BY CHRISTINE SCHRUM
Nebraskan Ted Kooser
When I attended a reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser in Iowa City last October, several things about the evening struckme as remarkable. The first was how at ease and personable the man seemed beforea standing-room only crowd in the University of Iowa’s Shambaugh Auditorium.Kooser smiled and shared anecdotes and poems as though the audience were nothingmore than a living-room-full of family members sprawled out on chairs and softpillows. But then that’s Kooser’s poetic milieu: the artful yetaccessible.
The second thing that struck me was how, with careful attention to language,he transformed commonplace items and events—yellow panties flapping ona laundry line, for instance—into profound meditations. Iowa-born Kooseris well-known for his ability to slow the hands of time and call readers’ attentionto the significance, beauty, and humor of the seemingly insignificant. Thingslike creaky old furnaces or the act of collecting a urine specimen in a hospital. “Ilike to write poems about ordinary things and somehow make them remarkable,” hesaid at one point during the evening.
The third and most surprising thing I noticed was how at the end of the evening,when fans lined up to have their books signed, more than a few women coylyhanded Kooser, an unassuming, married man in his 70s, handwritten notes hastenedon scraps of paper. Several of the notes bore rosy, puckered lipstick-kissimprints, and all of them included the givers’ names and addresses.
Asking around, I quickly discovered that in addition to being a poet and essayist,teaching English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, running a weekly “AmericanLife in Poetry” column for newspapers, and serving as the United StatesPoet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Kooser alsofinds time to personally mail Valentine’s poems to some 1,300 women (andcounting) each year.
So when my turn in line came to have my book signed, I did what any otherpoet and romantic would do. I blushed and gave him my address.
This being February, I’d like to know what inspired your tradition ofsending out Valentine’s poems to women you barely know?
TED KOOSER: One of our friends, Dace Burdic, has mailedhandmade valentines for many years and I liked that and thought I’dtry to write a valentine poem. The first year I mailed out maybe two dozen,and it’s grown andgrown.
What does your wife think about it?
I think she thinks it’s harmless, and fun for me. A time or two, she’sreceived valentines from the husbands of some of the women on my list.
When did you begin writing?
When I was in grade school we were encouraged to write poems, just as childrenare today. In high school I wrote dozens of poems for my girlfriend. My firstpublished poem appeared when I was 16 or thereabouts. It was a Robert Servicestyle ballad about a hotrod race, and it appeared in a click teenager-orientedmagazine called Dig. I didn’t get serious about writing poems, though,until I was about 18. Since then I have either written poems or thought aboutwriting poems every day of my life.
How old were you when you got your first poems published?
Other than for the one mentioned in the answer just above, my first poems beganto appear in literary magazines when I was about 25.
You worked for 35 years in the life insurance business.Isn’t therea conflict between working for a company like that and being a poet?
I knew very early in life that I would never be able to make a living as apoet, and that if I wanted to support myself and a family I would need to finda job that wouldn’t take every ounce of energy I had, so that I’dbe able to write in my spare time. The insurance job was that. I only rarelyhad to work at night, and usually had a regular 40-hour week. I got up earlyevery morning, sometimes at 5:00, sometimes at 4:30, and did my writing beforeit was time to get dressed for work.
This newspaper column you’re doing, “American Life in Poetry,” howis it going?
Because the column is free to any newspaper or on-line publication, or anyindividual, it has gotten into lots of small newspapers who couldn’tpay for such a column. We are in over a hundred newspapers and have millionsof potential readers. My mission is to show newspaper readers that poetry canbe fun to read and doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult and obscure.We are getting lots of compliments from readers. I couldn’t have begunthis column without the help of The Poetry Foundation in Chicago, which fundsmy operation, and the Library of Congress, which supervises my activity.
Other than teaching and managing your column, what other literary outreachprojects are you involved in?
I am doing a great deal of public speaking. As of the first of this year Ihad made around 130 public appearances and done around 80 interviews.
In interviews, you’ve described yourself as a “retiring and quiet” kindof person. How do you feel now that your status as Poet Laureate has thrownyou into the limelight?
I do prefer lots of time alone, but I am committed to doing a good job as PoetLaureate and that means getting out and talking to people. The other can wait.
Do you still have time for your own writing?
I still get up very early every morning to write [At his Iowa City reading,Kooser mentioned that he writes from 4:30–7 each morning]. I have writtena handful of poems since my appointment, and perhaps two or three are worthkeeping. A very good year for me is a dozen poems that I like, so I’mdoing pretty well despite my new job.
What do you feel is the value and role of poetry in today’ssociety?
Poetry can enrich life, can show people that the extraordinary is all aroundthem no matter how dull their lives seem to be.
There’s a rare sparsity to your language. Doesit come out that way or do you spend many hours revising?
I revise extensively, almost always cutting rather than adding. I don’twant my poems to have any extra language, any extra parts.
How do you know when a poem’s finished? Are youever thoroughly satisfied?
I work on them until I can’t think of anything else to do that mightmake them stronger. Sometimes I do feel that I’ve really got it right,but that’s rare.
Which poets most greatly influenced your writing?
Hundreds of poets. I have read poetry for over 50 years, and have learned somethingfrom every poem I’ve read. Maybe something very small sometimes, butsomething. We learn from the poems that succeed and from the ones that don’t.
What advice would you give to aspiring poets and writers?
READ! Reading is the way we learn to write. I ask my graduate students to read100 poems for every one they try to write.
Ted Kooser is one of Nebraska’s most highly regarded poets and the authorof eleven full-length collections of poetry, including Delights and Shadows (CopperCanyon Press, 2004), which won the Pulitzer Prize. Over the years his workshave appeared in many periodicals, including The Atlantic Monthly, TheNew Yorker, Poetry, The Hudson Review, The Nation, The American Poetry Review,The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and Antioch Review. Koosers’ poemsare included in textbooks and anthologies used in both secondary schools andcollege classrooms across the country. He has received two NEA fellowshipsin poetry, the Pushcart Prize, the Stanley Kunitz Prize, The James BoatwrightPrize, and a Merit Award from the Nebraska Arts Council. He lives with hiswife, Kathleen Rutledge, in Lincoln, Nebraska.