John Freeman is the author of How to Read a Novelist (FSG), the editor of the literary journal Freeman’s, and a contributing editor to ZYZZYVA. He is also a poet whose work has been published in The New Yorker and ZYZZYVA, and is currently working on a book about American poetry.
His feature on former U.S. poet laureate and longtime Bay Area resident Kay Ryan—set at a restaurant in the Presidio on a warm San Francisco day—launches a new component of ZYZZYVA: author profiles and conversations. (In our next issue, we’ll be publishing a conversation on memoir between Andrew Foster Altschul and Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff.) The following is an excerpt from Freeman’s profile. You can read it in its entirety in Issue No. 106, which you can order here.
To Kay Ryan, former U.S. poet laureate, the gradual evolution of a poet is a strange and scaly one, full of bewilderment. It’s possible, even likely, in Ryan’s mind, that a person destined for the “ferocious religion” of poetry staves off the eventuality for a long time.
In her essay “Do You Like It?,” published in ZYZZYVA’s Winter 1998 issue, Ryan reflects on the unforeseen moment she decided to become a writer. The poet tested her dedication to the craft over the course of a 4,000-mile bicycle trip. Then, an epiphany: “All at once I no longer had to try to appreciate my experience or try to understand; I played with the phrase the peace that passeth understanding like turning a silver coin in my fingers. And with the peace-beyond-the-struggle-to-understand came an unprecedented freedom and power to think.”