By DONNA URSCHEL
U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, in a videoconference with community-college students, shared her 40 years of experience in writing poetry, giving the students a rare insight into her creative process.
“I want to share my trial-and-error method of becoming a poet. These are habits that I consider essential to being a writer,” said Ryan during the April 1 event, when she talked with students from Sterling, Va.; Newtown, Pa.; Indianapolis; and Fort Worth, Texas.
According to Ryan, the first step is to set aside a specific time for writing. The Poet Laureate likes to write in the morning. “That’s when my mind works,” she said.
When Ryan first began to write in her teens and early 20s, she tried to put pen to paper whenever the spirit struck her, in odd moments. Eventually Ryan realized that method didn’t produce results.
“Every poet has to develop a habit of work,” she said. “You have to create a sense of legitimacy for the job and bring a sense of strenuousness to the enterprise.”
Ryan offered an analogy of trying to grow a garden. “You can throw seeds on the ground where you want your garden, but if you failed to put up a fence, people would walk through it. They wouldn’t mean to crush your garden, but they would.
“You must respect yourself and what you’re doing,” Ryan said.
The second habit is to read a lot, according to Ryan. “Read anything, read the entire spectrum,” she said.
Ryan is a big fan of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” She likes to read graphic novels. She even likes to read the labels on shampoo bottles and other products. She also finds it useful to read things that are “irritating.” “It’s important to read outside your taste. I like to read things that are foreign to my life, when people are in terrible straits or lost at sea,” she said.
“I like to think of my brain as a fish tank and the fish are ideas,” Ryan explained. “In order for the fish to be well, the water has to be aerated. Reading plunges oxygenated language to the tank in my brain, receiving new patterns, new thoughts, refreshing my mind in general.”
After discussing the two essential habits for becoming a writer, she delved into writing tips. She reminded students that they are just beginning to write. “Don’t be impatient to find a voice,” she said. “The shape of you comes out when you have written for a long time.”
Known today as a writer of short, economical poems, Ryan wrote differently in the beginning of her career. “I wrote a long time using narrative patterns, a whole style that wasn’t tight,” she said.
Another tip, according to Ryan, concerns inspiration. “Don’t worry about inspiration. It’s a dirty trick that’s been played on you if you think you have to wait for inspiration. You have to start, and inspiration may find you. You have to start with any little thing that will coalesce and develop a shape. All you need is a little fragment of something to begin on—a word, a phrase, a disagreement.”
Ryan displayed 10 drafts of her poem “The Other Shoe” to illustrate her most important tip—the task of rewriting. “You will need to do a lot of rewriting,” she said. “The important thing about writing is the rewriting. In order to make a poem look unworked, you have to work a lot.”
Ryan explained that often a poem evolves so much that it’s unrecognizable by the time it’s finished. For example, “The Other Shoe,” in an early draft, started this way: Most other/ shoes drop/ so far from/ their mate that/… But after struggling with it, the final version read: Oh if it were/ only the other/ shoe hanging/ in space before/ joining its mate…
Throughout the videoconference, Ryan solicited questions and opinions from the students. One student asked, “What role do other readers play in revising?” Ryan said it was a great question and gave her answer: “None. I very deeply keep my own counsel. I think it’s dangerous to listen too much to others. Nobody knows the way you need to develop. It’s dangerous to workshop your work around so it becomes a community project.”
In her final tip to the students, Ryan said, “Don’t court obscurity. We have plenty of obscurity and ambiguity in the world. Be as clear as you can be. Writing is an act of communication.”
The one-hour videoconference was part of Ryan’s “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy” project, celebrating poetry written by community-college students. Ryan has taught remedial English at community colleges for more than 30 years.
In the fall of 2009, Ryan said “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. I can’t think of a more efficient, hopeful or egalitarian machine, with the possible exception of the bicycle.”
Ryan’s project included a poetry writing contest, the videoconference and the designation of Community College Poetry Day on April 1. The events were sponsored by the Library, in collaboration with the Community College Humanities Association.
Support for the videoconference came from MAGPI, the mid-Atlantic GigaPop for Internet2, the Internet2 Arts and Humanities Initiative, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Video Network, which donated time and resources required for the event and streamed it live for viewing. Later, excerpts of the videoconference will be posted at www.loc.gov/poetry/.
Patricia Gray, head of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Office, and Judith Graves, coordinator, and Peter Armenti, specialist, in the Library’s Digital Reference Section helped Ryan organize and carry out the videoconference.
“It’s been a delight to engage in this experiment,” Ryan told the students at the end of the videoconference. “I feel your intensity and thank you for attending community colleges. I’m really proud of you and happy to spend time with you.”
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.