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The Crossing Over


April 1, 2006

Current poet laureate of the United States, Ted Kooser, advocates accessible poetry. Until retiring, the Lincoln, Nebraska, resident made his living as an insurance salesman. In these politically charged times, it is tempting to see him as a “red state” poet, but Kooser is complicated in his simplicity. Kooser was a relatively obscure poet until recently, when three things happened: his book of lyrical essays about Nebraska, Local Wonders, became a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection; he was selected the nation’s first poet laureate from the heartland; and his book Delights & Shadows won the Pulitzer Prize. His poems are meditations on rural America, and they are finely observed in the tradition of James Wright.

His project as poet laureate is a free poetry column for newspapers called “American Life in Poetry” ( http://www.americanlifeinpoetry.org ) which runs in 134 newspapers around the country and introduces simple, short poems about ordinary subjects to people who might not read poetry. This interview was conducted in Pittsburgh, Penn., outside a bar in the Hilton Hotel downtown. Kooser was in Pittsburgh for the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English, where he read to a banquet hall of 700 teachers from around the country. For Kooser, it was an opportunity to reach out to the people who are the front lines in the effort to get more Americans to read and enjoy poetry, schoolteachers.

[Interview by Andrew Varnon]

Guernica: I get the American Life in Poetry delivered to my e-mail. I sensed an attempt to show the geographical range of the poets in the United States.

Ted Kooser: In some degree I am, and that’s why in many of those introductions I’ll mention where the person is from, for that very reason, to show that we’re not—all those people aren’t from Nebraska.

Guernica: Poetry has these sort of hot spots—New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—where the huge poetry insitutions are. It’s nice to see that poetry comes from everywhere and not just there.

Ted Kooser: It’s pure demographics, in a way. If you look at the Directory of American Poets and Writers, you know there are hundreds of poets in New York City. So therefore, just by specific gravity, it seems like a more significant place. Robert Wrigley is a poet who lives in rural Idaho—I think it’s really back-country Idaho—and he writes beautiful poems.

I thought it was an okay job. But I never invested my ego in it.

Guernica: I saw a quote from you, I think it was in the New York Times, where somebody had asked about both you and Wallace Stevens working in the insurance business. You said, “Wallace Stevens had more time to write as an insurance agent.” Can you talk a little about that?

Ted Kooser: Well, he was a bond lawyer and I know that insurance company lawyers don’t have to do nearly as much as we had to do. We were out more in the production area. I was writing sales materials and publishing brochures, and I was an underwriter for years and years. I was being tongue in cheek about that—I’m not condemning Stevens for having had a better job than I did, but that’s one of the many places where I differ from him.

Guernica: Many of Stevens’ colleagues in the insurance agency didn’t know that he was a poet. Do you feel you’ve had a double life in a way?

Ted Kooser: They knew I was writing poems. I never hid it from them. I don’t think they ever thought I was cheating on them. So, I think they probably saw it as being rather peculiar, that I was doing that sort of thing, but nobody ever suggested I shouldn’t be doing it. I think that would be different on Madison Avenue or Wall Street, where you’re really expected to be doing 110 percent for the company.

Guernica: How was it that you got into the insurance business as a young man?

Ted Kooser: I really stumbled into it. I had in effect been thrown out of graduate school because I was a lousy graduate student, and I had to find a job, and I took the first job that came along. It happened to be a management trainee job in a life insurance company, and I just stayed. It was always, mainly, the idea was that I would support myself as a writer, and I knew I would have to have some sort of work, and it didn’t make a whole lot of difference to me what it was. I mean, I could have been a paper hanger or something for that matter. But this job, it had good benefits, the salary was good, good working conditions. So it seemed to be something that I could maintain myself by. I thought it was an okay job. But I never invested my ego in it.

Guernica: How do you find teaching now? I understand many poets teach—not sure what the percentage on that is but…

Ted Kooser: It’s a huge percentage. I have a full professor’s rank—I have a 0.5 appointment—which means I only have to teach one section a year. I’m not really around the department or involved in the department as much as you would be if you were a tenured faculty member, and that was your career. So, it hasn’t really affected me all that much, except as a source of some pretty nice income in my retirement. And I really enjoy teaching a lot. I think I’m pretty good at it.

Guernica: Do you talk to your students at all, as they’re trying to figure out what to do with their lives? Do you tell them whether they should get a job doing something else?

Ted Kooser: You know, I try to be realistic with them. And say that there’s a good chance that they’re not going to get a creative writing teaching job, that there aren’t enough jobs to go around and the university faculties are cutting back on staff and that they may have to get some other kind of work. None of them wants to hear that, but it is true, you know, and I think I’m a good example for them of somebody who took the other route. So it is possible. I think part of it is that, many of them don’t want to give up the perceived luxuries of a teaching career. Summer off, that kind of thing.

For a while, you know, the creative writing community sort of sprung out of places like Iowa and Syracuse. The graduates sort of went out, and they would found creative writing departments in the little colleges where they went, and then some of those would found other ones. I mean every college has got a creative writing department, so where are the jobs coming from? Well, there are a few people retiring, some of the programs are increasing their load because they have more enrollment, but generally, there are not any jobs out there.

Guernica: What does Nebraska mean to you?

Ted Kooser: It may very well be that people in San Francisco don’t think we have any culture in Nebraska, but we have a different culture, and it’s a very deep culture. We have these Czech immigrants, who are making this marvelous ethnic food and their Catholic lives and it’s very fascinating stuff.

Guernica: I want to ask you the Dana Gioia question. It’s something that you’re addressing with your work as poet laureate, the idea that people have been sort of scared of poetry, and there’s an itch to reclaim itself. Tell me about your own poetics and your push for clarity.

Ted Kooser: Every poet gets to choose what kind of community he or she serves with the poems, and it’s true that there is a community for very difficult, challenging poetry. It’s a community that’s established itself over the last 80 years, that was originally, in effect, really started by Eliot and Pound. They believed that poetry ought to contain learning, that it ought to rise upon all the learning that went before. But there’s always been the other strain; there’s always been what I would call the William Carlos Williams strain, in which poems of simplicity and clarity are valued by a different community. I was talking to Galway Kinnell one day, and he said that there was an audience for poetry up until about 1920 and then, from that point on, the poets and the critics drifted.

There’s a certain amount of subject can come out of the direct observation of things, and then all the sudden, it shifts into the other realm, where the poem itself becomes of interest.

Guernica: Do you have a sense that in some ways, maybe these two different strains of poetry—if you want to think about it in that way—will be reconciled?

Ted Kooser: I don’t really know that they need to be reconciled. There are going to be poets in the middle ground—and, frankly, I’ve written some poems that are in the middle ground—who are in between very challenging and abundantly clear, but there’s a tremendous investment in the challenging poem, and it’s been going on so long that the whole infrastructure supporting it, a lot of critics and theorists and so on are deeply invested in maintaining that status.

I predict, though, that there’s going to be some adjustment of some kind. Every time somebody writes a theory about where literature’s going, that person is not only contributing thought but nudging things to happen in one way or the other. Just as in painting, there’s much more interest in the American scene painters and the early American… like the Ashcan school of painters. Who would have thought, 50 years ago, that Norman Rockwell would again be considered a serious painter? And yet, there are a lot of people who are saying Rockwell was a very accomplished technician. These things are constantly moving.

Guernica: I understand that you do some painting, too. That seems very appropriate from reading your poems, that there’s this same sense of observation that you have.

Ted Kooser: Actually, when I was a kid, I suppose I got more praise for being able to draw things and paint things than I did for my little amateur poems I was writing. But the thing that I’m trying to do with my painting is that I’m trying to keep it in the realm of pleasure. I don’t show my work, I don’t try to sell it. Somebody comes to my house and admires what I’ve done, sometimes I just give it to them. Because I don’t want to get it all tied up in all that professional stuff because I have to do that as a writer. I don’t need that. I need something like painting, where I can just play.

Guernica: It seems in some way an exercise in noticing. In the way that you write your poems, there’s a way of having a painter’s eye and noticing the small details.

Ted Kooser: There’s a very interesting essay. Have you ever read any John Berger? He’s a British writer, who’s written a lot of art criticism, some novels, very bright guy. I suppose Berger’s 80 years old now. He has an essay about drawing. Let’s say that you and I are doing a drawing of that pot or that plant in it. At first, the subject is what we are trying to render on the piece of paper and our attention is on the subject. And then there comes a point, where there’s a crossing over where all of a sudden, the drawing itself becomes of interest. Where we quit looking at the subject and we begin to look at the drawing. With writing, that same thing can happen; there’s a certain amount of subject can come out of the direct observation of things, and then all the sudden, it shifts into the other realm, where the poem itself about the subject becomes of interest. I can always feel that happening, you know. I start with a subject, and then I feel myself sort of forgetting about the actuality of the subject and letting the poem develop.

There are some poets who are fairly big names in contemporary poetry and who write a book and I might like three or four poems in the book, but the rest of them don’t appeal to me personally.

Guernica: You’ve had a long career as a poet. Your first book came out in the 1960s.

Ted Kooser: Yeah, I was 30.

Guernica: This happens to a number of poets, but you’ve had recognition late in your career. I’m wondering what that has been like.

Ted Kooser: Well, of course, it’s been good. It’s felt good. It came as a complete surprise, you know. I was pretty much resigned to being, you know, to not being noticed, other than in literary circles. And this happened and then everything changed. It changed my life. Two years ago, if somebody told me I’d be addressing 700 people at a luncheon like this, I would have been terrified. But I’ve learned that audiences are generally welcoming and pleasant and they want you to succeed.

Guernica: Has it changed your writing at all? I’m thinking of the poem that you read called “Success” and wondering if there is some warning or wariness in that?

Ted Kooser: Yeah, I’ve written two or three, actually three, poems that I can think of about my current situation. I’ve been working on a poem while I’ve been here about… The image is this feeling like one of those telephone poles you see on the street on which a lot of notices have been stapled and then torn away, and they leave little triangles of paper, held by staples. On those notices were things lost and things found and the photos of people missing, and now even the photos are missing as a metaphor for what happens in life. All this experience is tacked upon us and then torn away, and we become a residue of all this experience. I wouldn’t have written that poem under other circumstances.

Guernica: You said you’ve collected thousands of poetry books. How do you find new poets?

Ted Kooser: Well over the years, I’ve judged a few contests, so I’ve gotten huge boxes of books; my library’s filled up with that sort of thing. I had 300 books published in 2005 at home and I’ll keep them all, you know. Even the ones that I don’t like. I feel a sort of need to kind of have a place for these books, and I suppose some time, years from now, I’ll donate them all to some library. But I look through them and every once in a while I find a poem that I like, and I put a piece of paper in there. So I’m reading all these people all the time. I just drift from book to book.

Guernica: Anything going on that excites you?

Ted Kooser: One movement that I find interesting—this is not a movement in poetry necessarily, but there’s a movement on a lot of campuses now called eco-criticism. It’s a body of theory based on how nature is treated in literary works. That sort of interests me. I’ve sat in on a number of, we have a group, a discussion group at the University of Nebraska, and I’ve sat in on what they’re doing.

Guernica: Who is out there reading these books? I’m interested in poetry, and I’m lucky if I get to read a few of them.

Ted Kooser: If you can find two poems in a book, it could be a pretty good book for you. You know, two poems you really like. There are some poets who are fairly big names in contemporary poetry and who write a book and I might like three or four poems in the book, but the rest of them don’t appeal to me personally; but I think that’s the way it really ought to be. I think it’s really a rare thing to like everything that somebody has written. And often—you’ve probably had this experience—you see a poem in a magazine that you really like and you order the book, and it happens that that’s the only poem in the book you like. But that’s probably the way it ought to be. It would be the same way in buying paintings. You find a painting that you really like and you don’t necessarily like the rest of the person’s work at all.

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