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?

Picking ‘Poets Picking Poets’

Many of my colleagues bicycle to work, and some more aggressively than others want to know why I don’t. I try to explain, and I’m never sure if they understand. People join their days in different ways; and thinking some, I come to mine through lyric (words with motion) and the equivalent physical elision, a covered propulsion. I don’t want to turn on news, hear points of view (including my own) or, relevant to this discussion, navigate rush-hour traffic. I’m content being nobody until I have to be somebody, nowhere until I have to be somewhere.

In short, I have no early-morning desire to hurtle or brake. So, I walk and take the subway, the city’s covered propulsion. Standing, I read.

My book for weeks this fall on the train, as you know if you follow this blog, was McSweeney’s Poets Picking Poets compilation. I blogged my favorite poems from the first two chapters, and you promptly heard no more. Not that you noticed — I barely did, a paperback buried deeper daily under a new shovelful of papers on my home desktop — or that absence can feel prompt. But I did finish the book and planned to tell you more about it. How could I not have? Each day with the book was happier, more at peace, a surprisingly decent fit that helped me better understand my mornings. You’d think I was exaggerating to say so.

Go buy Poets Picking Poets. Go assist your morning. You may not even know your morning needs help, that you’ve been living at the mercy of the modulation and macadam industries. Or not. Your morning may be perfect for you. I’m not one to interfere, and you know I’m a stooge for toaster manufacturers. Inspired by the P.F. poem of the day using the gem phrase “imagined heat,” here are all my favorites from the rest of the book, linked if possible, and if not, here when you buy and return.

…Chapter 3. “Identity Poem,” Brandon Som. “Jesus was fond of knock knock jokes and not so much wine, except maybe wine made from certain flowers, lilac or dandelion. It is Christian to say what…”

…Chapter 4. “Upon Waking,” Denis Johnson. “at the far edge of earth, night / is going away. another / poem begins. slumped over / the typewriter i must get this / exactly, i want to make it / clear…”

…Chapter 5. So many that grabbed me:

“The Rise and Fall of the Domestically Violent Empire,” Mary Karr. “She fell like a shot bird from a dawn sky, head down, full weight, with a splash at the end. Fell like a plane shot down — dials twirling…”

The Anti-Leading Lady Disassociates,” Courtney Queeney. “Some days I approximate a vacant lot. Instead of fire I have a face — a solid / slow-flowing, a target’s white and heart and near unhittable…”

Ghazal-Head,” Terrance Hayes. “No count number. Indentured mumbler. / Black shoe stumbler. Beer belly bumbler, that’s what.”

“The Atom Discovers String Theory DC Comics, June-July 1964, #13 ‘Weapon Watches of Chronos,’ ” A. Van Jordan. What a title! “I was merely running away to come back / To catch my villain by surprise.”

…Chapter 6, “Astral,” Tracy K. Smith. “For a moment / You become the fish — pure muscle, / Desire tethered to desire. A stone / Skipped across this same river. You tug back, sink the hook.”

…Chapter 7. “Driving with Dominick in the Southern Province We See Hints of the Circus,” Michael Ondaatje. “A tattered Hungarian tent…”

…Chapter 8. I hardly even know where to begin. My favorite is likely Kay Ryan’s “Ideal Audience” because it makes you thank God rhyme exists. Read it aloud to yourself! Even if you’re a public space. Do it.

But then we also receive: Atsuro Riley’s “Picture,” which requires more reading aloud just for the assonance; Ryan’s “Dogleg” to bring you up on rainy days; Sarah Lindsay’s “Cheese Penguin” to bring you down on nice days; Pattiann Rogers’ “In Addition to Faith, Hope and Charity,” which begins “I’m sure there’s a god / in favor of drums” and only gets better; and Jane Hirschfield’s “Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World,” passionate. You should read all these poems aloud to yourself, really. Don’t let Bluetooth addicts grab all the crazy glances.

…Chapter 9. “This Couple,” C.D. Wright. “Now is when we love to sit before mirrors…” and it left me speechless (on the inside) on a long subway ride. Also, “Sleeping with the Dictionary,” Harryette Mullen.

…Chapter 10. “How I Get My Ideas,” Dean Young, who’s long had me as a fan. My favorite first line here: “Sometimes you just have to wait / 15 seconds then beat the prevailing nuance / from the air.”

16 poems from the summer

“You can feel your whole life begin to shake,” goes a line from a poem here. I may not have shown as much, sitting alone on the couch or bed or standing on the crowded train car, but each of these poems left me vibrating inside, dizzy but mixing toward some better consistencies. At first reading, I intended to write about every one, enough to bookmark or dog-ear a page and save the notation in a deskside or virtual stack.

But weeks or months went by, and the stacks gathered dust, deskside or virtual (cleaner but more insidious). Fall arrived, and the collection of thoughts began to feel like hoarding — not a roomful of cats and paper but still obstacles in one’s daily paths and over-inked white on unfurled draft-table blueprints. If I couldn’t convert the poems-as-experience to something new, they had to go, opening space to what would be new.

Then, sometime this fall, PEN talked to Don DeLillo. By fax, the author raised questions: “Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page? Does the beauty and variability of our language depend to an important degree on the medium that carries the words?” And then, “Does poetry need paper?”

I stopped in my mousing, in my chair rocking, in grasping with the pads of my fingers whatever glass of orange juice (early in the morning) or wine (late in evening) I would have been pulling to my lips and nerves. How could DeLillo ask that question? Or, very next, how could he not?

It was easy to assume DeLillo’s answer was yes, that poetry needed paper, that the medium was a relevant carrier, that his predicted White Noise was destructive and a “phony palliative” like Franzen said it was. But importantly for me, DeLillo didn’t answer his own question. He had the opportunity, sitting at his writing table or walking down or upstairs to the fax machine; and he didn’t. In his restraint, I felt understanding. I hoped and could even imagine that, during summer, he had found a poem on his screen or on a train with elbows to his back and paused.

So, on screen, here are 16 poems from my summer, for your fall.

Continue reading 16 poems from the summer

A poem about self or America

Sometimes the day
                                  light winces

Jorie Graham’s Sundown, like any good poem, can be read in a number of different ways. But I can’t think of another I’ve read lately that clicks me so quickly between two lenses. An American vision holds first — the rider on Omaha. Then a self claims the mantle, with the rider becoming God, time or fate. As the hooves dig into the beach, Omaha grabs new (old) American meaning, briefly, and new (new) democracy follows. The rider is God, time, fate, history, and extra-social movement. The minute description leads us away from the population, but the closing, human steps paint a person in discrete harmony with the thundering force. A wish here is brief, peaceful and, personal or American, seems possible.