Friday, August 26, 2011

Rhyme without reason

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Kay Ryan speaks about craft

Express Staff Writer

Photo by Barbi Reed, courtesy of Sun Valley Writers’ Conference Poet Kay Ryan spoke on Monday at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference.

Kay Ryan, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, praised rhyme and minimized the importance of narrative during a reading and talk at the Sun Valley Writers' Conference on Monday.

"When I began writing, poetry was so personal and confessional I wasn't sure I could do it," she said.

Ryan, who is a former poet laureate of the United States, read a series of short poems, including "Turtle," "Bitter Pill, "The Edges of Time" and "Limelight" at the Limelight Room at the Sun Valley Inn.

Author John Burnam Schwartz introduced Ryan, quoting her as saying that poems develop for her the way an oyster develops a pearl.

"It starts with an irritation," he said.

"I have to start early with something, while I still have something to know about it," Ryan said.

In "Turtle," Ryan starts the poem by asking, "Who would be a turtle who could help it?"

Ryan described the use of rhyme as a mysterious but rewarding enterprise.

"Pickle has nothing to do with sickle, but there it is," she said.

"Once you mention pickle you have a metaphor that wants to survive—the rhyming words are the family that it wants to bring along."

Ryan said we have to "frack" our own minds in order to get at poems, referring to an intrusive and controversial mining technique to collect natural gas, known as hydro-fracking.

"This metaphor is working better than I thought it would," she said with a laugh.

Ryan said her father was an oilfield worker and her mother taught grade school for two years, but offered little else about her childhood. She referenced British philosopher Galen Strawson, whose 2004 article "Against Narrativity," calls into question the need to see one's life as a story.

"There are narrative people and episodic people. Episodic people live more in the now," Ryan said.

Ryan said she taught remedial English at a community college for 33 years. She said she "flew the flag" of community colleges as poet laureate in 2008.

"Students and faculty at community colleges get no respect," she said.

Ryan may not value the inclusion of narrative lines in her work, but she is apt with metaphors and the emotions they convey. She was asked by an audience member what it was like to win the Pulitzer Prize.

"I had a great sense of calm," she said. "It was as though I had been waiting for a meal my whole life and it had just been served to me."

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