Poet Laureate Sets Sights on Community Colleges

Posted October 26, 2009 at 3:12pm

The nation’s official poet wants to honor community colleges for the way they “stitch the world together— by making them the focus of her laureate project.

Poet Laureate Kay Ryan launched her national community college poetry project last week. Ryan’s project seeks to create a national awareness of reading and writing poetry through the development of “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy— at loc.gov/poetry. Ryan has also combined her efforts with the Community College Humanities Association to designate April 1 as National Poetry Day on Community College Campuses across the United States.

“Community colleges are great and undervalued institutions in this country,— Ryan said. “They get very little respect and fairly minimal, unfairly reduced funding proportionate to state colleges or universities. And that is absolutely why I’m trying to shine a light— on them.

Ryan’s homage to community colleges dates back to the 1960s, when she attended Antelope Valley College, a community college in Lancaster, Calif., where she was fearful about not knowing what direction to take. Often young adults “truly don’t know what to do— with themselves, she said. But community colleges “catch people where they are.—

Ryan said at a poetry reading introducing the program last week: “I know what’s great, but I don’t know where great comes from. I’m suspicious of our slavish infatuation with great schools and the idea that our next great writer or discoverer is going to spring from them. I’m just sure that chips of greatness are lodged everywhere, pretty evenly, and a whole lot of them are therefore in community colleges and their teachers.—

In Ryan’s case, a community college helped her reach higher. Although she wrote many poems in her early 30s, she felt quite embarrassed by the thought of being called a poet.

“Imagine coming from blue-collar roots,— Ryan said, “and thinking about telling people that you are not something they could understand like a doctor or an electrician or a dental assistant — but a poet? It was too ridiculous.—

The greatest poetic influence was Ryan’s stern English professor at her community college, Evelyn Foley, who introduced her to the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Ryan remembers the first poem she ever wrote at age 19 in response to her father’s death. Although many discover comfort in writing poetry in the midst of tragedy, Ryan said, “I don’t think suffering is enough. I think it might get us started, but it’s not the food of poetry.—

“A lot of times we just think of poetry as being emotional or an expression of emotion. And I would say that [poetry] is emotion passed through the mind,— she said.

Additionally, Ryan said she believes the real “food of poetry— is found in one’s intellect and the mere fascination and deep pleasure that comes with manipulating language.

Ryan pointed out that the act of writing permits you to think more deeply. It is an exchange, like talking with somebody. “You can go so much farther than if you just think inside of your head without jotting it down on paper,— she said. “It’s almost like magic.—

Ryan said she does her best thinking while sitting up in bed, alone when all is quiet — and she’s had her breakfast. She then grabs her clipboard and tablet and begins to think.

On April 1, Ryan will dissect the creative process of poetry writing during an interactive videoconference dialogue with seven community colleges, including Northern Virginia Community College, streamed live on the Internet. Colleges worldwide will be able to participate in the event.

In addition, Ryan’s latest book, “The Best of It,— is expected to come out this spring. It’s a compilation of the best poems Ryan has written and 25 new ones.