Poet Kay Ryan On Words, Writing

Last week, the Library of Congress appointed Kay Ryan to be the nation's next poet laureate. Ryan, who will take the position in the fall, shares a pair of poems and talks to host Andrea Seabrook about her approach to words and writing.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

The Library of Congress chose a new poet laureate this past week. Her name, Kay Ryan, and if she were sitting in this chair right now, she'd do the whole hour in like a minute. That's how compact her poems are, how full her language is. Kay Ryan, are you ready for the job?

Ms. KAY RYAN (American Poet Laureate): Yep.

SEABROOK: And what is the job?

Ms. RYAN: Well, I thought I should give you a really short answer after that intro.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Yeah, good.

Ms. RYAN: The job is deliciously general and unspecific in its nature. There are very few official duties. I have an office. I think it has a pencil sharpener, I hope so, in the Library of Congress. I can make projects to improve American life and the relationship between poetry and America if I want, but I don't have to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: One of my favorites of your poems is called "Home to Roost." Would you read it?

Ms. RYAN: I would be glad to. Shall I tell you a little bit about that poem?

SEABROOK: Sure.

Ms. RYAN: First of all, it comes from the thing we say to other people when they've done a lot of stupid things, and now they're getting their comeuppance. We say, well, your chickens are coming home to roost, and I have no doubt that when I wrote this, I was chastening myself, and I was telling myself this, but unfortunately, this poem was sitting on the desk of an editor in New York at the time of 9/11, and it suddenly took on this terrible added significance, and I had to withdraw it because it seemed cruelly appropriate. I'll read it to you.

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.

Ms. RYAN: Now right after 9/11, that sounded, you know, the blue sky in here, the clear sky, sounded just like the beauty of that day, and those chickens sounded much too much like airplanes.

SEABROOK: You said your poems are almost an empty suitcase.

Ms. RYAN: Well, I've always been extremely enamored of cartoons and cartooning, in which you have essentially just the outline, and I think if you leave something empty but charged in some way, not overly elaborated, you can have a surprising number of things come out of people when they read it. That's what I'm hoping, anyhow, and I mean, the truth is it just is my constitution to do things that way.

SEABROOK: To keep things sparse but powerful?

Ms. RYAN: Really simple, yeah. Well, hopefully. I mean, that would be the ideal.

SEABROOK: But you teach remedial English at a college in Northern California, so…

Ms. RYAN: Why do you say but?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Well, it just seems like a poet of your stature teaching remedial English?

Ms. RYAN: Well, I think it's distinguished work. I've always taught part time, to a great extent, so that I could have most of my life for wool-gathering. You have to do it about 100 pounds of wool-gathering for an ounce of really good language. So it's very inefficient, and it takes an awful lot of time, but to get back to teaching remedial English, I like the relationship with students. They know what they want, and they're there to get it, as opposed to many other teaching situations.

SEABROOK: Would you read one more poem? It's another favorite of mine, called "Patience."

Ms. RYAN: Sure. "Patience."

Patience is wider than one once envisioned, with ribbons of rivers and distant ranges and tasks undertaken and finished with modest relish by natives in their native dress. Who would have guessed it possible that waiting is sustainable — a place with its own harvests. Or that in time's fullness the diamonds of patience couldn't be distinguished from the genuine in brilliance or hardness.

SEABROOK: Kay Ryan will become the nation's new poet laureate in October. Thank you very much for reading for us.

Ms. RYAN: My pleasure.

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