A Poet Laureate For Community Colleges

Kay Ryan is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. That is a topic that would normally appear on my poetry blog, but there's an education connection with Ryan. She wants to use her second term as Poet Laureate to advocate for the importance of community colleges, and to reach out to more community college students by doing readings at their campuses.

Ryan is sometimes described as a "reluctant laureate" because she does not really like being a public poet - and, of course, that is the Laureate's job.

Ryan was born in 1945 in San Jose, Calif., and grew up in the San Joaquin Valley. At 19, she was a student at Antelope Valley College, a community college in the Mojave Desert. That was where she began reading poetry.

She went on to attend UCLA for her B.A. and M.A. and then got her Ph.D. program at UC Irvine.

She is now in her second term as Poet Laureate. She has taught remedial English as an adjunct professor at the Bay Area's College of Marin for 33 years. Her partner of 30 years, Carol Adair, was also an ESL and Communications instructor at the college.

In an interview for the National Writing Project, she talked about her attachment to teaching and learning in a community college.
"I wasn't ready," she says. "I hadn't taken any education classes. Teaching had to teach me how to do it."

"It took me ages to realize that you can do these things with respect. Because if someone doesn't know something, that's no shame, and if you use a simple analogy, that's no shame. I had to realize that there is great art in simplicity."

The art of simplicity that Ryan honed as a teacher is very much a part of her poetry, especially in how it's made her conceive of her audience.

"Teaching has made me always question the way I say things. I never take my audience for granted. I want to write in such a way that anyone who is willing to try hard, just with a good mind and attention, can get it. I don't mean that I'm trying to hit the least common denominator or anything, but I don't want to assume a lot of learning."

Although Ryan no longer teaches, she wants to use her second term as poet laureate to advocate for the importance of community colleges in the nation and to reach out to more community college students by doing readings at campuses across the nation

"When I think community college, I think of those people who are getting themselves to a point where they can function in this country. Where they can get a job and read the paper, assuming there are still newspapers left."

Ryan recounted the story of a student of hers who was an English language learner and had a job as a bank teller, but needed to take Ryan's class because her boss told her to learn how to write

"She was so thrilled when she could write clear notes to her boss or other tellers. I want that to happen to more people, and I see community college as that essential bridge for people who for one reason or another don't have the skills to really succeed. A bridge so that they can go on to a four year college and get a decent job."

But learning to write goes beyond fundamental employment skills. "You don't know what you think unless you can write," says Ryan.

"I think we have to make an object, because the conversation inside ourselves is so intimate that we can't see it unless we can make a product and see it. In a way, writing creates a second person for you. When you write you are two people. Because you are writing to the writer and the writer is talking to you."

If community college students develop these skills, they can go anywhere. "You can even be the poet laureate," Ryan says.


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