Chalk and Cheese
Despite their differences, poets Dana Gioia and Kay Ryan share a primary passion
By Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Author and radio host Garrison Keillor, known for the radio variety show Prairie Home Companion, launched a new series on Minnesota Public Radio this winter called Literary Friendships, which features writers who are “exploring the solitude of writing and the company of friendships.”
The show includes writers who have been friends for as long as 40 years, such as poets Donald Hall and Robert Bly, the married novelists Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, but more to the point, the unexpected friendship of Dana Gioia and Kay Ryan.
Gioia is, in almost every way, a very public person. He is a former businessman with an MBA from Harvard Business School, the former vice-president of General Foods and currently the chairman for the government-run National Endowment for the Arts. His 1991 book of essays, Can Poetry Matter? sparked a national debate on the importance of poetry, and he stirred up another storm when, at his direction, the NEA last year launched a report called Reading at Risk about the sad state of reading in the United States.
Kay Ryan is a self-proclaimed “private poet,” who was all but unknown to the larger world of poetry when she and Gioia became friends back in 1996, though she had published four volumes of poetry with small (read: non-New York-based) presses.
Gioia, who claims he “fell in love with her work” almost immediately, became her public advocate, including her in anthologies he edited and writing the first essay ever published about her work, “Discovering Kay Ryan,” in the Dark Horse literary journal in 1998. Ryan is no longer an unknown, having gone on to be published in The New Yorker magazine and recently winning the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Despite a wider fame, she still maintains a private life, living in the same house in Fairfax that she has shared for the past 26 years with her partner, Carol Adair, riding her bike as her main form of entertainment and reading the paper each morning. Her most recent book of poetry is Say Uncle (Grove Press).
“Ten years ago, a small publisher gave me a review copy of Kay’s book Flamingo Watching. I couldn’t put the book away. Kay’s work is funny and metaphoric, and I felt that Kay was the best new poet I had come across in years,” says Gioia by phone from his office in Washington.
When he discovered that Ryan lived in Marin County, not far from his own home in Sonoma County, Gioia sent her a postcard saying he admired her work. Part of the postcard, which Ryan read live on Keillor’s show, says, “Dear Ms. Ryan, I hope that Northern California is not so big a place that we will not eventually meet.”
They did meet and quickly became friends, continuing to get together when Gioia came through town and maintaining a steady phone relationship to this day.
“I was quite flattered by his attentions,” says Ryan. “Dana was quite a phenomenon to me because he is a man of so many parts. He was absolutely dazzling in his energy and in the wide variety of projects that he is always involved in. That’s very opposite to my nature, which is to undertake one or zero projects at a time.”
“After you’ve known her a while, you realize there’s an absolute continuity between the poetry and the woman,” says Gioia. “She often scolds me for working too much. Kay knows a workaholic when she sees one.”
In addition to their common literary leanings, both Ryan and Gioia are from Southern California. “We’re both working-class, blue-collar kids who studied at the school of hard knocks. Both of us developed as poets outside the formal literary establishment,” says Gioia.
Gioia grew up in Hawthorne, Calif., born to a Mexican telephone-operator mother and a Sicilian father. He was the first in his family to go to college, at Stanford University.
“I had an odd but typical American childhood, which is to say an immigrant childhood. Sicilians can’t bear to be away from their relations, even if they can’t stand one another,” he laughs. “There were always 30 or 40 relatives nearby.”
Ryan grew up in the Central Valley. Her father was an oil driller, and her mother, a part-time elementary school teacher.
“My mother was a person very much against any kind of airs or self-display. When I asked her what she thought I should do with my life, she said that I should probably go to secretarial school so that if my husband died, I’d have a way to support the children,” says Ryan. “I knew I was going to leave the little desert town where we lived. I knew that education was the only way out, the only thing I could see that suggested a future for me.”
Ryan first attended a local community college and then UCLA, but found the latter “numbing in its anonymity,” preferring more intimacy and a slower pace. This need for the slow and the simple may be one of the greatest differences between Ryan and Gioia, and one of the things that makes people curious about their friendship.
“Dana finds meaning in connecting other people and in making projects. He’s a maker of anthologies, a creator of conferences and programs. He is profoundly a multitasker. I am a mono or an a-tasker. The most important aspects of myself can only be accessed through the process of writing,” says Ryan.
Yet when each writer talks about the other, similarities quickly become apparent. Both have a penchant for cracking jokes and for not falling prey to the sloppiness of slang or vernacular when speaking.
“When you’re involved in some intense kind of solitary creative activity, you wonder if you’re not at some level slightly insane,” says Gioia. “It’s wonderfully reassuring to meet another writer and discover that he or she shares your insanity.”
“For most of the world,” Ryan reflects, “writing, especially writing poetry, might be a nice hobby or recreation, but not a primary passion or the deepest engagement with life. It’s wonderful to have someone as a friend for whom it is essential and central.”
Both describe the other as “down to earth” and both say that they laugh a lot in each other’s company. Both also express having felt themselves to be outsiders in the literary world at one point, having developed themselves as poets without the shaping hand of an academic institution. Ryan says, “I think that all genuine poets are outsiders, really. I don’t think you can be taught. If your writing resembles something else, then that’s already been done. The very definition of poetry is that something eternally true is articulated in a way that makes it seem as if it was just invented.”
When asked to describe Gioia’s work, Ryan says, “I think Dana writes very elegant poetry that is deeply grounded in his experiences and informed by his noble heart.” One of the words that Gioia uses to describe Kay’s poetry is “spiky,” which delights her.
“I think poetry should sort of poke through your skin, shouldn’t fit you quite right. I don’t think that poetry should be ingested easily,” she says.
“Every single thing that I write has a different inspiration and comes from a different source. What I can say is that the act of writing, what keeps me writing, is that I can only know through writing–my major sense organ is apparently a pencil.”
The idea of writing poetry actually embarrassed me at first,” Ryan adds. “It was alien to my roots.”
Gioia expresses a similar feeling. “I never let anybody know I was a poet while working at General Foods. It seems sort of pretentious to tell someone you’re a poet.”
“Nobody ever says, ‘I need that poem by Friday,'” Ryan chuckles.
In Gioia’s essay “Discovering Kay Ryan,” her poem “Paired Things” is featured. At the time the essay was written, Ryan and Gioia had not been friends for very long, but a line in the poem seems as though it could have been written about their friendship: “So many paired things seem odd.”
When asked about it, Ryan laughs, “I think that’s absolutely perfect for us! Dana and I are as different as chalk and cheese–that’s a British euphemism–but then I thought, ‘Who is going to get to be the cheese and who the chalk?’ I think Dana’s the cheese.”
The ‘Literary Friendships’ show featuring Dana Gioia and Kay Ryan is archived online at http://literaryfriendships.publicradio.org.
From the April 13-19, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.