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In the two years she’s been the United States’ poet laureate, Kay Ryan has published a book of poetry (The Best of It: New and Selected Poems) and supported community colleges (Poetry for the Mind’s Joy, a project focusing on work by community college students)—-not to mention held readings and talks across the country. Before her tenure ends this summer, Ryan will give a farewell reading tomorrow at the Library of Congress. I recently talked to Ryan about her work and her poetic future, as well as about a poet she loves right now.
Washington City Paper: Overall, how would you say your tenure as laureate was?
Kay Ryan: I feel like I’ve gotten better at it as time passed, but at first it felt very ridiculous to suddenly find oneself in the cloak of the laureateship. But gradually one becomes more accustomed to it.
WCP: You did lots of different things as laureate, but what was your favorite project?
KR: I loved giving my fall reading last year, in 2009, because I became a whistle-blower. I advocated for much underpraised and underfunded community colleges across the nation. I talked about how my partner Carol Adair, who was a magnificent teacher… [she] was named a teacher of the year and given a whistle, like a playground whistle, since community colleges in California are lumped in with all education, from kindergarten through community college and all recognition is shared. I thought a whistle was an insufficient recognition of the job she did, and what community colleges in general do every day in changing lives and in changing the course of people’s worlds. So I blew the whistle for all the unrecognized artists in community colleges, and that was a great joy.
WCP: What other work did you do with community colleges?
KR: I went around to community colleges around the country, and I think they were surprised to have a poet laureate among them, to have come from their ranks. I am a community college graduate and I taught at one for over 30 years, and Carol taught at one for many years. I did readings at colleges all around the country.
WCP: Were there any unexpected responsibilities that went along with the gig?
KR: Going into it, I thought… I would be expected to in some way represent American poetry, and that seemed like a very impossible thing to do. I had to work it out for myself—-if there’s anything a poet is, it’s somebody who is not seeing or speaking in the expected way, and therefore the best way I could represent American poetry was to remain distinct, in other words, try not to generalize about poetry in America.
WCP: Who are some poets you’re reading now?
KR: I’m happy to recommend a poet who has a new book, his first book, out—-Atsuro Riley. The name of his book is Romey’s Order, and he’s a very exciting new poet who I think is breaking ground in how we hear American poetry.
WCP: Has your relationship to poetry changed in any way since becoming laureate?
KR: Well I’ve had very little time to write poetry—-it’s become a job. I will be very happy to return to the civilian ranks, and become a civilian poet again. I’ll get more writing done that way.
WCP: Besides writing more poetry, what else do you plan to do when you’re no longer laureate?
KR: I plan to do a lot more bicycle riding. I got a beautiful new bike and am looking forward to riding it more. I also want to do more woolgathering—-idle rumination, daydreaming—-which is absolutely essential for poetry, and which I can do on the bicycle.
KAY RYAN READS THURSDAY AT 7 P.M. IN THE COOLIDGE AUDITORIUM AT THE THOMAS JEFFERSON BUILDING, 10 1ST ST. ST, FREE. (202) 707-5000.