Kay Ryan's career as a poet began in 1976 on a "bikecentennial" ride from Oregon to Virginia. She'd taken time off from her job at the College of Marin (where she still teaches remedial English) to cycle across the country and also maybe figure out whether or not she really wanted to be a writer. Six books later, with last year's The Niagara River (Grove, 2005)capping off many honors including Poetry Magazine's $100,000 Ruth Lily Prize and a Chancelorship from the Academy of American Poets, it seems that bike ride was a smart move.
Do You Like It?
Ryan's interests always involved physical exertion; at 60, she's still an avid jogger and cyclist. "I had an image of myself that didn't go with 'poet' at all. I liked to think of myself in a pickup truck." The daughter of a ranch worker turned oil driller and a teacher from Nevada, Ryan grew up rough in the small towns of California's San Joaquin Valley, with its agriculture and oil economy. But she had an intellectual bent, and she was passionate about poetry. "I did want to be a writer", she says, "but I didn't want to expose the depths that you have to expose. I was the class clown and I wanted to stay a funny person."
Always, though, she was compelled to write. In her 20s, she sent an early manuscript of poems printed on "chunky brown kindergarten paper" to Dell, which was essentially a comic book publisher. She was doing everything wrong or, as she says, "trying to do it and not do it."
But, near her 30th birthday, poetry began to pull harder at her. "One night, I was reading a novel, and the prose started rhyming, and I thought, 'this is getting very strong.' " And then there was the epic bike ride with the seminal moment when it all became clear.
Pedaling up a steep pass in Colorado, Ryan had "almost the only metaphysical experience of my life". She felt incredible mental power, a sort of transcendent state of athlete's high: "I was permeable—everything could go through me and I could go through everything." This was the perfect time, she realized, to ask herself the life-defining question: should I be a writer?
The answer was: Do you like it?
And the answer to that was a resounding "yes."
Ryan had solved one of her life's major problems with that uphill climb. But, once the bike ride was over, she knew she had a lot more work to do.
"I still didn't know how to write when I came home," Ryan remembers. "I was still writing funny, highly protected poems." Not knowing what else to do, she took another semester off from teaching and worked every day at transcribing the journal she had kept during her cross-country ride. "That gave me the habit of writing," she says. Like an athlete training every day to master a sport, Ryan was getting her writing muscles in shape, teaching herself how to dig deep and be vulnerable.
Next, she upped the ante, setting a daily ritual that taught her that she could write about a wide array of subjects: writing a poem in response to a randomly drawn card from a tarot deck. "Things came up like love, like death," subjects she would never have tackled before. This ritual "made me do things I didn't want to do."
From there, it was a matter of working like an athlete, sticking to her practice, heading up to her writing room and writing and revising poems. She believed that if she applied the same determination to her writing that had kept her in top physical shape, she would get where she wanted to go. And while she didn't start to publish poems in magazines until well into her 30s, and her first non—self-published book, Strangely Marked Metal(Copper Beach, 1985), wouldn't come out until she was 40, she was right.
A Battering Ram
Ryan lives in a small house in Fairfax, about 20 minutes north of San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge, a place she describes as "almost unbearably picturesque," with Carol, her partner of 27 years, to whom all of her books are dedicated, and their black cat Ubu.
The five-room house displays the same fastidiousness with which she has conducted her writing life. An orange tree leans over the garden fence, violets squeeze through the slats, and on the front stairs there's a blue, orange and white tile mosaic that Ryan made herself. Ryan writes in a loft over the living room. Mementos and gifts from friends are everywhere, including a battery-operated cardinal that chirps and bobs its head when anyone passes by. Ryan calls it "cute" and says it was a present from the poet Jane Hirshfeld, whom she calls "her only poet friend."
A small library crowds the bookshelf in Ryan's office. Volumes by the English poet Stevie Smith, the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran (given to her by Cioran translator and poet Richard Howard), Emily Dickinson and William Bronk stand beside collections of Krazy Kat comics. Stacked on the desk are poems in progress, written on pages torn from yellow legal pads. Ryan keeps all her drafts stapled together so she can see the progression. She writes complete drafts in one sitting, then revises again and again, describing her method as "using a battering ram to knock a little start of a hole, then using that distance to get a little further. I just keep going over those lines and making them find the next line."
Ryan's poems have always been short, usually no more than half a page of tiny, jagged lines. Her poetic voice crystallized while she was writing her second book, Flamingo Watching (Copper Beach, 1994). The speaker is detached—descending from those early, protected poems?—but mischievously wise, wanting to instruct and help, but also to get us a bit lost to see if we can find our way out. Ryan describes it as a voice "with a blade in it someplace."
Her writing is never overtly autobiographical, but it is rife with the kind of vulnerability that she worked so hard to coax out. "In art," she says, "experience goes through some kind of 'chillifier' that makes it touchable. Then it goes into us and we reheat it. It took me a long time to figure out how to cool it."
The Niagara River shows Ryan at the top of her form. With her trademark pith, tough love and humor, she treats subjects such as her ideal reader —"one free citizen—/ maybe not alive/ now even—who/ will know with/ exquisite gloom/ that only we two/ ever found this room."—the way we make the best of meager circumstances, and ominous last chances. "It's not that I really know those things, but if I'm going to go forward I must know them, briefly."