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Q & A with Edward Albee: His thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and preparing a new generation of playwrights

May 29, 2011 13 comments

This is another glimpse at the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference, this time through the prism of playwright Edward Albee, who served as artistic director its first couple years. The 2011 conference, running May 28-June 4 in Omaha. I did the following Q & A with him by phone in advance of one of the early conferences. He’s since disassociated himself from the event, which led to some speculation about its sustainability, but after a limbo year or so the event has come back stronger than ever. In the intro to the Q & A I share some of the trepidation I felt going into the interview. I mean, am used to interviewing celebrities and public figures in all different fields of endeavor, and the names and reputations of some of these folks carry even more weight than Albee’s, but he is a writer extraordinaire known to not suffer fools gladly, all of which made me more than a little tense. It went fine, as these things usually do, and his easy charm is a big reason why the interview session went smoothly, though I distinctly recall feeling a self-imposed pressure to not tarry or dally or digress, but to get on with it, to move quickly from his answer to my next question.  If I had been a bit more reflective and deliberate I think I would have gotten more from Albee, but while it’s not a great interview, it’s more than satisfactory looking back on it now a few years later.

 

Q & A with Edward Albee: His thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and preparing a new generation of playwrights   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly

 

That old lion of American theater, Edward Albee, wears well the mantle of expectation that comes with being his country’s “foremost” or “preeminent” living playwright. The descriptions of him, used as if official titles conferred by some ministry of theater, appear whenever his name is invoked. Living legend status is part of the baggage that comes with being a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. As he might wryly observe, there are worse things he could be called.

Considerations of Albee are far from abstractions for locals now that the Great Plains Theatre Conference  he helps direct is an annual event hosted by Metropolitan Community College. The second annual conference features a full schedule of play labs, readings, panels, lectures and performances.

Before you ever interview Albee, you hear that the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Seascape, A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women can be peevish and prickly. That he reads everything written about himself and his work and won’t hesitate to point out errors. That he’s an intellectual of the first order, you don’t need reminding. You hear, too, how deeply he cares about theater. How he generously advises young playwrights. How the future of this art form is often on his mind.

In preparing to talk with him you read his plays. Then you realize it’s folly to engage him in a discussion of his work. No, it’s best to focus on the conference and his efforts at passing on his wisdom to the new wave of playwrights coming up. To draw him out on his long association with Metro president Jo Ann McDowell, who’s responsible for making the conference and luminaries like Albee fixtures in Omaha. The two met when she directed the William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, Kan. and they went onto organize the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. Last year they launched the GPTC.

Still, you despair: What hasn’t he been asked before? How to go beyond the banal?

When you finally speak to him, by phone, you find an amiable man who, as expected, listens closely. His responses come quickly, precisely on point. His speech is formal, his delivery measured. His glib sense for irony and his dry wit ever present. You’re keenly aware of the analytical mind on the other end of the line. One always a step or two ahead of you. It’s intimidating. It all goes by in a rush.

As you’ll see below, the Q & A resulted in several of my questions being longer than his answers, which is less than ideal, but I think I evoked reasonable responses in most cases. I was likely a bit too timid and deferential and not being as active a listener as I needed to be. Though he was nothing but gracious, I think it’s safe to assume he was not the most willing of participants.

LAB: McDowell says that when she informed you she’d accepted the Metro presidency, she was afraid you might look askance at doing a conference here, but you embraced the idea, saying something like, They do my plays there — we’ll have better audiences in Omaha.

EA: “Well, you know, we did it for 13 years or so in Alaska and it was lovely up there, but it was a little harder for a lot of people to get up there. And I just thought it would be a lot easier for people to get to Omaha then to get to Alaska. And it being a bigger city and having a theater culture already — because Valdez had no theater culture, we had to create it — that it might make a lot of sense.”

LAB: Other than residencies at Creighton University and an awareness your work is performed here, I take it you didn’t know much about this place?

EA: “I’d been to Omaha a couple times over the years. I’d been to the art museum and I’d been to that lovely downtown complex (the Old Market or Old Towne as he calls it) of galleries and shops. I knew Omaha a little bit.”

LAB: But isn’t what really sold you on Omaha, McDowell?  She says she can’t imagine what made you two “click” given your disparate backgrounds and can only guess her demonstrated passion and commitment for theater gained your trust.

EA: “Well there it is, she has great passion and commitment. She gave the impression that she could work miracles, and if you’re in the theater you like people who can work miracles.”

LAB: You obviously have an understanding of what each other wants.

EA: “She and I disagree sometimes on how best to go about it, but it’s her conference more than mine, so she gets to run the show.”

LAB: But isn’t the event informally known as the Edward Albee Theater Conference?

EA: “Well I’ve been doing my very, very best to destroy that impression. It’s now the Great Plains Theatre Conference. There are many who get invited there — major theater people. It’s not just me showing up, You know, I guess my name sells a few tickets or gets a few people there, but I don’t like being used that way.”

LAB: Yet I’m told this is the only event of its type you lend your name to.

EA: “I’ve lent my presence and my participation and I guess the name goes with it. I wouldn’t lend my name unless I felt there was some virtue to it, and we’ll see how this develops there in Omaha.”

LAB: You’re far more than a figurehead. I mean, you take an active role in the meat of the conference — the play labs.

EA: “Yeah, sure, of course. I try hard to do that. One thing I’m not happy with and it’s one thing this conference has to develop is a much broader base of young playwrighting talent, because it’s tending these days to be a little parochial and I’m afraid the quality of plays being submitted has declined from the Alaska days. But we’re going to be working on that…There’s no point in having all of these wonderful professional theater people around to evaluate work that really isn’t worth evaluating, and there’s quite a bit of that I’m afraid. So it’s got to become less parochial. I understand it is Omaha-based and we have wonderful theater companies in Omaha, and they should be involved in doing the work, but we’re going to have to have to get a much more national and international base of young playwrights coming there for the thing to really matter.”

LAB: By casting an ever wider net?

EA: “Yes, of course, which I’ve been trying to do, but I’m going to have to try harder. We’re going to have to do better than we’ve been doing it.”

LAB: Are there other things about the event you’d like to tweak?

EA: “I just want to find out what all this film nonsense is that’s beginning to happen (He refers to a cinema component this year called Fringe Fest.). I don’t feel there’s room for it at all. But, again, that’s just me. I’ll talk to her (McDowell) about it.”

LAB: It may come as a surprise to people that someone of your stature takes such a hands-on role. I’m told no detail is too small to escape your attention.

EA: “I’m a control freak, but so is Jody. You get two control freaks together, you get a lot of control, and a lot of freaking.”

LAB: Why do you choose to take such a keen interest in emerging playwrights?

EA: “Because I think if you’ve had some experience in the arts and you know something about teaching and you know what you’re doing in the arts, you have a responsibility to pass on the information and that expertise to younger people. You need the new, young generation of wonderful creative people and if you can be helpful in keeping them on the straight and narrow and keeping their sights where they should be, then it’s your responsibility to do it. In the same way I feel creative artists should be loud and vocal politically.”

LAB: When you were a young playwright were there experienced writers who served that same function for you.

EA: “Well sure, but those were the playwrights whose work I was beginning to see in Greenwich Village. The great Europeans — Brecht and Beckett and Inoesco and Pirandello and all those people. And then when a whole new generation of us came up at the same time. Me and Jack Gelber and Arthur Kopit and Jack Richardson and Lanford Wilson and a bunch of others (including Omahan Megan Terry) were there, and we were feeding off each other.”

LAB: Were there events like the Great Plains Theatre Conference then?

EA: “There may have been one or two, but I didn’t know about them. I was living in New York City, in Greenwich Village, in the theater hotbed, in the center of experimental and adventuresome theater in America, which New York still is.”

LAB: So in that sense every night was like a play lab.

EA: “Of course it was.”

Melinda Dillon and Arthur Hill in original Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

LAB: Omaha’s a long way from New York. McDowell’s maintained her commitment to theater wherever she’s been and that’s never wavered despite various political machinations she has to contend with.

EA: “It seems not to have to. Yeah, sure, I understand the pressures, but whenever I think the pressures she is under are dangerous and destructive, I try to put a lot of pressure in the opposite direction.”

LAB: She likes to say she’s been “carrying this thing around with me for 26 years,” meaning her devotion to theater and these conferences. Her support of theater has remained consistent in an era of scant federal funding for the arts in America.

EA: “Certainly, look at the last 25 years. The William Inge Festival was begun by her and then the Alaska Last Frontier Conference and now this. She just keeps right on doing it. Of course continuity is very important. And I appreciate her ability to get funds from the local big wigs. I think that’s very important — as long as the local big wigs don’t have anything to say about what we do.”

LAB: Do you ever involve yourself in the fund raising?

EA: “No, she seems to get that all done before we show up.”

LAB: Earlier you mentioned Omaha’s fine theaters. From what you’ve glimpsed of Omaha’s theater community, how do you appraise it?

EA: “Well from what I’ve seen when they come to do readings of plays they do a fine job. They’ve very talented people. You don’t need to be an equity company to be good. I’m always gratified when I find people are doing what they should and doing it well.”

LAB: As you say, local theater companies are a vital part of the event.

EA: “We just want to be sure we give them the best work we can possibly find for them to participate in. It’s good publicity for them. They’re doing a responsible act and they’re probably being exposed to interesting new plays they probably wouldn’t have known about without the conference.”

LAB: As all of theater is, the event’s very much a collaborative, communal affair…

EA: “What do you mean by collaboration? A play is written, that is the individual creative act. Everything else is interpreted.”

LAB: Well, in the sense that a team comes together…

EA: “That is not a creative act, that is an interpretive act. That shouldn’t get in the way of the creative part of it.”

LAB: The conference mission statement mentions your quest for an important, enduring discussion of theater at the national level. What aspects of theater need addressing on a continuing basis?

EA: “Trying to develop an audience that wants theater that matters rather than safe, escapist stuff. Basically developing audiences and critics who know the difference between junk and excellence. And a conference if this sort can be very helpful.”

 

Maggie Smith and David Hilder (center) and participants at the 2015 Great Plains Theatre Conference.

 

LAB: In line with that you have a goal of growing audiences for serious theater.

EA: “The only way to do that is to give them good stuff to see and that’s why we have to keep improving the quality of the scripts by casting our net wider.”

LAB: You’re often asked your opinion on the state of American theater. Last year you were pessimistic in the wake of the deaths of Arthur Miller and August Wilson. Since then, Lloyd Richards and Glyn O’Malley (a participant at last year’s GPTC and a director of Albee’s work) have died. All great voices silenced. You seemed to lament the theater can’t recover from such losses.

EA: “Well we can recover from our losses. Losses are always terribly distressing and damaging, but if conferences of this sort can develop a whole new generation of first rate theater people than the continuum is on.”

LAB: But these have been such major losses.

EA: “Well we’ve been having them all along. Look back at every decade — you lose an awful lot of good people.”

LAB: Miller, Wilson and company were more than colleagues, they were friends.

EA: “Yeah, of course. Well the older I get I keep having to scratch out more and more names in my address book every week. It’s terrible. I must develop a lot of younger friends. See, I usually have friends older than I am because I learn something from people who know more than I do, but they seem to be going away pretty fast.”

LAB: Have you seen promising new talents emerge from conferences like the GPTC?

EA: “Oh sure, a number of talents have emerged, but you can’t ever tell whether that’s going to be enough to save theater from the forces of darkness, which are commercialism and sloth — intellectual sloth.”

LAB: At a play lab last year I was struck by how many questions you asked the playwright, such as Did you consider this? or What was your intention here?

EA: “Yeah I like to teach by the Socratic Method of asking questions rather than giving answers because I have a lot more questions than I have answers about everything.”

LAB: Do you follow a similar process, internally, with your own work?

EA: “Gee I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about what I do when I’m writing. I try to stay away from too much conscious awareness of what I’m doing. I just let it happen.”

LAB: Is there someone you show your work to as you’re developing it?

EA: “No, I don’t show it to anybody until I’ve finished it.”

LAB: May I ask what you’re working on now?

EA: “Nothing right now. I just finished a long two-act play about identical twins, Me, Myself and I, which is going to be done at the McCarter Theatre (Center) in Princeton, N.J.  next fall. (To be directed by Emily Mann, a visiting artist at the GPTC in Omaha.)

LAB: Has the subject of identical twins fascinated you for awhile?

EA: “Apparently it has. If you go and read The American Dream (an early ‘60s play by Albee) there’s a pair of identical twins there, so it goes back a long time in my career.”

LAB: When you come to Omaha are there rituals you follow to begin your day and to end your night?

EA: “Well let’s see, unless I get to read the New York Times I’m an incomplete person, so I do that over breakfast. I try to go to the gym. I work out every day. At the conference Jody has us doing things 27 hours a day, so it’s very difficult to do anything else. Sometimes it’s even hard to get the Times read. The only things I keep protesting are the social events.”

LAB: A necessary evil?

EA: “Ahhh, I decide about half of them are a necessary evil. I involve myself in what I think the most important things are.”

LAB: What about the host site, historic Fort Omaha with its military provenance, Victorian buildings and green spaces?

EA: “It’s a really interesting campus. They always give me a nice place to live and I’m happy when I’m there. They give me a car, not that I ever get a chance to drive it anywhere. They treat me very nicely.”

LAB: McDowell’s stated she wants Omaha as the permanent home for the conference, which she hopes to endow. Are you fine with that?

EA: “Oh, of course. Why not for heaven’s sake? Sure. I have nothing against Omaha.”

LAB: We spoke of losses before. You suffered a great personal loss recently with the death of your longtime partner.

EA: “Yeah, I did. Thirty five years with the right person, that’s a pretty big loss.”

LAB: I know you were really hurting at least year’s conference. How are you doing?

EA: “Oh, I’m functioning. It never gets better, it just gets different…that kind of loss.”

And with that, one could only say, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Albee.” “You’re very welcome,” he said.

Sun reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town

April 28, 2011 12 comments

I remember when the Omaha Sun Newspapers’ investigative report of Boys Town’s finances came out in 1972 my very Catholic mother and my similarly persuaded maternal aunts took it as a low down, dirty attack against “our Boys Town.”  The Father Flanagan established youth care center has always been synonymous with the Catholic Church or at least seen as a Catholic institution, which in fact it has been for its entire life, always with a Catholic priest at its head and traditionally with the local archdiocese and archbishop as its ultimate authority. The story‘s major revelation was that Boys Town still portrayed itself as a poor, humble, perpetually in debt, and on the verge of closing home for boys when in fact it had accumulated a vast fortune through a systematic fundraising apparatus that kept right on churning out teary letters asking for donations — by the tens of million a year –and  taking in millions of dollars above and beyond what it cost to operate the place. Boys Town did not share this bounty with anyone and didn’t want anyone to know about it.  There’s no doubt the story spurred changes at Boys Town, just as there’s no doubt Boys Town is a very different organization today than it was then — now boasting multiple locations around the country and doing business in a very transparent manner.  As for the weekly Sun, which was owned by Warren Buffett at the time, it went out of business a little more than a decade after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the Boys Town investigative report.  The following piece I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) takes a look at that report and, in effect, the story behind the story.

NOTE: Also on this blog see my profile of Stan Lipsey titled “Buffett’s Newspaper Man.”   Lipsey is back in Omaha for the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders confab and for an exhibition of his photography at KANEKO. He’s also participating in a panel discussion at KANEKO about a life of creativity in business.  For more on KANEKO, see my story titled “Open Minds.”

Of course, Warren Buffett and Berkshire are much in the news these days because of the scandal involving David Sokol, the once heir apparent to Buffett as head of Berkshire.

 

 

AppleMark

Warren Buffett, left, and Stan Lipsey at the Omaha Sun in the 1970s.

 

Sun reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town

©by Leo Adam Biga

As seen in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When readers picked up their March 30, 1972 issue of the weekly Sun Newspaper, they could hardly believe their eyes.

The small but enterprising paper with multiple neighborhood editions had called out a venerable Omaha institution, Boys Town, in crusading journalistic fashion terms. No crime was alleged, but rather the violation of a public trust.

A front page headline asked accusingly, “Whatever happened to Father Flanagan’s dream?” That was followed by the stark declaration, “Boys Town: 700 boys with $209 million.” Thus the Sun set the incredulous tone and exploited the shocking results of a special eight-page report inside provocatively titled, “Boys Town, America’s wealthiest city?”

The subhead, “Give an account of thy stewardship,” was a Biblical admonition for a quasi-Catholic organization that cried poverty in syrupy mass donation appeals each Christmas, while hoarding a fortune no one was supposed to know about or, if they did, question.

Some movers and shakers were prominent characters in the story and in the story behind the story. Sun owner Warren Buffett pointed to the records that revealed Boys Town’s “hidden” assets. Publisher Stan Lipsey supported the investigation. Managing editor Paul Williams masterminded and ran it.

The power behind Boys Town lay with Monsignor Nicholas Wegner and Omaha Archbishop Daniel Sheehan. Aged civic-social leaders comprised a rubber-stamp board.

The Sun’s ambitious owner and brash newspaper took to task an organization grown fat, smug and out of touch with the times and its constituencies. Wegner, who succeeded Boys Town’s iconic founder, was still steeped in Depression-era thinking. During much of Fr. Flanagan’s tenure the home did struggle, but after the 1938 MGM movie Boys Town, donations sharply increased, particularly after fundraising pioneer Ted Miller designed a massive, frighteningly effective direct mail campaign.

Pleas for money continued even as fortunes swelled. Making matters worse, Boys Town did little with its wealth after a 1948 building project. It shelved new initiatives and rejected best practices, effectively standing still, stuck in time.

The Sun implied Boys Town betrayed Flanagan’s mission by staying mired in outdated attitudes and methods. Buffett would later write, “We reported the extraordinary contrast between decreasing services and mounting wealth.”

The story won the Sun seven national awards, including a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for local investigative specialized reporting, the same year the Washington Post’s Watergate series took the Pulitzer for Public Service. The papers earlier swapped in the same categories at the national journalism society, Sigma Delta Chi, awards.

More importantly, the Sun’s probing coverage compelled an organization that after Flanagan’s death in 1948 behaved like an imperious empire, paralyzed in what Williams termed “institutional inertia,” to enact long overdue reforms.

Today’s Boys Town hardly resembles that fossilized institution. Its entire methodology of youth care has been transformed. Boys Town is now recognized as a national leader in parenting and child speech-hearing impairment research and treatment.

The Sun was the liberal, plucky alternative to the conservative, timid Omaha World-Herald. Under Williams, the paper previously won awards for covering Omaha environmental issues and Omaha Transit Company irregularities. Boys Town, however, was a bigger target. While the report did the Sun no harm financially, the paper lost its edge when Williams left a couple years later. In 1980, Buffett sold it to a Chicago publisher. After an anti-trust suit against the World-Herald, the Sun disbanded in 1983.

Nearly 40 years since the story shook Boys Town’s foundation, The Reader spoke to key players who worked on the project.

Doug Smith, the youngest, least experienced member of the reporting team Williams assembled, says the irascible editor was the driving force behind “Project B.”

“Paul wanted that big recognition, he wanted that big prize … and he really went after it.

“I think he knew this was going to be the biggest story of his career, or not. I thought, maybe we all thought — he’s obsessed with this thing. When we got the announcement we won the Pulitzer one of the guys said, ‘Ahab has his whale.’ Paul was a great leader on this project. He did bring it home.”

“The story was really there for the taking by somebody with energy and enterprise, and that’s what Paul Williams had,” says Randy Brown, hired as associate managing editor just as the Sun launched the investigation. “He was the brains.”

As the team dug into the reality behind the carefully cultivated Boys Town facade, it became clear the wary institution was paranoid for a reason.

“I felt the story was really justified,” says Smith.

He and his colleagues knew the heart-tugging letters Boys Town sent out suggesting the boys would go hungry without donations were pure hokum.

“I’d say an unethical appeal considering they were sitting on a lot of money,” he says.

Team member Wes Iversen, the Sun business editor, was dismayed Boys Town made it appear “as though the wolf were at the door when they had a big pile of money they were doing nothing with.”

In the end, Boys Town was its own worst enemy.

“It was a case of they had lost their way, their mission,” says Smith. “It was the story of an American institution that had gone off track.”

When Smith asked Boys Town post office officials how much mail went through to try and gauge the scope of fundraising efforts, a reluctant staffer was quoted saying: “The reason they won’t let me give out the amount of postal receipts is because people will get everything misconstrued.”

It turned out up to 50 million appeal letters went out per year. The volume suggested a cash cow system returning huge revenues.

Boys Town officials repeatedly made ill-advised statements that came back to haunt them. In classic investigative fashion Smith and photographer Len Cook burst in on its secret direct mail apparatus, housed in a downtown building, to find 125 women typing the appeal letters and a flustered fundraising director trying to hush it up.

The Sun quoted the director as saying, “Please don’t mention this in your article. It’s so easy for the public to get the wrong idea. People will think we’re rich.”

Smith recalls Boys Town as remarkably unsavvy then in handling press inquiries. “At that time they were not equipped to handle this kind of assault by journalists,” he says.

Ironically, Flanagan had been a genius at promotion. He invited Hollywood to make two feature films on Boys Town. He cooperated with newsreels, he did national radio broadcasts, he toured the home’s band and football team nationwide, he made speaking appearances across the country and he welcomed celebrities to the campus.

By the early ’‘70s the cautious Wegner isolated Boys Town, making it an island cut-off from the world.

Bulldog reporter Mick Rood interviewed Wegner and caught him in several untruths, including the assertion Boys Town was in debt. Even when confronted by the facts, Wegner and, in a separate interview, Sheehan indicated the fundraising would continue unabated. Business as usual. The arrogant dismissal of serious questions, such as when would enough money be enough, made everything Boys Town said suspect.

“When you as a reporter or newspaper discover that,” says Rood, “that makes you want to dig. It makes you forget for a little while that the poor monsignor was in very poor health, it makes you forget that some people wouldn’t like the story because people don’t need to be deceived like that. That’s the motivation right there.”

For that interview, Rood was armed with sensitive, though public record documents that delineated the true picture of Boys Town’s finances. Buffett had informed the Sun team of a federal tax statement, Form 990, that nonprofits were required to file. He had to file one for his own foundation and it dawned on him Boys Town did, too. It took much wrangling and waiting to pry a copy from the Internal Revenue Service. When all 100 pages arrived the scope of the holdings stunned the team. Boys Town stocks, bonds, properties, though undervalued, gave it a net worth exceeding Omaha’s largest bank, and an endowment surpassing all but a few universities nationwide.

“I didn’t know quite what to think of it because the numbers were enormous,” says Brown. “It was jaw dropping.”

Iversen says it was “a money machine.”

Until those documents were secured, the team had only been able to speculate about Boy’s Town’s riches. With the hard numbers in hand, all was exposed.

“This was the whole kit and caboodle,” says Rood.

The surviving team members readily credit Buffett with giving them the golden egg that pushed the project over the top.

“Without that it would have been a good story, but not a Pulitzer story,” says Lipsey.

CoverOmahaSun2.jpg

Omaha Sun Newspapers newsroom ©Provided by Randy Brown

 

Buffet also helped the Sun analyze the Boys Town treasure chest.

“I worked with Warren compiling the numbers, making sure they added up, getting all the details straight, ready for publication,” says Brown. “And he insisted on double checking everything. We knew we were taking on an institution that’s beloved in the community and he didn’t want any mistakes — not 25 cents in the wrong column.”

Rood says Williams was methodical planning assignments and supervising their execution: “He made very thorough outlines … very detailed things, so we were all well aware of what we were supposed to be doing. It was also a way to make you accountable. I mean, if it was written down there you better have done it. There was no excuse. You had to have made that call you said you were going to make.

“We worked separately most all of the time. We had periodic meetings to compare notes. It was a very disciplined operation — one you wouldn’t expect from such a small paper. He was the best editor I ever worked for, ever will work for, and a good friend.”

Brown says, “everything was reread and reedited,” adding, “It was a grind.”

Iversen recalls months of slogging away, interspersed by occasional euphoria.

“A lot of it is just hard, heavy-duty grunt work,” he says. “At that time we had no easy way to check things. It’s just a lot of legwork, a lot of looking things up in books in libraries and county offices and you name it, running around checking various places and trying to piece things together. At times it could seem like drudgery, at other times when we would get a major insight everybody would say, Ah-ha, now we see where this is headed and we’ve made a breakthrough here.

“It was really heady times.”

Some intrigue did attend the story. Though the stakes were much different from the Post’s Watergate coverage, the Sun had its own Deep Throat in Claude Organ, a reform-minded Boys Town board member. Buffett met with Dr. Organ about the project and the surgeon-educator steered the Sun in the right direction.

“Everything was closely held,” says Rood. “We were more than sworn to secrecy.”

Warren Buffett

During the investigation’s last few weeks Williams took the precaution of the team working out of his home’s basement rec room for fear of losing the story to the Herald. Rood says a defensive Boys Town came to suspect the story was more than the routine historical piece the Sun painted it as. When the report broke, no one at Boys Town was prepared for its all-encompassing depth. The expose laid Boys Town bare.

Much more could have been published, team members say.

The Sun did many follow-ups over the next year and beyond as Boys Town changed its administration and board, opened the campus to consultants, replaced its warehousing of youth with a home-family model and developed new facilities and programs.

In 1974 a desperate Boys Town, still reeling from the fallout from the story, which went national and spawned new stories, hired Omaha PR man Bill Ramsey to help repair its tarnished image. It took time, but things turned around by the late 1970s-early 1980s.

Current Boys Town spokesperson Kara Neuverth says the institution did act on the reported misalignment of net worth and youth services:

“We listened to that feedback regarding some fund raising practices. What I can tell you about this organization today is that we are transparent and we pride ourselves on our experience. For an organization to remain at the forefront it must adjust its practices to stakeholder input, changing times, and new knowledge — just as we did 40 years ago. That is the lesson learned.”

The Sun investigative team scattered to the far winds. The shared Pulitzer opened doors for Rood, Iversen, Brown and Smith. Paul Williams left to teach at Ohio State. He also co-founded IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and wrote a book before his untimely death. Publisher Stan Lipsey went on to head the Buffalo News for Buffett.

The story solidified Buffet’s long-held interest in newspapers — he soon acquired a major share of the Washington Post — and confirmed for him their vital role in a free society. In a letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders he wrote the Sun’s achievement “vividly illustrated that size need not be equated with significance in publishing.”

The Changing Face of Boys Town and its Finances

The following sidebar appears in the print edition of The Reader but not in the Web edition:

©by Leo Adam Biga

In 1972 you had to be a member of the Boys Town inner circle to see its balance sheet. Or, as in the case of the Sun Newspapers, you had to know about a new and therefore obscure tax form filing that required nonprofits to report their financials. Even then, it took the Sun time and expense to obtain the public records, documents and figures Boys Town dearly wanted to suppress.

Today, due in part to the Sun’s disclosures of Boys Town’s worth, the law requires nonprofits to be much more transparent about their assets.  The same information the Sun had to go to some lengths to get 40 years ago, anyone with access to a computer can easily and freely obtain today with a few keystrokes or mouse clicks.

In 2009, Boys Town, which now has a national reach, reported $1 billion in assets, $810 million in the Father Flanagan’s Fund for Needy Children (the institution’s endowment) and $122 million in liabilities for a net worth of $903 million. Five to six percent of the endowment supports annual operations.

Boys Town reports nearly 90 percent of every dollar received is spent on child care.

Charity Navigator awarded it a four-star rating for sound fiscal management. Boys Town’s accountability has earned it recognition as a Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance accredited charity. These are all signs of how the organization does business very differently now compared to when the Sun rattled its cage.

After whirlwind tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser goes gently back to the prairie, to where the wild plums grow

June 19, 2010 2 comments

Blooming Wild Plum

Image by ShaharEvron via Flickr

This is the second story I wrote about poet Ted Kooser. It followed the first one I did on him by several months. That earlier story is also posted on this site.  This second profile appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and nearer the completion of his duties as U.S. Poet Laureate.  He’d enjoyed the position and the opportunities it afforded to spread the art of poetry around the nation, but as the article makes clear, he was also relieved he would soon be leaving that very public post and returning to his quiet, secluded life and the sanctuary of home.

 

After whirlwind tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser goes gently back to the prairie, to where the wild plums grow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Late spring in Seward County will find the wild plums Ted Kooser’s so fond of in full bloom again. If he has his way, the county’s most famous resident will be well ensconced in the quiet solitude he enjoys. Once his second term as U.S. Poet Laureate is over at the end of May, he returns to the country home he and his wife share just outside the south-central village of Garland, Neb., tucked away in his beloved “Bohemian Alps.” It’s served him well as a refuge. But as a historical personage now, he’s obscure no more, his hideaway not so isolated. It makes him wonder if he can ever go back again to just being the odd old duck who carefully observes and writes about “the holy ordinary.”

When named the nation’s 13th Poet Laureate, the first from the Great Plains states, his selection took many by surprise. He wasn’t a member of the Eastern literary elite. His accessible poems about every day lives and ordinary things lacked the cache of modern poetry’s trend toward the weird or the unwieldy.

“I knew in advance there would be a lot of discontent on the east coast that this had happened. I mean — Who’s he? — and all that sort of thing,” he said. “If it had been given to me and I had failed it would have really been hard. So I felt not necessarily I have to do it better than anyone else but that I really needed to work on working it. It’s really been seven-days-a-week for 20 months now. And I think I have had a remarkable tenure.”

The fact he pledged to do “a better job than anyone had ever done before” as Laureate, said partly out of a pique of regional pride, set him up for failure. By all accounts, though, he’s been a smashing success, taking The Word with him on an evangelical tour that’s brought him to hundreds of schools, libraries, museums, book clubs, writing conferences and educational conventions.

No less an observer than Librarian of Congress James Billington, Kooser said, told him he’s “probably been in front of more people than any other Laureate, at least during his tenure. So, that counts for something.”

 

 

 

 

Kooser wanted to connect with a public too long separated from the written word. To reverse the drift of poetry away from the literay elite and return it to The People. Swimming against the tide, he’s managed to do just that with the stoic reserve and grim resolve of a true Midwesterner. No figurehead Laureate, he’s a working man’s Poet, sticking to an itinerary that’s seen him on the road more than at home for nearly two years. “I can’t remember where I’ve been and when,” he said recently.

For a shy man who “really prefers to be at home,” the thought of coming out of his shell to make the rounds as Laureate seized him with panic.

“At first, I didn’t think I could do it. Looking down the line right after it happened I thought, No way are you going to be able to be that public a person. I’ve always been kind of an introvert and it’s always been very difficult for me to get up in front of groups of people,” he said. “But I decided I would throw myself into it and make myself do it. I learned how to do that and I’m much more comfortable now after doing hundreds of things, although I’m still nervous.”

He estimates he’s appeared before some 30,000 people as the Laureate.

Much as a post-Sideways Alexander Payne expressed a desire to immerse himself in the unseen depths of a new film, a process he likens to “scuba diving,” Kooser craves a time when he can once more lose himself on the road less traveled.

“Now of course my impulse is, as of the end of May, to start retreating back into that very comfortable introversion that I’ve always loved,” he said.

His 2004 Laureate appointment and 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry brought the world to his quiet country home, if not literally to the doorstep, then virtually there via requests for interviews, readings and appearances of one kind or another. He still gets them. The fact he’s obliged many of these entreaties says much about the man and his avowed mission to bring poetry to the masses.

“My principal goal is to show as many people as I can who are not now reading poetry that they’re missing out on something,” he’s said.

His honest, pinched, Presbyterian face, set in the detached, bemused gaze of a portrait subject, is familiar as a result of his weekly newspaper column, “My American Poetry.” The column, the primary vehicle he chose to promote poetry, appears in hundreds of papers with a combined readership of some 11 million. Not that the townies in and around Garland didn’t already recognize him. He’s only reminded of his celebrity when he puts on a tie for some fancy event or is spotted in a public place, which happens in Omaha, Lincoln or more distant spots, like Washington, D.C., the home of the Laureate’s seat, the Library of Congress, where a 3rd floor office is reserved for him. Not that he uses it much.

Besides the phone calls, e-mails and letters he wades through, there’s the more mundane perhaps but still necessary chores to be done around his acreage. Fallen branches to pick up. Dead trees to bring down. Repairs to make. Dogs to feed and water. Distractions aplenty. It’s why he must get away to get any writing done. Yes, there’s sweet irony in having to find an escape from his own would-be sanctuary.

“We have a lovely place and all that, but the problem’s always been that when I’m sitting there in my chair at home with my notebook I’m constantly noticing all the things that need to be done” he said. “So getting away from that is going to be nice. I’ve bought an old store building in Dwight (Neb.). It’s about 10 miles from where we live. It’s a thousand square feet. One story. It’s been a grocery store and various things and I’m fixing it up as a sort of office. In the front room I have a desk and bookshelves and in the second room I have a little painting studio set-up.

“Nobody in Dwight’s going to bother me. I’m really going to try and figure out having a work day where I would go up there at eight in the morning and stay till five and see what happens. Paint, write, read books. And then go back.”

 

 

 

The demands of his self-imposed strict Laureate schedule have seriously cut into his writing life. With a few weeks left before he can cut the strings to the office and its duties, he’s resigned to the fact his writing output will suffer “for awhile” yet, but confident his return to productivity “is gradually going to come about.”

He’s already whetting his appetite with the outlines of a new project in his head. “I’ve been thinking about a little prose book I might like to do in which I would go to my building in Dwight and sit there in the middle of that little town of 150 or 200 people and read travel literature and write about armchair travel all over the world from Dwight, Neb. It’d be a book like Local Wonders (his 2000 work of prose), but I’d be sitting there daydreaming about Andalusia, you know. I don’t like to travel, but that might be a sort of fun way of doing it…learning about the world.”

He may also keep busy as general editor of an anthology of poems about American folklore to be published by the Library of Congress. Kooser originally broached the project with the Library soon after being installed as Laureate.

Then there’s his ongoing column, which he’s arranged to have continue even after he’s out of office. The column, offered free to newspapers, supports his strong belief poetry should be inclusive, not exclusive. He hit upon the idea for it along with his wife, Lincoln Journal Star editor Kathleen Rutledge.

“Kathy and I talked for years and years about the fact poetry used to be in newspapers and how do you get it back,” he said.

A column made sense for a poet who describes himself as “an advocate for a kind of poetry newspaper readers could understand.” Making it a free feature got papers to sign on. He said the number of papers carrying “My American Poetry” is “always growing” and one paper that dropped it was pressured to resume it after readers complained. He’s most pleased that so many rural papers run the column and that perhaps schools there and elsewhere use the poems as teaching tools.

 

 

Karl Shapiro, center, with students in Nebraska nearly a half century ago. Left is Poet Ted Kooser .(Reprinted with permission from Reports of My Death by Karl Shapiro, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Besides the feedback he gets from readers, the poets whose work he features also get responses. “And, of course, the poets are tremendously excited. They’re in front of more readers than they’ve ever been in front of in their lives,” he said. It’s all part of breaking down barriers around poetry.

“The work that is most celebrated today is that work that needs explaining…that’s challenging. The poetry of the last century, the 20th century, was the first poetry ever that had to be taught. That had to be explained to people,” he said in an April 24 keynote address before the Magnet Schools of America conference at Qwest Center Omaha. It began “when the great Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs of contemporary poetry fell upon poetry in the persons of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.”

This drift toward a literary poetry of “ever-more difficulty” and “elitism” continues to this day, limiting its appeal to a select circle of poets, academics and intellectuals. “The public gets left out,” he said. He has a different audience in mind. “I’m more interested in reaching a broad, general audience. I’m in the train of those poets (in the tradition of William Carlos Williams) who always believed in wanting to write things that people could understand.” Rather than a focus on form, he said, “I believe in work that has social worth.”

As a missionary for a common poetry that really speaks to people, his newspaper column amounts to The Ted Kooser Primer for Poetry Appreciation. “I have felt like a teacher all through it,” said Kooser, a poetry instructor for select graduate students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Basically with the column I’m doing what a teacher would do. I’m trying to teach by example…what poetry can offer.”

He realizes his insistence on realism and clarity rankles the established order.

“I try pretty hard to make it understandable,” he’s said of his own work. “That sort of thing runs against the grain in poetry right now. I’m very interested in trying to convince people that poetry isn’t something we have to struggle with.”

Kooser harbors no allusions about making a sea change on the poetry scene.

“I think by the time I’m done at the end of May, when my term as Poet Laureate is over, I will have shifted American poetry about that far,” he said, his clamped hands moving ever so slightly to mimic those of a clock. “And the minute I’m out of office there’ll be a tremendous effort to get back where it was.”

Still, he feels emboldened by the response he gets. “Everywhere I go doing poetry readings throughout this country I run into people who have felt excluded from poetry almost all their adult lives,” he said. “Invariably after one of my readings a man who was drug there by his wife will come shambling up to me and say, ‘I had a pretty good time and I think I’m going to try this poetry stuff a little bit,’ which is wonderful for me. It’s exactly what I want to happen.”

It’s all about making converts. “Yeah, and, you know, they’re only one at a time. but for the one person that comes up there are others in the audience that are feeling the same way,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s my poetry that’s making the difference. This is not something I’m doing intentionally, but in looking at myself from over on the side I think have de-mystified the process. You know, it’s really about working hard and learning to write. There’s no magical thing I have that nobody else has. It’s just the fact I’ve been writing poetry for 50 years and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. And I think people like to hear there’s nothing really mysterious about it.”

Part of the exclusion people feel about poetry, he said, stems from how it’s taught in schools. It’s why soon after getting the Laureate he made a point of speaking at the National Conference of Teachers of English, “an organization on the front line for expanding the audience for poetry,” yet one ignored by his predecessors.

“I wanted to go there because I thought, Here are the people who have all the experience teaching poetry and usually where poetry goes wrong is in the public schools. It’s taught poorly. It discourages people, and so they never know to read it. And so I figured these teachers are really the prime teachers — any teacher who will pay his or her own way to a convention is pretty serious about teaching — and would have the really good ideas about how to teach poetry. And, as a matter of fact, there were a lot of ideas that came out of it. Mostly enthusiasm, really, and encouragement and that sort of thing.”

 

 

 

 

He never underestimates the power of “a great big dose of encouragement, no matter how bad the students’ work is, because I was one of those students,” he said. Growing up in his native Ames, Iowa, his earliest champion was his mother, the woman who taught him to see and to appreciate the world around him — the local wonders so to speak, and to not take these things for granted. Another early influence was an English teacher named Marian McNally. In college, teachers Will Jumper and Karl Shapiro, the noted poet, inspired him.

As Laureate Kooser’s embraced diversity in poetry. A 2005 program he organized in Kearney, Neb. saw him share the stage with an aspiring poet, a cowboy poet, a romantic poet, a performance poet and a fellow literary poet. Whatever the form or style, he said, poetry provides a framework for “expressing feelings,” for gaining “enlightenment,” for “celebrating life” and for “preserving the past.”

When he battled cancer eight years ago he didn’t much feel like celebrating anything. “And then…I remembered why I was a writer. That you can find some order and make some sense of a very chaotic world by writing a little poem. People need to be reminded there are these things out there that they can enjoy and learn from — and there might be something remarkable in their own backyard — if they would just slow down and look at them. To really look at things you have to shut out the thinking part and look and just see what’s there. It’s reseeing things”

True to his openness to new ideas, he’s agreed to let Opera Omaha commission a staged cantata based on his book The Blizzard Voices, a collection of poems inspired by real-life stories from the 1888 blizzard that killed hundreds of children in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas. Adapting his work is composer Paul Moravec, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer for Music. The March 2008 production will premiere at the Holland Performing Arts Center and then tour. Recording rights are being sought.

For Kooser, who once adapted his Blizzard poems for a Lincoln Community Playhouse show, the possibilities are exciting. “I met with him (Moravec) and I liked him immensely and so I decided I would trust him to do anything he wanted to do. I think the idea of a blizzard and the kind of noise you could associate with it could be really interesting.”

Music-poetry ties have long fascinated Kooser, who hosted a program with folk musician John Prine. The March 9, 2005 program “A Literary Evening with John Prine and Ted Kooser,” was presented by the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress in D.C.  The program included a lively discussion between the songwriter and the poet as they compared and contrasted the emotional appeal of the lyrics of popular songs with the appeal of contemporary poetry.

“I’ve been following John Prine’s music since his first album came out and have always been struck by his marvelous writing: its originality, its playful inventiveness, its poignancy, its ability to capture our times,” Kooser said. “For example, he did a better job of holding up the mirror of art to the ’60s and ’70s than any of our official literary poets. And none of our poets wrote anything better about Viet Nam than Prine’s ‘Sam Stone.’ If I could write a poem that somebody could sing and make better for being sung, that would be great.”

In anticipation of the Opera Omaha cantata, the University of Nebraska Press has reprinted Kooser’s Blizzard Voices in paperback.

Whoever’s named the next Laureate will get a letter from Kooser. If his successor asks for advice he will say to be sure to avoid talking politics. If Kooser had responded to a national reporter’s question two years ago about who he voted for in the presidential race, he’s sure he’d still be dogged by that admission now. “Instead,” he said, “I’ve gotten to talk about poetry…the job I was hired to do.”

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

June 19, 2010 2 comments

ted-kooser.jpg

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.

Buffett’s newspaper man, Stanford Lipsey

June 2, 2010 1 comment

Another native Omahan who has achieved great things is Stanford Lipsey.  This publishing scion has enjoyed a full career in journalism.  A good deal of his newspapering life has been associated with billionaire investor Warren Buffett.  The two men are good friends. Lipsey retains strong ties to Omaha, where Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway are based.  This story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the eve of the annual Berkshire shareholders meeting, which draws tens of thousands to Omaha for what’s been described as a Wooodstock for capitalists. Lispey and Buffett made journalistic history back in the early 1970s with the Omaha Sun Newspapers, when an investigative report into Boys Town’s vast financial holdings and wealth ended up winning the paper and its publishing team a Pulitzer Prize.  Buffett later hired Lipsey as publisher of the Buffalo News, a position he continues in today.

NOTE: See my new story on this blog about the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer winning report on Boys Town during Lipsey’s reign as publisher.  The story is titled “Sun Reflection.”  Lipsey is back in Omaha for the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway confab and for an exhibition of his photography at KANEKO.  He’s also participating in a panel discussion at KANEKO about a life of creativity in business.  For more on KANEKO, see my story titled “Open Minds.”

Of course, Warren Buffett and Berkshire are much in the news these days because of the scandal involving David Sokol, the once heir apparent to Buffett as head of Berkshire.

 

Stanford Lipsey at The Buffalo News in 2012. Its owner, Warren E. Buffett, hired him. 

©Credit Brendan Bannon for The New York Times

 

 

 

Buffett’s newspaper man, Stanford Lipsey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha native and veteran newspaper publisher Stanford Lipsey has seen and done it all in a six-decade journalism career that’s closely allied him to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett.

Lipsey climbed the ranks at the now defunct Sun Newspapers in Omaha to become owner-publisher. In 1969 he sold the Sun to Buffett, but remained as publisher. In 1972 Lipsey was at the helm when the Sun, acting on a lead from Buffett, poked into the finances of Boys Town. The Sun’s probing led to sweeping changes at the charitable organization and earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

Buffett later appointed Lipsey publisher of the Buffalo (N.Y.) News. Lipsey is still its publisher today. In 1988 he was named a Berkshire vice president. The old friends, inducted in the Omaha Press Club Hall of Fame in 2008, may or may not get together this weekend at Berkshire’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Omaha.

Lipsey, who got his start as a photojournalist, came out with a photography book, Affinity of Form (2009, powerHouse Books), that can be purchased at the Qwest Center exhibition hall during the May 1 meeting or at the Bookworm. He still shoots, only with digital equipment, not the Brownie or Speed Graphic he began with. Instead of snapping news pics, he makes fine art images for galleries and books.

His life as a news hound has spanned hot type, clattering typewriters, digital off-set presses, computerized newsrooms and newspaper web sites. His training began at Omaha Central High and the University of Michigan. While in the U.S. Air Force he served as editor of the Offutt Air Force Base publication Air Pulse.

He began working at the Sun in 1952, learning the business inside and out. Lipsey said the Sun “was small enough so I could do it all.” He considers a well-rounded newspapering experience an “invaluable” education most publishers “don’t have” today. “In the large daily business hardly anybody has it. They come from one field. They were either an editor or an advertising manager or a business manager, but they don’t have the crossover background between news and advertising,” he said.

Buffett said, “He’s a real journalist but he understands every aspect of the business, and that was one of the considerations why we wanted him up in Buffalo.”

Under Lipsey’s watch, managing editor Paul Williams guided the Sun expose of Boys Town when the still single-campus, dormitory-style, boys-only home used weepy mass mail appeals to portray itself as destitute. The Sun revealed Boys Town sat on a $162 million endowment dwarfing that of many national institutions. Property and building assets created a total net value in excess of $200 million.

“We knew there was a story there, but we didn’t know how to get it,” said Buffett. “I was sitting at home doing the tax return for my own tiny little foundation and there was something in the instructions that said my tax return would be public. All of a sudden it dawned on me if a tax-free institution such as this foundation of mine had to make the return public, Boys Town probably did.”

The story goes Buffett called on a well-placed source who sat on the Boys Town board to verify Sun suspicions the nonprofit had accumulated a fortune. Public records confirmed the rest. Public indignation was strong.

“It’s a helluva story,” Lipsey said by phone. “It was so well done.”

He said breaking the exclusive, which major news outlets picked up, was what the Sun needed to do to stay relevant opposite the Omaha World-Herald.

In Buffett, the paper had deep pockets and considerable clout. In Williams, who went on to help found Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., a solid newsman. In Lipsey, a crusading publisher.

“See, we didn’t have the advantage of being a daily, so when we came out we had to have something fresh, so we did investigative reports, enterprise reports,” said Lipsey. “Warren, Paul Williams and I would sit down and brainstorm — what’s the story, what should we go after, and then this thing came along — it actually came along on a tip from Warren. It made for a great story.”

Like Lipsey, Buffett still feels a sense of pride about what they did.

“That was a watershed. It didn’t do us any good commercially as a paper, but that was probably as interesting a month or two of my life as has ever occurred,” said Buffett.

The report upset the Catholic community. Defensive Boys Town officials attacked the Sun as “a yellow rag.” The gutsy coverage earned the Sun the first Pulitzer given to a weekly for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting. It’s the last Pulitzer, period, won by any Nebraska newspaper. The award also recognized the reforms the story instigated. A chastened, more transparent Boys Town embarked on a course serving at-risk youth in new, home-like environs across the nation. Boys Town also built the first of its major research facilities.

When Buffett acquired the Buffalo News in 1977 he asked Lipsey for help. “When I was in trouble up in Buffalo with the paper I called him,” said Buffett. At first Lipsey served as a consultant, commuting between Omaha and Buffalo, before accepting the role of publisher in 1983. The two men share an abiding mutual respect. “I admire Warren. I would say he’s someone who has taught me a lot. He’s a steady hand. He makes decisions that are totally moral, totally wise, and for the right reasons, and they’re not always necessarily for profit,” said Lipsey. “He won’t buy a company where the management isn’t in place. The only exception to that is me.”

 

 

Warren Buffett

 

 

The book The Warren Buffett CEO, Secrets from the Berkshire Hathaway Managers, devotes a chapter to “the turnaround” Lipsey engineered in Buffalo.

“You see a newspaper doesn’t really match what Warren buys in companies because this paper was losing money when he bought it but he always had enormous respect and love for newspapers. But then he was short — we had a very good editor but we didn’t have a good publisher here. He had to get one to come in, and he tapped me,” said Lipsey. “There was a daily newspaper here in competition called the Courier Express. It became one of these fights to the death type thing. I got very interested in that. That was an enormous challenge, and I wanted to make sure we survived.”

Buffett said Lipsey was well qualified coming from a small paper to oversee a big paper because he knew all phases of newspaper operations: “Stan knew the press room, he knew circulation, he knew ad sales, he knew the newsroom. Stan’’s been a terrific friend and business associate. He’s over 80 now and he goes to work every day with the same zest as always. There’s no one I trust more.”

With the dynamic pair behind it, the Buffalo News won out. Lipsey’s still in charge, but the shrinking place of printed newspapers in this digital age concerns him

“Certainly right now the newspaper business is challenging. We’re doing better than most papers, but we’re not doing well. All our numbers are way down. Circulation, advertising, profit, volume, everything, and I think you’ve seen the same thing with the World-Herald, and they were enormously profitable. The trouble with newspapers is they’re extraordinarily costly, so when you have a sharp fall off in revenue it’s hard to cut as much as you’re losing, because you have to so many people in the newsroom, so many people running the presses, so many people driving the delivery trucks. That’s the problem.”

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