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Kay Ryan’s Childhood & Education:

Kay Ryan was born in California in 1945, and grew up in the small towns of the Central Valley and Mojave Desert, daughter of an oil driller. She earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English at the University of California, Los Angeles, but never took a creative writing course—in fact, she was denied membership in the UCLA poetry club. In 2004 she told Elizabeth Lund of The Christian Science Monitor, “‘I always counted on [humor] as a child,’ recalling a father who was not just a dreamer but could ‘fail at anything,’ a man who sold Christmas trees, owned a chromium mine, and died while reading a get-rich-quick book.”

Accepting the Poetic Vocation:

Ryan began writing poetry at 19, after her father’s death, but it was years before she overcame her resistance to the vocation. She told The New York Times, “I so didn’t want to be a poet... I came from sort of a self-contained people who didn’t believe in public exposure, and public investigation of the heart was rather repugnant to me.” Her epiphany came on a marathon cross-country bike trip in 1976, when she felt herself opening up and asking the universe, “‘Can I be a writer?’ The answer came back as a question, ‘Do you like it?’ So it was quite simple for me. I went home and began to work.”

Community College English Teacher:

Since 1971, Kay Ryan has lived in Marin County, north of San Francisco, where she teaches remedial English at a local community college—on a part-time basis, so that she has plenty of time for mountain bike riding and poetic woolgathering. As she explained to The Christian Science Monitor, “I have tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy.”

Ryan’s Poems:

If Walt Whitman represents one strain of American poetry with his long lines and social expansiveness, and Emily Dickinson is the exemplar of another, extremely compressed and idiosyncratic poetry carrying a wryly playful philosophy, then Ryan is definitely in the Dickinson lineage. Her poems often appear slight, made of short lines, incorporating odd slant rhymes and a sharp wit and as you read them they open into something deeper and more pointed than you expected. Her intent? “An almost empty suitcase—that’s what I want my poems to be. A few things. The reader starts taking them out, but they keep multiplying.”
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