Good Kay Ryan stuff

Sat down the other weekend and read her Niagara River collection. At the end of a long crazy week packed to the gills with five- and 10-minute tasks, and recent weeks have been that way more often than not, her writing continues to be a centering place for me. Focus wins, with care and dependency on every word.

Favorites from the book:

Let us meet Mama de Lama

I read every page of every issue of my college alumni magazine.

This habit comes in part from a bit of obsessive tendency in the collection-oriented part of my brain, I’m sure. The close-in contexts of life, the general discouragement of society, the spiritual-over-physical aspects of faith, and whatever good arguments my mom used to get me to trash a growing magazine collection I kept as a child — the world hasn’t yet seen eBay bidding wars for early issues of Sports Illustrated for Kids, thankfully — have diffused for me how such a tendency might play out with physical things. I worry at times that whatever synapse this is could romp one day in the throes of dementia.

But I take hope in the fact this desire appears in elements of my clean-up work as well, both at home and work. Clean-up, I need to emphasize/disclose, implying a tidying, reduction of known objects or finishing of work begun, not cleaning as in dusting, scrubbing and vacuuming. Cleaning, I wish! (And my wife wishes, and my parents before her.) Kay Ryan’s “The Will to Divest” is one of my favorite poems because it feels kindred. She writes of personal reduction, “Action creates / a taste / for itself.”

I think I read every page of every issue of the alumni magazine also, though, because here is a collection of zooms-down on a zoom-up, zoom-down universe, encompassing both the billion-dollar macro and the intensely personal, in which I’ve had an unique experience and subsequent life but only known a fraction of others’ similar times. At its best moments, the alumni magazine zooms you down in a way that reminds you simultaneously of how big and small its world is.

Like, in the most recent issue, a brief obituary for Sonia de Lama.

When Mrs. de Lama immigrated to Chicago from Cuba in 1955, she did not speak English. She took night classes and earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees while raising two small children.

After receiving her doctorate in romance languages from Northwestern, Mrs. de Lama began a 32-year career as a popular Spanish professor at the City Colleges of Chicago. She served as president of the Chicago chapter of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese and was recognized as university-level Teacher of the Year by the organization in 1990.

She also taught Spanish lessons for reporters at the Chicago Tribune, where her son, George ’79, was managing editor. The reporters affectionately called her “Mama de Lama.”

The Tribune has a good, longer obituary for Mama de Lama.

The Sun-Times, despite an ad-covered page design (most sad, the template can’t render a proper byline), surprises with a better one. Former Trib editor Ann Marie Lipinski tells her once-competitor about de Lama, “She had an expressive, silky voice and listening to her speak — whether conjugating Spanish verbs or sharing stories of life in Cuba — was its own joy.”

Four favorite stumbled-over poems most recently and why

There She Is” by Linda Gregg. “When I go into the garden, there she is. / The specter holds up her arms to show / that her hands are eaten off.” Dark but honest about the world and welcoming, no more so than in the final lines.

Baseball and Classicism” by Tom Clark. Because it’s October. Because so many of the month’s games have been great. Because this poem lives up to its name and manages to combine the two elements in such a short space. Because delight.

From Book of Hours” by Kevin Young. Imagery by comparison rarely has so light a touch, so easily worn a humanity or so cumulative a narrative effect. A poem you need to take a quiet moment to scroll slowly and read to yourself.

Repetition” by Kay Ryan. I’m a big Ryan fan, but not all of her poems grab me for days and don’t let go. This one did. I think it’s because I’ve been working at the same place for five years and, for the longest stretch in a long time, have no thoughts of leaving. Or it’s because I’ve been dating the same woman for four years and — after a couple relationships previously where four years was the end — we’re instead getting married in the spring. Or it’s because I walk from that woman to that work place every day, and my usual stores sit along the route. “Few are / the willing / and fewer / the champions.” Count me in, for these things I’ve mentioned above. Investigated and grown well, familiar is far from flatness.

Weekend as ‘a small anti-seed’

Been off the work grid for a few days. Here’s what I’ve been reading.

Kay Ryan, “In Case of Complete Reversal,” in the new issue of Poetry.

Born into each seed
is a small anti-seed
useful in case of some
complete reversal…

Douglas Kearney, “Afrofuturism (Blanche says, “Meh”)“.

are we there yet?
are we we yet?
are we we there?
are there we there yet?
are we here yet there?
there, there.

Edward Thomas, “Lights Out.” Posted a link to this one last week, finding it a beautiful poem about the powerless and strangely desire-less feeling of falling asleep. Rereading after learning he wrote it while deep in WWI.

Danez Smith, “alternate names for black boys.” I was bummed this poem didn’t run in Poetry‘s Poem of the Day feed this month. Given the events of the month, how could the magazine not mention one of the best poems it’s published this year? But apparently I was just looking in the wrong place. Editors reran a link, with several follow-ups, on the magazine’s Twitter.

Eavan Boland, “The Lost Art of Letter Writing.” This one kills me. It will probably do the same to you. It will raise up every letter you haven’t sent, every story or emotion or interest or question you’ve wanted to share but failed to put into words, and dump them all over your slow mortal head.

The ratio of daylight to handwriting
Was the same as lacemaking to eyesight.

The specks of poems that help with work

Last time I had a big launch, Kay Ryan helped me breathe. Her Say Uncle collection lived in my bag in August, and I read it on every commute. And the poems helped. Her brevity and clarity fought well versus big and hairy.

Now another huge launch approaches, maybe as soon as six weeks away — nothing in coding time. This morning, the associated nerves kicked in for the first time with full force. So, I went back to Ryan and took more advice.

She had an essay in the September Poetry called “Speck,” and she chased the small places in poems where one piece runs into another and meaning unexpectedly ignites. Her lede made me laugh out loud, and I was grateful:

While writing a poem the hot wire of thought welds together strange chunks of this and that.

It can’t completely combine the disparate elements and make a new element of them, but it can loosen the edges of mutually disinterested materials enough to bond them so that a serial lumpy going on is achieved, crude emergency bridges made, say, of  brush and old doors, just barely strong enough to get the thought across before the furious townspeople show up.

God bless the townspeople. They want greatness or perfection, and there’s nothing wrong with aspiration. But I’m happy to take the crude emergency bridge-makers as role models, compatriots or friends. Sometimes you have to run with the thoughts (and brush and old doors) you have on hand.

After reading, I went back and collected my favorites from Say Uncle. The poems were mostly about pieces and increments, how they join together and fall apart. They were also, to a possibly healthy extent, about survival.

A Hundred Bolts of Satin.”



The Pieces That Fall to Earth.”

Bad Day.

Closely Watched Things.”

Survival Skills.”

It’s Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn.”

The line I love most is the one that kicks off “Bad Day.”

Not every day
is a good day
for the elfin tailor.

In the stretch run, it’s always good to have company.

Stanzas for catching a breath after the week

Against Imagism,” by Monica Youn. “Late July. The wet / and dry zones of a firefly’s / chitinous body / fuse in a blue spark….” If you’re curious, here’s the definition of chitinous. It’s pretty much what you think it might be (the type of body a firefly has), but I love how its root word means “mollusk.”

The Dictionary,” by Charles Simic, is the first one I’ve added to my fridge-door collection in a long time. I find myself looking for a lot of words these days. So, when this poem begins, “Maybe there is a word in it somewhere / to describe the world this morning,” I’m in. Even better? A happy end.

In July/August’s issue of Poetry, what I appreciate most is the bluntness. Michael Ryan’s “A Thank-You Note” is just what it claims to be, beginning: “My daughter made drawings with the pens you sent.” Robert Thomas’ (terrifying) “The Gift” sets the stage as quickly, opening with “When I got the box home from the gun shop.” In Steve Gehrke’s “Ships of Theseus,” there’s both a prologue explaining the ships and a line later, “this is just another poem about divorce.” All three poems gift the crux and still stun.

The thing I dig second most — and, yes, that’s how we’re going to phrase it right now — is the weird dualities. “Double Vision” by Wilmer Mills pairs real and imagined visions of life inside a Waffle House. In “Greed,” Philip Schultz puts rich and poor in the same empty homes. Kay Ryan uses two bubbles to talk about “Salvation.” Wilmer Mills’ “Diluvian Dream” puts life and death in one lawn. In his “Falling,” James Dickey couples the same more directly, as a flight attendant falls from a jet. Not the poem to read before going to bed and trying to dream. Exhilaration doubles with fear.

As a balm, try Scott Cairns’ “Idiot Psalm 12,” on “uncommon darkness.”

In another poem, I simply like the line, “A ghetto blaster spools ghazals.”

And there’s “Eggs,” also by Kay Ryan. “We turn out / as tippy as / eggs.”

We sure do.

Gaslight Anthem and Kay Ryan, back to back

gaslight-anthem kay-ryan

Gaslight on a Sunday night, Kay Ryan on a Monday night.

From the Paris Review:


Do you spend a long time revising?


When I do rewrite—a week later, a month, or maybe a year later—it’s not very much. I might have to add a little bit or turn two lines around or cut a little bit, change a word, or replace a line. I almost always fiddle around some more with the lineation. Sometimes I have to hold on to something for years before I have an ending.

Four poems that tip me over this month

Dear Reader” by Rita Mae Reese. “You have forgotten it all. / You have forgotten your name, / where you lived, who you / loved, why.”

The Present” by Jim Harrison. “The cost of flight is landing.”

Prayer” by Lia Purpura. Poem is at the very bottom of that link.

Hide and Seek” by Kay Ryan. A modicum of words goes so far in Ryan’s hands. Saw her read Monday night at the Folger for a celebration of Emily Dickinson’s birthday, and she offered up this line: “Greatness isn’t doing it all right. It’s doing it right at all.” Post on that night hopefully to come.

I read the four poems in different, unlikely moments of sitting still. All four made me want to sit still more often and find deeper levels of stillness. The way time goes, the more I want to stop more time from arriving. I don’t have anything against time. I am just having trouble keeping up with it.

My spring Serendipity hour: Dew, new and news

A few times a year, everyone in Digital Media gets a day or so to work on any idea they feel might help NPR. No meetings are held. Everyone pushes themselves in different directions. There is a prize given for biggest failure.

We call it Serendipity Day. For the first one, I chased new CMS ideas. For the second, I explored a type of human-centered design. In the third, I taught myself some PHP and API coding. For the fourth Serendipity Day, this time around, things ran off the rails a bit. The period collided with a major project launch, and several of us lost most of our Serendipity time. 

The project was worth it, no doubt. But missing out on awesome creative think time was a bummer. So, I made the best of the free hour I had. For my three-minute demo (we present to each other at the end), I talked. 

Life has been busy recently. Lots of projects, emails, meetings. I didn’t have much time the past couple days to get Serendipitous.

So, unhappy yesterday morning, I picked up a book from my coffee table that I hadn’t read before. I opened it to a random page and promised myself I’d talk about whatever that page taught me about what we do at NPR.

The page had a poem.

Kay Ryan, “Dew”

As neatly as peas
in their green canoe,
as discreetly as beads
strung in a row,
sit drops of dew
along a blade of grass.
But unattached and
subject to their weight,
they slip if they accumulate.
Down the green tongue
out of the morning sun
into the general damp,
they’re gone.

What the poem made me think about was the way our digital stories meet the world.

Consider how dew forms. In spring, the sun heats Earth’s surfaces. At night, the surfaces release heat in the form of water vapor. The vapor condenses, and dew drops form on the grass.

Eventually, the sun comes up. The drops evaporate. The cycle repeats.

News storytelling is similar.

NPR takes in the world’s heat. Our journalism warms until we find the right moment to release. We get cooler than the rest of the world. Our reporting hits the air, and stories form on the surfaces around us. The stories are noticeable for a while. Then the day burns them away.

Or they slip into the general damp.

If you buy this comparison, you start thinking. About the heat of information, about publishing, about the delicacy of a new story.

Our expectation for newness these days is low.

Discovery is fierce competition. We acquiesce to the idea that everything we see someone else has seen before. We give up on “new.” We settle for “new-to-me.”

But this problem is a good challenge for NPR. Even if someone else has seen an NPR story before you, how do we imbue that story with a newness that sticks?

We’re off to a decent start. New is clean. We love white space. New is different. We cover stories no one else covers, a newness that creates engagement and pageviews.

But we also have work to do. New is pure. We’ve only begun to simplify our layouts. New is fresh. We’re slow on trending topics. New is dewy. We can be dry.

That’s what I’m taking away today — the work of newness ahead here at NPR. But also that new is unburdened. New doesn’t have projects.

New doesn’t have emails and tickets. New doesn’t have a backlog. In order to preserve new for others, to remind our audience of what new feels like, we have preserve it for ourselves.

We have to remind ourselves, even if busyness takes over just about all of our Serendipity Day, to pick up a book on our coffee table, open to a random page and turn the spring heat into something new.