Ted Kooser’s honors include two NEA fellowships in poetry, a Pushcart Prize, the Stanley Kunitz Prize from Columbia, the Boatwright Prize from Shenandoah, the Pulitzer Prize, and an appointment as U. S. Poet Laureate.
Interview with Ted Kooser
Lindsay Ahl: My father recently said to me, “This getting old stuff ain’t for sissies.” You’ve battled cancer. How did that bring you closer to life, or to your writing, and how do you feel it changed your character or perspective?
Ted Kooser: First, it administered a huge dose of humility. Not that I was completely sold on myself before, but sitting in oncology waiting rooms with people from all walks of life, all struggling to stay alive, is a deeply meaningful experience. Also, when you are facing death, or think you are, you are likely to become very appreciative of even the smallest details. My poem, Surviving, is about that. I recently had a letter from an old friend who is dying of lung cancer and he was telling me how much he enjoyed just going to the office supply store to buy pads of paper.
Lindsay: Yes. It brings you closer to the beauty of everyday experiences. In Surviving, you do several things beyond just seeing the beauty in a beetle: the “I” narrator sees the ladybird beetle, noticing her because he is in the shadow of death, and the words chosen to describe her, “bright as a drop of blood” “her eyes like needle points” play with the elements of sickness, hospitals, and doctors, in a kind of identification, but then the “I” narrator goes further and projects onto the ladybird beetle his own quiet wondering. “As the fear of death, so attentive/to everything living, comes near her,/ the tiny antennae stop moving.” The reader is then left with that quiet wondering. You explore something with fairly simple elements that has a deep and quiet mystery to it. Like Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, you are famous for writing in language that everyone can understand, and often about what others might call ordinary. Here is my question: What do you think about, or how would you talk about, work that is, in a sense, the opposite from yours in technique? Work that requires of the reader more knowledge of literature, or more experience navigating shifting narratives, or alternating voices?
Kooser: Most of us write the kind of poems we like to read, and I prefer poems that don’t put me through an infiltration course of difficulties. But there are readers who prefer that kind of challenging work and each poet gets to choose how he or she wishes to write and which audiences they prefer to address. I’m for writing and reading poetry of every stripe.
Ahl: My personal training was in the modernists, and I think they might have argued, like one might argue when studying classical music, that there is a greater reward, not in complexity for complexity sake, not in erudition for it’s own sake, but in going as far as you can into your process or subject, and that might eliminate some audiences. Stravinsky, Pound, Mondrian, all were doing this. Would you say that you do this as well in your own way, or that your interests lie elsewhere?
Kooser: Who is to receive this greater reward, the artist or the artist’s audience?
Ahl: Ah. So you can be difficult. The answer is presumably both, but let us move on to something friendlier. In The Poetry Home Repair Manual you talk a little about the myth of the poet, and for a while, donning a black turtleneck and that kind of thing. Please talk about the cultural climate of the 60’s, the beatniks, the idea of improvisation, the way, as I understand it, there was an openness about art and poetry that, in a way, reminds me of what you are interested in.
Kooser: To me it seemed that, like the beatnik, the poet was really an outsider during those years, a variety of beatnik, too, not institutionalized as many poets are today, within a creative writing industry/establishment. The poets were on the outside, looking in, not on the inside, looking out. There were, of course, a dozen or so noted poets established on campuses by that time, but there were not clusters of poets on every campus as there are today. And few creative writing departments. As to freedom and innovation, among the younger poets not then established, I don’t recall there being the attempt to identify with “schools” of writing, such as are talked about today, like language poetry or new formalism. There were not many trade journals like the AWP Chronicle and Poets & Writers. Trade journals have a way of homogenizing activity and opinion.
Ahl: That’s an interesting correlation I hadn’t made. And I suppose the creative writing programs promote that as well, either the homogenization or the cliques that seem to have an almost secret agenda. How do you feel about the writing being celebrated today? Do you feel we’re more democratic than in the past? Is the good stuff losing its aura or not getting acknowledged in the huge sweep of books being published?
Kooser: We have to rely on the passage of years to sort all this out. I’m optimistic that the most meaningful poetry will eventually surface and that the rest will be forgotten. I am in no position to say what is good and what isn’t. I am too close to what is being written during my years to make judgments like that. There are poets whose work I especially like, of course, because it has
meaning for me, but as to how they will fit into literary history is something for time to sort out.
Lindsay Can you talk a little about how your friendship with Jim Harrison or other writers has influenced your writing?
Kooser: I’ve been very lucky to have had some constant writer friends, Jim Harrison, Dan Gerber, and Bob King among them. I began a correspondence with Leonard Nathan 35 years ago, and he has been marvelous help by looking at my new work and offering comments. Each of these friendships is different. Jim and I don’t usually offer specific comments on poems but rather general or overall impressions. Leonard is the kind of critic who will puzzle over a punctuation mark. These friends are all immensely helpful, and I hope I’ve been of some help to them from time to time. Personally, long-distance correspondences are preferable to me to having someone sitting across the table. With correspondence you can plan your time, with company you can’t. I do think that young or beginning writers can benefit by being a part of a community, by staying up late and talking about art, and that’s an important part of most writers’ development. But with maturity there comes a time when you do your best work alone, on your own timetable.
Lindsay: The quote you chose for the beginning of Delights & Shadows, “The Sailor cannot see the North, but knows the Needle can,” by Emily Dickinson, points to a kind of undercurrent of design, fate, or trajectory that one chooses or finds oneself in … can you talk a little about how consciously you chose your path or how it found you?
Kooser: As to my path in life, I am often struck by the randomness, how that if I had turned right instead of left at a street corner in third grade, everything would have come out differently. As to my literary career, if one can call it that, I have had lots of lucky breaks, some of them quite remarkable. There are dozens of poets whose work is as sound as mine who just haven’t had the luck I’ve had. For example, when Local Wonders was published the U of NE Press took it with all their other 2003 titles to the New York book expo, and a woman happened along, opened it to a passage she was moved by. It was Jill Lamar, who picks the books for Barnes & Noble’s Discover series. And she picked it. That was luck. There was no way such a thing could have been orchestrated, her happening along, opening that particular book at that particular page.
Lindsay: The theme for this issue of the magazine is “soul,” or “God.” I don’t cater to the theme in the Literature section, but if possible I like to address it. I read that you attend church, and believe in a universal design or order to the universe, though not necessarily with a “personality” attached. Would you mind discussing your ideas on this?
Kooser: I do believe in some kind of universal order, but a disinterested one. I sometimes go to church because I like the idea of sitting for an hour with a group of others who at least for that one hour are attempting to think in a spiritual way.
Lindsay: Do any particular poems, or any particular of your books have a lot more meaning to you than another? Or if not, could you talk about how the process of writing took you someplace different for one book than another?
Kooser: I have always written in the same way, that is, the only willfulness about it is the sitting down to write, and I don’t plan anything other than writing time. Thus I don’t look at a book as a project but as the compilation of a lot of individual projects, or poems. If my books differ one from another, it’s largely because my life has changed, that is, the environment in which each poem is conceived and written is different, shaped by the circumstances. Thus the poems in Winter Morning Walks are colored by the cancer treatment I was going through at that time and the poems in The Blizzard Voices are colored by my interest in 19th century history that was being expressed for a time.
Lindsay: We’ve printed The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise, and Surviving. Is there something you could tell us about these poems that would be interesting to the readers?
Kooser: The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise was based on experiences I had in the elevator at the insurance company where I worked for many years. Whenever a blind person would get on the elevator, the people already on board would shrink back as if frightened. A couple of years ago I had an exchange of letters with the director of an agency for the blind who seemed to think I was disparaging blind people when I meant to be writing about the ignorant fear of the sighted people.
Surviving is about the way in which I began to see the world when I was undergoing cancer treatment. I have talked to others who have had similar experiences while seriously ill. The world takes on a kind of vividness and every nuance of life seems worth celebrating. In a sense, when you’re in a state like that, you are taking a last loving look at the world you may be about to depart. I recently had a letter from an old friend who is dying of lung cancer and he said that he even enjoyed going to the office supply store to buy a pack of legal pads.
Lindsay: I know other people have asked you about the Copland quote, and I know you discuss related ideas in your book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, but the quote at the bottom of your e-mails, “… the composer who is frightened of losing his artistic integrity through contact with a mass audience is no longer aware of the meaning of the word art.'” Aaron Copland, 1941, addresses some of what we discussed earlier. Is there any kind of equivalence, in your mind then, that implies the better artists are the most popular, or do you see it more as an internal state of mind, just that one shouldn’t be worried about being popular? Could you discuss this idea and what it means to you … and how it has worked its way through your life, as your own popularity has been through phases?
Kooser: I am in sympathy with what Copland said, but I do not want to suggest that other artists, literary and otherwise, should subscribe to that idea. I include that quote because I like it, not because I am trying to recruit anyone to that position. Under no circumstances would I ever say, or even believe without saying, that the better artists are the more popular artists, or, conversely, that the more popular artists are the better artists. Each artist serves a community, and it is that artist’s prerogative to define his or her own community as he or she sees fit. Sometimes those communities are quite large and diverse, and sometimes quite narrowly defined.
Lindsay: I recently read about how cartoonists, long ago, were not considered artists, they were employed to draw funny pictures to get more people to read the newspapers. I’m kind-of laughing about the idea of people reading newspapers less for the news than for the new poem of the day. Your American Life in Poetry site is really wonderful, as is the idea that every newspaper now has free access to great poems. It’s democratic and somehow poignant. There’s a connection here, between your work, which is for the people, and American Life poems for the newspapers. Can you talk about this connection … the ritual of reading a daily paper, the ritual of writing daily, both being a way to ground yourself to the culture around you or to your own world ….?
Kooser: I have always thought that people’s lives would be richer if they made time for art, and I suppose that enrichment happens to some degree as people listen to music on the way to work, and perhaps after work as they read something deeper than the daily news. I’d like to have poetry fit into an everyday life, and that’s what I’ve been trying to offer through the column. It’s what Garrison Keillor does so well with his Writer’s Almanac each day.
Lindsay: My only other curiosity is the Dana Gioia essay, “The Anonymity of the Regional Poet,” which discusses your work in detail. I really appreciated his critical response to your work. Did you feel like his analysis was accurate and would you have any response to his essay?
Kooser: You know, it’s been a number of years since I read that essay, and I remember thinking that he had thought a lot about my life and work and life’s work and was expressing those thoughts very well. I no longer read things written about me because I find the criticism painful and the praise all too often overblown. I’m just better off not knowing what the critics are saying about me. I’m not going to change the way I write or the way I respond to life in writing based upon what somebody writes about me.
There are days when the fear of death
is as ubiquitous as light. It illuminates
everything. Without it, I might not
have noticed this ladybird beetle,
bright as a drop of blood
on the window’s white sill.
Her head no bigger than a period,
her eyes like needle points,
she has stopped for a moment to rest,
knees locked, wing covers hiding
the delicate lace of her wings.
As the fear of death, so attentive
to everything living, comes near her,
the tiny antennae stop moving.
“Surviving,” from Ted Kooser’s Delights and Shadows, appears courtesy of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.
The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise
The blind always come as such a surprise,
suddenly filling an elevator
with a great white porcupine of canes,
or coming down upon us in a noisy crowd
like the eye of a hurricane.
The dashboards or cars stopped at crosswalks
and the shoes of commuters on trains
are covered with sentences
struck down in mid-flight by the canes of the blind.
Each of them changes our lives,
tapping across the bright circles of our ambitions
like cracks traversing the favorite china.
“The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise” is from FLYING AT NIGHT: POEMS 1965-1985, by Ted Kooser, © 1980, 1985. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.