Kay Ryan did not follow the road most taken to become the U.S. poet laureate. • "If there were a ladder to the top and I was on top of it," she says, "there would be no rungs in between." • Ryan will be reading her poetry at the University of South Florida in Tampa on Wednesday as the kickoff for the Humanities Institute's celebration of National Poetry Month. • Speaking by phone from her home in Marin County, Calif., Ryan, 63, says she didn't take the familiar route that so many published poets follow. "Never took creative writing, never taught it." • She received a master's degree in literature from the University of California in Los Angeles, and for more than 35 years has taught part time at the College of Marin. • "I want you to be very clear about this," Ryan says. "I'm very, very proud of teaching remedial English in a community college." • She takes pleasure in teaching something practical. "I wasn't dealing with those entitled students that you're just entertaining. I was teaching survival skills." Staying in touch with the way people really speak "kept me from becoming over-refined." She laughs. "It kept me from becoming a great big giant snob."
Also, she says, that kind of teaching didn't compete with her own poetry writing. "I didn't talk about it, I didn't share it with my students, I didn't try to help them write (poetry). It would foil something for me."
Instead, teaching was a way to "make a small honest living. Writing was my occupation, my obsession, the thing I did."
That thing led to the publication of six books of her poetry, although it took more than 10 years for her work to gain national attention. "I was never interested in networking."
Ryan won the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2004 and was appointed the 16th U.S. poet laureate by the Library of Congress in July 2008.
That honor was a "great surprise," she says, but came at a wrenching moment: "My partner was in very ill health and has since died." Ryan and Carol Adair had been together for 30 years.
Ryan at first hesitated to accept the title. "Carol really wanted me to do it, but it was a very difficult time. I wasn't able to do any writing for a long time."
She is just beginning to write again. "I had forgotten what my old life was like. I used to have a schedule, but then my life exploded." Setting aside mornings with phone and e-mail turned off is "a lifesaver."
As for being poet laureate, Ryan points out the job has no assigned duties. "I think Louise Gluck (the 2003-04 laureate) gave one interview to the New York Times about how she wouldn't give any more interviews. She's my god."
Ryan says she does want to use the position as a bully pulpit to advocate for community colleges, which she calls "a great ignored treasure."
But don't expect her to confuse writing poetry with doing good deeds.
"I don't like poetry being associated with kindness. Poetry is a savage and a selfish beast."
Many people, she says, find things they like in poetry: "Butterflies, horses, God, love, patriotic stuff. Those aren't really poetry. They're subject matter."
The first time we read a poem, Ryan says, we're not really reading it, we're deciding whether to read it. If you can understand a poem on first reading, "either you didn't really read it or it isn't really a poem."
Learning to read poetry — much less write it — takes a huge amount of practice. "That's what our wonderful literature courses are for. You don't have an education unless you have an education in the history of literature. Read the great poets, read everything, just read, read, read."
Ryan says she is often struck by how a poem's meaning may change with the context in which it's read. One of the poems in her most recent book, The Niagara River, is called Home to Roost (see left).
"About five years ago, people would have thought it was about 9/11," she says, even though it was written before that event. "It was on an editor's desk on 9/11. I had to ask for it back. Those chickens just looked too much like planes; I almost didn't publish it.
"Now people would read it and think of the economic screwup. That's an interesting thing about a poem — it's a lens we look through to see our own lives."
Ryan is always on guard against the tendency of many readers to "domesticate poetry, try to make it cozy."
"I like to think of my poems as cute mousetraps: innocent looking, but if you get too close you'll get your head snapped off," she says.
"When I read, I'm very funny. People come up and say, 'Oh, your poems are so funny.' I tell them, wait until you get home.
"It's all in the delivery."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.