A conversation with U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser

Photography:  Ted Kooser
Photography | Ted Kooser | Ruth Anne Ranew

On March 1st of this year, U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser came to Ocala for a poetry reading at CF as part of the annual Debra Vasquez Poetry Reading Series and was gracious enough to give Imprints an interview.

Mr. Kooser uses the phrase “marvelous connections” in reference to his belief in the mysterious order to the universe. He wrote in his book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, that “the best poems seem to reach through the opaque surface of the world and give us a glimpse of an order beyond.” The phrase “marvelous connections” also reflects the manner in which this talented poet connects with his readers through a unique ability to write about simple surroundings and universal experiences. He finds poems in the seemingly simple tasks and observations of daily life in the Midwest. Death of a parent, dealing with cancer and the love of a dog are just a few of the experiences about which he writes.

Because of the subject matter, Mr. Kooser’s favorite collection of his poems is Winter Morning Walks, one hundred postcards to Jim Harrison, which was written the winter after his battle with cancer. Each morning he took an early morning walk and afterward he would go home and write. He glued the finished poems to a postcard and mailed them to his friend, Jim Harrison. The poems are not titled; instead, each one is dated and begins like a weather report. On January 19, he wrote the following:

Still thawing, breezy.

Arthritic and weak, my old dog Hattie
stumbles behind me over the snow.
When I stop, she stops, tipped to one side
like a folding table with one of the legs
not snapped into place. Head bowed, one ear
turned down to the earth as if she
could hear it turning, she is losing the trail
at the end of her fourteenth year.
Now she must follow. Once she could catch
a season running and shake it by the neck
till the leaves fell off, but now they get away,
flashing their tails as they bound off
over the hill. Maybe she doesn’t see them
out of those clouded eyes,
maybe she no longer cares. I thought
for a while last summer that I might die
before my dogs, but it seems I was wrong.
She wobbles a little way ahead of me now,
barking her sharp, small bark,
then stops and trembles, excited, on point
at the spot that leads out of the world.

His dog Hattie has since died, and a new dog has found a way into his heart. Her name is Alice, and she has lots of spots. Tilting his head to the side in a thoughtful pose, Mr. Kooser says that he misses his dog when he is away from home doing poetry readings and finds that he gravitates toward any dogs in attendance at receptions that are held in homes.

Here, with Mr. Kooser’s generous consent, is a recollection of the conversation we had on the afternoon of March 1, 2006.

Ms. Lyons: In your poem titled “Mother,” you give your mother credit for teaching you a “way to look at the world, to see the life at play in everything.” Was it your mother who taught you to have this keen sense of observation, to notice the “local wonders,” as you call them?

Mr. Kooser: It was mother and father both, actually. Dad worked in a store many years. Once when the name of someone was mentioned that Dad had not seen for many years, he paused and said, “Size ten, a little something in blue.” He remembered that detail all those years later … I recently bought a store myself.

Ms. Lyons: In honor of your father?

Mr. Kooser: It’s a place to go with no telephone and no computer. It’s an old building in a village about ten miles from where we live. It has been used as a grocery store, a meeting place for Czech fraternal lodge members, and God knows what else. It has a lot of space and I have fixed up an office there for my writing and literary activity, and an art studio, where I can paint and draw. When I’m trying to write or paint at home there are lots of distractions, self-imposed, really, like seeing yard work that needs to be done. This should help take me away from those.

Ms. Lyons: I have heard you called “blue collar poet.” Is that an accurate reflection of you?

Mr. Kooser: Well, I did some blue collar kinds of employment when I was young. I worked in the fields and was a sign painter for many years, but of course I made my living as a white collar worker. I suppose people mean to say that a blue collar worker could understand my poetry, and if that’s true, then I’d like to claim that.

Ms. Lyons: You have also been called a “master of metaphor.” And you are quite adept at analogy. Is this deft use of analogy and metaphor a gift you have been given? And, for those aspiring poets who are not naturally gifted, are there techniques they can use to learn these tools?

Mr. Kooser: I do think that I have been blessed to have a gift for metaphor and analogy. I find in working with students that it is very difficult to teach. It’s possible to teach a student how to make his or her metaphors more effective, though, once the metaphor has been discovered. If a student really doesn’t get analogy and metaphor, they should use another technique. Using metaphor is not like plugging in a formula — a metaphor here, a simile there — doing that can make it sound forced.

Ms. Lyons: In your book Local Wonders you describe how it was an illness that motivated you to begin writing. It was also an illness that stopped you from writing for a while. In fact, you lost your ability to write after learning about your cancer and during the days of treatment that soon followed. Can you talk about not being able to write and what that was like for you?

Mr. Kooser: Writers sometimes make an awful lot out of writer’s block, or periods when they are unable to enjoy writing. But a person who likes to build model airplanes sometimes gets too busy to do that and misses it. I don’t think we ought to suggest that it’s terribly important when a writer can’t write. It may be important to the writer, but the rest of us don’t care a whole lot. I had a period when I was going through surgery and radiation when I wasn’t up to writing, but after a while I discovered that I still wanted to write, and I think writing helped me feel better.

Ms. Lyons: Please explain how cancer has affected you, and if it has changed your writing.

Mr. Kooser: Cancer gave me some important lessons in life, including a big dose of humility. If ever I had felt superior to anyone, cancer knocked that out of me. And it changed me as a person, which changed me as a writer. I came through it wanting to celebrate everything about life.

Ms. Lyons: Your poem “At the Cancer Clinic” from your Pulitzer Prize winning book, Delights & Shadows, ends with these four lines:

There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow cold.

Will you tell us about that experience?

Mr. Kooser: The entire moment of that woman walking through that room contained all of us there, and everything seemed full of grace.

Ms. Lyons: That experience sounds like a marvelous connection.

Mr. Kooser: On the evening of December 30, 1979, my mother phoned from Iowa to tell me that my father had collapsed in the bathroom and had been taken to the hospital there in Cedar Rapids. I left home the next morning in a blizzard and was driving on Interstate 80 on the north side of Des Moines. This drive takes six hours on a clear day. About halfway there I turned on WOI radio in Ames, my home town, and there was a book show on and a man was reading from literary works. Within five minutes he read a poem that I had written for my father. I pulled off the road, overwhelmed by this coincidence, and sat there while the snow piled up on the windshield. After a while I felt I could drive on, and when I got to Cedar Rapids I learned that Dad had died while I was on the road.

Ms. Lyons: Do you think he died at that moment?

Mr. Kooser: Perhaps.

Ms. Lyons: Are you a famous man in Ames?

Mr. Kooser: I suppose so. They are having Ted Kooser day on April 8th of this year.

Ms. Lyons: What has given you the most pleasure in the last year?

Mr. Kooser: The most fun I’ve had was sitting on stage at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress with John Prine, whom I’d invited there to talk about writing folk songs. He is a tremendous presence, and I was honored that he would be willing to take some time to come there. I learned that among other connections both of us had had the same kinds of cancer.

That is just another example of the marvelous connections that surround Mr. Kooser. Fortunately for us, popularity and awards, including the Barnes and Noble Discover Award for his prose book Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps and a Pulitzer Prize for Delights & Shadows, have not caused him to cut himself off from the public. He has made a conscious effort to be accessible as part of his duties as the 13th U.S. Poet Laureate. In so doing, he marvelously connects with all of us, employing a level of courtesy and kindness that is unsurpassed.

We at Imprints lift our glass to you, Ted Kooser.