Kay Ryan was born in 1945 in San Jose, California, and grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert. Her father was an oil well driller and sometime-prospector. She received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 1971, Ryan has lived in Marin County. Her partner of 30 years is Carol Adair.
For more than 30 years, Ryan limited her professional responsibilities to the part-time teaching of remedial English at the College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif., thus leaving much of her life free for "a lot of mountain bike riding plus the idle maunderings poets feed upon." She said at one point that she has never taken a creative writing class, and in a 2004 interview in The Christian Science Monitor, she noted, "I have tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy."
In her poems Ryan enjoys re-examining the beauty of everyday phrases and mining the cracks in common human experience. Unlike many poets writing today, she seldom writes in the first person. She has said, "I don’t use ‘I’ because the personal is too hot and sticky for me to work with. I like the cooling properties of the impersonal." In her poem "Hide and Seek," for instance, she describes the feelings of the person hiding without ever saying, "I am hiding":
It’s hard not
to jump out
waiting to be
hard to be
alone so long
and then hear
like some form
of skin’s developed
in the air
than have torn,
She describes poetry as an intensely personal experience for both the writer and the reader: "Poems are transmissions from the depths of whoever wrote them to the depths of the reader. To a greater extent than with any other kind of reading, the reader of a poem is making that poem, is inhabiting those words in the most personal sort of way. That doesn’t mean that you read a poem and make it whatever you want it to be, but that it’s operating so deeply in you, that it is the most special kind of reading."
Ryan’s poems are characterized by the deft use of unusual kinds of slant and internal rhyming–which she has referred to as "recombinant rhyme"–in combination with strong, exact rhymes and even puns. The poems are peppered with wit and philosophical questioning and rely on short lines, often no more than two to three words each. She has said of her ascetic preferences, "An almost empty suitcase–that’s what I want my poems to be. A few things. The reader starts taking them out, but they keep multiplying." Because her craft is both exacting and playfully elastic, it is possible for both readers who like formal poems and readers who like free verse to find her work rewarding.
John Barr, president of The Poetry Foundation, said: "Halfway into a Ryan poem, one is ready for either a joke or a profundity; typically it ends in both. Before we know it the poem arrives at some unexpected, deep insight that likely will alter forever the way we see that thing."
Ryan has written six books of poetry, plus a limited edition artist’s book, along with a number of essays. Her books are: "Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends" (1983), "Strangely Marked Metal" (Copper Beech, 1985), "Flamingo Watching" (Copper Beech, 1994), "Elephant Rocks" (Grove Press,1996), "Say Uncle" (Grove Press, 2000), "Believe It or Not!" (2002, Jungle Garden Press, edition of 125 copies), and "The Niagara River" (Grove Press, 2005).
Her awards include the Gold Medal for poetry, 2005, from the San Francisco Commonwealth Club; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from The Poetry Foundation in 2004; a Guggenheim fellowship the same year; a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship as well as the Maurice English Poetry Award in 2001; the Union League Poetry Prize in 2000; and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in 1995. She has won four Pushcart Prizes and has been selected four different years for the annual volumes of the Best American Poetry. Her poems have been widely reprinted and internationally anthologized. Since 2006, she has been a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.