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Volume 17, Issue 1: Counterpoint

Ted Kooser

Interviewer: Aaron Rench

C/A's Aaron Rench with Poet Laureate (US) Ted Kooser on poetry and reading.

C/A: Could you tell us about your upcoming book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual?
TK: It isn't one of these books on poetry writing that explains each and every form and gives examples of it. It's a little bit of that. But my editor at the University Press describes it as being more a philosophy of writing. I put a lot of emphasis on the poem as being an active communication, and that we need to think about possible readers out on the other end of the communication and so on. Matter of fact, I have just been reading a copy-editing manuscript this morning, and I had the feeling it should be a pretty useful book. It's not like a manual that you are going to go back to and back to and back to. It seems to me more of the kind of thing you would read once and take some things away from. But it's certainly nothing that you could use to look up what a sonnet is.
C/A: So, not a reference.
TK: No, not at all.
C/A: Could you tell me what poetry you have been reading this year?
TK: Oh gosh. I read just at random. I have hundreds of volumes of poetry here, and when I get some time for reading, I just take something off the shelf and look at it. There is no system to it at all. For a number of years I was a judge of an annual contest, and as a result, I got maybe forty or fifty books a year, and some of those I have only just glanced at. But it's sort of fun for me to just take something at random and look at it.
C/A: Is there anything intentional that you have wanted to read in terms of poetry this year?
TK: I just ordered a new book by Ruth Stone called In the Dark. I really like Ruth Stone's poems, and this is a brand new book from Copper Canyon, really a fine book.
C/A: Any special summer reading?
TK: All those years I was a life insurance executive I never had a summer. If I had been a teacher, I would have had summer vacations. But I never really had one, so I never really expected anything special to happen in the summer. This summer I really haven't set aside any time to read anything remarkable or held any books off for it. I'm retired, so I can read all year round if I want to.
C/A: That's true. How does living in a sort of agrarian culture influence your poetry? I have been reading some of your poetry, and it touches on some local things, but also on some universal things. For instance I have been reading Winter Morning's Walk and I have really enjoyed it. There are things in there that are obviously from an agrarian setting. How does that influence your poetry?
TK: In any creative writing class the instructor is likely to tell you to write what you know. I have lived all my life in Iowa and Nebraska. I grew up in Ames, Iowa, and when I was a kid, there were probably twenty-five thousand people. It was not just a little town, but it was not quite a city either. Now we live on sixty-two acres out in the country, pretty far removed. Basically though, the rule is I write about what I know and what I find here. My guess is that if I lived in Brooklyn, I'd be writing about things in Brooklyn or Los Angeles. But it just happens that I am here, so that is what I am using for subject matter.
C/A: How has your role as a teacher and then how has your role as an insurance agent affected your own work?
TK: I did teach (night classes) beginning creative writing classes for a good many years while I was still at the insurance company. I did that off and on, one course a year, something like that. And it was easy night courses with non-traditional students. One of the things I think makes a difference is that we as writers, all of us, have a kind of community that we may not recognize on a completely conscious level. We are part of that community, and we are writing toward that community. So, if you are a professor of English at Indiana University, whether or not you intend to do it, there's a tendency toward writing for the community, your colleagues in the English department at Indiana University. It is just a sort of human need of ours. So that group is a different sort of literary audience with different literary expectations than the kind of audience I had for years, people who worked in a life insurance company who really did not read poetry at all. Part of the reason my work is accessible, I think, to a broader audience is because for years I would write a poem, and I would take it and show it to my secretary who is not a reader of poetry, and I would say, "Does this make any sense?" And she would say, "Well, this part does, and this part doesn't." And I would go home and work on it because I wanted that audience. I was part of that community, and I liked those people and so on. So, each of us responds to that kind of thing. One of the things that has happened in contemporary poetry for whatever reason (I am not a cultural critic) but for whatever reason, is that poets about halfway through the twentieth century began writing more and more for each other. And you know poets are sophisticated readers, so you can get by with more if you are writing for another poet than you can if you are writing for the guy at the gas station on the corner. That is part of the reason that poetry has turned its back on the general audience and has become difficult (I guess a more complimentary word would be challenging) to a reader you know. Poets have decided to write for each other. And again this is a gross generalization. It is not true of everybody.
C/A: I think that is a wonderful point. I think it is important for poetry to be involved in the community, involved with people. So you would say that the communal nature of poetry is an important thing?
TK: Absolutely. I really believe poetry can do things for people, enhance their lives. We ought to be showing them how and giving them examples of things that they could turn to and find something in. I have been talking a lot lately in interviews about how a poem can make our ordinary world look more interesting. Joe Hutchinson, who is a poet out in Colorado, has a one-line poem called Artichoke: "Oh heart weighed down by so many wings." Once you get that into your head, never again can you go into the produce department and look at an artichoke in quite the same way. It becomes something else.
In my book I have a little poem of A.R. Ammons which describes a winter scene in which a bluebird lands in a bare tree, and he says, "The tree breaks out in blue leaves." Who could read that and see a blue jay in a tree in the winter without a little shock of recognition as a result? That is the kind of thing that poems can do for people. There is a kind of kaleidoscope, I believe the term is teleidoscope. You have seen these things. It is the teleidoscope that does not have the little glass chips in it. It just has mirrors, and you can focus it on anything, and it becomes interesting looking. And I think that is a function of poetry: the poet becomes that device. The poet concentrates his gaze upon something quite ordinary—let's say it's a walnut lying on the ground, and through the device, it becomes something remarkable. That is the kind of thing that we can give people.
C/A: What is your philosophy of poetry? This may sound weird, but why poetry? What makes it even possible? Why has mankind been doing this for thousands of years?
TK: Well, let's see. There are a couple of impulses. Those really original poems, the ones that go way back are, generally speaking, reports from someone who has been out in the world and come back. The Homeric poems are like that. They are stories in verse, and they were shaped as verse because (at least we think) that made them easier to remember. Same thing is true of memory work. If you ever had to memorize poems as a kid, you never get over it. I can still recite lines from Longfellow and Sir Walter Scott. It was a means of telling stories or relating information. But I think a lot of contemporary poetry (and the kind of poems I write) are largely driven in an attempt to take a world that seems to have no abiding order, that can be kind of chaotic, disorderly, and hard to figure out, and make something small and perfectly ordered. So there is a satisfaction in writing a poem because you have created a small and perfectly ordered thing. It's the same kind of impulse that drives people to have miniature train sets or doll houses. We are drawn to things that we can control, that seem to have an order that we can impose upon them and appreciate. And I think that is part of it. The more chaotic the world is, the more this attempt to put it in order comes about. For instance, when the twin towers went down, there were thousands and thousands of people writing poems about it. It was a way of trying to find some order.
C/A: Does poetry require humility?
TK: Well, again I have to speak very generally, but I think humility is important on the part of the poet. The poet needs to recognize that he or she is really no better than anyone else, and that he or she may have a special skill but that doesn't place them in some higher order of being or anything like that.
C/A: How about when the poets look at the walnut or the artichoke or the bluebird in the bare tree, and they look at this really simple thing and they see a glory in that. They are looking at these simple humble objects and they have the vision to find glory in them.
TK: It is true that there is among certain people a kind of gift for association. I am fortunate to have had that. I am pretty good at making comparisons between things or associating one thing with another, and that is something I have found that cannot really be taught to anybody. But I don't see that being any more remarkable a gift than a shade tree carpenter who is particularly good at making dovetail joints. That is one thing I can do and maybe other people can't, but other people can do other things.
C/A: So there is a sense in which craftsmanship, whether in a carpenter or a poet, requires some sort of humility.
TK: Part of that humility comes from the fact that here I am, and here are all these other poets who are at the end of thousands of years of literature and poetry. You have to be pretty humble to be standing in that huge shadow. It is like standing at the foot of a glacier.
C/A: I was reading Winter Mornings Walks and I read your poem called "December 29th." I think it is a really good one among many other good ones in this book. It says that "all night in gusty winds the house has cupped its hands around the steady candle of our marriage, the two of us braided together in sleep and burning yes but slowly…" I'll just stop there. It might be sort of an odd question, but how does marriage influence a poet or poetry?
TK: Well, we know how bad marriages influence poetry. You know, I think, W.D. Snodgrass's poem Heart's Needle was about a divorce. And you see a lot of that kind of thing. But in my case, the domestic life is extremely important to me, and that is really where I live at my most intense, and also in the most pleasurable way. I really love being married. I've done it twice now, and I would probably continue to do it over and over again. My wife and I have now been married twenty-seven years and I think this one is going to last forever. But I really like having a close relationship with someone like that. And I am very fortunate in Kathy because she is a professional editor. She is the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper. She knows about writing. She is a devoted reader. So I show her my poems, and she points out things she does and does not like about them and that sort of thing. So it is very helpful to me. I think there is a comfort in it that alleviates all the stress that might distract me from writing.
C/A: How will the laureateship affect your work?
TK: My guess is that I am not going to get much writing done this year. The other day I wrote a little poem. But it looked awful rusty and weak. The reason is that I really have to be in a state of serenity to write well. And I don't think I'm going to be able to get there much. I am going to be gone a lot. I really like to be at home. I have never been able to write in hotel rooms or on the road. But frankly I don't know that it makes all that much difference. I'll miss the little highs you get while writing, the things that happen to you while you are writing that are surprising and fun. Sometimes you get moving, but I can get that back someday. Really I see myself more now in the role of a teacher than a writer. In this role I am going to be spending a lot of time with educators and librarians and talking about the issues of teaching poetry and convincing people to read it.
C/A: What you just said feeds perfectly into another question I wanted to ask you. You said you are more in the role of a teacher right now, so students and poets in general would like to know, how should an aspiring poet be educated today?
TK: Reading I think is the big thing. That is the thing that I see most lacking among poets is that they simply have not read enough poetry. Every art is learned by imitation. And if you have not read, you are not going to be really ready to write well. If a student could read twenty poems for every one they write, it would be a good thing.
C/A: What books, in general, should the aspiring poet be reading?
TK: Well, actually, I think anything. Even books of poetry that you and I might think are not very well done can be useful because you learn from other people's failures as well as their successes. I think anybody just wandering into the poetry section of the library could take down just about any book and get something out of it. And of course I think writers in general should be reading all kinds of things, poetry you know. I like reading books of non-fiction. I am reading a book right now by Bill Bryson I really like called A Short History of Nearly Everything . He makes sense out of nuclear physics, atomic particles, stuff like that. And you know I don't know that I will ever use any of that in a poem, but I might. Writers just need to know things about the world.
C/A: Any practices that an aspirant poet should be employing? You said imitation…
TK: Imitation is just a natural thing we do. The way it works is that I think all of us pick the kind of poems that we like to read. So you find a poet you like, and you give it a try thinking "maybe I can do that." I get a lot of poems in the mail from people who say, "I just tried my hand at writing a Ted Kooser poem." It could be kind of a shocking experience, but it's fun and that is okay in imitation. But also the practice of showing up for work is really important. You have got to be there writing or nothing is ever going to happen. I made a habit for many years of getting up really early in the morning and writing everyday. You know I may not get anything done on a particular day, but at least I am sitting there waiting. I get up at four-thirty or five and write until about seven. And you just have to get in the habit. In my book I talk about a guy I was talking to one day in a lumber yard, and he was talking about his uncle who was a tri-state horseshoe pitching champion. And we were talking about throwing horseshoes, and he said, "I went to him one time and I said, `Uncle Ed how did you ever get so good at horseshoe pitching?' and he said, `Son, you gotta pitch a hundred shoes everyday.'" And that is what you have to do to be a writer. You really have to be in there pitching shoes, or it is not going to work.
C/A: That's a good story. How about a different thread. Some people are leery of naming certain poets, would you want to name three of the most important poets of the twentieth century?
TK: Oh gosh.
C/A: I know. I know. Lists are not exhaustive.
TK: Well, the problem is that I name a few, and then I've left out somebody else that is equally important. One of the first poets I read while I was still an adolescent was May Swenson. I don't know that May Swenson is all that well known anymore, but she was a marvelous influence on me, wrote lots of really wonderful poems. Several years ago someone came out with a book of her nature poems and compiled them all; its just called Nature, but I really liked that book. And then, oh, my former teacher Carl Shapiro wrote poems that I love and so on. William Carlos Williams was a very big influence on me. But you know as far as one being greater than the other, everybody talks about the greatness of Wallace Stevens. Frankly, there are some Stevens poems that I understand and others that I just can't get anything out of at all. But each individual would be different that way.
C/A: Any famous poets that will be forgotten more quickly than we realize?
TK: The ones that are famous today you mean?
C/A: Yes, contemporary poets that will be forgotten the quickest.
TK: I think the way it is going to work is that if a poet is writing poems that are useful or provide some meaning to people, those poems will last. If the poem's meaningfulness is to a very small audience, the chances of those poems lasting is less. Look at Robert Frost. We are almost a hundred years past Robert Frost now, and his poems have survived. I think it is because they have meaningfulness to a fairly large audience. Other poets of the early twentieth century have survived in different ways. T.S. Eliot's poems have survived primarily because they have been taught in universities. As long as they are in the textbooks, and students are required to read them, they have a sort of life to them. But if it were up to the general public, Eliot would have been lost a long time ago. So there are various things at play I think.
C/A: Can you comment on any of the projects you will take up as poet laureate, or ideas that you want to bring to the laureateship?
TK: I am working on some things, but it is way too early to talk about them at this point. I can tell you, though, one of the very first things I did upon getting word of my appointment is I got a hold of the National Council of Teachers of English. They have an annual convention in November, and I asked them if I could be a part of that convention. And I am going to spend four days in Indianapolis with teachers elbow to elbow, informally talking about the issues in teaching poetry. A poet laureate could (because there is some notoriety with it) spend this whole year doing poetry readings on campuses, and that would do nothing for the audience for poetry because all those people that show up to those things are already reading poetry and buying books. But if you can get one English teacher in a middle school somewhere a little more enthusiastic about teaching poetry, or at least a little more at ease with teaching poetry, then the results can be exponential. So that is where I am going to put most of my attention in one way or another.
C/A: A strategic way to increase appreciation for poetry.
TK: Yeah.
C/A: Well Mr. Kooser, I really appreciate your time.
TK: It was nice talking to you.

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