pieces of papers under the pillow and start fresh again. I've a gigantic (?) for failure.

Q: How many drafts and revisions?

Kay: I produce 6-10 pages of yellow legal pad for each poem. Some 20-30 revisions. The first line will push you on.

Q: Where do you find objects in your poems?

Kay: Objects in my poem become associated. I take satisfaction in doing physical objects. I threw out a Christmas Tree and tried to be tender.

Q: Where do you find objects in your poems?

Kay: Objects in my poem become associated. I take satisfaction in doing physical objects.
"Heat" (p. 143):
There is a heat
coming off
anything we meet...

I feel kindredness to tables and chairs, yearning to articulate them.

Q (Tobias Wolff): Can we go back to your poem "Easter Island" measuring the cost of an artist.
Yeats' choosing craft and sacrifice. What's lost in being a committed artist?

Kay: I don't think there was a trade. Robert Hass said "I couldn't be anything. Poetry gave me my life." It's the best life I could have had. I didn't trade. I'm not equal to that question.

Q: How to protect your life so you don't get inundated?

Kay: Haven't done it. Strong necessity to responsibilities. To keep myself removed from friends. Had to have no friends and no jobs. When my phone rang, I'd say "There's that Blood Bank again calling me every quarter for a donation." That's how quiet my life was. People don't say to a poet (?)... This is genuine for me. First importance is to write. These are the walls around it.


Afterword: The colloquium ended at 11:50 am. After some salad, veggie sandwich, brownie, and bottled water, a friend snapped a photo of Kay and me together. This will be a treasured momento of the wonderful workshops with Kay this Winter Semester at Stanford where I've learned so much.

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