Poet Kay Ryan Captivates Crowd
By Laura Chisolm
Poet Kay Ryan drew a crowd of approximately 200 for an April reading and then she kept them laughing.
Ryan, a former U.S. poet laureate and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, read from her latest book, “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.” The event was one of four sponsored jointly by the English Department and the Center for Arts and Ideas in celebration of National Poetry Month.
“Kay is highly decorated but her poems are not,” said English department faculty member Maggie Dietz in her introduction of the poet. She noted that Ryan’s poems have been compared to Faberge eggs or Joseph Cornell boxes, “which is to say it’s a delight to open them and discover what’s inside.” Ryan took the podium declaring that after such a fine introduction she felt inspired to go write some more poems immediately.
Ryan opened the reading with “After Zeno,” which she wrote at age 19 following the sudden death of her father. The poem hinges on the “little fatal pause” that transforms “now here” to “no where,” concluding, “There’s no sense/in past tense.”
Other poems written decades later demonstrated the same economic, playful and yet powerful use of language for which Ryan is recognized.
Ryan read this and other poems twice, often pausing mid-poem to explain a reference or point out humor, such as a reference to spring concrete — “as if concrete ever changes,” she said — or the absurdity of a sky “dark with chickens” circling as they come home to roost.
"I'm sorry I have to point out my own jokes," she said. "I don't have time for you to get up to speed."
Ryan had spent an earlier part of the day talking with creative writing students, many of whom were in the audience at the reading and stayed afterward to have their books signed.
In comments preceding the reading, English Department Chair Tony Szczesiul said Ryan’s visit marked an important day for the English Department, which has grown significantly and recently added a concentration in creative writing.
Szczesiul also recognized the personal generosity of John Sampas, literary representative of the estate of Jack and Stella Kerouac, in sowing the seeds for this growth and success. He presented Sampas with books by creative writing faculty members, including poets Maggie Dietz and Sandra Lim and novelist Andre Dubus III.