Thunder, but not loud: The reverse drama of Kay Ryan at AWP

They introduced Kay Ryan last night with a quote of hers:

It’s poetry’s uselessness that excites me. It’s hopelessness. All this talk of usefulness makes me feel I’ve suddenly been shanghaied into the helping professions. Prose is practical language. Conversation is practical language. Let them handle the usefulness jobs. But of course, poetry has its balms. It makes us less lonely by one. It makes us have more room inside ourselves. But it’s paralyzing to think of usefulness and poetry in the same breath.

Ryan took the podium and raised a fist, “Let’s hear it for uselessness!”

The crowd cheered and laughed. That moment, I wasn’t expecting. In honesty, I hadn’t known at all what to expect. The Associated Writing Programs conference was in town, and Politics & Prose made several sessions free and open to the public, Ryan’s discussion among them. I hadn’t been to a poetry reading since a high school class. But over the past year, I’d come to love the former poet laureate’s work, finding it in The New Yorker, then in Poets Picking Poets, then in Googling for more.

I knew Ryan was a private person who wrote short, tight poems and hated writing groups. I pictured a Silent Cal-like performance. (“You lose.”) I knew she had written an essay about a previous conference that had drawn controversy. I pictured an audience confrontation. (It turned out, reading the essay, that’s where she ripped the groups. If you have time, read the Hunter S. Thompson-style awesomeness.)

So, to find Ryan a personable riot was a surprise that had me smiling all the way home and to the keyboard now. Her reading? She decided, given recent news, to read poems she’d written that involved weather. She’d then Googled herself, she told us, found poems, and was going to pretend like they were related. She told stories that punctured the seriousness that built over the lines, sometimes interrupting herself. “I can barely mono-task, let alone bi-task,” she said. She explained the trouble with some poems. “Lighthouse Keeping” was tough to recite because one could read it as “Light Housekeeping” (“which I don’t like to do”). But it wasn’t so terrible, she said. “That’s the fun of reading things for yourself. You can have it work out the way you want.”

When Ryan read “The Pass,” making a remarkable metaphor for self “stuck-ness” from the story of the Donner Party, she mentioned them eating their corpses when things got low. “Not their own corpses,” she added quickly, smiling, as you considered your arm or leg. “They didn’t get that low.” As a fan of poet laureate hilarity, my night was made.

The highlights for me among what all she read, in addition to Donners, were: “Train-Track Figure,” “Dogleg” (which appeared in Poets Picking Poets), “Bait Goat” (all about rhyme! in ridiculous and vicious style),  a poem an NPR story about Thelonious Monk had inspired (about how “it was hard for Monk to play Monk,” a humbling and beautiful concept), a cicada poem that sure beat anything entered in the Post‘s 2004 cicada verse contest, “Pentimenti,” and “Reverse Drama.” That one, via here:

Lightning, but not bright,
Thunder, but not loud.
Sometimes something
in the sky connects
to something in the ground
in ways we don’t expect
and more or less miss except
through reverse drama:
things were heightened
and now they’re calmer.

I fell in love with the thought.

The conversation after the reading was good as well. Interviewing was Dana Gioia, who spent a career in big food (even helping to invent Jello Jigglers) before becoming a full-time, acclaimed writer and then head of the National Endowment for the Arts. His background’s diversity suited a Ryan interview and audience well, egalitarian but still finding depth.

Among Q&A moments… On a career: “I really wanted to do something that required a pick-up.” On being a child making remarks at a grown-up dinner: “I made a woman spit milk across the table. And I thought, ‘There’s power here.’ ” On how your writing changes over time: “First you’re acquiring a voice. Then it’s telling you to shut up.” On why she likes internal rhyme’s humor: “End rhyme is almost intolerably funny.”

On how writing doesn’t change us, directly: “I just go on blundering.” On how it provides examples, though: “We can heat things to a point that transformations occur.” On doing her writing in bed: “I’ve been through some pajamas, I’ll tell you, in my time.” On literary essayists inspiring her mind: “I have friends there. … Well, I like them. I don’t know if they like me.” On her odd fit for the laureate-ship: “It’s not therapy. It’s not one of the healing arts. It’s poetry. It’s savage.”

But, last, she reflected on her laureate work with community colleges. In a fascinating process, LaGuardia Community College had translated her “Say Uncle” poem into a couple dozen languages. The students had worked in small groups, serving different roles in the translation, to capture the idiom and carry it across cultures (PDF of the results).

Ryan leafed through a book for a few seconds to find the poem. Not finding it, she went ahead and recited from memory to end the night.

Every day
you say,
Just one
more try.

Then another
day slips by.
You will
say ankle,
you will
say knuckle;
why won’t
you why
won’t you
say uncle?

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