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Wisconsin Book Festival 2006: Ted Kooser speaks

Credit:Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser served from 2004-2006 as the Library of Congress's Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. He is also a professor in the English department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His body of work spans more than 40 years, and has been decorated with a 2005 Pulitzer Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, the James Boatwright Award and other laurels. A native of Iowa, Kooser worked for more than 30 years in the life insurance industry.

At this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, he is scheduled to read from his work during an appearance with novelist Jane Hamilton at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20 at the Orpheum Theatre; and, at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21 at the Wisconsin Union Theater, join "alternative poet laureate" Linton Kwesi Johnson for an onstage interview to be broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio's "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He lives near Garland, Nebraska, with his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, editor of The Lincoln Journal Star.

The Daily Page: Where were you and what were you doing when you learned you had been appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, and what was your immediate reaction?
Kooser: I was at home, on a Friday evening, when I received the phone call. I was completely surprised, and so overwhelmed that I was stammering. The man who phoned said he thought he'd better call me back the next day. I got in the car to run an errand and think about all this and when I backed out I knocked the side mirror off on the edge of the garage entrance.

In terms of professional gratification, how does being named the nation's poet laureate compare to a Pulitzer or Pushcart prize?
I had never given any thought to being poet laureate, which I thought always happened to other people, but I had dreamed of winning a Pulitzer. But they are both marvelous honors, and I am still coming to terms with my luck in receiving both.

What are the most significant upsides and downsides that come with a laureate's mantle?
The laureate can choose his or her own schedule, so it needn't be backbreaking, but I chose to throw myself into it because I wanted to prove that somebody from our part of the world could do a good job. This meant more travel than I had ever before experienced, and lots of time with groups of people. I am an introvert, and none of that came easy.

Since passing the title to current laureate Donald Hall earlier this year, what aspects of the post do you most miss?
Nothing has changed other than that I won't be thinking about programming the reading series at the Library of Congress.

Your work has been compared to that of Robert Frost, one of your predecessors as U.S. Poet Laureate. With which of your laureate predecessors do you feel the closest artistic kinship?
Billy Collins and I are both dedicated to a poetry that is not intentionally obfuscatory and elitist.

As a nation, how does our poetic literacy compare to that of other nations?
I'm not smart enough to answer that.

What accounts for your tendency toward precision and clarity in your poems and essays?
I want to be understood.

How did your insurance career shape your voice as a poet and essayist?
Because I worked every day with people who didn't read much poetry, and liked them, my level of discourse became more attuned to a broad general audience than to an elite literary one.

How have the Iowa and Nebraska landscapes influenced your writing style and tone?
I'm not sure about that. It is true, it seems, that we who live in the middle of America are more self-effacing, and I'd guess that shows up in the way I address my subjects.

Some of your poems, such as "After Years" or "Father" or "A Death at the Office," find intimacy in the infinite -- the details of life in the context of mortality. What accounts for this perspective?
I have been thinking about dying all my life.

At the Wisconsin Book Festival, you'll be reading with the novelist Jane Hamilton on Friday night and sitting for a public radio interview Saturday night with Linton Kwesi Johnson, who has been called the 'alternative poet laureate." How familiar are you with their work?
I'm ashamed and embarrassed to say that I know their names but don't know either of their work well enough to talk about it.

What preconceptions do you have about your Madison audience?
I've read at book festivals before and expect the audience will consist of people who like reading.

What single line or phrase has given you the most enduring satisfaction to write? What was your immediate reaction to writing it, and how did it serve the greater poem or essay?
I can't think of one.

From concept to completion, how many drafts or revisions might you typically compose before you consider a poem or essay finished?
I revise extensively. A short poem may go through thirty or forty versions before I think it's finished.

To what extent does your wife provide editorial feedback regarding your work?
She is my first reader, and is very good at it. She is the editor of The Lincoln Journal Star, the daily paper in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Which formal poetic structures do you find most pleasing to work in, and which do you find most troublesome?
I rarely write in fixed form, preferring a form that develops as the poem develops, the poem finding its own form as it goes, you might say.

How does composing poems influence your prose?
I think that prose needs to be written with just as much care as poetry, and vice versa.

What is the first poem you remember reading?
Sorry, I can't recall.

You once said you felt fortunate if you wrote 12 poems you care about in one year. What are the characteristics of a poem you care about?
I want the poems to accomplish something, to be capable of moving someone. Often the efforts fall short in one way or another.

Your poems encompass tactile elements, the olfactory, visual and audible. Do you favor any of the five senses in particular?
I tend to favor the visual, being a visual artist, too.

When, where and how do you prefer to write?
I write best at home, and very early in the morning.

Where do you turn to find your most reliable source of poetic inspiration?
Peace and quiet.

What was the last individual poem you read that you would recommend to a friend, and why would you recommend it?
This morning I read a lovely short poem by Sharon Schmielarz, a Minnesota poet, about drinking water. I think it would recommend itself.

What was the last novel and non-fiction volume you read that you would recommend to a friend, and why would you recommend them?
I have just begun reading Robert Olmstead's volume of stories, River Dogs, and think it's wonderful. As to nonfiction, I have been reading Ted Morgan's Wilderness at Dawn.

Your 2004 collection, Delights and Shadows, includes a poem titled "Tattoo." Do you have any tattoos?
No, do you?

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