The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser

Unknown“I farm a little plot of things to say, with not much frontage on the busy road.”

—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’llUnknown-2 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.

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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.
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Snack Time with Sherrie Flick

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Sherrie and the beloved Bubs the dog

When writer Sherrie Flick coordinated events at the immensely popular Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh, one thing was certain, beyond the high caliber of the visiting writers and the fact the space would be packed: there would be fabulous food. Crusty bread, gooey cheese, in-season vegetables, jugs of wine and—Sherrie’s specialty—plenty of pie.

Sherrie’s flash fiction often incorporates food as a driving metaphor too, and her novel, Reconsidering Happiness, primarily takes place in a bakery. But in recent years, Sherrie’s culinary ventures have moved out of the kitchen and off the page—she teaches food writing at Chatham University, and she is a food columnist, an urban gardener, and the series editor for At Table, an evolving book list at University of Nebraska Press that seeks to “expand and enrich the ever-changing discussion of food politics, nutrition, the cultural and sociological significance of eating, sustainability, agriculture, and the business of food.”

As Sherrie Flick’s blend of food and writing continues to expand, I wanted to discover how this focus on food has evolved in her writing and her life.

KF: You just published a wonderful essay on bread baking and the creative process in Necessary Fiction, where you explain that for you the two skills evolved almost hand-in-hand. Have you also discovered a creative connection with urban gardening?

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Sherrie’s garden in the heart of Pittsburgh

SF: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m writing another essay for the Necessary Fiction series that links my gardening to learning how to play the ukulele. That’s a more complicated connection than my garden’s connection to my creative process though.

For me, some days—most days, really—the garden is a physical manifestation of my creative process. I look at it all crazed and wandering and beautiful and weird in my yard and I think: yes, my friend, that is what the inside of your head looks like.
As fiction writers we rarely get to SEE a physical manifestation of our work. Words on the page become images in a reader’s mind. Gardening helps me see the way I organize—or more correctly—disorganize structure.

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