—Ted Kooser journal entry, December 7, 1972
quoted in The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser by Mary K. Stillwell
A lot’s happened for Ted Kooser since he wrote those lines more than forty years ago—earning the Pulitzer Prize and being named U.S. Poet Laureate, to list just a couple of accolades—but the sentiment still holds. Despite his firm standing in the world of contemporary poetry and his continuing commitment to promote poetry as a living and vital art for all, Ted Kooser prefers to limit his “frontage on the busy road,“ by remaining under the radar at his rural Nebraska home.
I lived in Lincoln many years ago and was lucky to know Ted when I worked at the literary magazine Prairie Schooner. I found him to be much like his poems—insightful and wry, but oh so careful with his words. Look at any picture of him and you’ll see what I mean—he’s got that genial and open smile, but like any good Midwesterner you can tell that smile holds a secret or two. So I admit I was considerably curious to read the first full-length critical biography about Ted, The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser, published this fall by University of Nebraska Press.
The biography, by Mary K. Stillwell, doesn’t disappoint. It’s an intimate portrait rich with details of how family history and life on the Plains influenced Kooser’s early world vision, and then how Kooser juggled his creative ambitions as a poet, publisher and “Sunday painter,” along with his obligations as husband, father, and 9-5 insurance executive.
Stillwell superbly illustrates the challenges an artist faces when he connects with artists in the academy but is not part of the academy, and who connects with the pull of bohemia, but who never quits his day job. And while the biography closely examines these elements and others surfacing in Kooser’s poetry, Stillwell also provides a charming and down-to-earth portrait of the poet as an everyman grappling with relationships and mortality and, on the day he’s asked to become U.S. Poet Laureate, having to drop by Bern’s Body Shop because he’s absent-mindedly knocked the side mirror off his Dodge sedan.
Stillwell’s biography is engagingly thorough, but I couldn’t help but have a few more questions, which I’m grateful she agreed to answer here.