Harbour Winn: Ted, what does it mean for a Poet Laureate, for the first time, to be from the Great Plains? What does that mean geographically, culturally, historically?
Ted Kooser: Well, there are some qualifiers there: Bill Stafford, of course. So much of his work was written about Kansas. When he was named Poetry Consultant he was living in Oregon, so I’m the first person who actually was living out here when this happened. And you know, I think it was an enormous risk on the part of the Librarian to do this. [Note: The Poet Laureate is appointed annually by the Librarian of Congress.]
Of course, to me, it means a marvelous opportunity to do some things. I do think that it’s good for an official body like the Library of Congress to recognize that there are writers and artists living out here in the Great Middle and that some of them are doing pretty good work. The Library of Congress is the people’s library. I think the Librarian has that in mind, that this is not the property of the East Coast and so on. One of the things that happened was I said, “If I’m going to be the first one named from this area, I had better do at least as good a job if not a better job than anyone’s ever done.” So I really threw myself into it and it’s been pretty much seven days a week since then. I’ve done around 200 appearances, about 100 interviews. I think I’ve been in front of maybe 30,000 people.
Elaine Smokewood: Did you know that offer was coming?
TK: No, I had no idea.
ES: What were you doing and how did you react?
TK: Well, this is a pretty good story. My wife was in Washington— she’s a newspaper editor and she’d gone there for business. [Note: Kooser’s wife, Kathleen Rutledge, is the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star.] It was a Friday evening about 6:15 and I was trying to figure out what I was going to cook for supper and the phone rang:
“Yes, this is he.”
“This is Prosser Gifford. I’m the Director of Scholarly Programs for the Library of Congress and I am calling to ask if you’d like to be the next Poet Laureate of the United States.”
I was just staggered. I stammered around and tried to ask some questions and he finally said, “I think I better call you back tomorrow.” I got off the phone and I’m trying to figure out how I can come to terms with this and I notice that we had a couple of DVDs checked out from the little town of Seward, about fourteen miles away. I thought, Well, if I get those over there in time, maybe they won’t fine me. And while I’m driving I’ll think about what it’s going to be like to be a Poet Laureate, what I’m going to say. So I got in the car, backed out, and ripped the side mirror off the car on the center post of the garage. It’s one of those mirrors that has a power cable, so it’s hanging on the side of the car, swinging like a skillet all the way to Seward. I pull into Seward and I think, Those guys at the body shop work late on Friday nights. I’ll go see what this is gonna cost. So I drove to Bernie’s Body Shop and they did all the stuff with the computer and said,“Well, it’s gonna be $138.43,” or something like that. I get back in the car and all the way home I’m thinking about being the Poet Laureate and about having to put out the money for this mirror and I pull in the garage and the DVDs are still in the car.
It was like that for weeks. I remember when the first press release went out I got phone calls from newspapers from all over the country. I remember lying on the bedroom floor, looking up at the ceiling thinking, I am never going to be able to do this. This is so foreign to me. And then, of course, the first trip to Washington. I hate to fly, so I drove. They made quite a bit out of that in Washington, that I had driven all the way, because for them it’s the other end of the solar system. It was amazing. There still is, at times, the feeling that I may wake up and this has never happened.
ES: Do you feel that this happened at the right time in your life and career?
TK: Probably did, yeah. I had the time and still had the energy. I had my health back after having been very ill in ‘98 and ‘99, so, sure, it was good.
ES: You’re famous for having talked about liking poems with more eye, e-y-e, than I. How do you deal with students who are writing in a very confessional mode?
TK: Well, without overtly saying that I don’t particularly like that, I’ve said things like, “You ought to do a version of this poem in third person, just to see how that sounds.” That, again, is personality and you’re never going to turn some people away from that, from writing where I is the most important part. I remember a review of one of my contemporaries — it was in the New York Times Book Review, maybe ten years ago — and the reviewer said, “There could be an earthquake in Ethiopia and 150,000 people would perish and so-and-so would feel she had to take her temperature.”
HW: You have a variety of poems that are your response [to] looking at a painting: one on Winslow Homer, one on Washington, there are others. As I read your poems I find so many of them are portraits in words, portraits of people that usually are not famous beyond the way that they impact the people in their everyday lives. You’ve talked about the cover of Braided Creek, you painted that, and I’m wondering about your view as a person who looks at portraiture and as a poet who creates portraits.
TK: I have a very strong visual orientation. I’ve drawn and painted all my life and sometimes I have to remind myself to get the other senses in those poems, because they’re so very visual. I do like the idea of being on the outside looking in; that’s the point of view I prefer. In the Sheldon Memorial art collection on the campus of the University of Nebraska, we own a very famous Edward Hopper painting. Hopper was very influenced by photography, and this is what looks like a telephoto shot through an apartment window. On the left there’s a man on a couch reading a newspaper on an overstuffed chair. On the right is a woman sitting on a piano bench, touching one key of the piano. To me that is the ideal point of view: across the street, looking through the window at something happening. That’s where I’d like to be as a poet. I do appear in some of my poems, but I like the idea of being on the outside looking at things.
ES: What can you do as a painter that you can’t do as a poet, and the other way around?
TK: Well, I think poetry has to be more exacting than painting. Since painting doesn’t have anything as precise as language to go along with it, it can be freer. You notice that particularly when you hear people talking about paintings, about how the painting goes beyond language in some way. I do think the visual orientation of my poetry comes out of my having been interested in drawing and painting for years.
ES: Do you think those two activities complement each other for you, that painting makes you a better poet?
TK: I don’t know about that. I find it very useful to have something I can do when I don’t feel like writing, something that is engaged with the arts in some way. I don’t like wasting time; there’s not enough of it. Although when I’m traveling I must say that sometimes in motel rooms I like to watch television.
John McBride: You said this morning that with your painting you don’t show it, you don’t sell it. Presumably there [are] enough of them around [that] they’re just starting to pile up if you don’t give them away?
TK: I’ve given away a lot of them— as a matter of fact, most of them. I keep them around for a while to pat myself on the back for having painted something and then somebody will come by to visit and compliment me on a painting and I’ll say, “Here, why don’t you take that one?” It’s great fun to do that.
JM: You don’t really have any intentions beyond that?
TK: No, I don’t think so. I’ve been friends with Debra Winger for twenty years and I gave her a big painting of a barn burning. Copper Canyon Press decided they wanted to use that painting on the cover of a book of some writings of Roethke that is coming out, so I let them do that. [My] book Winter Morning Walks has a painting of mine on it, but that’s different from really being engaged in the profession.
JM: Some of the poets that we’ve talked to, we try to get into some of their craft. A lot of them talk about the difference in writing versus editing and it’s a completely different mindset; they’re a different person, they are approaching it in a different way.You’re the first that we’ve talked to that seems to be more integrated, that editing and writing— there’s not that big of a difference.
TK: To my sense, a poem is at play not only as I’m writing it but as I’m editing it. Maybe I’m the peculiar duck in that sense.
JM: Is most of your editing subtracting?
TK: Subtracting almost always. That’s a good question.
JM: We’ve heard that before. I’m thinking of Michael Ondaatje. He, too, was taking away more than he adds.
TK: The poem that I read this morning, that memory poem where I talk about all of these things coming in, is very much the way for getting my students to look at writing. I want them to get all the detail they can possibly get in the first draft and then go through and select the detail that is the most effective in conveying whatever they want to do, getting it all in there and then starting to compress it down.
One of my colleagues in the English department is very much on the idea “We’ll add to this” with her students. She’ll say, “You need to put more in this part of the poem and blow it up a little bit and expand it.” To me, it’s unbelievable to go at it that way. It’s very interesting to have two people working with the same students. They’ve been taught for a semester to expand, and then they come to me and I’m telling them to compress it and take the hot air out of it. Maybe between the two of us they come to some sense of themselves.
HW: I don’t know if it was just the moment in time when I was reading it, but [Winter Morning Walks] struck me as much as any of your books. Tell us about that. Did you write a poem for every day?
TK: I wrote one every day.
HW: But your average, you were saying, was to get one good poem a month and twelve a year. This was a demanding time, wasn’t it?
TK: Well, it was me really fighting for life, you know, and hanging on to these poems like I was sliding down a rocky slope and grabbing at handholds. At that time I had no idea whether I would be alive in six months. Going through a near-death situation was reawakening to the world and appreciating all those little details. There’s a poem in Delights and Shadows called “Surviving” that it is very much like that, too, about seeing the ladybug on the window sill, the kind of thing that you’re suddenly aware of and appreciating in life that might have otherwise been gone.
I really think that this writing business is a lot about trying to find order. At a time when you’ve had cancer—you’ve gone through this devastating treatment, everything is chaos, you’re scared to death, in two weeks it might be back— the idea that I could put together a little square about the size of a playing card of order every day was very helpful to me.
HW: In a number of these poems there’s personification, metaphor, but also you assume the point of view of animals. I write Walden Pond in the margins often when I’m reading this book. There’s a Thoreau-like appreciation, for want of an analogy or a comparison.
TK: I’ve always been very interested in the natural world. We live in the country, so it’s all around us. I wasn’t running into people on those walks, I’m running into rabbits and birds. There’s a hunter that appears in one of those poems, and some other things like that, but generally that’s what I had available to me to write about. In one of the poems that I like very much, a person appears, the one about my wife going off to work and twirling into her coat. It was a lonely time and I wasn’t well enough to spend a lot of time in town with my friends; so I was alone with nature, watching it very carefully.
ES:I was thinking that’s one of the things I love about your poetry, that over and over again your poems seem to be coming from someone who is not afraid to be alone with himself and not afraid to be alone with nature. That’s so sustaining to just be connected to that person through those poems.
TK: I have thought that when it comes time for me to die, if I could find a place where I would like to be, it would be in October when the fruit is overripe on the apple trees and we have a lot of wild plums. I want to go into the corner of a field in the deep grass that has not been plowed, under a thicket of plums that are overripe and falling down with that fruit smell on a crisp October day, all by myself, just crawling in under one of those bushes and lying there looking up at the sky. To me, that would be the ideal way to go.
JM: One of the questions I like to ask of people is on the subject of fear, because it’s something I’ve noticed with poets: they tend to be fearless, which probably is because of their poems. Do you ever come across anything in your writing that has scared you off, you just can’t go there, or do you find a way through that?
TK: I can think of instances when I was in my twenties and thirties where I wrote things that made me feel kind of crazy, and that was scary to me. I drank way too much when I was young and that was part of it, but that hasn’t happened to me in a long time. I haven’t found myself drawn into an area in writing that had that kind of darkness.
I probably write differently about death now, having come close to it, than I would have when I was younger. One of the things about being terribly ill is you worry all your life about some terrible thing happening to you, and then it happens and you think, Well, okay, now what am I going to do? It’s already happened. I’ve gotta live now, I’ve gotta go on living. That’s a really important thing to have happen. It changes you.
HW: You mentioned the poem from Winter Morning Walks with your wife and the twirling of her coat. One thing recurrent in your poems is movement. You have a gift for looking at the sequence of how something moves.
TK: I like writing that way. I have a poem called “In Passing” about two people who are meeting on the sidewalk, not knowing whether they really recognize each other; then that moment when they pass without speaking, there’s a sort of charge there. I like that kind of subject matter. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about this until this moment, but in landscape painting it’s always good to have suggested motion, wind blowing. When the trees are bent into the wind, the painting has a lot more to it than if they’re just standing there; so there I’m picking up on motion in a visual way.
ES: When reading your books end-to-end, it’s like the book of changes, it’s all flux. I feel as if I’m riding the wave of change and the wave of time.
TK: Thank you. I don’t know that I’ve ever consciously sought that. I like the sound of it, that we are all astride this ribbon of time. The classic imagistic poems that have lasted the longest, the ancient Chinese poems, have that. It seems to me that the poems that have lasted the longest— although the ones in the Greek Anthology are not like this particularly—are the poems which establish place and weather almost right off the bat. I think that happens in human conversation.We say,“You know, Harbour, I got up this morning, it was raining a little bit, looked out the window and I could see whatever snow was left melting,” and then I introduce my story.
HW: You talked about your view of the confessional poet, the preference for the third person, the observer; and yet there are the poems about your mother, the poem about your father, and “Pearl.” Those are like anomalies to your other poems, and yet to me they’re some of the most memorable ones.
TK: Well, I was willing to take the risk of letting my feelings out in those poems, particularly the one about Mother. Whenever I come to my family, I’ve done that.Winter Morning Walks is much more open to expressions of feeling than anything I’d ever done before. Mother had died just before that book was started; Dad had been dead twenty years, but I was still writing about him from time to time. I really liked my family. I mean they were extremely ordinary in every way, but if we can write about family, then they gain a little edge on mortality. Every time somebody reads that poem about my mother, [she] comes into the light for a little bit. That’s part of what I’m trying to do, keep them in the light a little.
HW: Do you do poetry readings for corporations? Having worked in the business world, you would seem to have the credentials to address them.
TK: I would do it under some circumstances. One of the groups I really like reading to is medical personnel. There’s an awful lot of emphasis now on healing and the arts, and I’m trying to be a part of that. I’ve done maybe three or four things at the University of Nebraska Medical Center where I’ve read poems and talked about how good it was for me to have poetry at hand when I was trying to recover. That’s really satisfying work, because I so admire people who are in medicine and really doing something of worth like that.
HW: The whole phenomenon of anthologies is interesting. I think that poets are saved or damned because of the poems that are anthologized. What would you anthologize of yours? What are you pleased to see has been anthologized?
TK: My experience has been that most anthologies copy each other, so that a poem of mine about an abandoned farmhouse has been in dozens of anthologies, primarily because someone saw it in another one. It would be nice if newer work was, for that poem was written in 1969. You think, Well, Jesus, haven’t I written anything good since then that’s worth being anthologized? I think that anthologies tend to preserve a kind of poem associated with someone’s name. For instance, “Those Winter Sundays” [is] the only poem of Robert Hayden’s that anyone knows. He wrote a number of good poems, but that’s the one that is anthologized over and over and over again. Maybe that’s not all bad. Maybe if that poem can live a hundred more years, that’s all right.
ES: You are often compared to Robert Frost, or your poetry’s compared to Frost’s poetry. Do you think that’s an apt comparison?
TK: Oh, I don’t know. It’s flattering, I think. I really like Frost, but he’s not somebody that I think I’ve been profoundly influenced by. I wonder if part of that just doesn’t come from the fact that I write about rural life and so did he.
ES: I want to ask you about metaphor in one of your poems, “Etude,”about the heron. It starts out being a poem about a bird and the bird is compared to a man writing a love letter; but then it becomes a poem about a man writing a love letter that’s compared to a bird, and it’s like the whole literal/figurative distinction is completely ungrounded. I almost get dizzy when I’m reading that poem and it seems like that’s a kind of mood that you’re attracted to in your poetry.
TK: I think it’s sort of like daydreaming.You’re in the present, here’s the heron, and then you dream off into this other thing and then eventually you have to come back. Another poem in Delights and Shadows, very much like that, is “Bank Fishing for Bluegills.” I talk about the boat as if the boat were a man, and then the man becomes very real, and then I’ve got to get it back to the boat. I had a student recently send me an email saying he couldn’t quite figure out which was the real thing, the man or the boat. I do a lot of that. It’s great fun.
HW: When I look at Weather Central, the table of contents shows seven parts; Delights and Shadows, four parts. How do you structure these?
TK: If I have sixty poems that I think could be in a book, then I start trying to arrange them on the floor. I see if there are similarities between certain poems. As it turned out in Delights and Shadows, there’s the section of poems that are largely about my family, there’s a section of portraits, there’s a section of poems about things. Another advantage of having sections is that you use up four pages of signature, so you don’t have to have quite so many poems. I have never wanted to put a poem in that was filler. That could be the one poem somebody sees first and it’s not going to represent the book’s better stuff.
HW: What’s so interesting is that a year ago at this time the three of us sat here with Billy Collins and he described the very same process of how he puts books together. He has them all on the floor, he walks around them for several days and he rearranges them.
TK: I rearrange them by shape and length, too. I don’t want to have a whole string of poems that are long poems together. I like to have it feel kind of eclectic. I didn’t know that about Billy, but I’m not surprised.
JM: You describe poetry itself as making order out of something that doesn’t have inherent order. It’s kind of the same process. It’s like the book itself is a poem of sorts.
TK: I think that’s right. I think a book should add up to being more than the sum of its parts. That’s what usually goes wrong with chapbooks. Many chapbooks just look like twenty poems stapled together, they don’t really ever come to more than that.
JM: What has been some of the fun of getting to be Poet Laureate?
TK: Getting John Prine to come to the Library of Congress for a concert. He was the first folk singer to perform there since Woody Guthrie in 1936. What I love about Prine is if any other singer in the country had a line in a song,“There’s a big old goofy guy dancing with a big old goofy girl. Oh, Lord, it’s a big old goofy world,” it would have come out as a sneer or looking down on those people. Not Prine. He is right at their level and he respects them and loves them, I think. He’s right there, but what a huge presence he is. I told my wife when I got home that it was as if I were sitting onstage with a huge chunk of the universe that had been drifting for a billion years; he had that kind of gravity to him. It was marvelous. That was the most fun, I think.
I also have liked going to the National Council of Teachers of English meetings both years, hanging around with the English teachers for four or five days, talking to them about poetry. Those people who go NCTE are the best of the best. Those young women and young men have gone to those things on their own nickel, the school boards won’t give them a dime, and they’re paying two hundred bucks a night for a hotel room in Indianapolis just so they can be there and participate. It’s really quite marvelous.
HW: Well, we appreciate you being here, Ted.
TK: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.
Edited by Harbour Winn and Carla Walker, Transcribed by Diana Silver | Originally Published in Humanities Interview, Fall 2006