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Pulitzer Prize Winner Kay Ryan Opens Minds

The Marin County resident and community college advocate is as lucid as distinctive as her poems

Few living poets give me as much pleasure as Kay Ryan, the long-time resident of Marin and winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

This would be true if I were only speaking of her poetry, which displays the most surprising rhymes in modern verse this side of song lyrics.

But Ryan the individual is as lucid and distinctive as her poems.

Unlike the majority of poets publishing today, Ryan has eschewed the creative writing industrial complex, choosing since 1971 to largely avoid the MFA circuit of writing programs and workshops, and to teach not poetry, but remedial English.

"I don’t want to be connected to poetry in an easy, fellowshipping way," she says in her now-classic account of attending AWP, the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writer’s Programs, for the first and last time.  "But I do want to be connected in a way that will earn me the respect of the dead."

Ryan met her life partner Carol Adair in 1977 while working in the academics department at San Quentin State Prison.  The two educators, who were married at San Francisco's City Hall in 2004, taught at the College of Marin until Adair's death in 2009.

Ryan went on to serve a second one-year term as the Poet Laureate of the United States, announcing a national poetry project, "Poetry for the Mind's Joy," with the explicit purpose of raising the profile of community colleges.

"I simply want to celebrate the fact that right near your home, year in and year out, a community college is quietly—and with very little financial encouragement—saving lives and minds," said Ryan. "I can’t think of a more efficient, hopeful or egalitarian machine, with the possible exception of the bicycle."

A second-year nursing student just shy of my 40th birthday,Ryan’s path speaks to me personally.  I owe the opportunity for my career change to the Peralta Community College District of the East Bay, where I completed more than a dozen prerequisites while raising my first child. Tuition for core science classes like Anatomy and Physiology regularly cost less than the textbooks. 

This was a change from Stanford University, where I was a Stegner Fellow in poetry from 2004 to 2006. In hindsight, academia was a poor fit for me. The workshop model of modern writing programs, in which poets critique each other's work around a small, often circular table, was antithetical to my own poetic instincts.

As Ryan wrote, "Let’s not share. Really. Go off in your own direction way too far, get lost, test the metal of your work in your own acids.”

Ryan's own trajectory as a poet is proof this counsel is sound.  Self-publishing her first book, “Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends,” in 1985, it wasn't until she was nearly 50 that her signature form crystallized. The short, rhyming verses of 1994's “Flamingo Watching,” her third book, begin the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems,” and are the bones of the body of work they introduce.

Here’s a favorite:


One is not taxed;
one need not practice;
one simply tips
the throat back
over the spine axis
and asserts the chest.
The wings and the rest
compress a musical
squeeze which floats
a series of notes
upon the breeze.

Jim Fisher is a nursing student at CSU East Bay. Poems of his appear in DIAGRAM.

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