MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Around this time of year, for more than 20 years now, women all around the country have checked their mail boxes and have been happy to find a postcard bearing a red heart in the corner and a poem: a valentine from Ted Kooser, who was this country's poet laureate from 2004 to 2006.
He has collected those poems now in a book called "Valentines." And it starts with this one titled, "Pocket Poem."
TED KOOSER: (Reading) If this comes creased and creased again and soiled as if I'd opened it a thousand times to see if what I'd written here was right, it's all because I looked too long for you to put in your pocket. Midnight says the little gifts of loneliness come wrapped by nervous fingers. What I wanted this to say was that I want to be so close that when you find it, it is warm from me.
BLOCK: Ted Kooser, do you remember the guy who wrote that poem back in 1986?
KOOSER: Well, sort of. I do. You know, in a way, I stole the idea from this poem - one of my good friends was trying to seduce a woman and would leave little scraps of paper in the pockets of her sweater - ones that she would hang it up and I thought it was such a good idea that I make a poem to use in that way.
BLOCK: He left them anonymously. She didn't ever know it was from?
KOOSER: Well, I think she knew they were from.
KOOSER: Sure. That, you know, it worked.
BLOCK: It did work.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: That poem, "Pocket Poem" is a really, you know, romantic gesture poem and - but there are lot of others that are more oblique and there's one that I'd love you to read. This is one of my favorite. It's called "A New Potato."
KOOSER: "A New Potato" - that's back in here - oh, yes.
(Reading) "A New Potato." This is just one of the leathery eggs, the scuffed- up, dirty turtle of the moon buried early in spring, her eyes like stars fixed on the future, and, inside its red skin, whiteness, like all of the moons to come, and marvelous, buttered with light.
BLOCK: Hmm. That's some potato.
KOOSER: Well, you know, on all these Valentine poems, Melissa, I've tried to get a little red in them or something rather, you know, that would relate back to Valentine's if not love, a color or something. And I thought these new potatoes with that red skin, you know, some of them are really quite heart shaped, in a way, and that's where I got to it, I think.
BLOCK: Ted, how did all this start, these valentine poems that you've been sending out for so long now?
KOOSER: Well, I have a very good friend (unintelligible). And she has been sending out valentines that she's made fro many, many years. And one year, I guess, in 1986, I decided, well, maybe I could do something like this and send out a poem and I - so I sent out maybe, in the first year, maybe 50 of them, mostly to the wives of my friends and so on. And then the list built up, oh, gradually over the years, you know, women would say that they thought it'd be fun to get a valentine's and so on.
And then when I was appointed poet laureate and started doing a lot more public appearances, I would read one of the valentine poems that many of those readings and then I would say if there any women in this audience who would like to be on my annual valentine mailing list, you know, leave your name and address afterwards. And so by the time I stopped last year, I had 2,700 names on my list. And I spent almost $1,000 on postage and printing. And I thought, well, you know, we've probably taken this almost too far, so I decided I would "rein it in." You know, I may go back to writing valentine poems again some day but not to that huge list.
BLOCK: I wonder if you're going to be writing a poem some time this next year and just wish for that mailing list back and just think maybe you need to send out a couple of thousand of them all over again.
KOOSER: Well, you know, that could certainly happen. And I've got the mailing list, so - sure. And, you know, it's always been a lot of fun sitting there in front the television on one of those TV trays with a huge stack of these cards sticking those little red hearts on it as I watch "Law & Order" reruns and (unintelligible).
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: Very romantic.
KOOSER: Yes, very romantic, indeed. Yeah. Sometimes when I had the time and the schedule didn't work out right, I would send them all up to the postmaster in Valentine, Nebraska, and have him stamp them from Valentine, but I couldn't do that every year because I was sometimes right down to the wire.
BLOCK: There's a poem that's toward the end of the collections, so it must be one that you wrote fairly recently, and it's poem of great promise and potential, I think, called, "A Map of the World."
KOOSER: Oh, yeah. I like this poem. I had bought a calendar that had - was an - a yearly calendar and the pictures on it were all ancient maps of the world and there was one map that actually was heart shaped - "A Map of the World."
One of the ancient maps of the world is heart-shaped, carefully drawn and once washed with bright colors, though the colors have faded as you might expect feelings to fade from a fragile old heart, the brown map of a life. But feeling is indelible, and longing infinite, a starburst compass pointing in all the directions two lovers might go, a fresh breeze swelling their sails, the future uncharted, still far from the edge where the sea pours into the stars.
BLOCK: I love that image.
KOOSER: Thank you.
BLOCK: We should say that you do have wife, Kathleen, has been very tolerant of this passion of your over the years.
KOOSER: Oh, yeah. And I think she's enjoyed it. You know, from time to time, the husbands of some of the women on my list would send her Valentine's.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KOOSER: But, yeah, she's very patient with me. She understands that I'm harmless, I think.
BLOCK: She won't be getting those valentines, I guess, anymore from those husbands then?
KOOSER: Well, I have special valentines for her, so, yeah.
BLOCK: You do include one last valentine in this book. The is when you wrote for your wife, Kathleen, called "The Hog-Nosed Snake."
KOOSER: Yes. This was - I actually wrote this for Kathy(ph) as a wedding anniversary prank, I guess, more than anything else, but I've had a lot of fun with this poem because, you know, from time to time when I'm doing readings, people who are - have traditional taste in poetry, I'll say, why can't you write a poem that rhymes and (unintelligible) on meter and so on. So this is the one that I was reciting to them on those occasions. As you know, it's a tender, loving, little poem, "The Hog-Nosed Snake."
(Reading) The hog-nosed snake, when playing dead, lets its tongue loll out of its ugly head. It lies on its back as stiff as a stick; If you flip it over it'll flip back quick. If I seem dead when you awake, just flip me once, like the hog-nosed snake.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: Words to live by, I think, Ted.
KOOSER: Yes. Right. Yeah.
BLOCK: You know, when we met several years ago for the first time, we came at to your house there in Garland, Nebraska, and you talked about Valentine's Day as the poet's holiday.
KOOSER: That's right. And I still think that it's not tied up with anything other than expressions of sentiment and it seems like a great holiday for the poet.
BLOCK: Well, Ted, happy Valentine's Day.
KOOSER: Happy Valentine's Day to you, and it's a great pleasure talking to you again.
BLOCK: Poet Ted Kooser. His book is titled "Valentines." You can hear and read more of his valentine poems at npr.org.