This week I went to a poetry reading by Kay Ryan, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008-2010, who is spending two days at Kalamazoo Valley Community College giving craft talks and readings.

Kay Ryan

I almost didn’t go, but I’m so glad I did. Ryan was charming, funny, and informal. She talked a bit about her process of writing and revising and about where she gets her ideas (pretty much everywhere, including Ripley’s Believe It or Not!). She talked about the paradox between the private act of writing poetry and the primary impulse of writing: to communicate.

Most interesting was when she talked about feeling for years that she was imposing her poems on others and told about a party where she was asked to read. While the guests were enjoying cheese and conversation, the hostess tapped on a glass, called for silence, and announced Ryan was going to read. “So everyone had to stop having a good time and listen to me read my poems. It was humiliating,” she said. Now that she’s achieved national reknown and is asked to read and talk about her poems everywhere, this feeling of imposition is gone, but that’s not the case for most poets, and it’s certainly something I can relate to.

She introduced each poem with some back-story or explanations of terms or images. Sometimes she interrupted herself to do this, and sometimes she started a poem two or three times before reading it through. She also read through a few poems twice, to give the audience a better chance to absorb them. The poem “Turtle,” she said, had inordinately dense rhyming and included her best rhyme ever — three words that had the same sounds as another, single word. She told the audience to listen for it. “There’ll be a prize!,” she declared, admitting she didn’t have a prize in mind. Then she said, “I know, Rob’s pen!”  Apparently, earlier in the  day she had borrowed a pen from poet and KVCC English teacher Rob Haight.

The poem is packed with rhymes, and while trying to get the sense of it, I didn’t hear anything the first time through. I didn’t really expect to the second time either, so I was surprised when it jumped out at me. (I’ll reveal the answer at the end of this post, but here’s the audio of her reading the poem, for those who want to take the test. There’s also a link to the text of the poem on the same page.)

After she finished and looked around the room to see if anyone had got it, I waited a moment to see if someone else would go first, but then I piped up. My local poet pals whooped (softly), and Rob Haight tossed the pen across the room. I had a hard time paying attention to the rest of the reading and questions. I was too busy doing a victory dance in my head and thinking, “I have the Poet Laureate’s pen — yay me!”

Afterwards I tried to give the pen back, worried it might be a special one that Rob wouldn’t really want to part with. But he told me to keep it and to write a good poem with it. He said he didn’t know how much ink was in it but that was “a 7” (referring to the fineness of the point). Kay Ryan said, “you really got it!” and grinned at me.

And now the answer, from “Turtle”:

A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
she can ill afford the chances she must take…

And the prize:

Rob Haight's pen

Pilot Precise V7, formerly belonging to Rob Haight and once used by Kay Ryan, former U.S. Poet Laureate

I hope I can live up to its significance!