by Steven Foster
Photo by Christina Koci Hernandez
Poetry is like the misunderstood child in a brood of ever-louder, more pedestrian siblings. She is either drowned out by Xfinity headline hucksterism, or passed over for Hallmark Card pabulum. In fat America, poetry has a virtual eat-your-vegetables reputation. Why complement your diet with a little healthy verse when you can gorge yourself on the empty calories of People?
Here’s why: because there is a widely held belief in academic circles (remember when academic used to not be a bad word?), an argument supported by history, that if a culture does not support “culture,” said society is doomed to destroy itself, one way or another. And at a time when the government slashes education budgets and angles to shank NPR, all the while dropping $60 million (literally) in one day in Tomahawk missiles on Libya, it’s painfully obvious that we as a nation might just need a few rhyme schemes with our political ones. Yes, we can have our death cake at our Tea Party and eat it too. But is it all we have to serve?
No. Which makes your attendance necessary—if not mandatory—at the upcoming appearance by Kay Ryan. And, just like the surprise of enjoying a well-prepared veggie dish, you might find you actually like this stuff. Go figure. Some things that are good for you are actually good. That’s Ryan.
A minimalist genius who manages to be both contemporary and timeless, whose poems cast a global lens while mirroring a deeper, more personal perspective, often in one single line of verse, Ryan’s poetry is innovative while it revels in unadorned, wondrous simplicity. Her whiplash wordplay amazes. Her insight humbles and inspires. Sure, her vocabulary can sometimes be daunting—seriously, when’s the last time you trotted out the word cayuse in a sentence?—but whatever. Occasional linguistic archeology aside, Ryan’s work is comfortingly accessible for the everyman, both the studied Neruda devotee and the poetry novice alike. Reading her work elicits gasps, sighs, smiles, and even a tear or two. The only thing better than reading her work aloud is to have her read it to you herself—which is exactly what you’ll have the chance to experience when Inprint’s Margaret Root Brown Reading Series brings Ryan to town.
Ryan, 16th Poet Laureate of the United States, comes to Houston in conjunction with the release of the paperback version of her practically perfect recollection of vivid, slicing verse, The Best of It. Her appearance caps both National Poetry Month and an impressive Inprint season that opened with literary rock star Amy Tan, and featured such luminaries as the romantic firebrand Carlos Fuentes and reluctant assassination target Salman Rushdie.
Boldly unique while remaining gently egalitarian, the openly gay Ryan is not simply some to-the-manor-born dilettante. Raised working class, she rebelled and even railed against her leaning toward poetry. She has famously confessed it was a calling she attempted to deny, but eventually could not. Still, as her literary star rose, Ryan stayed as remarkably grounded as her verse. In a move that undoubtedly confounds elitists, Ryan forsakes Ivy League tendrils, opting to teach remedial English at a California junior college. Her latest book, an assemblage of “tiny, skinny poems” that “pack a punch unlike anything else in contemporary poetry,” as Publishers Weekly swooned, seems to show an even more advanced eye and wisdom from Ryan. The collection peers simultaneously outward and inward, with verses that are soul-jarringly perceptive while remaining deeply personal. It rewards at every turn.
There was a time when language had the ability to surprise and amaze, and not just because it was coming from a screaming politician or a rejiggered James O’Keefe sting. Rediscover the wonder of language and beatific simplicity with a deliciously entertaining and intellectually and spiritually nutritious serving of poetry. Then you can go back to your reality TV.
Question is: will you want to?
Kay Ryan will read from her work on Monday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:45) at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 77002. Tickets are $5 general admission, available online at inprinthouston.org. For more information, visit inprinthouston.org or call 713/521-2026. Following the reading will be an on-stage interview, book sale, and signing.
The Poet Mayor
This month, Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker launches Houston Public Library and Public Poetry’s Poetry Reading Series. The series features local and visiting poets reading their works at Houston Public Library’s Central Library the first Saturday of each month through June 4, beginning April 2. Mayor Parker—a poetess, herself—is scheduled to read a poem at the series’ inaugural event. Mayor Parker is also scheduled to attend the April 11 reading with Kay Ryan, delivering opening remarks. The readings are free and open to the public, and include light refreshments for attendees. April 2, 2 p.m. 500 McKinney St. • houstonlibrary.org • 832/393-1313.
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.