Pulitzer Winner: Ted Kooser
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GWEN IFILL: And now an encore conversation with Ted Kooser, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry. He won for his collection of poems called “Delights & Shadows.” Arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown spoke with him about that book and other works last year, when he was named America’s poet laureate.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ted Kooser lives on 62 acres near the town of Garland, Nebraska. The land, and its cycles of life often find their way into his poems, as in this one, “The Last Tomato.”
TED KOOSER: “It is hard for an old man not to make too much of something like this. After all it is only the last tomato — one last live coal in the ashes of summer, nothing to get too sentimental over.”
JEFFREY BROWN: Raised in Iowa, he first wrote poetry seriously as a student at Iowa State. He came to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln for graduate school, and then worked 35 years for an insurance company. He retired in 1998 after successful treatment for oral cancer.
TED KOOSER: “It seems I have come to an age at which I can’t stop noticing the last of things and want to hold in my eyes their summer brightness, burning, burning.”
JEFFREY BROWN: The low hills here, he writes in his memoir, “Local Wonders” are known with a wink as the Bohemian Alps. A worn place in the carpet of grass we know as the Great Plains.
Now, Kooser, 65, is the first poet laureate ever from those Great Plains, cited as a “major poetic voice for rural and small town America.” He is author of ten books of poetry, the most recent “Delights & Shadows,” and teaches at the University of Nebraska. We spoke recently at the Library of Congress in Washington.
TED KOOSER: In my work, I really try to look at ordinary things quite closely to see if there isn’t a little bit of something special about them. I’m trying to make something as nearly perfect as I can out of words, which is an experience as if you took – you know, in a very disorderly world, you try to make one little area of order in that poem and you try to make it as perfect as possible. If it really works, you can’t move a punctuation mark without diminishing the effect.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Librarian of Congress, James Billington, made much of the fact that you’re the first poet laureate from the Great Plains. How important is that to you?
TED KOOSER: Being the first poet laureate from the Great Plains is very important for me. I think it’s a wonderful thing. But I’m like any other writer. I write about what’s under my nose. It just happens that I live there. And so, all I really know is Iowa and Nebraska, so I’m writing about those things.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why don’t you read one for us? This is one that you wrote called “Father.”
TED KOOSER: All right. This one begins rather inappropriately and then takes a turn for the better, I think.
“Father, May 19, 1999. Today you would be 97 if you had lived, and we would all be miserable, you and your children, driving from clinic to clinic, an ancient, fearful hypochondriac and his fretful son and daughter, asking directions, trying to read the complicated, fading map of cures. But with your dignity intact you have been gone for 20 years, and I am glad for all of us, although I miss you every day, the heartbeat under your necktie, the hand cupped on the back of my neck, Old Spice in the air, your voice delighted with stories. On this day each year you loved to relate that at the moment of your birth your mother glanced out the window and saw lilacs in bloom. Well, today lilacs are blooming in side yards all over Iowa, still welcoming you.”
JEFFREY BROWN: So, the Old Spice, the lilacs, these are the little things in life that you talk about.
TED KOOSER: That’s right, yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: And then when you write it, do you do a lot of revising, because you talk about this “perfection out of order”?
TED KOOSER: Oh yeah, many revisions. A poem the length of that poem about my father, I would say forty or fifty versions.
JEFFREY BROWN: Forty or fifty?
TED KOOSER: Yeah, and I’m always revising away from difficulty toward clarity. So that, ideally, when the poem is done, it feels as fresh as if I had just dashed it off.
JEFFREY BROWN: I read that you used to show your poems or read your poems to your secretary at the insurance company where you worked to see if they were clear enough?
TED KOOSER: Oh, yeah. Well, I would bring in work in the morning when I came in. I’d write every morning very early, and then I would bring my work in and I’d say, “Joanne, does this make any sense to you?” And if she said, “well, no, it doesn’t,” then I would try to find out where it fell down for her.
JEFFREY BROWN: You did work for an insurance company for many years. Is that because it’s hard to make a living as a poet?
TED KOOSER: Absolutely, yeah. You know, you publish a poem in the very best magazine in this country and you get enough money for a sack of groceries, you know, and that’s about it. So I needed some sort of a job that I could, you know, where I could continue my writing on the side and so on. So that’s what I did.
JEFFREY BROWN: But how did you do it? How did you do all that writing? When did you do all that writing?
TED KOOSER: Well, I get up at – still get up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning and I would write till about 7:00, and then I’d have to get ready for work. And I like that period in the morning so much that, now that I’ve been retired for six years, I still get up at 4:30 and write until about 7:00.
JEFFREY BROWN: You retired after your bout with cancer.
TED KOOSER: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: What role did writing play in that?
TED KOOSER: During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing. But as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about.
And then I’d come home and I wrote, I wrote 130 little, short poems over the course of a winter. It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.
JEFFREY BROWN: You have written a manuscript. The book is going to be published in January and it’s called “The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets.” Can poets be made with a manual?
TED KOOSER: I don’t know that a poet can be made. A poet who is already writing in some way can be helped, I think, to write better. And that’s what this book attempts to do, I think, make – gives them some things to think about, and so on.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what’s the number one piece of advice?
TED KOOSER: Read is the number one. You know, all art is learned by imitation and unless poets are reading poetry, they don’t know, they don’t have all the tools assembled and everything. I’ve told my students I think they ought to be writing – reading twenty or thirty poems for every one they try to write. I don’t think they’re doing that but…
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you recommend the life of the poet?
TED KOOSER: Well, as of right now, I really recommend it…
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s looking good right now?
TED KOOSER: It’s looking very good right now, yeah. No, I’ve enjoyed my life a great deal and poetry has become such a part of it that I couldn’t do without it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ted Kooser, thanks for talking to us.
TED KOOSER: Thank you very much for having me.