Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kay Ryan

Shakespeare, Joshua Trees, and the Metaphor of the Acorn

As the front page of the Antelope Valley Press recently reported—as did Channel 3 and other local media outlets—AVC grad Kay Ryan was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent book, The Best of It.

Note the Joshua trees on the cover. She grew up here and did her transfer requirements at AVC, before going on to UCLA. In December of 2009, already nationally recognized by being named Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress, she came back to AVC. First, she did a private workshop with advanced writing students. Here she meets in a library study room in a session co-moderated by Kate Gale, a nationally known poet as well, and editor for the prestigious Red Hen Press.

After this session and after dinner at Fresca II, she came to the AVC cafeteria and shared her insights and read poetry, including from the manuscript-in-progress that become the Pulitzer-prize winning book.

Yes, she really did grow up out here (she had a different last name then)—here’s the high school yearbook.

Her poems are deceptively simple, and, in contrast to much contemporary practice, are brave enough still to rhyme. She compares a summer hailstorm to a “storm of hornets,” using slant rhyme to connect the hailstones to “little white planets.” She even writes about the catch-basins that wait to fill up with summer runoff, teasingly calling them beachless oceans. In her poems she writes about that moment when you are so glad when you find the lost car keys or mislaid purse, or about how in the paintings of Chagall, for him, angel wings “come from bottomless wing source.” (Some painters ration their angels—Chagall had enough red horses and blue violins for entire villages of angels.)

Where does this language come from? Part of her success comes from a willingness to live in the now. For her, even a doorknob can be a magic subject for a meditation.

We often use clichĂ©s to frame experience, such as to say that the might oak was once a mere acorn. Yet this is true: some trees (Joshua trees included) can spread or regenerate from underground runners, but others, including the mighty Sequoia redwood, start out as seeds, and oaks are one of those. One thing that science can’t yet explain is how oaks know to “mast” in synchronization. (Masting means they release all their acorns at once, forest-wide.) It makes sense: by flooding an entire landscape with nuts at once, no matter how greedy the bears and acorn woodpeckers are, some seeds are bound to survive and germinate. Other years hardly any acorns at all are released. How do the trees all agree? They seem to be on the same twitter feed, and magically, just “know.”

In Shakespeare’s time, the chestnut and oak masting marked a time for those with the proper grazing permits to go into the forests with their herds of swine. You paid the local lord as sort of lease fee for permission to be the one to mast your pigs. As I often tell my students (and said again on Channel 3 yesterday), Shakespeare grew up in Palmdale. After all, it’s not like Stratford was any kind of heady intellectual center. (Or, as the British would spell it, “centre.”) True, it had a very good local school, and it even had a stone bridge across the Avon, at a time when bridges were rare indeed—London only had one total, for example. (To attend plays at the Globe Theater, visitors paid a penny to be ferried across by row boat.)

Stratford at this time had maybe 2,000 people in it. Shakespeare’s father may have been tangled up in some illegal wool trading but his main job was to make luxury gloves, using, for example, kid leather (the supple skin of a still-born goat), giving us the expression that a delicate matter needs to be handled with kid gloves. (Not the gloves one needs to handle a child with, in other words, but an especially fine grade of leather.) Stratford was not the real “sticks”—it was not Trona or Boron—but it was not London, Oxford, Cambridge: the places where the intellectual elite congregated and where, the expectation of the times ran, one would go to find a first-rate poet, a top-notch playwright.

In London, he had to fight that prejudice. In essence, he was a community college grad, and was mocked for his poor Greek and Latin skills. Much evidence exists that, contrary to this prejudice, his Latin was quite good, and in fact, he seems to have a pretty good ear as well for French, Italian, and all the nuances of high, low, and middle English. Shakespeare would laugh at the notion there is such a thing as “proper” English: to him, the only thing a word needed to do was to convey a nuance of meaning, and so for him, a curse word and a slang word and a word from royal falconry all would serve equally well. For him, “good” English is whatever English you need to get the job done.

Similarly, Kay Ryan needs no fancy trappings to become a great writer. Sometimes she will make a sly and erudite pun—turning the word “grandeur” into a boring and tasteless cousin word, “blandeur”—but a look at her titles shows a willingness to be plain and direct. Poems are called “Heat” and “Midas” and “Patience” and “Age” and “The Woman Who Wrote Too Much” and “Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing” and even the child’s expression, “Say Uncle” (which also became the title of a 2005 book).

It was a great honor to have Kay Ryan here but it was not that singular. Her co-presenter that night was Kate Gale, who has come out twice before. In fact, the list of writers visiting here has been extensive:

Chris Abani
Zaia Alexander
Jimmy Santiago Baca
Gwendolyn Brooks
Wanda Coleman
Kate Coles
Paul Fussell
Michael Harper
Eloise Klein Healy
Lee Herrick
Doug Kearney
Dan Neil
Robert Peters
Amy Stolls
Quincy Troupe
Sandra Tsing Loh

There were others; these are just the ones I have hosted in the twenty-odd years I have been on the faculty.

In almost every instance, a public event was paired with a private workshop, so that AVC students could get mentorship and tutorial help equivalent to that given at Stanford or UC Irvine or any of the other big-name writing campuses. Some writers have proved a bit too full of themselves to come here (I won’t name names, though I am tempted to), but most of our visiting authors have been impressed by the sincerity, passion, and potential of the AVC students.

Many of our writing students go on to grad school and some even teach for us now in Language Arts, including Melanie Jeffrey, Santi Tafarella, and Nicelle Davis (formerly Nicelle Hughes). In Ms. Davis’s case, just a year and a half out of grad school, she already has three book deals pending. One person that Nicelle finds inspiration in is Wanda Coleman. Here is a photo of Wanda Coleman—sometimes called (a direct quote, so forgive me) “the feistiest Black woman in America”—speaking in the Board Room a few years ago.

Her reaction, after meeting with our students? “Wow!” She said it three times, then explained: “What they have is a direct line to experience, and the willingness to represent. This is the direct stuff!”

I feel that way too, and usually just ask for one thing of them. I want a signed copy of their first book—and the promise that they will come back one day and speak. I don’t know how many seeds will become trees, but I do know one thing: there are right now on campus plenty of people who are destined for great and brave and powerful things.

Kay Ryan is proof of that.

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