Kay Ryan Discusses New Collection of Poems

July 26, 2006 at 1:30 PM EDT
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Award-winning poet Kay Ryan describes her writing process as "self imposed emergencies." She reads some selections from her new collection, "The Niagara River."

KAY RYAN, Poet: My name is Kay Ryan. I’m a native Californian, born in San Jose, raised in the Central Valley of California, in the San Joaquin, famous for agriculture and oil drilling, which is what my father did. He was an oil driller.

My mother was quite a nervous person and couldn’t stand too much stimulation or excitement. We didn’t have the radio on, certainly didn’t have television on. We lived quietly. And I inherited more of probably the predisposition and the habit than I would have expected, and I live in my own life very quietly.

I have a poem which I’d like to begin with tonight, which really is a poem written to my mother, who lived a very modest and very quiet life on the desert. And she moved her hose around.

This is called “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard.”

“A life should keep deep tracks: ruts where she went out and back to get the mail or move the hose around the yard; where she used to stand before the sink, a worn-out place. Beneath her hand, the china knobs rubbed down to white pastilles. The switch she used to feel for in the dark almost erased.

Her things should keep her marks. The passage of a life should show; it should abrade. And when life stops, a certain space, however small, should be left scarred by the grand and damaging parade. Things shouldn’t be so hard.”

I moved to Marin County, where I live now, in 1971 and have lived in this house for 27 years. And I’m a person not particularly desirous of change. I’m very happy to have had such a blank history.

Silence means a great deal to me, and I’ve learned to distinguish a great number of forms of silence. My poems talk about a palpable silence, that creamy, latexy kind of silence that we know, even when we’re experiencing it as a giant luxury, like a dream luxury. There is an angry silence, which is a very different and unpleasant form of silence.

“Everything contains some silence. Noise gets its zest from the small shark’s tooth-shaped fragments of rest angled in it. An hour of city holds maybe a minute of these remnants of a time when silence reigned, compact and dangerous as a shark. Sometimes, a bit of a tail or fin can still be sensed in parks.”

In our home, something like being a poet would be thought of as putting on airs. It would be embarrassingly pretentious, and educated, and snobbish. And so that, as a writer, I’ve always been very sensitive to not being pretentious and to being sure that I didn’t put on airs. I mean, it’s all right to be intelligent and to use every possible aspect of language, but never to be pompous.

This poem was inspired by the cliche, “Your chickens are coming home to roost.”

“The chickens are circling and blotting out the day. The sun is bright, but the chickens are in the way. Yes, the sky is dark with chickens, dense with them. They turn, and then they turn again. These are the chickens you let loose one at a time and small, various breeds. Now they have come home to roost, all the same kind at the same speed.”