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© 2013 Grace Cavalieri

Kay Ryan

Grace Cavalieri: Our guest is Kay Ryan, sixteenth Poet Laureate/Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress. Kay Ryan was born in California and grew up in the small towns of the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert. She received both a bachelor's and master's degree from UCLA. She has published several collections of poetry, including The Niagara River (Grove Press, 2005); Say Uncle (2000); Elephant Rocks (1996); Flamingo Watching (1994), which was a finalist for both the Lamont Poetry Selection and the Lenore Marshall Prize; Strangely Marked Metal (1985); and Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends (1983). And she's going to say hello with an opening poem.

KR: This is thinking about who my audience for poetry would be. Ideal Audience.

Not scattered legions,
not a dozen from
a single region
for whom accent
matters, not a seven-
member coven,
not five shirttail
cousins; just
one free citizen—
maybe not alive
now even—who
will know with
exquisite gloom
that only we two
ever found this room.

GC: Everyone will want to know this one thing: What did you feel when you were called and asked to be the Poet Laureate?

KR: I felt completely unequal to the task. I thought, no, never in a million years.

GC: What would "equal to the task" be?

KR: Well, I have lived a life that hasn't, intentionally hasn't required me to opine about poetry very much, or to represent poetry. I've found it comfortable to represent my own poetry. I feel confident talking about it and thinking about it, but I feel really shaky when I have to generalize beyond my own private, selfish, obsessive interests.

GC: Maybe being yourself was good enough.

KR: Well, it got me here! We'll see how much farther it gets me.

GC: In the Niagara River poems, you do mention "limelight sunlight." And so the challenge will be how to manage that, won't it? How to bring sunlight to the limelight.

KR: It's called Lime Light, and I've found in my writing life, an interesting truth. And that is I have to write about things that are going to be really important to me later, far before they're really important. I have to write when I'm just starting to get an inkling of them. Like this whole business about worrying about being in the limelight; well, I wasn't in very darn much limelight when I wrote this.

GC: But you knew there was danger in this.

KR: I knew there was danger in lime light. Here, I found it. Now, I want to tell you; we use that term lime light, and we all know it means being in the spotlight. But in fact, the term lime light comes from before there was electrical lighting in theaters, and they would have these cans of lime or something at the, what are they called, the footlights, you know, where the footlights would be. And so that would be lime light. But you could see it would mean, you're the person who's lit up. Being in the lime light is being lit up, and in an artificial way. It's not regular life.

GC: It was probably phosphorescence.

KR: I bet it was very phosphorescent. And it was some kind of lime itself. Okay, so here's the little poem. Lime Light.

One can't work
By lime light.

A bowlful
right at
one's elbow

produces no
more than
a baleful
glow against
the kitchen table.

The fruit purveyor's
whole unstable
pyramid

doesn't equal
what daylight did.

GC: Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends. You're going to be surprised, that's one of my favorite books. Your first book.

KR: Dragon Acts…

GC: How do you feel about it?

KR: I feel embarrassed.

GC: Louise Gluck says that about her first books.

KR: I think we tend to feel that we don't know what are voices are yet.

GC: That's such a juicy book. It's so full.

KR: Maybe we don't know how to be guarded in ways that we later learn how to be guarded. And by guarded, I don't mean withholding truths, withholding secrets, but we haven't learned how to manage them. It's like in human relationships, when you feel like you've been kind of a mess; you've said too much, or you've said it the wrong way, and you feel embarrassed.

GC: You are all about relationships

KR: First of all, I want to tell you a little more about Lime Light. I just wanted to say, you notice the term is "lime light." I talked about the origin of that term. But in the poem, you notice there's a real trick, because the "lime light," being referred to is the lime that would come off of the fruits, you know, come off of limes themselves. So that it's a joke. It's a silly thing that I'm doing. I mean, to willfully misunderstand what lime light is, and, then to talk about trying to write by the light of a bowl of limes. But it's getting at something that is deeply important to me. That this crazy, that this baleful light isn't a good light to write by. It's not natural light. So I just want to point out that it's… I do things that either look stupid or funny, or a person might just miss them. But there is a reason why I've done it.

GC: But Kay, what we see is that, it is the balance in your work, that you are always finding through paradox. You get paradox, which results in balance. And that poem is a perfect example of finding balance indirectly. And look at the irony. Well, I'm going to just read you – rattle off a few things that are said about you, and you can raise your hand if you don't like them. They're just things I picked up, and I think they're right, for the most part: "Big little poems," "things are not what they seem, but the reverse," "succinct," "not personal," "the closer you look, the more you see," "hidden rhymes," "poems are magnifications," "tangible realities of intangible states of being," I made that up, I like that one.

KR: That was my favorite so far.

GC: Oh! "Sly." I do not believe that, because "sly" to me is not totally honest, and you're poems are entirely honest in thought, word and deed.

KR: Well, you know, maybe when that writer used the word "sly," they wanted to say "oblique," you know, at an angle. We use "sly" and it has negative connotations, but it also means, "coming at something from a new angle."

GC: But "cunning" is not the same as "elucidating", and you don't do it just to trick us, and that's the whole point.

KR: No, never! No, no, no. No, no.

GC: It's about intention.

KR: No. To amuse. To briefly mislead, and then correct.

GC: You're intellectually mischievous.

KR: Yes, I would say that I am mischievous.

GC: And so my two and a half cents says, always balancing the material and the nonmaterial, and therefore, it really is always about relationships. Always. So it's always personal. It's always about you in relation to this space, or the periphery, or the edge.

KR: Well, you know, I would utterly agree. I think it's, in a sense, laughable to say that any poetry is impersonal, because the motive is terribly personal. And if you wind up writing about a cup, there is some personal reason that you're writing about that, and some personal way that you're approaching its dimension, or color, or placement in the universe. We can't hide ourselves. That's the truth. No poetry, however apparently impersonal, allows us to hide. And if you have hidden, you've really failed .It means that you've been opaque. It means that you have perhaps written something that's already been written. Because, then your words would be hidden directly behind somebody else's words. They wouldn't exist independently. There's no hiding.

GC: Our sixteenth Poet Laureate of the United States. There's nothing better within these marble halls, having poetry alive and throbbing, sometimes unsure. I love that.

KR: Well, you know what, I think I'll read – I just picked up another book; an earlier one – this is Flamingo Watching, and I think I'll read a poem called This Life. It has some funny rhymes in it. I used to think, when I was younger, that I could maybe avoid trouble in life by making myself small. You know, I think a lot of people try to get little and get out of the path of bullets, and this is a poem that kind of thinks about that. This Life

It's a pickle, this life.
even shut down to a trickle
it carries every kind of particle
that causes strife on a grander scale:
to be miniature is to be swallowed
by a miniature whale. Zeno knew
the law that we know: no matter
how carefully diminished, a race
can only be half finished with success;
then comes the endless halving of the rest –
the ribbon's stalled approach, the helpless
red-faced urgings of the coach.

GC: What I like is, after you read, you literally frame the poem in silence. And there's a kind of a pulse beat which you add to the poem, which is a silence, and I'm going to remember that. It adds to the esthetic of the poem. Here is who she is: She won the gold medal for poetry from the San Francisco Commonwealth Club, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim – that was the same year I think – an Ingram Merrill Award, a fellowship from NEA, the Union League Poetry Prize, the Maurice English Poetry Award, three Pushcarts, and her work has many times been selected for The Best American Poetry, and it was in the major volume from '88 to '97. And she's here with us today. Also, you've been in the funnies. On subways, and in the New Yorker. So you've been around. But there's one thing I wonder if you know. There is a website that counts your words. It is hilarious. Did you see that? Zimmerman, it's called. And it takes each one of your books, and has a chart, and it counts the number of sentences in a book, number of words, and then most frequently used words. Is that the oddest thing?

KR: You know, I saw it once years ago

GC: Why? But they picked you out, though.

KR: What does that show?

GC: Well, do you lack… would you like some words? Do you need a few words?

KR: Thank you. I'm always in the market for more words. A poem. I think I'll choose another book. Let's see…. This time I'll choose Niagara River. This is a very sad poem. I love it, though. It's called He Lit a Fire with Icicles. And it's dedicated to W.G. Sebald, the German author who spent most of his adult life in England, and who died prematurely in 2001, just when he was really getting known in the United States; the author of The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz.

GC: How old was he?

KR: I think he was fifty five. And his books are – they just bewitch me. There is this strange combination of meditation, philosophy, sort of travelogue, strange photographs that are somewhat ambiguous and blurry, and there's all this seduction of the imagination of the mind. And he just takes you down gardens of forking paths, until you are utterly and bewitchingly lost. And also terribly melancholy, but not sad about it.

GC: Bewitchingly lost.

KR: Alright. So, this is a poem about his patron saint, St. Sebald. He Lit a Fire with Icicles.

This was the work
of St. Sebolt, one
of his miracles:
he lit a fire with
icicles. He struck
them like a steel
to flint, did St.
Sebolt. It
makes sense
only at a certain
body heat. How
cold he had
to get to learn
that ice would
burn. How cold
he had to stay.
When he could
feel his feet
he had to
back away.

KR: I think that one of the torments of a certain kind of writing or writer is; well, no, of writing, is that, I think we really do need to retain a certain chill. I think a certain chill is essential to work that can survive.

GC: It's going to be hard; I'm Italian.

KR: Well, it's going to be very hard. You don't chill.

GC: No. I understand what you mean by restraint though.

KR: There has to be.

GC: The elegance of restraint, it radiates doesn't it?

KR: You have to. I think what it does; I sometimes compare the chill to say, if you put an ice cube on your hand, your hand - your skin would turn pink when you took the ice cube away, and you'd see that your skin was pink where you'd had that ice, because your blood is all sent to where the chill was. So that if you have a somewhat chilly surface in work, it brings the reader's blood to that place.

GC: Many things you have said are memorable, and you have made much of silence. I saw you on Jim Lehrer, and you talked about a childhood where your home was silent, and I was wondering, you benefit so much by that. Do you think that that silence is your muse in some way, more than for other people?

KR: I don't know so much about muse. I know that it is a necessary nutrient for me. It is the soil that allows me to put words together. It's the soil of my language. I also think I have – and it's both a curse and a blessing – a very silent mind. Many people have chattering minds. I have a very empty mind. I always laugh that, I've always wanted somebody to call up and say to me, "Kay, what are you doing?" And I'd say, "Nothing, and now I have to start all over again!"

GC: No, that needs to be written. That's the title of a book. I love that. But, you do talk about nutrients, and you also talk about failure as a nutrient. I think you have couple of poems about failure in Say Uncle. I think that's in Say Uncle. Slime Green Fudge, you say, 'in failure, there is nutrition,' and boy, writers need to know that don't they? Writers know that more than others.

KR: Well they'd better know it. I'd be happy to read that poem. One of the reasons I write about things like failure, or doubt… is, they're the things I have around me. These are available subjects. I've always just failed, so it's right there in front of me. I have two of them. This one has a lot of fun sounds in it. Failure.

Like slime
inside a
stagnant tank

its green
deepening
From lime
to emerald

a dank
but less
ephemeral
efflorescence

than success
is in general.

There's this bloom of failure. I think that's a very funny poem.

GC: And what is the other poem? Failure again.

KR: This is Failure 2. I thought it was funny to start numbering them. I think I may have dozens eventually. Failure 2 – that's the number 2.

There could be nutrients
in failure –
deep amendments
to the shallow soil
of wishes.
Think of the
dark and bitter
flavors of
black ales
and peasant loaves.
Think of licorices.
Think about
the tales of how
Indians put fishes
under corn plants.
Next time hope
relinquishes a form,
think about that.

GC: Kay Ryan, It doesn't seem like you could get in too much trouble. You live a writer's life, you teach English, and yet you do have poems – chickens coming home to roost, survival poems – as if there's a lot of danger out there. Do you think that the poet who's most awake sees what there is to fear, or to worry about? Because your life looks like they can't get you.

KR: Well, I suppose Emily Dickinson's life would have looked the same way. I don't mean to make any comparisons, except that there are cliffs of fall in all of us, right? Is that Hopkins? cliffs of fall? I think it is. Beautiful phrase. I think we have our own precipices inside, and whatever we do to skirt them, or postpone them, they come. We arrive at the edge periodically. So we carry it all around in us, everybody – it's not easy to live. It's not easy for any of us to live.

GC: Well, I hope when I go, I'll have looked at the world as closely as you have. You teach us how to look at the world. I have a wonderful friend who's a photographer, and I call him the "horse's eye," because horses have 20/30 vision. You see things that no one else sees, whether it's the edge of a table, or the corner of a room, and you relate to the corner. You relate to the periphery. What a way to live. What a way to be totally alive. But, of ambition, we spoke of it before we went on microphone, and we quarreled about what the word meant – I don't mean you step up a ladder to go someplace. I mean as a passion, a burning passion. And you say yours is inward, burning inward. But that's what I saw, most women Poets Laureate were not women who displayed their ambition.

KR: They didn't need to be public figures, perhaps, they didn't have ambition in the outer world.

GC: But why not? I mean, didn't they feel entitled to the outer world?

KR: I don't know. I really don't have an opinion on that. I would only say that in my case … it might even be a form of selfishness, rather than anything from which I've been kept out.

GC: To take care of yourself.

KR: I've been occupied with my own thinking. I'm a person who likes very little responsibility, and the idea of heaping the expectations of the world, or the appetites of the world on to me, is obnoxious to me. So I have just pretty much stayed home, ridden my mountain bike, worked as much as I had to, to make a modest living, and kept my brain empty.

GC: The right kind of ambition…

KR: It's my ambition, and I'm vicious about it.

GC: I'll bet you sleep well at night.

KR: I'm ambitious to have a simple life.

GC: Ambitiously simple. Her poems have been in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Poetry Magazine, the Yale Review, Paris Review – all the best – the American Scholar, Three Penny Review, Parnassus, and you've written essays as well. And she was named to the "It" List by Entertainment Weekly. Now there we go. The "It" List. She was a chancellor – elected a chancellor – at the Academy of American Poets in 2006, and I believe you must still be a chancellor.

KR: Yes, it's a six year appointment. Well, I think I'll just take pot luck from another book. This is from Elephant Rocks. This poem is called Outsider Art, and it's the result of having looked at a large book of folk art that I had expected to enjoy. And for a long time, this poem was called Folk Art rather than Outsider Art, and I couldn't sell it. And when I changed the name to Outsider Art, snap! I got it taken immediately. Because, see, there's something more attractive about the outsider. You see, very attractive right now.

GC: Yes. The person offstage is always the more interesting person in a play?

KR: Outsider; sort of the misfit, you know.

Outsider Art.

Most of it's too dreary
or too cherry red.
If it's a chair, it's
covered with things
the savior said
or should have said—
dense admonishments
in nail polish
to small to be read.
If it's a picture,
the frame is either
burnt matches glued together
or a regular frame painted over
to extend the picture. There never
seems to be a surface equal
to the needs of these people.
Their purpose wraps
around the backs of things
and under arms;
they gouge and hatch
and glue on charms
til likeable materials—
apple crates and canning funnels—
lose their rural ease. We are not
pleased the way we thought
we would be pleased.

GC: Those people – never purpose for those people?

KR: There never seems to be a surface equal to the needs of these people. It's a kind of a mad, obsessed quality that one feels in looking at much outsider art. It isn't adjusted, you know. It isn't "wholesome" the way we think "Folk Art," you know; a nice quilt of the American Flag, or something. There's something urgent, and hungry, and restless in it, and savage in a way. And I thought, when I was writing this poem, that I really was talking about the kinds of images I'd seen in this book of "folk" art. But I eventually realized that the laugh was on me, because I was really talking about myself too.

GC: Well, we don't want to lose that rawness. As much as we create the poem and burnish it, if there isn't that rawness underneath, forget it.

KR: You are right. You are right.

GC: Paradox and argument, I mentioned before, and your poems are called little arguments. I was wondering about the dialectic in your head. How were you raised so that you questioned yourself? You questioned, and you turned the word on edge, and then you turned it upside down, and then you saw inside of it. That dialectic is a way of thinking. Where do you think you got that? You weren't raised in monastery where you had to argue St. Thomas Aquinas. Where did that come from?

KR: You know, that's a very good question. Nobody's even come close to asking me that before. And I really appreciate a good question, and a new question, because it requires new thinking. I imagine that I developed this kind of "but" response, you know, "but wait a minute," or "look at the other side," from being a reader. From the fact that most of the writing that I do is not directly in response to something that I've read, necessarily, although some poems have an epigraph. But that, it is through reading something difficult, something exciting, that my mind comes to some new little perception; some new little thing. So that I'm in conversation with what I read, what I have read. Lots of times in the morning, I read something really difficult, really thrillingly intellectual.

GC: Name something.

KR: I love to read the essays of Milan Kundera – he's just wonderful, or Calvino, or Nabokov, or Brodsky. But now look, I don't ever read poetry, I don't read fiction, I don't read natural history, I don't read science. I read, essentially, esthetic essays; essays about literature, about the mind, and often by poets. But I read their essays, and it sort of cranks my mind up to a certain speed.

GC: But I think that, as a child – not to go to psychobabble – but, I did not really raise questions in the house. I don't know how it was with you, but somewhere along the line, in your personality formation, you started arguing.

KR: I started arguing… I've never really been much of a public thinker or talker. My partner is a wonderful thinker, and she can think extended thoughts, and loves to do so, and would love to have her mate in that area. And I'm not. I'm a very lazy thinker with others.

GC: Well that laziness just got you to be the sixteenth Poet Laureatee of the United States, so I say, let's bottle it.

KR: Okay, so I've got one more book here with me.

KR: Here. I'm always asking for less. Like… who is it… Oliver Twist, who holds up his bowl and says , "more, please?" I hold up my bowl and say, "Less, please." Here's a poem asking for less. Oh, this is from Flamingo Watching. It's a vacation poem, and I really think that some of our overstressed listeners might enjoy this vacation. Vacation.

It would be pleasant to walk
in Stonehenge or other places
that have rocks arranged on the
basis of a plan, or plans,
inscrutable to modern man;
to wander among grinders
sunk deep in sheep pastures
or simply set on top Peruvian grit;
to gaze up at incisors
no conceivable jaw could fit;
to stretch to be ignorant enough,
scoured to a clean vessel
as pure as the puzzle, vestal
to a mystery involving people,
but without the heat of people.

GC: That was Flamingo Watching. We have heard from Say Uncle today. Also The Niagara River, and Strangely Marked Metals, Elephant Rocks . And Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends. It's fulsome. It's a very full spirited book.

KR: But you can't get it, because all the copies are locked away in my attic. Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends. It was self-published, essentially. I'm going to have a "new and selected" in April of 2009. It's going to be a "Selected."

GC: How are you going to make that decision?

KR: Well, I'm going to get rid of the ones I don't like.

GC: Who's going to help you?

KR: My partner, Carol.

GC: Who did help you in your career?

KR: Carol! Carol. I have… I just am the kind of writer who can't be helped, in so many ways. I couldn't join any clubs that would have me. I couldn't learn from anybody.

GC: You didn't get in the poetry club at college.

KR: I didn't get in the poetry club at UCLA. There were a few times when I weakened, and actually thought, oh okay, I'll try to be like other people. I'll try to network. That was before the word "network" was used.

GC: But it wasn't right for you.

KR: It didn't fit me at all. I just had to go out in the wilderness of my own mind, and back yard, and write and write and write. And eventually, I mailed out to little magazines sporadically, and they would always send them back. My poems didn't look like anybody else's, and they weren't interested. So I got this stack that just got higher and higher. Hundreds of poems just stacked up on my desk on yellow tablet paper, and it got to be very depressing. What was going to become of this work? And finally, Carol just took me in hand and said, "all right, we're going to do this in an orderly way. Tell me some magazines you'd like to be in. Okay. Tell me the poems you think are worth sending out." And she would put them in groups, send them out, and she did it dispassionately, and she said, "if we get in one magazine out of a hundred, that's great."

GC: You wouldn't be sitting here!

KR: I had no skills to get across. So she could make that bridge for me, and it was essential.

GC: She's your associate producer.

KR: Absolutely. I can't tell you how gratifying this is for her.

GC: This is her victory as well. We promised to talk a little bit about technology, because it is here. What are you going to do with it? The hardware drives the software. That's the scary part. Because when I was with PBS, I realized that every new piece of machinery that came out, pushed new programming. So, let us know what you feel. People are going to know you online, perhaps more than your collected poems. What do you feel about that?

KR: Well, I think… alright, the poems are available online, in written form. They look like a poem.

GC: Some of them.

KR: Some of them. They can be accessed. Quite a few of them are online. By "quite a few" I mean maybe fifty, something like that. So, they can be read, although I much prefer the privacy of a book, that you can carry into a corner; that you can take with you. It has an intimacy that I am unable to derive from a computer screen. But I'm an older generation. There may be an intimacy available to younger people that I just don't know about. But I am a writer who really… my primary interest is the poem on the page, whether it's the screen or the paper page. I want it to be seen. I've arranged it in a particular way for reasons. I am very gratified if, when I hear somebody read my poem, they read it very much as I would have. And that happens a lot, I'm satisfied to say.

GC: That means the words are true.

KR: It can be read. It's like a soup. You buy a – you have to reconstitute dried soup powder. So the powder of the poem is there on the page, but it's reconstituted in the mind, and it comes out of the reader's mouth sounding very much like what I put in, you know, what I powdered up there. So my love, my primary love, is for the poem on the page. I have high expectations for it. There are amusements available only through seeing it. A lot of the rhyme things that go on are mostly fun when you look at them on the page, even though they're kind of invisible. That's what I like, they're sneaky, and they come out at you in funny ways when you're able to study it on the page. The poem, the spoken poem, goes by so fast.

GC: Well, but, when I say "online," I do not mean audio. I mean that your poems, of course not all of them, but some will be seen online. It won't always be audio. But what they will lack, is the silence of the page, because people will just put them where they want to put them, you know, jam them up. And you really need space.

KR: It's true. If I have any control in a book layout, I want my small poems on a good size page, in isolation, in the middle of the page. The the radio audience is not seeing my poems, so you don't know. They're quite narrow. I was looking at a comb yesterday; just a black Ace comb. And if you thought of an Ace comb, with slightly jagged teeth, that would be like looking at one of my poems from the side.

GC: About twenty lines or so? – I was just leafing through to look at the very few two-page poems you have.

KR: And those are really cheaters. It's just the way my press tends to print. They take what would really be a one page poem, and they drop the beginning so low on the page that they have to extend it to a second page. And they do that to make my many, many short poems look centered on the page. So, it's kind of a compromise they make. They drop the beginning of the poem down low.

GC: But there's no way some of your poems could be on one page. About three of them. I would say three.

KR: Well, you know, I was talking to Dr. Carolyn Brown last night at dinner. And we were talking about how need, the very pressure of need itself, has a way of extruding answers, or discovering help. Need is some kind of energy that almost calls into being, help of some sort.

GC: Well, if you're lucky – okay, here's the distinction I see – you do not approach the world with need. You had a need for a project, and it had, the passion acted as the hydraulic. But people who approach life with nothing but need, get need back. You know how people come to you with nothing but need? Well, it doesn't work. But now, for a project where you have worked –this is earned, this is earned need – you had hours and hours, and days of work, that's a different thing from need.

KR: I think what I mean is, when you have a question – a burning question – a problem that has got to be solved? It's just preoccupying you. And everything starts to comment on that? You accidentally hear something on the radio which is just absolutely what you need to hear. You read something in the paper; you see something, I don't know. But information becomes available to you, and it somehow, because of that extreme need, it might be a sensitivity in you, or there could be some kind of exchange going on.

GC: That's called "calling it in." That is really vibrating toward something in the universe that you really want. And that's a very strong thing.

KR: I'm going to read you a poem, not that you've asked me to do it, but this is from Flamingo Watching, and it's a poem which has as a title, the words of Charles Darwin. This is taken from his marvelous autobiography, which I recommend if you haven't read it. It's wonderfully simple. He wrote it to his grandchildren, and it is marvelous. So, that's the autobiography of Charles Darwin. Then he said, this is the context for the epigraph, he would be going to school, and he would be dawdling, looking at things and fooling around, and it would be almost time to be at school, and he'd get in big trouble if he wasn't there on time, and he would run as fast he could, and he would pray that he would make on time, and he would make it on time. And he said, "I marveled at how generally I was aided." And he meant, aided by God. He was able to get there on time. I Marveled at How Generally I Was Aided. And this poem is a poem that is talking about needing, and getting.

I marvel at how generally
I am aided, how frequently
the availability of help
is demonstrated. I've had
unbridgeable distances collapse
and opposite objects coalesce
enough to think duress itself
may be a prayer. Perhaps not chance,
but need, selects; and desperation
works upon giraffes until their necks
can reach the necessary branch.
If so, help alters; makes seven vertebrae
go farther in the living generation;
help coming to us, not from the fathers,
not to the children.

GC: Exactly what you were saying.

KR: I wrote that a long time ago.

GC: I know that you're in touch with everything that's invisible, past voices, past authors

KR: I think that the invisible, that is most important to me, is the great writers of the past. They are my comfort and my solace, and my community, and my friends, in a very deep and abiding way.

GC: And a variety of them. You say Italio Calvino is a favorite of yours

KR: I don't really read his fables. I'm not of the narrative persuasion, as you can see in reading my work. I like to read murder mysteries . But I don't read them for the plot, or 'who done it.' I like the detectives rooting around in the homes of the dead or the suspects. I like them opening drawers, and looking behind curtains, and under couches.

GC: Which is just what you do in your poetry. I think somebody is going to want to categorize your poetry. We cannot call it narrative. There certainly is lyricism in the balance of your words; philosophical lyricism, argumentative lyricism? We just have to make up a new category for you.

KR: I think I will now read you a really frightening poem. We should scare everybody, don't you think?

GC: That's what writers do.

KR: That's right. Okay, this one is called Home to Roost, and of course, it's referring to, your chickens are coming home to roost. And we always say that meaning you've made a number of bad decisions, and now they are revisiting you. They're never good chickens, are they? You've been kind a thousand times, and now here is a big cake. So, Home to Roost. And it's kind of ridiculous. People tend to think it's funny at first, and then they gradually think it isn't so funny, because it starts with chickens flying, and of course, chickens don't fly.

The chickens
Are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

KR: I wrote it, I don't remember the circumstances, but I was very unhappy with myself when I wrote it, no doubt, in the sense of feeling that I'd made a lot of choices that had trapped me; that I'd been a fool. I'd been foolish to make these decisions. And now I was stranded, and the victim of them. But the awful thing is that, I sent this poem to a New York editor in 2001, and it was sitting on her desk in the Village – Greenwich Village – within sight of the Twin Towers, on the occasion of 9/11, and when it is thought about in relationship to that event, which was so cataclysmic that it warped all language around it, everything was changed for a period of time to seem to be commenting upon the event of 9/11. Suddenly this poem seemed to be saying, "America, you have done a lot of things to cause these chickens – these planes – to come home to roost." And I think that's an argument that can be made, in fact. But it certainly wasn't one I wanted to be made right then. I had to call up as soon as the phones were working, and say, please send that poem back. I had to. It was too cruel, at that moment.

GC: Which of course was not your intention. There is just not one bit of cynicism here. That is actually why I quarreled with this. J.D. McClatchy says some nice things, and he says that your "as intense and as elliptical as Dickinson, as buoyant and rueful as Frost. I didn't think that was true. Buoyant, yes, rueful, no. I don't see disappointment in your work. I see the opposite of that. I see how it was once, like somebody who used to be in a room, but what is now. I do not see ruefulness in your work.

KR: I wouldn't quarrel with ruefulness.

GC: You mean you agree that he's right?

KR: I think there are a lot of poems that are sort of locked rooms. You don't get out. There is no escape from them. I think, really, that Home to Roost would be one of those. I have another one, which I'd be glad to read of the same variety. It's called Corners. Actually, I have two here. They're both trapped. They are closed. There's something in mysteries called "locked room mysteries." And that is, something occurs – some terrible thing – occurs in a room in which nobody could get in or out. In other words, how did this happen? Nobody could get in or out to do it. They couldn't get in to do it, and they couldn't get out having done it. But there's a dead body in there, or whatever. So, there are certain poems that I have that I think are very frightening. They're about states of mind that are desperate states, and from which the poem offers no escape. I assure you that they were temporary conditions, though. Corners. This is about painting yourself into a corner. You know we always say, "don't paint yourself into a corner." A bit of folk wisdom.

All but saints
and hermits
mean to paint
themselves
toward an exit

leaving a
pleasant ocean
of azure or jonquil
ending neatly
at the doorsill.

But sometimes
Something happens:

a minor dislocation
by which the doors
and windows
undergo a
small rotation
to the left a little

—but repeatedly,
It isn't
obvious immediately.

Only toward evening
and from the
farthest corners
of the houses
of the painters

comes a chorus
of individual keening
as of kenneled dogs
someone is mistreating.


KR: I mean it's a terrifying thought, to think here you are in a room, and there's an exit, but that the room shifts, like one of those old carousels. It shifts, and the doorway becomes unavailable to you.

GC: What are the dogs?

KR: Well, that's just really a metaphor for the sounds of these people stuck in their houses. Only toward evening, and from the farthest corners of the houses of the painters, comes a chorus of individual keening, "as of" kenneled dogs someone is mistreating.

GC: Kenneled; closed in.
But the writer has been there, and the writer left her energy there. So we're saved again! While we have you captive, is there one thing you'd like to tell the world ?

KR: Keep the libraries open; cherish your branch libraries. Don't let a single library close. Have the maximum hours. Libraries are our freedom. I think even to the degree that schools are. I mean, libraries are truly democratic. Anybody can go in there, and teach herself, and be free.

GC: And if you ask the librarian to get a book, they will go anywhere to get it..

KR: Where else do you find somebody whose joy it is to help you? Who but a librarian is really, truly glad to see you? Oh glad! What's your question? Wonderful!

GC: And they don't act put-upon at all, do they?

KR: They're not put-upon! They're being used.

GC: You know what? The librarians are going to stand up as one, to carry you in their library parade

KR: I got a letter yesterday from a poor branch librarian in a small town in Oregon, who said that their town is a mill town, and the lumber industry is shutting down, and there is no money for the library. The library has been closed. There's no library now. And she wants to try to get the library going, like public radio, where those who can, contribute, but then it's open for all. And I just thought, oh, what hard times we're on. We've got to have libraries. We've got to have them, and the least of these are the ones that are the most exciting to me. The ones where – thinking about poetry, as I am, we have no idea where poets come from, but I'm quite convinced they come from the least predictable, and what appears to be the least fertile locations. And therefore, the public library is an absolutely essential thing to the six year old poet now, who is going to that library, and who's finding there, refuge, and release, and an opening that really never closes.

GC: Did you find that in your own life?

KR: I did. I lived in the very small towns of the central valley of California, the San Joaquin Valley, and my family, we were very working class. And the bookmobile came to some of the towns where we lived; little tiny burgs, and at other times we rented houses that were near little branch libraries. Sometimes they were no bigger than a double garage, and they meant a great deal to me.

GC: I'm Grace Cavalieri, at the Library of Congress, and we are not alone, because we have Kay Ryan this year. Thank you.
GRATEFUL ACKNOWLEDGEMENT to Kay Ryan and Grove Press, The Poet Laureate Office of the Library of Congress and the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry.

Visit Amazon.com to pick-up titles by Kay Ryan


This is the Poet and the Poem, from the Library of Congress. The program is produced by Forest Woods Media Productions. Post production by Mike Turpin, MET Studios. We wish to thank the Library of Congress for making this program possible, and the Whitter-Binner Foundation for Poetry, for funding this series. Our associate producer is Ken Flynn. Our engineer is Mike Turpin.