Best Creative Second Act 2011: Poet Kay Ryan
Bio: Junior college English teacher who morphed into one of the greatest poets of her generation
Attitude: "Poems are even better than tweets -- they don't require any electronic equipment," Ryan muses in an interview with The Wall Street Journal after winning the Pulitzer Prize this year. "They can lodge right in your brain. They are by nature short. You don't even have to remember all of them -- you can remember just a phrase. That can be something you can turn to in any emergency, good or bad."
Call it poetic justice: A writer who toils for years in obscurity, whose biggest literary achievement is teaching English at a junior college, doesn't give up. She turns 40 and keeps writing. She gets a few things published. She turns 50. She hones her craft. Success finally comes comparatively late in life -- not in a trickle, but in a deluge. Ryan's poems and essays are published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Paris Review and The American Scholar. She racks up a Guggenheim fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes. Her oblique, pithy observations inspire the likes of critic J.D. McClatchy to call them "exhilarating . . . as intense and elliptical as Dickinson, as buoyant and rueful as Frost." At an age when many people retire, the late-blooming Ryan, who lives in the small California town of Fairfax, north of San Francisco, achieves the ultimate rewards for her perseverance. She is chosen to be the U.S. Poet Laureate, an exalted post she held from 2008 to 2010, and then trumps herself this year, at 67, by winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."
Read more about Ryan's work and her poem "Paired Things" in this essay by former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia.
Honorable Mention: Lucy Mercer, theater owner
Mercer proudly raised the curtain on her second career by rescuing the Throckmorton, a decaying, nearly century-old movie house in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco. Although she had no experience in running a theater -- she previously owned a low-income apartment complex -- Mercer acquired "The Throck" and set about establishing a nonprofit community arts showcase. The 56-year-old owner ripped out the green shag carpet, renovated the building and began booking the once-neglected venue with all manner of entertainment -- comedy acts, stage dramas, dance shows, movies, and on-stage conversations with creative performers. Virtually every night now the theater is where it's happening -- to the point that big names have rediscovered the place. Robin Williams rehearses there for his national tours, as does Dana Carvey for his TV gigs. Mort Sahl is another of Mercer's regulars.
Honorable Mention: Rich Sandomeno, jewelry designer
As a diesel truck mechanic, Sandomeno knew how to work with his hands, but he found little fulfillment in watching a repaired big-rig lumber onto the highway. His real future, he decided, was in art, and he began by taking classes at night. Upon discovering jewelry design, he knew what he was meant to do -- and he quit his mechanic job and sold his condo for startup money. The 40-year-old New Jersey native, who now resides in Los Angeles' artsy Echo Park community, has thrived, drawing attention in magazines, commercials and movies with jewelry that isn't your standard Tiffany fare. His pieces have what he calls an edgy "industrial twist" -- picture a bracelet sculpted from a bent socket wrench. Sandomeno, a finalist on Lifetime's new Project Accessory, plans to launch a line of women's jewelry and purses in 2012.
Honorable Mention: June and Jean Millington, members of the rock group Fanny
Many fans of the groundbreaking 1960s and 1970s all-female band, including superstar David Bowie, lamented Fanny's drift into obscurity. For the Millingtons, though, the end was only a lull. June and her longtime partner, Ann Hackler, later founded the nonprofit Institute for Musical Arts in Goshen, Mass., which operates the Rock 'n Roll Camp for Girls and teaches young women about album production and recording. Recently, 63-year-old June Millington has put those skills to use, reuniting with sister Jean to revive the group. The duo tapped into the Kickstarter website to raise funds, and in August Fanny released its first album in nearly 40 years, Play Like a Girl. Reviewer Jef Fazekas, writing on Amazon, enthuses, "This is the album that many Fanny-atics have been waiting for!"
Keep reading: The Best Second Acts Awards 2011
Day 1: Best Second Act in Sports 2011: Swimmer Diana Nyad
Day 2: Best Celebrity Second Act 2011: Jon Bon Jovi's Soul Kitchen
Day 3: Best Creative Second Act 2011: Poet Kay Ryan
Day 4: Best Second Act Comeback 2011: Entrepreneur Brad Gruno
Day 5: Most Inspirational Second Act 2011: Grad Student Allyson Reneau
Day 6: Best Second Act Making A Difference 2011: Judith Broder
Day 7: Best Second Act Reinvention 2011: E-book Author John Locke
Day 8: Best Second Act Game-Changer 2011: Room to Read's John Wood