U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan Talks About the Art of Teaching

On July 17, 2008, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced the appointment of Kay Ryan as the 16th U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. She joins a distinguished roster of poet laureates, including Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, Louise Gluck, and Robert Pinsky among others.

On making the appointment, Dr. Billington said, “Kay Ryan is a distinctive and original voice within the rich variety of contemporary American poetry. She writes easily understandable short poems on improbable subjects. Within her compact compositions there are many surprises in rhyme and rhythm and in sly wit pointing to subtle wisdom.”

Ryan describes poetry as an intensely personal experience for both the writer and the reader: “Poems are transmissions from the depths of whoever wrote them to the depths of the reader. To a greater extent than with any other kind of reading, the reader of a poem is making that poem, is inhabiting those words in the most personal sort of way. That doesn’t mean that you read a poem and make it whatever you want it to be, but that it’s operating so deeply in you, that it is the most special kind of reading.”

In a significant departure from more traditional forms, Ryan seldom writes in the first person. In her poem “Hide and Seek,” for instance, she describes the feelings of the person hiding without ever saying, “I am hiding”:

It’s hard not to jump out instead of waiting to be found. 
It’s hard to be alone so long and then hear someone come around. 
It’s like some form of skin’s developed in the air that, 
rather than have torn, you tear.

For more than 30 years, Ryan has taught remedial English part time at the College of Marin. Her students have not been aspiring writers, but rather have been those for whom learning Basic English skills is critical to leading a productive life. Her partner of 30 years, Carol Adair, is a highly respected and dedicated ESL and Communications instructor at College of Marin.

Ryan has written six books of poetry, plus a limited edition artist’s book, along with a number of essays. Her books are: Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends(1983), Strangely Marked Metal (Copper Beech, 1985), Flamingo Watching(Copper Beech, 1994), Elephant Rocks(Grove Press, 1996),Say Uncle (Grove Press, 2000),Believe It or Not!(2002, Jungle Garden Press, edition of 125 copies), and The Niagara River(Grove Press, 2005).

Her awards include the Gold Medal for poetry, 2005, from the San Francisco Commonwealth Club; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from The Poetry Foundation in 2004; a Guggenheim fellowship the same year; a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship as well as the Maurice English Poetry Award in 2001; the Union League Poetry Prize in 2000; and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in 1995. She has won four Pushcart Prizes and has been selected four different years for the annual volumes of the Best American Poetry. Her poems have been widely reprinted and internationally anthologized. Since 2006, she has been a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Ryan is a native Californian born in 1945 in San Jose, California. She grew up in the Mojave Desert area and attended Antelope Valley Community College before transferring to UCLA where she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Since 1971, Ryan has lived in Marin County. 
Ryan recently talked about her experience as Laureate and as a Basic Skills English Teacher. Known for her wry wit and self-deprecating style, she shares with us what the laureateship has been like so far and her thoughts on teaching at a community college.

Q. You’ve won many prestigious awards in recent years and your work has been widely published. Was this appointment a surprise? What was your initial reaction?
A. Yes. The laureateship was a big surprise all right. My first reaction was to feel unequal to the task. I’ve never liked talking about poetry with a capital P, by which I mean I have always been resistant to generalizing about poetry. I have no ambassadorial ambitions. In order to accept the appointment I had to just decide that I would figure out some way to do my laureate job and not embarrass myself (or my dog). Actually, I don’t have a dog, but what I mean is, I very much don’t want to become a tiresome Public Person.

Q. Since your appointment in July, how has your life changed?
A. I am almost unrecognizable except for the characteristic limp and squint. Rather than staying home and living quietly, I am now almost constantly dragging a suitcase, junketing about to remote states, speaking to the uncharacteristically swollen audiences that a poet suddenly enjoys when the word “ laureate” has been attached to her name.

Q. What inspired you to self-publish your first book?
A. The self-publication wasn’t inspiration; it was utter hopelessness that anybody else was ever going to publish my poems.

Q. There is a myth that no one successful goes to community college. The reality is very different. The list of successful community college alumni is extensive ranging from astronauts to business CEOs and from artists to politicians. The short list of successful community college alumni includes: Tom Hanks, actor; Arnold Schwarzenegger, California Governor; Eileen Collins, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut; George Lucas, film maker; Joyce Luther Kennard, California Supreme Court justice; Jim Sinegal, Costco Wholesale Corporation CEO; Annette Bening, actor; and Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate. Can you talk about your community college experience as a student and also as a teacher? 
A. I graduated from Antelope Valley Junior College on the Mojave Desert. The whole time I was going there I wanted to be off at a “real college,” but I didn’t have the money. Only after I had gone off to that real college — UCLA — did I realize what a terrific education I had received at my little 800-student community college. First, it was a real community. My teachers at AVC knew me by name; I had real relationships with them. They had expectations of me and I tried hard to meet them. Second, the teachers were really good; including the wonderful English teacher who sent me off in the direction my life has taken. I got a fine education fifteen miles from home. As a teacher at a community college for over thirty years, I have taken particular pleasure in working with the kind of students who come to community colleges — people who are hungry for education and are willing to sacrifice to get it. It means something, to see night students arrive in their work uniforms from hospitals, construction sites, restaurants. I admire my students for their courage to start over in life, often having taken some knocks and having had the guts to think how to make things better for themselves and their families by coming back to school. The first word in the name “community college” is community — and I’ve always been so impressed with the way community college students help each other; lifetime friendships come out of our classes. And let me not leave out the kind of intellectual and personal growth I have been able to witness in my long career with community college students. It is not the least unusual in a community college to find that the student speakers at graduation have come up the long way, starting in basic skills classes, gradually finding her or his intellectual footing, and leaving our school with the whole world newly open to them. But big changes can occur in students who are only with us for one or two semesters — they take away skills and confidence that show in everything they do — where they work and how they hold up their heads.