A Life in Poetry: Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser
COURTESY OF Blue Flower Arts

TED KOOSER is a two-term United States Poet Laureate (2004-2006), and the author of eleven poetry collections, including Delights and Shadows, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. His book The Poetry Home Repair Manual (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), is thought by many to be one of the best books on writing poetry. His poems have appeared in many national literary journals, including The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, and Prairie Schooner. Among other prizes, Kooser has received two NEA fellowships in poetry, the Pushcart Prize, the Stanley Kunitz Prize, The James Boatwright Prize, and a Merit Award from the Nebraska Arts Council. He lives near Garland, Nebraska, with his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, and their two dogs, Alice and Howard.

“The poet’s ideas might emerge while he or she is playfully writing about, say, the appearance of a stack of storm windows lying in the grass or the way in which a praying mantis turns her head to look at the mate she’s about to eat. The poet’s ideas, his or her reasoned assessments of the world, emerge through the poetry whether intended or not.”
FROM The Poetry Home Repair Manual
University of Nebraska Press
(Lincoln & London, 2005)

Karl Shapiro was an important writer and teacher, a mentor to you. Who were other major poets or teachers in your development as a poet?

My first creative writing teacher was Will Jumper, a poet who taught at Iowa State when I was an undergraduate. I dedicated my first book to him. He put a lot of emphasis on literary forms, and was the person most responsible for urging me toward poetry.

Jumper began his basic poetry writing course by having the students write 30 lines of natural description in iambic pentameter rhyming couplets. That sort of thing. We learned to write in all the poetic forms.

You’ve mentioned that the Library of Congress supervises your activity with the American Life in Poetry column. Does the Library help with selecting poems for the column?

Now that I’m no longer poet laureate, the Library has nothing to do with the column other than to have their name credited with its instigation. I pick the poems with the help of my assistant editor, Pat Emile, also a poet, and we customarily have a graduate student who searches literary magazines for possibilities.

How do your ideas for poems begin?

Most often they arise during the process of writing. As I write in my journal every morning, something may surface that feels as if it has potential, and I’ll follow it through. I have found that isn’t productive to force a poem to fit around an idea, so I rarely have an idea as we usually think of them, such as, Oh, I’m going to write a poem about the hazards of agricultural chemicals. But if I happen to be writing about something, perhaps describing a flower, my ideas about ag chemicals might show up.

Do you have a definition as to what a poem is?

A poem is the record of a discovery, either the discovery of something in the world, or within one’s self, or perhaps the discovery of something through the juxtaposition of sounds and sense within our language. Our job as poets is to set down the record of those discoveries in such a way that our readers will make the discoveries theirs and will delight in them. My teacher, Karl Shapiro, once said that the proper response to any work of art is joy, and if we can give joy to our readers, that’s a fine thing.

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