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Kay Ryan reads at Cleveland Public Library

Kay Ryan.
Kay Ryan.
Photo by Christina Koci Hernandez.

You know it’s National Poetry Month when the Poets Laureate start showing up in town.

Sunday afternoon was no exception as Kay Ryan, the 16th and current U.S. Poet Laureate, read at the Cleveland Public Library’s Louis Stokes Wing.

As Ryan took the podium—a glass podium, about which she later noted that “There are no secrets behind this podium”—she told her audience, “I just decided it was going to be a really good audience today,” and as such, planned to treat the Cleveland crowd to poems that she doesn’t normally recite at readings.

She opened the reading by talking about the question every poet gets asked at one time: “What kind of poetry do you write?” She then used the remainder of the reading to demonstrate that there are either many answers to that question…or none.

“The New Yorker said I am the contemporary poet of marriage. I don’t know where they got that,” she said.

Ryan’s poems, short but dense, nearly all had some conclusion—I almost want to call it a “moral of the story”—that elicited a collective sigh from the audience. Her pointed, condensed observations make her audience consider unconventional perspectives in looking at human life and the world around us.

She also conveyed her slightly slanted views—especially regarding writing and poetry—in humorous quips between poems. “Someone said my work is really accessible. I think that’s great because I don’t understand it,” Ryan said.

She also said, “I think poetry is aristocratic. You have to make yourself worthy of it. I want it to be really hard.” She followed that statement by saying how shocked the librarian of Congress would be if he heard her say that.

Throughout the reading, Ryan betrayed her community college teacher background with a lecture-like tone, but in the best of ways. Her deliberate cadence emphasized her belief that “poems are best read rather than heard,” and she often repeated them, giving the audience a second pass to catch what may have been missed.

Her latest collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, from which she read on Sunday, can be found here.

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