2012 Tell it Slant Award honoring Kay Ryan

Emily Dickinson Museum Presents Inaugural Tell it Slant Award to Poet Kay Ryan

Photo by Jeff Morgan

Tell it Slant Award


The Emily Dickinson Museum presented the inaugural Tell it Slant Award to Kay Ryan, U.S. Poet Laureate 2008-2010, in a two-day celebration of the 182nd anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s birth.

The Tell it Slant Award was created in 2012 by the Museum’s Board of Governors, which itself selects the awardee. The name of the award is taken from a well-known Dickinson poem: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -- / Success in Circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth's superb surprise.” The award honors individuals whose life work is imbued with the creative spirit of the Amherst poet.

The Tell it Slant Award was presented to Ryan on December 6 at a program in Amherst’s First Congregational Church, which Dickinson’s family attended but which she never entered. In presenting the award, Gigi Bradford, a member of the Dickinson Museum’s Board of Governors, remarked that “Unlike any other poet writing today, Kay Ryan takes Dickinson’s sense of how poetry—sometimes playfully and lightly but always from a slant—helps us to answer the central questions of what it means to be human.”

Following a reading and talk by Ryan, the Homestead and The Evergreens were opened for a reception. The evening before, Amherst College President Biddy Martin hosted a “Poet’s Supper” at which she and Norton Juster, author of The Phantom Tollbooth, read the parts of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson in an exchange of poems and letters between the Amherst poet and her literary mentor.

The Tell it Slant Award was fashioned from a piece of distinctive New Mexico Blue glass donated by internationally-recognized glass artist Josh Simpson. The manuscript version of the poem was reproduced in Dickinson’s hand on the glass through a resist process by Dave Zaltzberg.

Not unlike Dickinson, Kay Ryan has lived largely outside the poetry world, pursuing her writing while teaching part-time at the College of Marin in the San Francisco area. She published her first book of poetry Strangely Marked Metal in 1985 at the age of forty, yet her work was little noticed until the 1990s when national journals called attention to her anthologized poems. She went on to receive both the coveted Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship in the same year (2004) and was named Poet Laureate of the United States four years later. Her seventh book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, published in 2010, won a Pulitzer Prize.

Kay Ryan’s trip to the east coast from her California home was the product of another novel circumstance—the cooperation between the Emily Dickinson Museum and the Folger Shakespeare Library, both linked to Amherst College, in planning their respective Dickinson Birthday tributes. Kay Ryan was the featured poet on December 3 at the Folger’s O.B. Hardison Lecture Series, co-sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. In symbolic recognition of the new collaboration, an 1860s glass oil lamp from the Emily Dickinson Museum’s collection stood on the stage during Kay Ryan’s reading to a standing-room-only audience in the Elizabethan Theatre.

Although the award isn’t restricted to poets, Kay Ryan is exactly the right first recipient, a worthy successor to Emily Dickinson’s astounding quality of mind.