Although Ted Kooser began writing poems as a young child, the thirteenth poet laureate of the United States didn’t get serious about writing poetry until he was eighteen years old. With his quirky down-home humor, the re-tired insurance executive relates that Life magazine gave him the idea that being a “rumpled, unshaven, melancholy poet” would make him irresistible to women. Fortunately, Kooser’s interest in poetry took solid root, guiding him to graduate school at the University of Nebraska, where he received his M.A. in 1968. Although he enjoyed a successful thirty-five year career in the insurance industry, Kooser habitually wrote every morning before work; he also taught university writing courses off and on over the years, keeping his hand on the pulse of poetry and staying in tune with students.
Years of crafting words have paid off for Kooser. Over the last few decades, he has not only published numerous collections of poetry and prose, but has also received many awards, including two NEA fellowships, the Pushcart Prize, and in 2005, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Delights and Shadows (Copper Canyon Press, 2004). Heralded as an accessible yet deeply meaningful poet for the people, Kooser’s readers are continually delighted with his vibrant imagery and ability to translate the everyday and the universal to verse.
Kooser is married to Kathleen Rutledge, a newspaper editor, and has a son, Jeff, and granddaughter, Margaret. The poet and his wife live in the country near Lincoln, Nebraska, an existence that inspired one of his books, Local Wonders-Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (University of Nebraska Press, 2004). For more information about Ted Kooser and his work, go to: www.tedkooser.com.
Dallie Clark: Your 2005 book The Poetry Home Repair Manual (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) implies it is possible for all of us to nurture our poetic, artistic tendencies. As someone who had a “day job” in the insurance industry for thirty-five years, yet persevered to write and teach on the side, do you believe that many poets/writers are undiscovered to themselves and others due to the drain of outside careers and the “tyranny of the urgent?”
Ted Kooser: That’s possible, indeed, but there are pressures other than those of work that keep people from writing. One of the most significant of these is fear of failure. Being afraid that what one writes is not “good” discourages lots of people.
DC: In the same book, you also discuss the poet/reader relationship, offering excellent tips for the beginning poet to gain an audience (e.g., using an “imaginary reader” during the writing process and thinking less about critics and more about reader needs). Why do you think so many writers forget to consider their audience?
TK: Many of us get the impression from teachers and other writers that self-expression is the most important part of writing, and that leads people to think more about expressing themselves than inviting readers into what one writes.
DC: You make important points by stating that “poetry is a lot more important than poets” and by poking good-natured fun at the poetic ego, even your own. How does a large poetic ego negatively affect the writing process?
TK: Generally, doesn’t a person with a big ego feel superior? A sense of superiority over one’s community can make for self-absorbed writing.
DC: Alternatively, do you see many students and other writers who don’t have confidence in their own work? What is your advice to them?
TK: I don’t really know how to instill confidence; it’s such a complex personal thing. But I do tell students not to take rejection personally. When a poem gets rejected, it’s not by the entire literary world but by one person. The next person might like the work.
DC: As an advocate for the reader, you also discuss writers who purposefully use obscure, “elitist” language with little consideration for their audience. Do you think that some university environments and/or esteemed literary editors nurse this elitist attitude while discounting the clarity of simpler verse and accessibility? (Put another way, even as an accomplished writer, are you surprised at times by how quality in poetry is determined?)
TK: All of this comes down to likes and dislikes. Some editors like very challenging poetry, and that’s fine. They’ve been entrusted with literary journals and they have to decide what to publish. Thus most literary magazines are an extension of one personality. None of us can tell someone else what to like or what they might put forward as quality work. There’s plenty of room for all kinds of writing and all kinds of opinions.
DC: You gently argue that the world would be a better place if we all spent more time writing poetry. Ultimately, what do you believe poetry has the power to imbue?
TK: Poetry helps its writers think more clearly, and to put accurate and meaningful language to their purposes. Devoting an evening trying to write something meaningful is probably a better way to spend one’s time than watching Law & Order reruns.
DC: With that in mind, do you think American school curricula could more effectively help students appreciate and use poetry?
TK: Of course, but the schools are now up against national testing standards, and poetry has less of a place in the curriculum.
DC: You’ve noted that as a past graduate student, you were a “failure,” preferring to take your own paths rather than adhere to departmental expectations. Did this experience influence you later when you began teaching graduate students?
TK: Only insofar as I think I know how they feel and am sympathetic.
DC: What is your teaching philosophy? How do you run your lectures and workshops? What textbooks or books of poetry do you choose?
TK: I believe teaching is encouragement, in the best sense of that word, offering courage. I recommend books according to what I see as each student’s unique needs. I don’t use textbooks or the same book for everyone.
DC: No one can read your poetry and not feel the urge to observe nature’s profound normalcy and its metaphoric lessons for all of us. Was that your intent, to stir the reader through observations of the ordinary?
TK: I have never developed any kind of a program, but I am drawn to the ordinary world and write about it.
DC: One of our editor’s classes currently using your Poetry Home Repair Manual sent in a question for you: since your treatment for cancer, would you say that your poetic treatment of the subject of mortality has changed? Why or why not? If so, how?
TK: I have always written about mortality, but now I suppose I view life with a more celebratory spirit than ever before.
DC: Did your poem (in Delights and Shadows), shown below, emerge from that time?
here are days when the fear of death
is as ubiquitous as light. It illuminates
everything. Without it, I might not
have noticed this ladybird beetle,
bright as a drop of blood
on the window’s white sill.
Her head no bigger than a period,
her eyes like needle points,
she has stopped for a moment to rest,
knees locked, wing covers hiding
the delicate lace of her wings.
As the fear of death, so attentive
to everything living, comes near her,
the tiny antennae stop moving.
TK: Yes. It’s a poem about the way in which someone who has come near death pays attention and celebrates everything about the world.
DC: As U. S. Poet Laureate, you began a project called “American Life in Poetry,” a free weekly newspaper column in which you introduce a new poem by a living American for reader enjoyment. Since the column is free to newspapers, have many accepted this generous offer?
TK: Our statistics show only those newspapers that download the poems directly from our website, and there are around 150 papers in that count. But the state press associations download from our site and then send the columns on to their member papers. It has been estimated that, with them, we might have 300 papers. If that’s so, our probable circulation is around 12 million readers.
DC: The book you co-authored with friend Jim Harrison, Braided Creek (Copper Canyon Press, 2003), resulted from the poems you two shared over years of correspondence, yours in the form of postcards. Staying true to your joint mantra to avoid the “continuing cult of the personality,” you both chose to leave the individual poems unsigned, thus allowing the reader to peruse the poems freely. How did the idea to publish the book in this format come about?
TK: It was Jim’s idea, and I agreed. Besides the point about avoiding celebrity, it would have been a very clumsy read if our names had followed every poem.
DC: You have achieved what most poets only dream about: two terms as Poet Laureate for the U. S., international recognition, multiple publications and awards, and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Delights and Shadows. You stated in a past interview that later, you hope to publish “only those few poems that seem to be better” than what you’ve previously published. How do you define an improved poem or growth as a poet? Would you mind sharing other future goals and dreams?
TK: I’d guess that all writers hope to get better and better with age. I certainly do. But I have no idea what those improvements might be, or how they might display themselves. I’ll just keep writing and see what happens. I have no goals, other than to have time to read and write and live a quiet life.
DC: What is your response to poets who criticize using everyday experience in poetry and choose a more experimental approach?
TK: We’re all free to write however we wish to.
DC: Do you have a favorite poet, one who continually surprises and motivates you?
TK: The Swedish poet Thomas Tranströmer never disappoints me. I can’t read Swedish though, and know him only via translations, such as those of Robert Bly.
DC: Your latest published work, Flying at Night-Poems from 1965-1985 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), highlights the poem below and reveals a duality regarding our smallness, yet our simultaneous connectedness to the universe. Is there a spiritual message here as well?
Flying at Night
Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.
TK: If there’s a spiritual message, I don’t see it, but I’ll take credit for it if it’s there.