The 16th Poet Laureate of the United States is a lesbian. Kay Ryan was appointed Poet Laureate in July 2008 and it was announced in April that she would remain so through April 2010.
Ryan self-published her first book of poetry in 1983 but found a commercial publisher for her second book in 1985. Her work was largely unknown until 2004 when she won the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize.
The Ruth Lily was not her first award. In 1995, she received an award from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the 2000 Union League Poetry Prize, the 2001 Maurice English Poetry Award, a 2001 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a 2004 Guggenheim Fellowship.
Not only has Ryan published seven books of poetry, she has also been published in three Pushcart Prize anthologies and four times her work has been included in The Best American Poetry. Ryan is also a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Currently, Ryan teaches remedial English in Marin County, CA.
The Poetry Foundation describes Ryan’s poems as “Like Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore before her, Ryan delights in quirks of logic and language and teases poetry out of the most unlikely places. She regards the ‘rehabilitation of clichés’, for example, as part of the poet’s mission.”
Ryan’s poetry is short and misleadingly simple. “Say Uncle”, for example, is only 15 lines, all but one two simple words. But it asks a question that many of us want to ask our friends and family members at various times. As the New York Times says, “Ryan likes to take familiar images and clichés and reincarnate them in a wholly original form.”
According to the Library of Congress website, the Poet Laureate “serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans. During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation for the reading and writing of poetry.” That’s a pretty tall order for the $35,000 stipend she receives.
On the other hand, the Library of Congress does keep the Poet Laureate’s duties to a minimum to allow her to work on poetry. Primarily, she gives an annual public reading and organizes poetry readings and lectures at the Library of Congress.
For a bit of poetry history, the first recognized Poet Laureate, at least as we understand the position, was England’s Ben Johnson in 1617. King James created the position especially for Johnson. On the other hand, Geoffrey Chaucer was called Poet Laureate from 1340-1400, being paid with an annual allotment of wine.