Poetry and Pros

May 28, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

Kay Ryan teaches this year’s “The Occassions of Poetry” class

Before becoming the 16th United States Poet Laureate in 2008, Kay Ryan established herself as a poet outside of academia. She had spent over 30 years living in California’s Marin County and teaching remedial English part-time at the College of Marin. And she had never even taken a creative writing class.

Poetry and Pros
(XIN SHAN/The Stanford Daily)

But this winter, she was teaching one at Stanford.

Each year, the Creative Writing Program’s Mohr Visiting Poet Series brings a prominent poet to campus to work primarily with undergraduates. Recent Mohr Visiting Poets include Mark Doty, Robert Pinsky and Li-Young Lee.

“It brings a writer to campus, and after that it’s extraordinarily open-ended,” said Professor Eavan Boland, director of the Creative Writing Program, about the Mohr Visiting Poet Series. “You bring a person like that into a classroom and they bring their journey with them.”

Each Mohr Visiting Poet holds office hours, gives readings and teaches an undergraduate course — “The Occasions of Poetry” — which is capped at 15 students.

Lindsay Sellers ‘10, editor-in-chief of the Leland Quarterly, took Kay Ryan’s course during winter quarter. Sellers said that on the first day of class, Ryan made up silly nicknames for each student in the seminar.

“It kind of set a precedent for how she interacted with us for the rest of the class,” Sellers said. “She was just really interested in everyone.”

Students in the class also got to see Ryan’s approach to poetry firsthand. Seller specifically remembered one day when Ryan brought in a collection of poem drafts to class.

“I got a better insight into the way her brain works,” Sellers said. “She’s such a technically impressive poet.”

Nicholas Reiner ‘10, who has taken the Mohr Visiting Poet’s course for the past three years, said that Ryan’s teaching style contrasted greatly with the teaching styles of previous Mohr Visiting Poets Mark Doty and Robert Bly.

“It’s been staggering how different everybody’s been,” Reiner said.

Although Ryan worked mostly with undergraduates during her time on campus, she did lead a craft talk with the Stegner fellows in poetry, where she “spoke about her own poetic craft,” said Matthew Siegel, a first-year Stegner Fellow in poetry.

“She’s a really important voice right now,” Siegel continued. “She’s really in a league of her own, doing something very, very unique.”

Ryan’s poetry is known for being terse, insightful and humorous.

“Kay Ryan’s poems are as slim as runway models, so tiny you could almost tweet them,” wrote Dwight Garner in the New York Times. “Their compact refinement, though, does not suggest ease or chic. Her voice is quizzical and impertinent, funny in uncomfortable ways, scuffed by failure and loss.”

“She is a real advocate for voices that have been maybe marginalized within the poetry world,” said John Evans, a second-year Stegner Fellow. “She’s engaged in a kind of poetry that is both fiercely intelligent, funny and kind of engaged with the imagination in a kind of way that is really an exclusive thing in poetry right now.”

Siegel keeps Ryan’s poem “Patience” displayed next to the bathroom in his San Francisco apartment.

“She is, in a way, an outsider that has been brought into the inside,” Siegel explained. “But in a way that still looks at it from afar.”

Stegner Fellows have the opportunity to meet many prominent writers who visit campus, an opportunity that Siegel relishes.

“It’s almost like make-believe,” said Siegel. “These people just come to you.”

Next year’s Mohr Visiting Poet will be Stephen Dobyns. The following year, former U.S. Poet Laureate Louise Gluck will fill the appointment.

“We’re lucky enough, because of this endowment, to be able to bring these very different voices,” said Boland. “It’s really astonishingly educative and inspiring for students.”

Last week, Ryan gave her farewell reading at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. for her second and final term as Poet Laureate.

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