Nation's poet laureate brings words to Modesto JC

It was a deep love of language that led U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan into writing poetry.

As a child, she enjoyed collecting words and coming up with funny combinations.

"I made it a private entertainment to say things differently than other people say them and say them differently than people said them before," Ryan said.

The 64-year-old Marin County resident will read some of her poems and answer audience questions at Modesto Junior College on Saturday. She is here in part because one of her projects as poet laureate is to advocate for community colleges.

She and her late partner, Carol Adair, were longtime teachers at College of Marin (Ryan taught remedial writing and reading; Adair taught English as a second language).

"I think community colleges are unrecognized treasures in the educational system," Ryan said. "I think the quality of instruction at community colleges is really wonderful. When I went to community college, I couldn't wait to get to UCLA. Then when I did, I discovered I had a much closer and meaningful relationship with my teachers at the community college."

Raised in Bakersfield and the Mojave Desert, Ryan was introduced to poetry by her mother and grandmother, who both liked to recite poems. But she didn't start writing poetry seriously until she was 30, didn't get anything much published until she was 40 and didn't get public attention until she was 50.

"It wasn't exactly speedy," she joked.

She ultimately racked up several honors, including winning the $100,000 Ruth Lily Poetry Prize and Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. She also published several poetry books, including "The Niagara River" (2005), "Say Uncle" (2000) and "Elephant Rocks." (1996).

Ryan said she tries to keep a sense of delight and playfulness in her poetry. She is known to infuse her poems from time to time with humor.

"The greatest encouragement I got (when I was starting out) was laughter," she said.

She borrowed a joke from former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins when asked to describe her current position: "The primary job of the poet laureate is to describe the job of the laureate."

In all seriousness, she said that the job requires her to be the public face of poetry. The poet laureate awards prizes, names some poets to read to the Library of Congress and may pursue a service project.

Ryan recently completed a speaking tour of the East Coast and also participated in a videoconference as part of her national poetry initiative, "Poetry for the Mind's Joy." The initiative includes a community college poetry contest.

Bryce Thornburg, 20, who won the MJC round of the national contest, will read his poem "What Can't Be Held," about growing up and changing.

Thornburg said he is looking forward to participating in Saturday's event with Ryan.

"It is pretty cool that she's coming -- especially since she's someone so big in the poetry world," he said. "Taking the time to come out and speak with us is really cool."

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