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Best of the National Book Festival: Kay Ryan, 2008

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Welcome to our ongoing celebration of the Library of Congress National Book Festival. Each weekday, we will feature a video presentation from among the thousands of authors who have appeared at the National Book Festival and as part of our new year-long series, National Book Festival Presents. Mondays will feature topical nonfiction; Tuesday: poetry or literary fiction; Wednesday: history, biography, memoir; Thursday: popular fiction; and Friday: authors who write for children and teens. Please enjoy, and make sure to explore our full National Book Festival video collection!

Kay Ryan, 16th U. S. Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010, was still new to her position when she participated in the 2008 National Book Festival on the Poetry & Prose stage.

The program opens with a welcome by then Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, followed by remarks from then National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia (at 4:15). Kay Ryan is from the West and grew up in the Mojave Desert area. The sparseness of that terrain is reflected in the deceptive sparseness of her poetry: She packs enormous depth and meaning into very few words.

Listeners will be captivated by Ryan’s poems, and by her equally spare and wry sense of humor, as exhibited in her interview (at 37:15) with Gioia. “I feel like I’ve been rewarded for a life of privacy,” Ryan says, “living in my pajamas. … Somebody asked me about my outreach. … I have spent my whole life thinking about in-reach.”

Kay Ryan’s reading begins at 6:55; timestamps for individual poems are below:

  • “Emptiness” (7:47)
  • “Vacation” (8:56)
  • “When Fishing Fails” (10:53)
  • “Force” (12:11)
  • “Turtle” (13:19)
  • “Dew” (14:55)
  • “Bestiary” (16:08)
  • “New Clothes” (17:30)
  • “A Plain Ordinary Steel Needle Can Float on Pure Water” (18:46)
  • “Composition” (20:35)
  • “Patience” (22:39)
  • “The Fabric of Life” (24:25)
  • “Matrigupta” (25:41)
  • “Among English Verbs” (27:22)
  • “Why We Must Struggle” (28:58)
  • “Weak Forces” (30:17)
  • “Shipwreck” (31:44)
  • “Dogleg” (33:14)
  • “Train-Track Figure” (34:22)
  • “Odd Blocks” (35:18)