Kay Ryan was born in 1945 in San Jose, California, and grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert. Her father was an oil well driller and sometime-prospector. She received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 1971, Ryan has lived in Marin County.
For more than 30 years, Ryan limited her professional responsibilities to the part-time teaching of remedial English at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California, thus leaving much of her life free for "a lot of mountain bike riding plus the idle maunderings poets feed upon." She said at one point that she has never taken a creative writing class, and in a 2004 interview in The Christian Science Monitor, she noted, "I have tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy."
Books of poetry by Kay Ryan:
- Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends (1983)
- Strangely Marked Metal (1985)
- Flamingo Watching (1994)
- Elephant Rocks (1996)
- Say Uncle (2000)
- The Niagara River (2005)
- Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed (2008)
- The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010)
- Erratic Facts (2015)
Kay Ryan’s honors include the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011 for The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, along with a MacArthur Genius Grant awarded the same year. Additional honors include a National Humanities Medal, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Her project as laureate, "Poetry for the Mind's Joy," included a poetry-writing contest, a videoconference with students at community colleges, and designation of April 1 as Community College Poetry Day. The events were sponsored by the Library, in collaboration with the Community College Humanities Association. Her poems have been widely reprinted and internationally anthologized. Since 2006, she has been a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.