At Home with Poet Laureate Ted Kooser Ted Kooser is the nation's poet laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner, but he's the first to agree that writing poems isn't easy. He only wants you to think it is when you read one of his poems.

At Home with Poet Laureate Ted Kooser

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Last week, a small man with thinning gray hair, round wire-framed glasses and a wry smile stepped up to a podium at the Library of Congress here in Washington, DC, and came close to apologizing for being the United States' poet laureate.

Mr. TED KOOSER (US Poet Laureate): It was, in many ways, a courageous thing to do, to choose a guy like me from the middle of nowhere.

BLOCK: When Ted Kooser was picked as the country's poet laureate last year by the librarian of Congress, he was hailed as a major poetic voice for rural and small-town America. Kooser lives in Nebraska. As poet laureate, you can pretty much do what you want. The idea is to broaden public interest in poetry. Ted Kooser's been busy traveling around the country, workshops and readings and appearances, and he started a free weekly column for newspapers; it's in 134 papers now. Each week, he introduces a poem written by a contemporary American poet to give readers, he says, a chuckle or an insight. At the Library of Congress, he read some of his own poems, poems he's been working on in the last year.

Mr. KOOSER: I want to read this one first. This is a sort of light-hearted thing, but many people have come to me in the last year and put their hand on my shoulder and said, you know, `How you doing with this? You know, are you holding up OK?' and that sort of thing. And this is an answer to that. This poem is called "Success."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOOSER: (Reading) `I can feel the thick yellow fat of applause building up in my arteries, friends.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOOSER: (Reading) `Yet I go on, a fool for adoration. Do I care that when it sloughs off, it is likely to go straight to the brain? I am already showing the first signs of poetic aphasia; the words coming hard, the synapses of metaphor no longer connecting. But look at me, down on my knees next to the podium lapping the last drops, then rolling in the strain like a dog...'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOOSER: (Reading) `...getting the smell in my good tweed sport coat, the grease on my suede elbow patches. And for what? Well, for the women I walk past the next morning, the ones in the terminal wheeling their luggage, looking so beautifully earnest, all for the hope that they will suddenly dilate their nostrils, squeeze the hard carry-on handles and rise to the ripening odor of praise, with which I have basted myself, stinking to heaven.'

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

BLOCK: We meet up with Ted Kooser at his home outside the small town of Garland, Nebraska, where he lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their two dogs. The house is down a gravel road. There's a pond out back ringed by trees that glow in the fall sun. Nearby is a blue chicken house that he built, trimmed with pretty white scrollwork; also, a studio where he paints, mostly landscapes. We step into a low red building lined with books.

Mr. KOOSER: OK. So this is my outdoor library here.

BLOCK: He'll do some writing and reading and napping in the library. There's a wood stove and, pinned to the wall, a few yellowed pages with tentative script in pencil.

Mr. KOOSER: All of those are things that kids have sent. There's one I just really love. (Reading) `Dear, Mr. Kooser, thank you for coming. I've never liked writing, but it's neat to know someone who does.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Signed?

Mr. KOOSER: Signed Kyle Lowes(ph). That was a fifth-grade class I visited a long time ago.

BLOCK: This has been a good year for Ted Kooser. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry this spring, and he's been re-upped as poet laureate. He's just starting his second year in the post.

Ted Kooser grew up in Ames, Iowa, moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, for graduate school in poetry and he stayed there. He worked for life insurance companies for 35 years as an underwriter and an executive. He'd write poems before dawn before he left for the office. He retired six years ago. Now at age 66, he can fill his time with poetry and the business of being poet laureate. You get a good sense of Ted Kooser in his workshop. It's immaculate, each tool in its place.

Mr. KOOSER: Every nail in its jar, you see. And, you know, if you really want a reason why--if you're a little stuck with you're writing and you don't know what to do with your hands, you can always come down and sort screws into jars by size, you know, that sort of thing.

BLOCK: And you found yourself doing that?

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.


Mr. KOOSER: Yeah. And if you run out of ones to sort, then what you do you is you go to a garage store and you buy a mixed box of screws, you know, and then you bring it home and get a whole bunch of new baby food jars and, you know, you spend a whole day doing that, you know.

BLOCK: Back at the house, Ted Kooser shows us one of his notebooks. He's particular about the paper--heavy watercolor paper in spiral artist sketchbooks--and he's choosy about his pens. The pages are filled with his tiny, tidy block print; journal entries, poems in progress and all sorts of inspiration.

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, yeah. Putting--you know, there's newspaper clippings and...

BLOCK: Little sketches you've drawn with markers.

Mr. KOOSER: Yeah, little drawings and stuff. Here's my Valentine poem for next year written early. (Reading) `Oh, mariachi me, all my life I have wanted nothing so much as the love of women. For them, I have fashioned a myth of myself, the singing troubadour with the flashing eyes. Always for them, my black sombrero, with its swinging tassels, this vest embroidered with hearts, these trousers with silver studs down the seams. Oh, I am mariachi me as I had intended. I am success and the price of success, now old and dusty at the edge of the dance floor, still smiling, heavy with hope, holding my dead guitar.'

BLOCK: A Valentine poem?

Mr. KOOSER: Yeah, that's my Valentine for next year, yeah. For 20 years, I've been sending out an annual Valentine poem, and it's an ever-expanding list of women only that I've been sending these Valentines to. It now runs about--I think I have about 1,200 on the list right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOOSER: And some of the husbands have taken offense at this and have begun to send Valentines to my wife, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: And she must like that.

Mr. KOOSER: But it's sort of the--Valentine's Day's sort of the poet's holiday, you know. So...

BLOCK: Yeah.

On the October morning when we visit Nebraska, the first frost is on the ground. Ted Kooser says it's poets' weather, a little touch of mortality in everything.

Mr. KOOSER: Ordinarily, I get up about 4:30 in the morning and I try to write till about 7:00. I've got an armchair down in the living room where I prop a cup of coffee on one arm and set my notebook on my lap. And I just sit there under the floor lamp early in the morning and work and see what happens. And nine days out of 10, nothing good comes of it at all. Maybe on the 10th day, if I'm lucky, you know, some little thing will start a poem. I feel that I'm really fortunate if, at the end of the year, after writing every day, I have a dozen poems I care about. That's plenty. I don't have great expectations for what happens in those morning sessions, but you know, if you're not there writing, it's never going to happen. My friend Roger Welsch out in Dannebrog, Nebraska, says, `You got to be there when the geese come flying in,' you know. It's just that sort of a thing.

BLOCK: Have to be in that chair.

Mr. KOOSER: Yeah. Yeah.

BLOCK: When you're sitting in that chair writing early in the morning, is there a moment when there's a physical sense of things working as they should, when a poem is coming and the images are what you want them to be? I mean, does it--do you feel it physically in your...

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, it's a real high when that happens. When something like that really very good happens, you know, I think it's probably adrenaline or something that happens or endorphins maybe, you know, that you get a little burst of it; something has happened. And that's the fun of it, you know, sitting there writing. And in the process, all of a sudden, something comes in from the side, just flies in from the side, and you think, `Holy! Did I just write that?' You know, `Where did that come from?' you know. Of course, it may look pretty stupid in 24 hours, but at the time, you think, `Boy, this is really neat, you know, that popped into my head.'

BLOCK: You're a big believer, though, in revision, and not letting a poem sit untouched.

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, yeah. I will say that occasionally I've written poems that required very little revision, you know. But I tend to tinker with them, you know, in the same way that when we were down in my shop, I was talking about sorting the screws into jars, and the revision is a lot like that, you know, making sure every part is in its place, being fussy. And, you know, I do revise and revise and revise and revise, always revising towards clarity and away from difficulty and towards a sort of smoothness, away from a roughness. I want the poems, when they're done, to look as if I'd knocked them off in five minutes. The kind of poetry I write--I mean, I like complete sentences, I like useful punctuation and those things. Those are things you're correcting for, too, I think.

BLOCK: Is it something as simple as, `Don't need that adjective'?

Mr. KOOSER: Yeah, `Don't need that adjective. Why would you use an adverb when you can find a verb that will do the work? Is that sentence too long? Does it need to be broken in half? Do you need to give your reader a little place to breathe there?'

BLOCK: Do poets sometimes tell you your poems--or do critics maybe say your poems are too, too simple, `There's not enough complexity. There's not the layers that I would look for'?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, you know, I don't--I try not to read anything that's written about me. The criticism hurts like everything, and the phrase is often very fulsome and gassy, and you think, `Oh, come on,' you know. `He can't mean that,' you know. So it's better not to read anything; it's better to just be ignorant of all that. Every once in a while, my wife will have read something that's been written about me, and she'll tell me about it sort of in general, with caution, you know. And it is sort of like listening to somebody beat a rug about a block down an alley, you know, just a faint thwupping from a distance, you know, and it's much less painful that way.

But you know, my response to all this is, you know, this is the best I can do. You know, I'm not holding anything back here, you know. If you think I could write a better poem, you know, you're wrong. I mean, I put everything I've got into these poems. I'm not up to any tricks whatsoever, you know. And I think that's all we can do, is the best we can.

BLOCK: I wonder if I could get you to read for us.

Mr. KOOSER: Sure.

BLOCK: You have a poem called "So This is Nebraska."

Mr. KOOSER: OK. "So This Is Nebraska." (Reading) `The gravel road rides with a slow gallop over the fields, the telephone lines streaming behind, its billow of dust full of the sparks of red-winged blackbirds. On either side, those dear old ladies, the loosening barns, their little windows dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs, hide broken tractors under their skirts. So this is Nebraska, a Sunday afternoon, July, driving along with your hand out squeezing the air, a meadowlark waiting on every post.

`Behind a shelter belt of cedars, top-deep and hollyhocks, pollen and bees, a pickup kicks its fenders off and settles back to read the clouds. You feel like that. You feel like letting your tires go flat, like letting the mice build a nest in your muffler, like being no more than a truck in the weeds clucking with chickens or sticky with honey or holding a skinny old man in your lap while he watches the road, waiting for someone to wave to. You feel like waving. You feel like stopping the car and dancing around on the road. You wave instead and leave your hand out gliding larklike over the wheat, over the houses.'

BLOCK: We'll have more conversations with Ted Kooser over the course of this next year about the craft and the pleasures of poetry. Meantime, you can read and hear more of his poems at our Web site,

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