Archive for Sunday, June 20, 2004

Poet wins $100,000 prize

June 20, 2004

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— Like many poets, Kay Ryan values time more than money -- a preference that has left her savings account lean.

"I've just never been willing to make the trade. ... So, I don't have any money," she said with a laugh.

Now, though, her financial picture has brightened. The 59-year-old writer is the 19th recipient of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, established in 1986 by the drug company heiress.

"It's kind of like being struck by lightning, but it's gold, instead," Ryan said in an interview with The Associated Press from a friend's house near her Marin County, Calif., home.

The prize honors longtime achievements of American poets. Past winners include John Ashbery, Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall, a 2004 judge along with Smith College writer-in-residence Eleanor Wilner and Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine.

Lilly has had a long relationship with Poetry magazine. In 1970, a poet named Mrs. Guernsey Van Riper Jr. submitted verse that was not accepted, although still believed worthy of a personal rejection letter. Mrs. Van Riper, whose maiden name was Ruth Lilly, apparently was not offended.

Over the next three decades, the since-divorced Lilly sponsored the annual poetry prize through the magazine and provided money for poetry fellowships. In 2001, she gave Poetry an additional $100 million gift, a sum so enormous that the magazine waited a year to tell the public.

Wiman said he chose Ryan for the Lilly prize for two main reasons. "I think she's created a body of work that's going to last and is very distinctive, and I think her work hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserves," he said.

Because she keeps a low profile in the literary world, Kay has been called an "outsider" poet, a term she dismisses.

Poet Kay Ryan is shown during a reading of her poetry at the
University of California, in Davis, Calif.

Poet Kay Ryan is shown during a reading of her poetry at the University of California, in Davis, Calif.

"I think every poet is an outsider. I don't think you could possibly write if you felt adjusted to your surroundings," she said. "So yes, I am an outsider in that sense. ... I think I'm very lucky to have been able to develop my craft without a lot of approval."

Born in 1945 in San Jose, Calif., Ryan grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert, the daughter of an oil driller. In 1971, she was working her way toward a Ph.D. in literary criticism at the University of California at Irvine, when she realized, as she likes to say now, "I did not want to be a doctor of something I couldn't fix."

After dropping out, she settled in Marin County near San Francisco, where she still lives with her partner, Carol. For the past 33 years, she has taught remedial English at the College of Marin. She has never taken a creative writing class and, other than a semester at San Quentin Prison, has never taught one either.

"I think poets are kind of wild and unteachable," Ryan said, "I see how creative writing programs can create an interest in poetry and maybe a market for it, but I don't see how they can encourage poetry in the deepest sense."

After "dabbling" in it for many years, Ryan committed herself to poetry when she was in her 30s. She has contributed to numerous publications, published five volumes of poetry and received several prizes, including two Pushcarts and a Guggenheim fellowship.

In her writing, as in person, Ryan's voice is warm and witty. Her spare, rhythmic poems probe the mind's interiors with a logic that is both intuitive and scientific.

In "Gravity," from her 2000 book, "Say Uncle," she writes:

"Weight is a gift
you can't simulate.
It is useless if
you take it on too late.
The post-pupid
butterfly looks stupid
walking with her wings.
Some are, some are not,
weight-bearing things."

Ryan isn't the only San Francisco-area poet to win a hefty prize recently. August Kleinzahler, a fiercely independent poet who has never hidden his disdain for the creative writing establishment, was awarded the $29,200 Griffin Poetry Prize earlier this month for his latest collection, "The Strange Hours Travelers Keep."

Kleinzahler's voice is as urban and adventurous as Ryan's is inward-looking. But both are unmistakably singular -- a distinctiveness missing from much contemporary poetry emerging from creative writing programs.

Both writers expressed bemusement when asked how Poetry should use the $100 million Lilly gift, other than suggesting it be used to expose more children to poetry.

"Poetry has no connection to money," Kleinzahler said. "There are accidents, wonderful ones like the Griffin and Ruth Lilly for people like Kay and myself, but otherwise ... there's far too much professionalism in the realm of poetry as it is."

As for her own windfall, Ryan said she was planning to "do something very un-American and squirrel it away -- and I'm getting a larger mattress to put it in."

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