"The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress"
An interview with Ted Kooser by Grace Cavalieri
THE AMERICAN GRAIN of TED KOOSER
Grace Cavalieri interviews with Ted Kooser at the Library of Congress. Ted Kooser, who was born in Ames, Iowa, received his bachelor's degree from Iowa State and his master's in English from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He is the author of 10 collections of poetry, including "Delights & Shadows," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. His other honors include two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Pushcart Prize and the Stanley Kunitz Prize from Columbia. He is a professor in the English department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. This interview was conducted at the Library of Congress the time of his inauguration as the 13th Poet Laureate of the United States.
Grace Cavalieri: We’re at the Library of Congress. Looking at the world through the sparkling clean pane of glass. Very clear, very exact.
Ted Kooser: Thank you.
GC: And all the senses are there. We have something to smell, we have something to taste, we have something to see. If I were to say that the one poet that you bring to mind is Stanley Kunitz, would you understand that?
TK: Yes I would. I admire Stanley Kunitz’s work a great deal.
GC: And there is at his, the center, a character sometimes in his work. But William Blake said the tear is an intellectual thing. Kunitz uses that as an epigraph, and that really brings you to mind, because you have brought the tear as a perfectly respectable part of the academy. There is always something to feel in your work.
TK: Well you know, if you don’t push the edge with your feelings, I don’t think you really have much of anything. There’s an old Charlie Chaplin movie in which Chaplin is skating along the edge of a mezzanine of a department store during construction, and there’s the chance always that he’s going to fall into the pit. And the thrill of watching that scene is holding your breath thinking that he’s going over the edge. Well that’s where you have to be when you’re writing. Out on that edge, I think. There are a lot of people getting tattoo’s today, and this is a poem about an older person.
What once was meant to be a statement -
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart – is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.
GC: Ted Kooser is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently Delights in Shadows. We’ll be hearing a lot of that today. He was born in Ames, Iowa, and he got his degree at Iowa State University, and his Masters at the University of Nebraska. He has some other collections of poetry, Sure Signs, which won the Society of Midland Authors Prize; One World at a Time, Weather Central, and another is called Winter Morning Walks; One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, and we will be finding out who this mysterious Jim Harrison is a little bit later on. So before we launch into some more, I have to comment on that poem, The Diminishing Tattoo. The Law of Diminishing Returns is a haunting theme in your work. The man who’s hat is too small, in another one of your poems, his head is now too small for the hat. Always the impending loss. But you are there right before it goes away. All of your poems are there right in a rest home before the death, right at the elderly woman’s living room to speak of your mother’s death, before her demise. You are there at the brink of diminishment.
TK: Grace, I really appreciate the way you’ve read my work. You know, I’m often interviewed by people who have not really studied my work, and you are dead right with that, that I am standing at that point.
GC: And I’m sure you can’t think of it when you’re doing it. But it is a haunting aftertaste in your work. And so let’s continue on and see if I’m right.
TK: This poem is called A Rainy Morning. Again, this a situation where I saw someone on the street.
A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long, white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.
GC: One more poem about a glimpse of a person, Skater.
She was all in black but for a yellow ponytail
that trailed from her cap, and bright blue gloves
that she held out wide, the feathery fingers spread,
as surely she stepped, click-clack, onto the frozen
top of the world. And there, with a clatter of blades,
she began to braid a loose path that broadened
into a meadow of curls. Across the ice she swooped
and then turned back and, halfway, bent her legs
and leapt into the air the way a crane leaps, blue gloves
lifting her lightly, and turned a snappy half-turn
there in the wind before coming down, arms wide,
skating backward right out of that moment, smiling back
at the woman she’d been just an instant before.
GC: Now we could look at those poems, we could look at that poem and say, well that’s a perfect portrait of a skater. He’s caught her freeze frame. But we could also look at that poem and say, at that second, that you’ve compressed time, and mortality, and then it fans out again. I mean that’s magic. That is magic. And we do see, in all your work, that you are a noticer of people.
TK: I try to pay to pay attention to people and things. The poet Linda Gregg said one time that she asks her students to notice six things a day. And I think that, that’s a marvelous practice. It’s very difficult for most of us, to pay attention to just six things a day.
GC: You even notice bugs.
TK: I’m kind of taken with bugs.
GC: I’ve learned more about bugs from your memoirs. The leaf footed bug?
TK: The leaf footed bug, is a kind of a squashed beetle, I think.
GC: Never been in my life before. And I must admit, I did not know how to move an outhouse, until I read your work, either.
TK: And now you know, in case it’s ever necessary.
GC: It’s very illuminating. I’ll tell you, you have brought a whole new dimension into the world of poetry. And we’re going to hear some more of them. . And I’ll tell you a little bit more about him. He has one several awards and honors. The Pushcart Prize. Do you remember which poem that happened to be for, the Pushcart?
TK: The Pushcart Prize was for a poem called As the President Spoke. It was about watching Ronald Reagan at the podium.
GC: And you teach as a visiting professor in the English department of the University of Nebraska. What is your teaching load, is it one course...
TK: One course a semester.
GC: Creative writing?
TK: Yes. Graduate students.
GC: And how long has that been going on?
TK: Oh, I’ve been doing that about five years now. Since I retired from the insurance company.
GC: Yes, I forgot to say that, like Wallace Stevens, you were a man of the world. You counted money, and you dealt with paper, and you an executive at a life insurance company. But always a poet?
TK: Always a poet. The life insurance job was mainly to support my writing. And I would get up very early in the morning, before I had to get my suit and tie on and do my writing from four thirty to about seven.
GC: Like Toynby, or like a mother with small children. I think five to seven is really when the muse comes to call. And we’ll see. Some more poems, Ted Kooser.
At the Cancer Clinic
She is being helped toward the open door
that leads to the examining rooms
by two young women I take to be her sisters.
Each bends to the weight of an arm
and steps with the straight, tough bearing
of courage. At what must seem to be
a great distance, a nurse holds the door,
smiling and calling encouragement.
How patient she is in the crisp white sails
of her clothes. The sick woman
peers from under her funny knit cap
to watch each foot swing scuffling forward
and take its turn under her weight.
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.
TK: That poem, I showed to my doctor, and he made a copy of it and had it framed for the nurse’s station at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and I felt, oh boy, I’ve written something that someone is getting some use out of. He had me do a reading to the staff of at medical center once, which was a very short reading, but at a big meeting. They had all the staff there.
GC: I call you the Poet of Affirmation. And I think that, that is what yhe doctor wanted to have happen. I mean, as much good will as you can bring in, that people can understand. I think that’s why you’re being applauded. Because we’ve waited a very long time to have something that belonged to everyone.
TK: Thank you.
GC: And your poetry, on the literal level, will belong to every nurse in the back ward, but can also be, I see, subject for some very philosophical thought. So, I’m looking forward to the rest of that book on your lap. But I want to say some things that people have talked about. And Poetry Magazine says 'Kooser documents the dignities, habits and small griefs of daily life. Our hunger for connection, our struggle to find balance.' And another says, the Minneapolis Star Tribune says, 'Kooser will one day rank along side Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams.'
TK: I’ll either rank beside them, or be lying beside them. Williams taught me to look at things like that. I’ve written several poems about these little moments in life, that there’s a little bit of tension that passes, and this is, I would guess, that most of the audience has experienced this.
GC: You have one poem that ends, “and no one to tell about it”.
TK: Oh yes.
GC: And now, I was wondering that you are going to be heard by millions of people, does that feeling change? Do you feel you’ll be heard? That what you have to tell will be heard?
TK: Well you know, I certainly hope that I’ll get some more readers out of this. It’s not a matter of wanting to make money selling books. I really enjoy having readers, and especially having people write letters to me and tell me a poem has meant something to them.
GC: I wish people would know that the poet really DOES want to hear. They always think, oh wouldn’t want to bother him. But, you know, quite the contrary. You don’t know anyone’s out there unless they do tell you.
TK: And I try to write myself. I try to write a card to somebody when I see a poem that I like.
GC: I think you’re reading from Delights and Shadows. And that is just out, 2004. And Charles Baxter said, 'Ted Kooser has great gifts for both portraiture and landscape. And another gift for dramatizing what is nearly invisible.' That’s the part I like. 'He is a seer, and we are lucky to have him among us, and blessed to have these beautiful new poems.' And it’s being in touch with the invisible. I’m there. That’s where I am
TK: This is about a thing. I’ve written a lot of poems about things. A Spiral Notebook.
A Spiral Notebook
You’ve seen these.
The bright wire rolls like a porpoise
in and out of the calm blue sea
of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper
twisting in and out of his dreams,
for it could hold a record of dreams
if you wanted to buy it for that,
though it seems to be meant for
more serious work, with its
college-ruled lines and its cover
that states in emphatic white letters,
5 SUBJECT NOTEBOOK. It seems
a part of growing old is no longer
to have five subjects, each
demanding an equal share of attention,
set apart by brown cardboard dividers,
but instead to stand in a drugstore
and hang on to one subject
a little too long, like this notebook
you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.
TK: Here’s another poem about a thing, as such -- a moth that drinks tears. And the title of the poem is the species, Lobocraspis Griseifusa.
This is the tiny moth who lives on tears,
who drinks like a deer at the gleaming pool
at the edge of the sleeper’s eye, the touch
of its mouth as light as a cloud’s reflections.
In your dream, a moonlit figure appears
at your bedside and touches your face.
He asks if he might share the poor bread
of your sorrows. You show him a table.
The two of you talk long into the night,
but by morning the words are forgotten.
You awaken serene, in a sunny room,
rubbing the dust of his wings from your eyes.
GC: Now, just as far as your process goes, did you have the center of the poem already committed to a page, so that when you wrote about the event you plugged it in, or did you write that poem all one process? There seems to be a centerpiece there, a little light at the center, that you may have been harboring elsewhere.
TK: Well, I might have. Frankly, I don’t remember exactly the process on that poem, but my usual process would be pretty linear. I would write from front to back, and then go back into it with countless revisions and see what I could make of it, and my guess is what you’re referring to is something that came in through the revision.
GC: I see. You don’t a little messy box with dirty pieces of paper you scramble through when you can’t get an idea?
GC: You have to get one.
TK: I’m to Germanic and compulsive to have a box of little scraps of paper.
GC: Good. That’s a good segue; Germanic and compulsive. Now, to your memoirs, which are about the place of Germans and Czechs, the Bohemian Alps. And I’m just going to take a short detour and get back to your poetry, because we have to congratulate the new book, Local Wonders. And it is subtexted, Seasons in the Bohemian Alps. The book is separated into seasons, and it is your view of living among your people, peppered with these wonderful folk sayings. Now, are these folk sayings something you collected on index cards, or do they just come with?
TK: You know, as I mentioned earlier, I’m kind of a devotee of garage sales and yard sales, and it was a book that I found at a yard sale. It was called International Proverbs, and it had a section of Czech and Bohemian proverbs, and I got most of them out of that. The marvelous one that heads the book, “when God wishes to rejoice the heart of a poor man, He makes him lose his donkey, and find it again.” I just love that.
GC: And you speak of that when you had recovered from a very serious illness, and you found your donkey again. So you’ve come full circle with that idea. That’s really important. And, when we think of the people who you talk about in this book, we know so much of your life intimately. I’ll give you an example. You talk about, I think, of how busy you’re going to be this winter. And you say in this book that winter is your favorite season, because you can stall all day in your long flannel shirt that your mother made you, looking out over the snow over all the chores that you don’t have to do.
TK: That’s right.
GC: Ted, this is going to be a different kind of winter.
TK: Yes indeed, it will be.
GC: No flannel shirts in Washington.
TK: No, this year is going to be quite a disruption, but I’m willing to accept it.
Okay. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, had a set of pink Depression Glass dishes, and I wrote this about those.
It seemed those rose-pink dishes
she kept for special company
were always cold, brought down
from the shelf in jingling stacks,
the plates like the panes of ice
she broke from the water bucket
winter mornings, the flaring cups
like tulips that opened too early
and got bitten by frost. They chilled
the coffee no matter how quickly
you drank, while a heavy
everyday mug would have kept
a splash hot for the better
part of a conversation. It was hard
to hold up your end of the gossip
with your coffee cold, but it was
a special occasion, just the same,
to sit at her kitchen table
and sip the bitter percolation
of the past week’s rumors from cups
it had taken a year to collect
at the grocery, with one piece free
for each five pounds of flower.
GC: You had two grandmothers. You had a nuclear family. And Grace Kooser was your father’s mother?
GC: And I know because her name’s Grace. She was a large woman.
TK: She was a very large woman. I remember sitting, when we were very small, she made paper dolls for us, and my sister and I sat at her knees, and she would make these paper dolls, and I’d look up at these enormous knees, and they were like the faces on Mt. Rushmore, you know.
GC: And you liked your mother’s mother better.
TK: Well, actually my grandmother Kooser died when I was about ten, so, but my grandmother Moser lived on for many years. So we really spent much more time with the Mosers than the Koosers. My grandfather Kooser died when I was very small.
GC: But the characters in your life will live longer than you do. It’s kind of impressive that they’ve been made immortal.
TK: You know, the University of Nebraska Press is about to publish a little book of mine, a kind of special edition called Lights on a Ground of Darkness. It is a reminiscence of my grandmother Moser’s family. And I had written it as an essay, and published in the Great River Review, and the press came to me and said they were looking for a book that they good give to donors at the University, a sort of “special edition.” So they were interested in looking at this. You know, in print it only runs about forty five pages, so it’ll be a very slim book, but I was delighted by this because it was a real labor of love. My mother was dying when I was writing it. I wanted to finish it and show her the manuscript before she was gone. And I thought it would make her terribly sad, but in fact she liked it. But it was exactly as you say. It was an attempt to keep some very ordinary people alive.
GC: You have to mention that there is another....you’re keeping the University of Nebraska up late! They have another book from you called The Poetry Home Repair Manual .There are no loose hammers here,? You’re going to tell us how to do it.
TK: Well, it is not a book of real specifics, you know, they’re my ideas about the things I do best; work with metaphor, fine tuning metaphor, things about...but they’re also, it’s more of a philosophy of writing. Initially I say, you know, I believe in writing as communication. If you don’t believe in that, then you have no business with this book, because it’s not for you, and so on. But there are readers out there, and we have to think about what we are giving an audience.
GC: What do you do with your dreams?
TK: You know, sometimes I jot dreams into journals and so on, but I had not really ever ... well from time to time I had written about them.
GC: Maybe little droplets. It feels as if you carry everything you felt with you at all times. That’s what it feels like when I read your work.
TK: I don’t know how other people operate psychologically, but, at some given moment every day, I momentarily review every person I have ever known, I think. It’s like, there’s a constant parade. I mean, not everyone I’ve ever known, I shouldn’t say that. But, the people who really mattered to me, I sort of check in with them every day at some point in a way.
GC: Alive or dead.
TK: Oh yeah, mostly dead, actually.
GC: Me too. That’s where the best communication’s happening.
TK: Yeah, isn’t that interesting, the way that works. This is a poem that’s sort of fun. I often read this at public readings, because everyone in the audience has experienced this. It’s called The Urine Specimen.
GC: I think you’ve taken the embarrassment out of bodily functions in your work. In your memoirs we have some tape worms; we have all kinds of things exposed to literature. It takes the sting out of it, doesn’t it? Because you’re saying all things are holy. All things are holy. That’s what you say.
TK: Now this one is a little longer poem, but it’s very interesting I think. It’s a narrative. I don’t write a whole lot of narrative poems, but it’s a story that was told to me by Keith Jacobshagen, who’s a very dear friend of mine, who’s a noted landscape painter. And this is about his family.
The Beaded Purse
Dressed in his church suite, and under
the shadow of his hat, the old man
stood on the wooden depot platform
three feet above the rest of Kansas
while the westbound train chuffed in
and hissed to a stop. He and the agent
and two men, commercial travelers
waiting to go on west, pulled mailbags
out of the steam, then slid out
his daughter’s coffin, canvas over wood,
and sit it on a nearby baggage cart.
Not till the train had rolled away
and tooted once as it passed the shacks
at the leading edge of the distance,
and not till the agent had disappeared,
dragging the bags of mail behind,
did the old man pry up the nailed-down lid
with a bar he’d brought in the wagon.
Hat in hand, he took a long look.
He hadn’t seen her in a dozen years.
At nineteen, without his blessing,
she’d gone back east to be an actress,
now and then writing her mother
in a carefree, ne’er-do-well cursive
to say she was happy, living in style.
A week before, the agent sent word
that there was a telegram waiting,
and the old man and his wife rode to town
to read their daughter had died
and her remains were on the way home.
Remains, that’s how they put it.
She was wearing a fancy yellow dress
but was no longer young and pretty.
She looked like one of the worn-out dolls
she’d left in her room at the farm
where he would sometimes go to sit.
A bag of women’s private underthings
had been stuffed between feet,
and someone had pushed down next to her
an evening bag beaded with pearls.
He opened the purse and found it empty,
so he took a few bills out of his pocket
and folded them in, then snapped it closed
for her mother to find. Then, with the back
of the bar he tapped the lid in place
and went to find the station agent.
The two of them lifted the coffin down
and carried it a few hard yards across
the sunny, dusty floor of Kansas
and loaded it onto the creaking wagons.
Then, clapping his hat on his head
and slapping the plump rump of his mare
with the reigns, he started to long haul home
with his rich and famous daughter.
GC: What a cinematic moment. I can just see a Mike Lee film where they open the purse and put the money in.
TK: It’s a whole movie, isn’t it, that story?
GC: It is. A film. It is. Hearing you, I thought, well he’s got a really good voice, and he reads very well. But then I got in touch with your vowels. I know that you cannot prescribe this ahead of time, but, “one of the worn out dolls.” I can follow your vowels through the line “the plump rump”. And I think that this is the remarkable thing that makes you read it so easily. I’m sure you don’t know ahead of time that your vowels are that way, but are you, what are you aware of?
TK: You know, I think I’m very much blessed with a gift of that. I think I . . . one of the very first poems I wrote when I was a very young man, I think, you know twenty years old, was an exercise that a teacher had given me in writing rhyme couplets. And I described a cemetery, and a mole underground tunneling through the cemetery, sort of a gothic sort of scene. But I look back at the poem now and I see all these vowels and internal rhymes. They just seem to flow into the poem, and I am very much blessed with having had that happen to me. I don’t think about those things when I write. They’re just there.
GC: I think writers are wired a certain way. When you’re born, your brain just has vowels in it.
TK: I have on our acreage, we have a little pond, and down by the pond I have a building with windows in it that I keep a lot of the books that won’t fit in the house, and I go down there to sit a lot. And next to it is a well pit, and the snakes come up. Bull snakes, and blue racers and garter snakes come up out of the well pit. They love it there. And one of the bull snakes comes over to the library when I’m not there and goes after the mice if there are any in there, and all I’ve ever seen of him are these snake skins that he leaves around. Snake Skin.
GC: There’s something, I don’t know if it’s in your memoirs, where someone is coming to fix a part of your house, and he’s afraid of snakes. So you reach down and retrieve the two snakes that are residing there, and carry them across the frozen yard to keep them safe. Then after he fixes things, you pick the snakes up because you’re afraid they’ll freeze, and they’re gone.
GC: That’s right. My husband didn’t believe that story. He hates snakes. But, every living thing matters to you.
TK: Yes it does. We let the spiders live in our house because we live in the country where there are a lot of those little German wood roaches that live in stacks firewood and so on. So, the house probably would have cockroaches were it not for the spiders in the house. And the spiders hunt the cockroaches, and so on. It makes it sound like we’re living in terrible circumstances. Actually, our house is practically brand new, but living in the country there’s a lot more insect life around.
GC: But for you to spend fifteen minutes looking at a bug. I think that’s a man who does not race with the clock.
TK: Yes. I try to take notice of things.
GC: Now is a good time to take another really quick detour, because I would hate to leave this program without mentioning your good friend Jim Harrison. And this is . . . we won’t really have a chance to read your work with him, but we can mention it. Braided Creek is a book. It’s Braided Creek, a Conversation in Poetry, it came out in 2003. And it is simply a page with little poems on them, and they’re not identified. We don’t know whether Ted wrote them, or his friend Jim Harrison. They’re just thrown in the mix. Did that come from the book Postcards?
TK: Well, when I was recovering from radiation, I wrote a poem every day and pasted it on a postcard and sent it to Jim, and they were about things that I would find on the road when I was out walking before dawn, and so on. These little poems are actually poems the we corresponded with for over a longer period than that. I mean some of them were interspersed in that period, but he and I have been exchanging poems for many years. And I arranged the book myself. They are not sequential, literally sequential. I had them all on three by five index cards, and I had two strips of three by five index cards probably thirty five feet long, and I went up and down and up and down, until I could finally braid them together in a way.
GC: And they are braided. The funny thing is, you don’t know who wrote what so it’s like a detective game. I thought, well now here’s somebody who says he finishes a bottle of wine in thirty three minutes. That is not Ted.
TK: That indeed is not Ted.
GC: No. So I can sort of . . . you say you’re the odd couple; the wild and crazy guy, and the conservative. So I almost could tell which sounded like you, just by the content. But it doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter?
TK: Well, one the things . . . I think that in a book, of, you know, several hundred poems like this, to have the name of the poet underneath each poem would really interrupt the whole experience, I think. And the other is, we decided, why call attention to that? You know, to the fact that Ted wrote this poem, or Jimmy wrote this one, and so on. We just decided we’d try it this way. Of course everyone is trying to figure out who wrote what. People say, “Well, I know that you wrote that one,” and I say, “Well, you know, I didn’t know that one.” And one of the interesting things was about it was that there were a couple of poems in that bunch of three by five cards that I couldn’t remember. That we were close enough, and are close enough, that I couldn’t remember which of us had written that one.
GC: Well, I can understand that. Where does he live?
TK: He lives in Montana in the warmer months and Arizona in the winter.
GC: Does he like the fact that he’s famous now that you’re Poet Laureate?
TK: Well, I think Jim was very famous long before I became Poet Laureate.
GC: His name is certainly well known.
TK: Particularly for his novels, and his movie work, and so on. Jim sees himself as being a poet. It was his first love, and he writes beautiful poems. But his reputation has been made in fiction, really. This is an elegy I wrote for my mother about a month after she died.
Mid April already, and the wild plums
bloom at the roadside, a lacy white
against the exuberant, jubilant green
of new grass and the dusty, fading black
of burned-out ditches. No leaves, not yet,
only the delicate, star-petaled
blossoms, sweet with their timeless perfume.
You have been gone a month today
and have missed three rains and one nightlong
watch for tornadoes. I sat in the cellar
from six to eight while fat spring clouds
went somersaulting, rumbling east. Then it poured,
a storm that walked on legs of lightning,
dragging its shaggy belly over the fields.
The meadowlarks are back, and the finches
are turning from green to gold. Those same
two geese have come to the pond again this year,
honking in over the trees and splashing down.
They never nest, but stay a week or two
Then leave. The peonies are up, the red sprouts
Burning in circles like birthday candles,
GC: You loved . . . you were very close.
TK: Oh yes.
GC: You are accused of having a happy childhood.
TK: Yes, that’s right. All this business about artists having to have terrible childhoods doesn’t play with me. That Keith Jacobshagen I mentioned; the painter who’s story that was about the guy in Kansas and the coffin and so on; Keith had a blissfully happy childhood, and he’s a marvelous painter. His folks, I’ve been around them, they adore him. And you can tell. They’ve adored him since he was born. He’s an only child.
GC: Well, you say that your mother’s sun shone on you.
TK: Yes, that’s right.
GC: Do you remember the poet Roland Flint, the late poet?
GC: He said that there were six children in the family, and every one thought that he was his mother’s favorite. That’s a good thing to say.
TK: Oh yeah, isn’t that nice?
GC: Who would you say was another Great Plains poet? McGrath. Was McGrath a Great Plains poet?
TK: Tom McGrath is probably one of the greatest of the Great Plains poets, I think. And it’s a shame . . .
GC: He’s not known.
TK: He’s not known. His, sort of, magnum opus was Letter to an Imaginary Friend, which comes up out of the plains experience. McGrath was way over on the left politically.
GC: Yes, he was.
TK: He got blacklisted, and one thing and another, and I think that may have done some damage long-term to his career. But his poems are really beautiful. There’s a Whitman conference coming up in the spring at Nebraska, and I’m to introduce that conference, and I’m going to read a poem a poem of McGrath’s, because they’re so much like Whitman, and so much influenced by them, I think.
GC: That will be very good, because you’re the only two that are known for that region really.
TK: Well, of course there are others that are not quite as well known.
GC: Of course.
TK: I’ve been extremely lucky with my career. I think literary careers are about forty percent skill, and sixty percent just dumb luck. And I’ve been very lucky with mine.
GC: And then we go even norther, and we get Robert Wrigley, and so many fine poets.
TK: Bob Wrigley’s a wonderful poet, that’s true. This is a poem I wrote after seeing a student walking across campus one day, and realizing how much students with backpacks on look like sea turtles.
The green shell of his backpack makes him lean
into wave after wave of responsibility,
and he swings his stiff arms and cupped hands,
Paddling ahead. He has extended his neck
to it’s full length, and his chin, hard as a beak,
breaks the cold surf. He’s got his baseball cap on
Backward as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library.
GC: May we have a final poem?
TK: Here’s a self portrait. And the places that are mentioned in this poem are small towns near where I live.
That Was I
I was that older man you saw sitting
in a confetti of yellow light and falling leaves
on a bench at the empty horseshoe courts
in Thayer, Nebraska brown jacket, soft cap,
wiping my glasses. I had noticed, of course,
that the rows of sunken horseshoe pits
with their rusty stakes, grown over with grass,
were like old graves, but I was not letting
my thoughts go there. Instead I was looking
with hope to a grapevine draped over
a fence in a neighboring yard, and knowing
that I could hold on. Yes, that was 1.
And that was I, the round shouldered man
you saw that afternoon in Rising City
as you drove past the abandoned Mini Golf,
fists deep in my pockets, nose dripping,
my cap pulled down against the wind
as I walked the miniature Main Street
peering into the child size plywood store,
the poor red school, the faded barn, thinking
that not even in such an abbreviated world
with no more than its little events the snap
of a grasshopper's wing against a paper cup -
could a person control this life. Yes, that was I.
GC: The voice of Ted Kooser, Poet Laureate of the United States.
Grace Cavalieri is a poet and playwright. She produces "The Poet and the Poem From the Library of Congress" now in its 31st year on public radio.
We gratefully acknowledge the Poet Laureate Program at the Library of Congress, with the consent of Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, and permission for reprint of poems from Delights&Shadows, ©2004Ted Kooser, granted by Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.com.