Ryan, Fairfax, California, 1996. Kay Ryan, who was named the sixteenth poet laureate of the United States in July, lives in Fairfax, California, where for more than thirty years she has taught remedial English part-time at the College of Marin at Kentfield. She is often referred to as a poetry “outsider” and underdog. She resists writing in the first person, preferring to write personal poems “in such a way that nobody has to know it.” In lieu of narrative and biography, she uses irony and humor to unravel the idiosyncrasies of language and the haplessness of human existence. She is fond of malapropisms and clichés, two linguistic devices that many poets consider taboo. She employs what she calls “recombinant rhyme”—hidden rhymes that appear in the middle, rather than at the end of her short lines. Her penchant for brevity has garnered her a reputation as a poet of “compression,” but Ryan disagrees. Although she says she likes to “squeeze things until they explode,” she insists “there’s a sense of air and ease in even the smallest of my poems.”
Ryan was born in 1945 and grew up in California. Her family eventually settled in Rosamond, a small town on the Mojave Desert. She studied at UCLA, and briefly pursued a Ph.D. in literary criticism until, she says, she became appalled by the idea of being “a doctor of something I couldn’t fix.” In 1976, on the occasion of the U.S. bicentennial, Ryan rode her bicycle on a four-thousand-mile trip, along back roads from Oregon to California, hoping that the trip would help her decide whether or not she wanted to be a writer. She says she was “resisting the claims that poetry was making on her,” but when she reached Colorado’s Hoosier Pass, she felt her mind sharpen “like a laser beam” on the fact that writing gave her “pleasure like nothing else.” She had found her answer, but she had no idea how to go about becoming a poet. For inspiration, she turned to an unlikely source, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! books, which taught her to “utilize the fanciful.” The books served as fodder for her eight-year, self-imposed apprenticeship, during which she wrote “a gazillion” poems before publishing her first collection in 1983.
Ryan says she was raised in a home where “being a poet would be thought of as putting on airs.” But she is less an outsider than an iconoclast for whom success came slowly. Ryan is the author of seven collections of poetry, and during the past fifteen years she has won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has been featured in Best American Poetry and on Entertainment Weekly’s “It List,” and one of her poems was recently engraved in a wall in the Central Park Zoo.
This interview took place over the course of four warm days in August at Ryan’s Marin County home, where she lives with her partner of thirty years, Carol Adair, and their cat, Ubu. Although Carol had recently been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy treatments, Ryan explained that they had agreed to press on with life and to invite everything in, including this interview and the poet laureateship. Being named poet laureate has granted Ryan a new degree of visibility in Fairfax. But, she says, “Nobody’s letting me cut in line at the post office or anything.” When I asked her a typical “poet laureate” question—How does one become a great poet?—she responded, “How would I know?”
INTERVIEWERWhat did you mean when you said that a poem should act like an empty suitcase?
KAY RYANIt’s a clown suitcase: the clown flips open the suitcase and pulls out a ton of stuff. A poem is an empty suitcase that you can never quit emptying.
INTERVIEWERDo you ever try to be funny in your poems or does it happen by accident?
RYANI insist on being light in the way that Calvino talks about it. How does he describe it? Here in Six Memos for the Next Millennium: “Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarified consistency.”
People have trouble with my work because they want to say it’s humorous the way Billy Collins’s poetry is humorous, and that it’s witty. But there’s something else, this cartoony thing. When I read my poems to any audience there’s a lot of laughing, but I always warn them that it’s a fairy gift and will turn scary when they get it home.
I can’t bear work that takes itself too seriously, but that doesn’t mean that my work isn’t serious.
INTERVIEWERMany critics compare you to Dickinson. Do you think you’re like Dickinson?
RYANThat question is like asking, Do you think you’re much like God? That’s not interesting to me. It might be interesting for others, but I feel like it makes me do the work that other people ought to do. Besides, how would you like to be compared to God?
INTERVIEWERWhen you rode your bicycle across the country you discovered you were meant to become a writer, but what are the practical ways you taught yourself to write?
RYANI’d kept a journal of that trip and decided that I would get up every day and transcribe that journal, augment it and fix it up. What that gave me was the habit.
But once that was done I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d bought a tarot deck—this was the seventies—a standard one with a little accompanying book that explained how to read the cards, lay them out, shuffle them—all those things. But I’m not a student and was totally impatient with learning anything about the cards. I thought they were just interesting to look at. But I did use the book’s shuffling method, which was very elaborate, and in the morning I’d turn one card over and whatever that card was I would write a poem about it. The card might be Love, or it might be Death. My game, or project, was to write as many poems as there were cards in the deck. But since I couldn’t control which cards came up, I’d write some over and over again and some I’d never see. That gave me range. â€¨I always understood that to write poetry was to be totally exposed. But in the seventies I only had models of ripping off your clothes, and I couldn’t do that. My brain could be naked, but I didn’t want to be naked. Nor was I interested in the heart, or love. The tarot helped me see that I could write about anything—even love if required—and retain the illusion of not being exposed. If one is writing well, one is totally exposed. But at the same time, one has to feel thoroughly masked or protected.
INTERVIEWERAnd that was it? Your style was born?
RYANNo, I was still extremely prosy. The problem for me was that I willed my poetry at first. I had too much control. But in time the benevolences of metaphor and rhyme sent me down their rabbit holes, in new directions, so that my will—my intention—was sent hither and yon. And in that mix of intention and diversion, I could get a tiny inkling of things far beyond me.
INTERVIEWERHow did you come up with what you’ve called recombinant rhyme?
RYANWhen I started writing nobody rhymed—it was in utter disrepute. Yet rhyme was a siren to me. I had this condition of things rhyming in my mind without my permission. Still I couldn’t take end-rhyme seriously, which meant I had to find other ways—I stashed my rhymes at the wrong ends of lines and in the middles—the front of one word would rhyme with the back of another one, or one word might be identical to three words. In “Turtle,” for instance, I rhyme “afford” with “a four-oared,” referring to a four-oared helmet: “Who would be a turtle who could help it? / A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet, / she can ill afford the chances she must take / in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.” The rhymes are just jumping all around in there, holding everything together.
What’s recombinant rhyme? It’s like how they add a snip of the jellyfish’s glow-in-the-dark gene to bunnies and make them glow green; by snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem I found I could get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.
INTERVIEWERDid you ever write in form?
RYANNever. I don’t have any gift for it. I find it kind of embarrassing. If Frost does it, if Larkin does it, I adore it and I fall before it. But for me, it would be like wearing the wrong clothes.
INTERVIEWERAre you still generating poems all of the time?
RYANIf I’m lucky, I probably write twelve keepers in a year.
INTERVIEWERDuring the nine years between Strangely Marked Metal and Flamingo Watching, were you writing every day?
RYANNo, not every day. I shingled the outside of the house. That took three years. All these shingles are by me.
INTERVIEWERDo you feel that you take too long between collections?
RYANI think there’s too much poetry out there. I don’t need to add to the waste stream.
INTERVIEWERDid you always believe in your work, even at an early stage?
RYANEspecially at an early stage. I just didn’t know how badly I was doing. That was a blessing. I don’t know how I would have survived if I hadn’t thought that everybody was stupid not to think that it was as good as I thought it was. Still I had to defend it, because there is nothing legitimate about being a beginning writer. I had to treat it with respect and learn my craft.
INTERVIEWERDid your opinion of your work change as you became more successful?
RYANThe less acknowledgment I had from the world, the more forcefully I insisted that this was the best thing since the discovery of the woof and the warp. But as the world’s opinion of me has elevated, my own has lowered sensibly.
I’m surprised that my work has gotten as far as it has. I had a very long apprenticeship.
INTERVIEWERHow did you start to publish your work?
RYANInitially, I had no method for sending work out. It was completely chaotic and I was in despair. For years I had towers of work and absolutely no idea of what to do with it. Carol took me in hand and got me organized. She had me send out packets of five poems to ten or twenty places every few weeks. Then we had to endure ten years of agonizingly slow progress. It drove me insane to be as patient as I had to be. I didn’t have any choice. I wasn’t patient, but I couldn’t find any shortcuts. I didn’t know how to make things go faster.
Sending work out did change my work, though. When I knew that the poems were going to be read by a stranger, I cleaned them up. And when I got them back rejected, I could see them with a really cold eye.
INTERVIEWERDid you crave success?
RYANOh, desperately. It’s very un–Emily Dickinson of me, but I did. At one point, the New Yorker poetry editor, Alice Quinn, came to Berkeley to give a talk at some festival or conference, and I even bought a ticket to go because I thought, I’ve got to make some kind of connection. But I couldn’t bring myself to go. I’m too proud. I could only meet someone as an equal, or a near equal.
INTERVIEWERDid you ever think of giving up?
RYANI didn’t have anything to give up to. It seemed like I was going to be Henry Darger. The poems would have been stuck in my room. I’ve gotten a lot of my subject matter from failure. I began to think of myself as a terrific underdog. There’s a certain security and exhilaration in that.
INTERVIEWERBut you self-published your first book, is that right?
RYANIt didn’t get me anywhere. For years, I thought that if a couple of magazines reliably wanted my work—I mean, truly had some sense that I was doing something interesting—and said, Send us more when you have it, that would be heaven. And that eventually happened to me. I was very lucky in that sense.
INTERVIEWERHow much time do you spend away from your desk as opposed to sitting at it, working?
RYANI spend vastly more time away from my desk. I’ve spent maybe one hundredth of my time writing. It seems like many people think that if you drive yourself crazy, then you can write. I’m absolutely not interested in that. It made sense to me to be as whole and well as I could be, and as happy. I wanted to see what a fortunate life would produce. What writing would come out of a mind that didn’t try to torment itself? What did I have to know? What did I have to do rather than what can I torment and bend myself into doing? What was the fruit on that tree? I’ve had a terrifically fortunate life. Which is not to say I’m talking nothing but sunshine. A certain kind of perhaps rather unwholesome-looking distortion or lopsidedness is necessary to the writer’s mind, but I never wanted to add to the grief of being human, the burden of it, or have my work do that. I never wanted to make things harder for people, or to make them feel more weighed down or guilty.
INTERVIEWERWhy do you avoid the hot emotions that are often associated with confessional poetry?
RYANIf you put ice on your skin, your skin turns pink. Your body sends blood there. If you think about that in terms of writing, cool writing draws us, draws our heat.
INTERVIEWERDo you use scientific information in your work in order to accurately depict the real world?
RYANI like the sound of facts, but I don’t care about them as facts. I like them as texture. As for reality, I don’t even have any interest in that word.
INTERVIEWERHow did you learn to control tone?
RYANI’ve always been sickened by the whole discussion of natural tone, natural voice. I think that’s ridiculous. Every tone, every voice is unnatural, and it is natural to be unnatural. So there’s nothing to talk about. It works or it doesn’t work. I don’t think that anybody ought to tolerate the tyranny of the idea of “natural” voice.
Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.
INTERVIEWERIn a review of Elephant Rocks, Andrew Frisardi said that your poems “delight and instruct.” How do they instruct?
RYANWell, often I take an instructive tone, but the instructions lead you into odd waters. I’d say I’m faux didactic. Which is to say, I’m didactic, but it’s a joke. I have this rubber stamp. It says, it’s a joke you fucking moron. I never use it, but it gave me great satisfaction just to make it. I had to try several rubber stamp places before I found somebody who would do it. With my work you have to always think there’s a smidgen of laughter in it, however sad it might be, however lonely or lost. If you feel worse after you’ve read it, then I’ve failed.
INTERVIEWERDoes it bother you that critics often describe your work in terms of “compression”?
RYANIt’s a bit like gossip. Descriptions of my work get more and more diminished until someone at the Library of Congress says that I am “easily understandable.” Actually though, compression is the opposite of what I do: what interests me is so remote and fine that I have to blow it way up cartoonishly just to get it up to visible range. My technique is something like using a hammer to drive a needle through silk.
INTERVIEWERDo you maintain a daily writing schedule?
RYANI used to be much more disciplined. For twenty-five years, I’d get up, make breakfast for Carol and myself, pack her some lunch, get her off to school, and then have the house to myself. I’d go back to bed, and I’d read a little bit of something great, take out my yellow tablet, and do some writing.
RYANAlways in bed. Draft after draft. Many times I’d still be in my pajamas at noon or one. I’ve always liked the uniform of the poet. I’ve gone through some nice pajamas. This was in the old days. My discipline is interior now.
INTERVIEWERHow do you feel about giving readings?
RYANI like to read my poems, but I don’t like to hear other people read theirs.
INTERVIEWERDidn’t you want to be a stand-up comedian at some point?
RYANYes, though I didn’t really have the iron nerves for it. But I do love to hear laughter at a reading. Laughter creates a kind of contact. I hate that atmosphere at a poetry reading where everybody sits there being subtle and sensitive.
INTERVIEWERHow long does it take you to write a poem?
RYANWho can answer that? An artist friend of mine once gave me a great pencil sketch of a sink. She said it only took about half an hour to draw. But it took years for everything to combine into that half hour. But practically speaking, I usually spend one very intense morning writing a poem. For me a poem isn’t a knitting project I keep in my workbasket and add a few more purls to every couple days.
INTERVIEWERYou once called yourself a rehabilitator of clichés. What does that mean?
RYANI often find myself thinking in clichés. I’ll urge myself on with various bromides and chasten myself with others. When I want to write they’re one way to start thinking because they’re so metaphorically rich. For instance, take the word limelight, or being in the limelight—not really a cliché but a cherished idiom. Before electric light, they heated lime, or calcium oxide, to create incandescence for stage lights. In my poem, “Lime Light,” the limelight comes from a bowl of limes. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not nothing, not just a joke. It’s thinking about how limelight doesn’t work very well. You can’t do anything by limelight.
INTERVIEWERDo you spend a long time revising?
RYANWhen 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.
INTERVIEWERHow do you compile your books? Do they have a narrative, a shape?
RYANI wasn’t even aware of that whole business. I feel like I could just throw them up in the air and pick them up off the ground, and it would be just as good. I think in terms of individual poems, not books of poems. A poem is the whole world to me when I’m writing it. If I succeed I win the world; if I fail I lose it. I always have this rather comforting idea that any one poem contains all the other poems one has written. I just can’t take book organization seriously, nor do I read a book of poems sequentially—does anybody? The only thing I’m just slightly calculating about is that I tend to take my titles from one of the poems and I usually put that poem first. Although if I use the word oblate in one poem I try not to have oblate in the next one. I don’t want it to look like I’m doing what I’m actually doing, which is recycling a great deal of material.
INTERVIEWERDo you feel your books are getting better?
RYANProgress—the idea of progress—doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t have to think my books are getting better. I just want to keep going back to the same well to have another little drink.
INTERVIEWERDo you memorize your poems?
RYANNo, I hardly know them. I’ve been jabbering some to you, but for the most part I have a very bad memory for poetry.
INTERVIEWERHave you ever tried to write fiction?
RYANI could never ever write fiction. I have no idea what people are thinking.
INTERVIEWERDo you spend a lot of time brainstorming?
RYANI spend none. I do not carry a notebook in my pocket. That would be the ruination of me because it would make my two worlds connect. I can’t say it strongly enough.
INTERVIEWERYour poems are often described as short and skinny. Do you get excited when your poems are longer than one page?
RYANSometimes I like to show I can do it. Every once in a while I have one of those fairly garrulous poems that run on over a page, but I usually think they’re windy. I once wrote a two-hundred-line poem, just for myself. It was pure shit.
INTERVIEWERWhy do you tend to write short lines?
RYANEdges are the most powerful parts of the poem. The more edges you have the more power you have. They make the poem more permeable, more exposed.
INTERVIEWERWas William Carlos Williams an influence on how you break your lines?
RYANSo many people have used little skinny lines that it’s hard to say. But I really love his lightness. He has that poem “Danse Russe,” where his wife and baby are sleeping, and he dances naked in front of the mirror, singing, “I am lonely, lonely. / I was born to be lonely, / I am best so!” There’s a lot I love about him.
INTERVIEWERDid Frost influence you?
RYANHe sets the standard for clarity and the management of darkness.
INTERVIEWERWhat about Larkin?
RYANI like the solitary, alcoholic melancholics. He’s terrifically funny.
INTERVIEWERYour reputation in the poetry community is that of an outsider. Do you think that being named the new poet laureate will taint that in some way?
RYANI’m fairly immune to the opinions of others, except for wanting their good opinion. Certainly this little animal here loves to be praised and hates to be disdained, but I don’t think the title will touch the writing part of me. The writing part just does itself. It listens to itself.
During the laureate year I won’t write poems. I won’t have any time. And I won’t have the freedom of mind that it takes to write poems. But that might give me an appetite to get some writing done later.
INTERVIEWERDo you feel that part of the laureate job is to convince the reading public that poetry is useful?
RYANIt’s poetry’s uselessness that excites me. Its 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.
INTERVIEWERDo you have specific goals as poet laureate?
RYANBreakfast? I think in terms of breakfast.
INTERVIEWERWhere did you get your wry sense of humor? Did you inherit it from your parents?
RYANPeople liked my father, but he was pretty much free of humor. My mother on the other hand had a real weakness for humor. She was funny—but she was not fun. She just liked to laugh at the ridiculous. And she herself was mildly ridiculous.
When she wanted to remember things, she would set things on the floor. She might take these scissors and set them over there on the floor so that when she noticed them again she would remember that she had to turn off the hose. She would have a variety of displaced objects sitting around on the rug. I loved her doing that.
INTERVIEWERIn the poem, “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard,” you describe the “ruts where she / went out and back / to get the mail” and the spot “where she used to / stand before the sink” as “a worn-out place.” Did your mother take joy in her domestic responsibilities?
RYANNo, actually the poem imagines that her life left such marks—and it regrets that they are imaginary. In fact, my mother was dutiful, but domestic responsibilities weren’t a joy. Nothing much was—I mean cooking wasn’t particularly a pleasure, but she cooked. She cleaned. She did all those things.
She was a very practical countrywoman. My mother didn’t do hair. She didn’t have makeup. We never sat together and mooned over Seventeen, never looked at fashions or anything, none of that. The only fashion tip I remember my mother giving me was when I was about five and we were in a little country store and my mom was flicking through these tops to see if there was something there for me. I guess I needed something. She said, With your short neck, you should stay away from round collars; you should always try to wear V-necks. That was when I found out I had a short neck.
INTERVIEWERAfter Bakersfield, your family moved to Rosamond, on the Mojave Desert. Did you feel isolated there?
RYANAt first I felt desperately isolated. That first summer I remember pledging to myself that I would speak to one person who wasn’t my mother or brother each day. I couldn’t manage it.
Rosamond was the kind of town where a lot of the girls didn’t finish high school. It wasn’t a town that fanned one’s ambitions. Although it fanned mine—I left.
INTERVIEWERWere you close to your brother?
RYANI was close to him, but he wasn’t close to me. I adored him. He was older and disdainful. He did use me for various things. He’d say, Go and get some gasoline, and my mother would say, Why do you do everything Jon says? That seemed meaningless to me; I did what he said because he was paying attention to me.
INTERVIEWERWhat does he do now?
RYANHe still lives on the Mojave Desert. He’s always called himself a slum landlord. Until recently he bought inexpensive properties in distress—like the ones right after go in Monopoly—fixed them up, rented them, and ultimately sold them. In some ways it’s a social service, because he rented to people who didn’t have very much money, and then sold to them if they had rented for a long time. But early in life Jon took a look at work and decided he didn’t like it—just like I did. I was never willing to work hard. I saw what work was and I was willing to put up with what it took in order to not have to do it.
INTERVIEWERIs that something you inherited from your father?
RYANNo, my father was actually a happy worker. He didn’t complain about his lot. When he and my mother met he was a sweat-equity partner in a ranch in Nevada. During the war, he was exempted because he was in essential industry, older, color-blind, and deaf in one ear. We were poor, and he had to work hard at a number of things. When I was born, he had a trucking company in San Jose, California—he had five Mack trucks—a high point. Another time, he had a ranch down in San Bernardino County. Then later he was a ranch hand for a while. But mostly, he was an oil driller. On an oil rig there are different jobs. Driller is the main guy. Roughneck is the assistant. Then there’s the tool pusher. My father was a driller. He wore blue work shirts, and they got so oily that my mother had to scrub them with cleaning solvent on a big tree stump in the back yard.
INTERVIEWERDidn’t he sell Christmas trees at one point?
RYANHe was a man of many talents and many dreams. He always wanted to get rich quick. I remember he carried a gold-colored money clip, shaped like a dollar sign, which didn’t usually have much to clip. He read books like Five Acres and Independence. After working a hard day on the drilling rig, the first thing he’d do when he walked in the door was put his thermos and lunch pail down—my mom always made him lunch. I think he kept his hard hat in his truck. And then he would take a shower—he’d get shiny clean—put on maybe a little bit too much cologne, and then he’d come out and find my mom. He was six feet tall—a handsome Dane with beautiful blue eyes. My mom would usually be at the stove. He’d hug her from behind, press his cheek next to hers, and say, Is that better, Mama? Then he would fall asleep on the couch with California Mining Journal on his chest.
He always dreamed of mining. At one point, he quit his job drilling because he found a good chromium claim and the ore was high quality. He took his pickup truck and went to this chromium mine, but he just couldn’t make a go of it. He did everything by hand. All he really got was terrible hemorrhoids from lifting rocks. It was his abiding dream to find gold, but at that time gold was thirty-five dollars an ounce, which made it not worth the mining. He was a terrific dreamer.
INTERVIEWERHow did his get-rich-quick dreams affect your family?
RYANMy mother was very practical—a nondreamer. She always worried about him getting a thousand dollars, because if he got a thousand dollars he always wanted to go into business. One time, he came home with a dry-washer—a machine to separate gold from sand and dirt without using water—useful on a desert. It had a slanted washboard, which had mesh under it and a bellows under that. The ore, shoveled into the hopper, would move down the washboard and the rifts of gold would be left in the little ridges of the washer. My father paid fifty dollars for it and put it in our garage. It made my mother really unhappy because we didn’t have any money. She would have liked to be married to the mailman who was happy with his lot and remained a mailman for thirty years and then retired with a mailman pension.
INTERVIEWERDid you inherit any of your father’s dreamer mentality?
RYANI have had absolutely no ambition for getting rich, or getting rich quick. Although I guess if you were going to get rich, quick would be the best way to get there. But no, I’m not much of a dreamer.
INTERVIEWERDid he ever put pressure on you to enter a particular profession?
RYANThere was no pressure on us. I would have died if I’d been in a family that was going to be sad if I didn’t get into Harvard. He wanted me to keep my left arm up off the table. That was about it. I’d put my arm on the table when we were eating and he would flick it off. I don’t want to misrepresent him. He was a very polite man. My father had a kind of gallantry about him. He was the kind of man who naturally walked on the outside of the street with a lady, even with his daughter.
INTERVIEWERDid you get to spend a lot of time with him?
RYANWhen I was in fifth grade, my father was knocked off a drilling rig and was laid up for six months at home. Those were the best months of my life with him because he was never around otherwise.
But the nicest time we ever spent together was when I was nineteen. I’ll explain about our house in Rosamond. We came to the desert because my father had gone into business with another man drilling sewer and septic tanks in the desert. We lived in a house my dad got in lieu of the construction company paying its debt for the sewer drilling—it was the only inhabitable house in an unfinished tract. Of course, in time it all got finished. Anyhow, my father had lovingly put in a lawn, Kentucky bluegrass—in the desert. It was a dream come true for him. He even put in a sprinkler system. One day he decided to build a stone wall in front, and he said, Let’s go get some rocks. I loved rocks. I had a big rock collection. Anyway, we went out in his truck, just nearby where there were a ton of pretty rocks. It was like being rich. We enthused over these rocks. We just loaded up the truck bed with them—it was a dream of wealth. Did you ever have the dream where you look down and there’s money but nobody else can see it? And you have to start getting it fast because you know they’re going to see it soon. And you can have all you want. And every time you look, there’s more. It was like one of those money dreams. Or maybe it was more like when you see the value of something no one else sees, and you can just have it. You can have all you want.
The story has a sad ending though. We brought the rocks home, piled them in the yard, and my father went back to work. By this time he was down in Redondo Beach, working for wages for someone else again. The sewer and septic thing had gone belly-up as everything always did. But he had a truck—sometimes he didn’t even have a truck—and he was staying in a motel. He was sitting and eating a carton of ice cream and reading a get-rich-quick book and—you know what’s coming—he dropped over dead.
INTERVIEWEROf a heart attack?
RYANReading a get-rich-quick book and eating ice cream. I mean that’s a good death—a little premature—he was fifty-five—but good.
A call came late at night—it seems like people always die late at night, and it ruins late-night phone calls for the rest of your life—from the Redondo Beach police. My mother listened to everything, and I stood next to her. I knew it wasn’t good. But she never broke down, never revealed what it was for a minute. She took the information. Then she hung up the phone and said, Daddy died. She didn’t cry, she didn’t scream, she didn’t say, Oh no. That was so brave of her.
INTERVIEWERHow did you react?
RYANI didn’t cry. I was furious. I was in a rage. I felt he was so cheated. He was young, and he was in perfect health—strapping fellow.
I went into an absolute pitch of fury that was astonishing to me. A couple of months after he died, my mother was cleaning and knocked over my portable stereo with a vacuum cleaner and damaged it. I went into such a fury—a white fury. I just lay there in my room tugging at my hair for a couple of hours. Of course, it was all about my dad. Even at the time, I knew that.
INTERVIEWERDid your father’s death leave your mother in a difficult financial situation?
RYANShe got his social security. And we had that house, which she sold after a few years and moved into a mobile home. She liked it. She had a cat. But she had to go to work, and she was a very nervous person so everything was difficult for her. She got a job out at Edwards Air Force Base as a secretary. Later she was a secretary for the Red Cross in Lancaster. Quiet jobs. She was very reliable.
INTERVIEWERYou often describe her as a nervous person. Is that because she worried about you?
RYANIt wasn’t so much fretting over people as an inability to tolerate confusion. She needed things to be simple and orderly. She needed to live a quiet life. And we did. Think about families with radios on all the time and lots of dogs and kids running around and then think of the opposite of that.
INTERVIEWERWhich of your parents do you take after?
RYANLike my mother, I have a desire to live quietly. But then I have this other side that’s very garrulous, more like my father. I like to drink and go to parties. I’m a patchwork of the two of them: my mother’s self-sufficiency and satisfaction with very simple pleasures, and my father’s easy garrulity.
I’m very quiet when I’m home, which used to be almost all of the time. But when people see me they see the other person. It’s really a dirty trick. People think that I must be so much fun to live with. It makes Carol laugh.
It’s important for me that Carol is more deeply connected to humans and to the world than I am. She’s more attached and she keeps me attached to people and important things of the heart, like her daughter and our three grandchildren. I’m not much of a parent. It’s like I’m a cowbird. I’ve come in and gotten into her nest with her child and grandchildren. But I’m much too detached. Carol is the one who keeps all of the connections. I need somebody that connects me.
I love superficial relationships with people. They satisfy me. I like to chat about the fruit at the markets with perfect strangers. Oh these pears, they just never ripen, do they? I can work off a lot of my social needs at that level.
INTERVIEWERYou said that your mind’s mostly empty. Is that an advantage to a writer?
RYANIt has its downsides, like feeling utterly stranded and cut off from everything and without a project. Most people carry a lot of busyness in their heads. Their plans are a path in front of them. But my mind does not busy itself with anything of that sort. So when it’s quiet, I can feel as if I’m without resources. The upside is I’ve never been plagued by models or voices in my head. I always get a clean piece of paper to start on.
INTERVIEWERHow do you combat that stranded feeling? Do you remain idle?
RYANDo you consider reading a lot of murder mysteries remaining idle?
I like to run. Actually, I don’t really like to run but I’ve done it for a million years. I ride my mountain bike on Mount Tam. I do the shopping. I keep the house.
Do you see that toy bird there, that little plastic cardinal? It has a sensor and if you trip the beam it starts chirping. My brain is as quiet as that little cardinal until something trips it. I’m shockingly passive.
INTERVIEWERWhat can “trip” your mind?
RYANPeople can do it, but honestly, it’s writing. The only real access that I have to my mind is when I’m writing.
One of the best ways to get started writing is to read something of thrilling quality. I never read poetry or fiction, and anything that smacks of usefulness—science or biography—is off-limits. Essentially, I read literary essays. I like superarrogant, high-level, brainy essays about aesthetics. I had a Nabokov jag for a couple of years: his Lectures on Literature. Kundera has two beautiful books of essays. There’s also Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Herbert has that wonderful book Still Life with Bridal. Brodsky is another one. And Benjamin. Hannah Arendt’s introduction to Benjamin. I love introductions. It’s a category in itself. All of my writers read Kafka, but I don’t read Kafka. I only have an interest in reading people who write about reading him.
INTERVIEWERIs that what led you to become an English major and eventually pursue a Ph.D. in literary criticism?
RYANNo, that was simple inertia. I was nineteen and went to UCLA from community college because my father had just died and I needed to stay near my mother. I had a great English teacher at the community college: Evelyn Foley. She was nearing retirement and quite acerbic, completely unbending. She was extremely wry, impatient, just delectable, and had this laugh, which was a little dry snort. She had a lot of disdain—well earned, no doubt—for her students. She’d tell us stories about stupid students from previous semesters. At the beginning of the semester, she was telling us what we were going to be studying and she said, I have included Emily Dickinson, but after the way the students brutalized her last semester I don’t know if I’m going to even introduce you to her. Naturally that was just catnip to me. I immediately got my hands on the Johnson edition at the library, because I knew that anything forbidden by this forbidding woman had to be wonderful. Just before leaving for UCLA I had been having that horrid experience—I think many kids must have it—where you feel like you can do anything, but you have no idea what to do. So the Miss Foley influence nudged me to become an English major.
But I didn’t enjoy the undergraduate UCLA English program at all. My smallest classes had thirty or forty students, and I was in a novel class with three or four hundred people. I was utterly dissatisfied.
INTERVIEWERHow long did you last in the Ph.D. program at UC Irvine?
RYANI think I finished all the coursework. I enjoyed argument, but I wasn’t studying literature. I was studying the criticism of literature. I had followed a professor who had shown a modicum of interest in me at UCLA. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just went where he was. I finally realized if I stayed in that program I was going to be an expert in something that didn’t have any legitimacy for me. This was just before deconstruction really took off, and I was already finding the meta thing extremely tiresome—criticism eating up literature. This one nice young man would walk around with a pocket-size tape recorder and earphones on, and he was listening to all of William Carlos Williams sequentially over and over to pass his orals, and it made me just want to throw up.
RYANHe wasn’t really listening to it. He was trying to know it and be able to repeat it not for its sake, not because he loved it, or because he needed it, but for a test. That seemed like the most revolting thing I’d ever heard of. I didn’t come from a background that made me think that anybody was going to pay my way, but it was repellent to me to be surrounded by people becoming professionals. I don’t know why I was so unworldly in that way.
INTERVIEWERSo, you were reading poetry but you just weren’t writing it yet. How did that come about?
RYANI’ve tried to describe the conditions before I went on that bicycle trip, but basically I had been trying not to be a writer. It would be like trying to not fall in love with somebody. You are, but you don’t want to. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, working part-time as an English teacher, my mind was creating pieces of poems against my will. One night I was reading a novel—it may have been Proust, but I can’t remember for certain—and the prose started rhyming. It was a weird experience.
INTERVIEWERWhy do you think writing attracted you?
RYANIt’s a way of thinking unlike any other. Brodsky considers poetry a great accelerator of the mind and I agree. Thinking takes place in language, and it’s hard to say whether the language is creating the thinking or the thinking is creating the language. If I don’t write poetry, in the profoundest way I have no way to think.
INTERVIEWERHow do you find the subject in a poem?
RYANI don’t know if I’m interested in combating an idea or just loosening it up. You have to make some room for your mind. You have to open something up. And you can’t just slam it from the other side. You can’t say, That’s not right. This is right. You start fluffing it. You open up the picture, so you can know two things at once.
INTERVIEWERDo you ever wish you’d become something besides a writer?
RYANI’ve always kidded about being a crossing guard or a bridge toll-taker because I love the routine of those jobs. I wish I could say that I’d been a bicycle mechanic or something like that because I can’t think of a more aesthetic machine than the bicycle. I can’t think of any machine that’s better for the world. The mechanic makes it go. I would sleep the blameless sleep of the bicycle mechanic.
INTERVIEWERYou’ve said that your thirty-plus-year career teaching remedial English at the College of Marin was “as uncomplicated as giving blood.”
RYANWhen I said uncomplicated, I meant that I didn’t have to worry about it. I did a good job. It was honest work, something people needed.
INTERVIEWERWhy was it important for you to teach at a community college?
RYANI don’t want to make too much of my teaching. Carol is a great teacher; for me teaching was a good job, not a career or a passion.
INTERVIEWERWhere did you and Carol meet?
RYANIn the snack bar at San Quentin prison. It was a prison romance. Carol was in the snack bar and watched me walk up from the parking lot down below. She was waiting to do her teacher orientation for new teachers like me when she saw me, and she said she experienced a singular sense of wanting to know me. I didn’t have a chance after that.
INTERVIEWERWhy were you both there?
RYANCollege of Marin had a program at San Quentin, and I was assigned there. Carol was one of the first women in the education department out there—one of the four jobs she was holding down at the time. I couldn’t believe it. She was creating the curriculum for what was called cell study, which was for the inmates who couldn’t get out to go to classes.
INTERVIEWERWere you ever scared to teach there?
RYANI don’t recall being scared, but the prison is very old and prisony. It looks like a set from a Mel Brooks movie. I’m rather shocked to look back at the way I thought of the prisoners at that time—as people with a lot of experience. Just because they’re killers and robbers and whatnot doesn’t mean they’ve had a lot of experience. It doesn’t take very long to kill somebody. I taught the Schoenfeld brothers. They buried a bus full of students for ransom. One day I was meeting with a student and he told me about some grotesque thing that he’d done, and I said something like, Well, you’re all fine fellows, so he wouldn’t think I was judging him. I’m sure I was trying to appear cool. I was bending over backwards as if to say, What’s past is past. We’re here to talk about English. I think I was trying to say, I’m not really thinking of you as the impossibly other. Well, I was, but I didn’t want him to think I was. He said, You know, we’re not here for singing out of tune in church.
INTERVIEWERYou and Carol have been married twice because of the changes in California’s marriage laws. Was it important for you two to be able to marry?
RYANIt meant a lot in terms of human rights, especially to Carol. We’ve been together since 1979. When I first met Carol, I was so glad to find somebody I could really talk to. There were people who I could drop a stone down and hear it go plunk really fast. But I could drop a stone down Carol and never hear it hit the bottom.
INTERVIEWERDoes she read your work?
RYANShe’s the only one who ever reads it before it’s published. I suppose editors read it, but I don’t vet it with anyone. I’ve never done any of the “W” word.
RYANYes. My entire writing career has coincided with my life with Carol. Every one of my books is dedicated to her. Carol sees everything that I write before it goes out. And I value her opinion of it a great deal. If she says that it has a problem, I take it very seriously. She’ll say, There’s a gap here, there is something missing. It makes me mad. I don’t like it. Who would? You think you’ve done something and you find out you haven’t done it. I don’t necessarily agree with her. Sometimes I have to say, No, I think it’s fine. I’ve got a poem called “Any Morning.” She loathed the pratfall rhyme of “or why we never see it coming like Hawaii.” She thought rhyming “why we” and “Hawaii” was just stupid. I thought it was stupid too, but I really liked it. But sometimes I have to make changes.
INTERVIEWERHow are you two coping with Carol’s illness?
RYANI was just down at the store this morning, and a man was talking on his cell phone and he was saying, It wasn’t just a camping trip; it was a survival class. And I was thinking how funny that was, because I’m having a survival class at my house. You don’t have to go out and get it. It will come to you. We’re all having a survival class; you just have to wait.
INTERVIEWERBut she encouraged you to accept the poet laureate position, even though she’s going through chemo, right?
RYANCarol has always wanted whatever was best for my work and has urged me to do things that I didn’t want to do. When I was very isolated, I was invited to be on the Marin Poetry Center board. I didn’t want to do that. She said, Do it. I’m happy to be utterly disengaged.
INTERVIEWERHas it been important for you to live an ordinary life?
RYANI think extravagance in your life takes the energy from possible extravagances in your mind.
INTERVIEWERHow do you know a poem is successful?
RYANI guess when I’m not embarrassed.
INTERVIEWERDo you try to write difficult poems?
RYANDifficult, to me, means muddled, unclear. Nothing could frustrate me more than not being able to clarify a poem. But of course poems are still difficult. Writing a poem is like knotting a fish net. You can make the net, but you have to wait until later to see if it has caught a fish.
INTERVIEWERWhat would you say to people who say they can’t understand your poems?
RYANSome famous artist, Picasso, I think, said that before anyone knew who he was, six people understood what he was doing, and when millions knew his name, the same six understood. He wasn’t very persuaded by popular approval, and I think it would be a big mistake to be.