On April 1st, US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan held a video discussion with a handful of community colleges to kick off National Poetry Month, known on Twitter as #napomo — or #napowrimo to those celebrating the month by writing poetry.
I kept an ear on the conference while doing some busy-work. Here are a few partial quotes and paraphrases I managed to capture:
- “In order to write well, you must write a lot.”
- It’s important to have a defended space in which to write: people walk through a garden without fences, even if they didn’t mean to.
- “We’re not hearing from you. Have you answered?” (She was addressing technical difficulties with the link to one of the colleges, but I heard something deeper in it.)
- You need to read — read a lot — the entire spectrum: “It’s useful to read things that irritate you as well as what you like…It’s important to read outside your taste.”
- Think of your brain as a fish tank, and the fish are ideas and thoughts. For those fish to be well, the water has to be aerated all the time. Reading everything and anything plunges oxygenated language into the tank of your brain.
- “Our brain tissue is stained by really powerful voices like Emily Dickinson.”
- “Are you hungry to speak?”
- Don’t be impatient to know too much about your voice — have a lot of tolerance for yourself and your experiments.
- Eventually, one is kind of reduced to one’s voice: “Sandblasted enough, the shape of you starts coming out.”
- When you sit down to write, don’t worry about inspiration — “it’s a dirty trick to think you have to wait for inspiration.”
- You have to start, and inspiration may find you, or it may not at all.
- “I always find disagreement particularly provocative, to take exception to something.”
Editing and Revision
She read her poem The Other Shoe:
Oh if it were
only the other
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the midair
collusion of the
unpaired above us
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.
- “A short poem, but it took a lot of work to get to it…”
- Unless you are Rimbaud, you better figure that you are going to be doing a lot of re-writing.
- The Other Shoe had nine or more previous versions. (She flipped through them quickly; one included an illustration.)
- “In order to make a poem look unworked, I have to work at it a lot.”
- “I don’t find necessarily that my first thought is my best thought at all. Just a first thought…out of which a good thought might grow.”
- She immediately forgets what she writes, which allows her to re-read as a stranger: “I have a bad memory, and have always thought of it as a great advantage.”
- “This is a patient art, in order to gain some excellence in it.”
- Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” took 12 years?
- It took Ryan seven or eight years to find a last line that she liked for her poem He Lit a Fire with Icicles.
Questions & Answers
Student question: “What role do other readers play in your revision process?”
Kay Ryan: “Excellent question! None!”
- She keeps her own counsel.
- Her partner, who died recently, had been the only one to read pre-publication versions of Ryan’s poems: “If she didn’t tell me the bad things, I couldn’t trust her when she said something was beautiful.”
- It’s dangerous to listen to other people and their feedback.
- Working through errors yourself can take you in the direction you need to go.
- On workshop poems — “good in some sense that is incredibly boring.”
- Don’t court obscurity, don’t be consciously intentionally obscure.
- “We have plenty of confusion and ambiguity in this world…Try to get something important across…Try to make clear points.”
- “Publishing is an act of communication…to make someone else feel or think very much as I do.”
- When writing a poem, make sure the substance is in the poem, and not stuck in your mind.
- “Is everything you need to understand the poem available in the poem?”
- Poetry — the most exciting, exacting, demanding work she’s ever found to do with her mind.
- “Every sort of experiment can be a useful experiment.”
Note: If it’s in quotes, I’m 99% sure it’s something Kay Ryan actually said. The rest is stitched together from my short- and mid-term memory.
Note #2: I know, I know: bullet points. Sorry! I’m just trying to get this published quickly, and crafting it into a better format will just delay that.