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Keeper of the Flame: Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser


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Ted Kooser was already well into his term as U.S. Poet Laureate and had recently been awarded the Pulitzer Prize when I wrote two stories about him. This is the first.  It appeared in the New Horizons, and it ‘s based on an interview I did with him at his home in Garland, Neb.  Whenever I interview and profile a writer, particularly one as skilled as Kooser, I feel added pressure to get things right. He helped make me feel comfortable with his amiable, homespun way, although I never once forgot I was speaking to a master.  The subsequent piece I did on him is also posted on this site.

 

Keeper of the Flame: Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Forget for the moment Ted Kooser is the reigning U.S. Poet Laureate or a 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner. Imagine he’s one of those quixotic Nebraska figures you read about. A bespectacled, bookish fellow living on a spread in the middle of nowhere, dutifully plying his well-honed craft in near obscurity for many years. Only, fame has lately found this venerable artist, who despite his recent celebrity and the rounds of interviews and public appearances it brings, still maintains his long-held schedule of writing each morning at 4:30. Away from the hurly-burly grind, the writer’s life unfolds in quiet, well-measured paces at his acreage home recessed below a dirt road outside Garland, Neb. There, the placid Kooser, an actual rebel at heart, pens acclaimed poetry about the extraordinariness of ordinary things.

Once you get off I-80 onto US 34, it’s all sky and field. Wild flowers, weeds and tall grasses encroach on the shoulders and provide variety to the patches of corn and soy bean sprawled flat to the horizon. The occasional farm house looms up in stark relief, shielded by a wind break of trees. The power lines strung between wooden poles every-so-many-yards are guideposts to what civilization lies out here.

Kooser’s off-the-beaten-track, tucked-away place is just the sort of retreat you’d envision for an intellectual whose finely rendered thoughts and words require the concentration only solitude can provide. More than that, this sanctuary is situated right in the thicket of the every day life he celebrates, which the title of his book, Local Wonders, so aptly captures. In his elegies to nature, to ritual, to work, and to all things taken for granted, his close observations and precise descriptions elevate the seemingly prosaic to high art or a state of grace.

The acreage he shares with his wife Kathy Rutledge includes a modest house, a red barn, a corn crib, a gazebo he built and a series of tin-roofed sheds variously containing a shop for his handyman work, an artist’s studio for his painting and a reading salon for raiding bookcases brimming with volumes of poetry and literature.

The pond at the bottom of the property is stocked with bluegill and bass.

His dogs are the first to greet you. Their insistent barking is what passes for an alarm system in these rural digs. Kooser, 66, comes out of the house to greet his visitors, looking just like his picture. He’s a small, exact man with a large head and an Alfred E. Newman face that is honest, wise and ironic. He has the reserved, amiable, put-on-no-airs manner of a native Midwesterner, which the Ames-Iowa born and raised Kooser most certainly is.

Comfortably and crisply outfitted in blue jeans, white shirt and brown shoes, he leads us to his shed-turned-library and slides into a chair to talk poetry in his cracklebarrel manner. A pot-bellied stove divides the single-room structure. The first thing you note is how he doesn’t play off the lofty honors and titles that have come his way the last two years. He is down to earth. Sitting with him on that June afternoon you almost forget he’s this country’s preeminent poet. That is until he begins talking about the form, his answers revealing the inner workings of a genuine American original and master.

Kooser, who teaches a graduate-level tutorial class in poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, patiently responds to his visitors’ questions like the generous teacher he is. His well-articulated passion for his medium and for his work, a quality that makes him a superb advocate for his art, are evident throughout a two-hour conversation that ranges from the nature of poetry to his own creative process.

 

 

 

 

So, what is poetry?

“I like to think it is the record of a discovery. And the discovery can either be something in your environment or something you discover in the process of writing, like in new language. You basically record that discovery and then give it to the reader. And then the reader discovers something from it,” he said. “There’s a kind of kaleidoscope called a taleidoscope. It doesn’t have the glass chips on the end. It has a lens and I turn it on you and however ordinary the thing is it becomes quite magical because of the mirrors. And that’s the device of the poem. The poet turns it on something and makes it special and gives it — the image — to the reader.”

There is a tradition in poetry, he said, of examining even the smallest thing in meticulous detail, thereby ennobling the subject to some aesthetic-philosophical-spiritual height. It’s one of the distinguishing features of his own work.

“The short lyric poem very often addresses one thing and looks at it very carefully. That’s very common. I guess I’m well known for writing poems about very ordinary things. There’s a poem in my latest book about a spiral notebook. Every drug store in the state has a pile of them. Nothing more ordinary than that. I’ve written poems about leaky faucets and about the sound a furnace makes when it comes on and the reflections in a door knob. They’re all celebrations in some sense. Praise” for the beauty and even the divine bound up in the ordinary.

His Henry David Thoreau-like existence, complete with his own Walden’s Pond, feeds his muse and gives him a never-ending gallery to ponder and to convey.

“I like it out here. I like being removed from town. I like it because it’s quiet. For instance, I have a poem in my book Weather Central about sitting here and watching a Great Blue Heron out here on the pond. And there are many poems like that. There’s another one in that same book called A Hatch of Flies about being down in the barn one morning very early in the spring and seeing a whole bunch of flies that had recently hatched behind a window.”

The rhythms of country living complement his unhurried approach to life and work. He waits for inspiration to come in its own good time. When an idea surfaces, he extracts all he can from it by finding purity in the music and meaning of language. Words become notes, chords and lyrics in a kind of song raised on high.

“I never really have an idea for a poem,” he said. “I’ll stumble upon something and it kind of triggers a little something and then I just sort of follow it and see where it goes. I always carry a little notebook. If I see something during the course of the day I want to write about, I make a note of it.”

Another element identifying Kooser’s work is the precision of his language and his exhaustion of every possible metaphor in describing something. The rigor of poetry and of distilling subjects and words down to their truest essence appeals to him.

“I think there’s a kind of polish on my metaphors. I’m extremely careful and precise in the way I use comparisons. I wrote about that in my Poetry Repair Manual. How you really work with a metaphor. You just don’t throw it in a poem and let it go. You develop it and take everything out of it you can. With a poem, once it’s finished or it’s as finished as best as I can finish it, there isn’t anything that can be moved around. You can’t substitute a word for its pseudonym or its synonym. You can’t change a punctuation mark or anything like that without diminishing the effect,” he said. “Whereas, with prose, you can move a word around or change the sentence structure and it really doesn’t have that much of an effect on the overall piece. I like the fact poetry has to be that orderly and that close to perfect. I tend to be a kind of orderly type guy.”

Getting his work as close to perfection as possible takes much time and effort.

“I spend a lot of time revising my poems and trying to get them just right. A short poem will go through as many as 30 or 40 revisions before it’s done. Easily. I’m always trying to make the poems look as if they’re incredibly simple when they’re finished. I want them to look as if I just dashed them off. That takes revision itself. I’m always revising away from difficulty toward clarity and simplicity.”

So, how does he know when a poem is done?

“I think what happens is eventually you sort of abandon the poem. There’s nothing more you can do to make it better. You just give up. Rarely do you get one you think is really perfect. But that blush of success doesn’t usually last very long.”

A serious poet since his late teens, Kooser has refined his style and technique over a half-century of experimentation and dogged work.

“We learn art by imitation — painters, musicians, writers, everybody — by imitating others. So, the more widely you read, the more opportunities there are to imitate different forms and different approaches, and I tried everything I suppose,” he said. “You learn from the bad, unsuccessful poems as much as you learn from the good ones. You see where they fail. You see where they succeed. I’ve written the most formal of forms — sonnets and sestinas and ballads and so on, just trying them out, as you’d try on a suit of clothes.”

“I’ve come to my current style, which feels very natural to me,” through this process of trial and error and searching for a singular voice and meter and tone. “Somebody glancing at it would say, ‘Well, this is free verse.’ But it really is not free verse at all. I take a tremendous amount of care thinking about the number of syllables and accents in the lines. I might not have three accents in every lines, but the only reason I wouldn’t add another accent to a line of two is that it would seem excessive or redundant in a way.

“So, I never let the form dominate the poem. It’s all sort of one thing. And I think poems proceed from someplace and then they find their own form as they’re written. You let them develop. You let them fill their own form.”

Being open to the permutations and rhythms of any given poem is essential and Kooser said his routine of predawn writing, which he got in the habit of while working a regular office job, feeds his creativity and receptivity. “It’s a very good time for me to write. It’s quiet. You mind is refreshed. I’m a poet very much devoted to metaphor and rather complex associations,” he said, “and they tend to rise up at that time of day. I think what happens is as you come out of sleep your mind is trying make connections and sometimes some really marvelous metaphors will arise. By the end of the day, your head is all full of newspaper junk and stuff.”

All that sounds highly romantic, but the reality and discipline of writing every day is far from idyllic. Yet that’s what it takes to become an artist, which reminds Kooser of a story that, not surprisingly, he tells through metaphor.

“A friend of mine had an uncle who was the tri-state horse shoe pitching champion three years running and I asked — ‘How’d he get so good at it? — and my friend said, ‘Son, you’ve got to pitch a hundred shoes a day.’ And that’s really what you have to do to get good at anything. And I tell my students that, too: ‘You’ve got to be in there pitching those hundred shoes every day.’ Often times, in the process of writing, the really good things happen. That’s why you have to write every day. You have to be there, as the hunters say, ‘when the geese come flying in.’”

As most writers do, Kooser came to his art as an eager reader. He grew up in a Cold War-era home where books were abundant. He became a fixture at the local public library in Ames. His mother, who had some college and was a voracious reader, encouraged young Ted. But what really drove him, more than the Robert Louis Stevenson books he devoured, was his sense of being an outsider. He was a puny kid who didn’t mesh with the cliques at school. But in writing he found something of his own. A key book in his early formation as an aspiring writer was Robert McCloskey’s novel Lentil.

“It’s about a boy in a small town who doesn’t fit it very well. He’s not an athlete. He can’t sing. Then he teaches himself to play the harmonica. When a very important person from the town returns home, the band is all assembled at the depot, the banners are all hung out and a parade is planned down main street. But the guest has an enemy who gets up on the depot roof with a lemon, and when the band gets ready to play, he slurps this lemon and the band can’t blow their horns. But Lentil can play his harmonica and by saving the day he gets to ride with the special guest in the parade. The last line of the poem is, ‘So you never know what will happen when you learn to play the harmonica. And that really is a seminal story for me. I identified with that kid. And this poetry business is really like the harmonica. This was my thing to do. And so, for me, the lesson was, You never know what will happen when you learn to write poetry.”

Besides writing, Kooser was “into hot rods.” He built one car himself and built another one with a friend. It was inevitable he would combine both passions.

“I was writing these Robert Service-type ballads about auto races. I wrote a long one about a race and some of my friends sent it to a slick teen magazine called Dig. It was nothing I would have ever done myself. I never was one to really put myself forward in any way. But they sent it in, and it was published, much to my surprise.”

 

 

 

 

Between the buzz of his first published story, the strokes his teachers gave him and the emerging Beat Poetry scene he embraced, Kooser was sold on the idea of being a poet despite and, indeed, because of the fact it was so far afield from his proletarian roots. Making his mark and defying convention appealed to the non-conformist in Kooser. It was his way of standing apart and being cool.

“I wanted to be a poet right from the time I was 17 or 18. That was really my driving force. It was the idea of being different and interesting. I wanted to be on the outside looking in. It had a lot to do with girls, frankly. I came from an extremely plain, ordinary, middle class background and I wanted to set myself apart from that. Who knows how that works psychologically? My mother was very devoted to me and had very conventional ideas, and it may have been my attempt to separate myself from her. And to this day, when I become sort of reabsorbed into the establishment, as if I had ascended in class to some other level, I feel slightly uncomfortable and rebellious. I think that to be successful as an artist you have to be on the outside of the general order — observing it.”

In his wife, Kathy Rutledge, whom he met in the ‘70s, he’s found a kindred spirit. A child of the ‘60s, she was caught up in the fervor of the times. Now the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, she shares his love of writing and is his gentle reader.

“She helps me with my writing. She’s a very good reader of my work. She’s a brilliant woman. She knows terms for the English language I don’t understand.”

He finds it ironic a pair of iconoclasts have ended up in such mainstream waters. She as a daily newspaper editor and he as “a celebrated poet” speaking to Kiwanis and Rotary Club meetings and giving college commencement addresses.

Besides his poetry and his insurance job, which he retired from a few years ago, Kooser’s been on the periphery of the academic circle. He’s taught night classes for years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned his master’s.

Growing up in a college town, he gravitated almost as a matter of course to local Iowa State University, where he studied architecture before the math did him in. His literary aspirations led him into an English program that earned him a high school teaching certificate. He taught one year before moving onto UNL for grad studies. He was drawn by the presence of former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Karl Shapiro, under whom he studied. When Kooser spent more time hanging out with Shapiro than working on his thesis, he lost his grad assistantship and was forced to take a real job. He entered the insurance game as a stop-gap and ended up making it a second career. It was all a means to an end, however.

“I worked 35 years in the life insurance business, but it was only to support myself to write. It was an OK job and I performed well enough that they kept promoting me. But writing was the important thing to me and I did it every morning, day in and day out. Writing was always with me. I’ve never not been writing.”

While his 9 to 5 job gave him scant satisfaction beyond making ends meet, it proved useful in providing the general, non-academic audience for his work he sought.

“The people I worked with influenced my poetry,” he said. “We all write toward a perceived community, I think, and I was writing for people in that kind of a setting.  I had a secretary in the last years I was there, a young woman who’d read poems in high school but had no higher education, and I often showed her my work. I’d say, ‘Did it make any sense to you?’ and she’d say, ‘No, it didn’t.’ And I’d go home and work on it, until it did because I wanted that kind of audience. I would not refer to anything that would drive anybody to stop in the middle of the poem to go look it up in the encyclopedia. The experience of the poem shouldn’t be interrupted like that. I have a very broad general audience. I get mail from readers every day.”

A less obvious benefit of working as a medical underwriter, which saw Kooser reading medical reports filled with people’s illnesses, was gleaning “a keen sense of mortality.” “Poetry, to really work,” he said, “has to have the shadow of mortality carried with it, because that darkness is what makes the affirmation of life flower.”

These days, Kooser is working hard to help poetry bloom in America, where he feels “it’s really thriving” between the literary-academic, cowboy, hip hop and spoken word poets. “It’s so important to do a good job as Poet Laureate, as far as extending the reach of poetry, that I’ve largely set my own writing aside for now.” His post, which he sees as “a public relations job for the sponsoring Library of Congress and for poetry,” has him promoting the art form as a speaker, judge and columnist. His syndicated Everyday Poetry column is perhaps his most visible outreach program. He’s considering doing an anthology of poems about American folklore. He’s also collaborating with educators to distill their ideas for teaching poetry into a public forum, such as a website. “The teachers are really on the front line here. They’re the people who make or break poetry,” he said.

Then, as if reassuring his visitors he’s no elitist, he excuses himself with, “I’ve got to run up to the house — I’ve got a pheasant in the oven.” Yes, even the Poet Laureate must eat.

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