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Poet Kay Ryan Named MacArthur Fellow

Genius awards come with $500,000 grant

Kay Ryan has been named one of 22 new MacArthur fellows.
Kay Ryan has been named one of 22 new MacArthur fellows.

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The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named 22 new MacArthur fellows on Tuesday. They'll receive Genius awards, which come with a no-strings attached grant of $500,000 over five years.

The diverse grantees include a journalist, cellist, clinical psychologist, computer scientist and a former poet laureate of the United States, Kay Ryan, who also received a Pulitzer Prize this year. Ryan is well-known for her compact, vivid and accessible verse.

The high honors come as a bit of a surprise to the poet herself, who was raised in what she calls the “glamor-free, ocean-free, hot, stinky, oil-rich, potato-rich” San Joaquin Valley of California.

“I have to say that I didn’t want to be a poet and I still feel pretty embarrassed about it in a lot of situations because it seemed like putting on airs," Ryan says. "But I found that poetry was nonetheless possessing my mind. Like, if I read a book and it was prose, the prose would start rhyming, and it was kind of a little insanity taking me over.”

Ryan’s poems often explore every day human emotions such as hope, doubt and fear. She has a fluid, soaring imagination, as we see in the poem,“Killing Time.”

Time is rubbery.
If you hide it
in the shrubbery
it will wait
will winter and
wash back out
with the rainwater.
You will find it
on your steps again
like the newspaper.
Time compresses.
Stuff it in the
couch corner and
it will spring out
some night or other
when you have guests.  
One of whom guesses.
Time stretches.
Then it snaps back
leaving bare patches
that didn’t happen.
Abandoned time hardens
like hidden gun.
People feel around.
Sooner or later
it will be found.


Ryan has published seven collections of poetry, beginning with a self-published volume in 1983. But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that she began to acquire a national reputation. In the meantime, she taught remedial English at a community college in Marin County, California, and lived quietly with her longtime spouse, Carol Adair, who died in January 2009.

Unlike many poets of her stature, Ryan has never been interested in the busy academic swirl of conferences and university life, or even in the high visibility her poet laureate post, her Pulitzer Prize and now, her MacArthur Genius grant have given her.

She says she is already “overly visited by the sensation and the ideas of others” and “would like peace from it most of the time.”

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