Thursday, September 24, 2009


Kay Ryan's Suitcase

A number of years ago (1995?) when I was living in the Bay Area, I was listening to the local NPR station. The program that afternoon included three poetry readings, which were taking place in San Francisco's Herbst Theater. A poet took to the stage and announced that she would be reading a "topical" poem that was meant to be "applied locally." The first line of her poem: "Herbst is the superlative of herb."

I straightened up. Here was someone very clever and sly and very smart. I wrote down her name--Kay Ryan--and when the day was over, I had been to the local bookstore to purchase her collection of poetry: Flamingo Watching. The two other poets that day were Robert Haas and Jane Hirschfield. But it was Ryan I remembered.

I became a tremendous fan. The internet was new then, and I could find only one article about her work. I looked for her poems in the New Yorker. I bought volumes of Poetry magazine just because her work was included. I found her so smart and original. Of course her personal story resonated with me too--here was someone outside of the academy who had a singular vision and pursued it. These were all things I related to as an aspiring writer. I have all her books, even the very first one she printed called "Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends"--there must be only a few hundred that were very printed. I don't know.

In case you haven't been paying attention, Kay Ryan has since gone on to become the US Poet Laureate (2008). When she received this honor, I felt extremely fan-girlish. My Kay Ryan! Whom I had loved for such a long time was getting the attention she deserved! I am a rational person with friends who are well known in their fields, but I'm afraid that I am not at all immune to feelings of fandom about certain artists. Kay Ryan is one of them.

Yesterday, on my flight back from San Francisco, I noticed a suitcase in the Business Class section. It had been left behind--the Business and First class passengers had long since departed the plane. The tag read: "Kay Ryan." I thought: could it be? I actually considered not getting off the plane right away to see if THE Kay Ryan might claim the suitcase. But this seemed like an extreme and stalkerish thing to do. I did, however, Tweet late last night that I wondered if the suitcase had actually belonged to my very favorite living poet. All day today I wondered if I had blown my chance to let her know how much I loved her work.

This evening, my friend Jeffrey and I were off to see Tosca at the Met (despite the many reports of booing, I thought the production was excellent, and the naysayers crazy. But more on that another time). Before the opera, however, Jeffrey took me to the opening of the Poets House, a gorgeous space filled with poetry journals and books and with views of the Hudson River. Bill Murray was there. So too Laurie Anderson.

I was waddling after a group of nimble people getting into the elevator when I fell behind. Pregnant women are often stragglers. A figure in a black suit blocked my way. The people in the elevator smiled patiently as I tried to get around the dark suit. Once in the elevator I looked to see who had been obstructing my path. As the doors closed, I looked at Jeffrey and asked: "Was that Kay Ryan?" It was.

I could not believe it. So. That HAD been her suitcase. I stumbled back down the stairs, (past Bill Murray) and went over to say hello. She was, of course, extremely kind and my friends watched as I babbled on and on about Dragon Acts to Dragon EndsĀ (she asked me to burn it. As if. We all start somewhere) and her "Herbst is the superlative of herb" poem. We took a photo, which you see above. We had a lovely chat about a number of things and she put up with me. And then, we went on our way.

Laurie Anderson talked about how we are all in the mine and we are all in trouble. "There is trouble in the mine," she said. I couldn't see her, but there were video screens with her face everywhere on every floor. She used a voice distorter.

The tech guy watched to make sure everything was working. I ate a lot of hors d'oeuvres. And then, we left for the opera, and Jeffrey had to listen to me say all night that I could not believe I had met Kay Ryan and that it had been her suitcase after all on my flight.

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