“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’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.
KF: This project began more than a decade ago, before Ted won the Pulitzer and before he was Poet Laureate. Describe how the book evolved as he gained wider recognition.
MKS: At the time Ted Kooser was named Poet Laureate (2004), I was at work rewriting my dissertation on Contemporary Nebraska poetry. Kooser was one of four poets whose work I looked at in detail, although I also included a overview of Nebraska’s previous poets (a long and varied list) as well.
When Delights & Shadows was awarded the Pulitzer the following year, I decided to focus on Kooser’s work. I’d written several long articles on his books, I’d taught his poetry, and I’d studied with him. While there was a plethora of short articles about his poetry and prose, there was not much in-depth study. I thought his work deserved more.
Because place is so important to Kooser’s work, the biographical aspect became important as I began to focus systematically on his development as a writer. As with the previous critical writing, there was not much biographical information that gave any in-depth account of Kooser’s life.
At first I was reluctant; I had little experience in biographical research. Then I began to see how each aspect, the work and the life, impacted the other. I was as excited as Sherlock Holmes!
KF: In addition to being Ted Kooser’s biographer, you’re a Nebraska poet as well. How did this research enrich your own poetry? And how is the task of writing a biography different than the task of writing poetry?
MKS: I came to Kooser’s work as a new poet, learning my craft with Bill Packard, founding editor of The New York Quarterly, at NYU. After I read the draft of my first poem for class, Bill was so excited. I’ll never forget it. “Listen to how you use those vowels! Do you know the work of Ted Kooser?” And the next class, he brought us copies of a sampling of Kooser’s work, along with that of Weldon Kees and Greg Kuzma.
I realize this isn’t quite the question you are asking, but my point is that his work enriched mine from the very beginning. I read and later taught Kooser as a way to understand what I was doing and to open possibilities for my own development.
When I settle down to write poetry, I start from a quiet place inside and see where I want to go. When I worked on the biography, I had a huge research component to carry out. Still, I suppose that quiet place informed me of what interested me, what connections might be there.
Keeping Kooser’s imaginary reader in mind was also extremely helpful. I wanted people who loved Kooser’s work to gain insights into it and I wanted people who hadn’t read the work to run out to the bookstore. This was very important to the crafting of the book.
KF: Part of The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser also serves as a history of 20th century poetry’s evolution in the Midwest and Great Plains, where you write that Kooser matured as a writer while the region was “entering its heydey.” Your assertion is clear as you reel off a staggering list of talented contemporaries, from Robert Bly and William Stafford to Mary Oliver and Gwendolyn Brooks. How do you think the influence of these poets as a regional group is overlooked?
MKS: Our poetry today seems very national, even international, largely due to the internet and to travel, both overseas and within the States.
We probably aren’t quite as sensitive to our own poets being regional as we once were, but like our children, they remain our children even after they grow up and enter the larger community.
When I teach poetry, as literature or as a writing practice, I almost always include a Kooser book along with at least one other Plains poet. I remember how important it was for me to learn of a poet who came from my place.
That being said, many colleges and universities here don’t offer Plains or Midwestern literature courses any more. We are not passing along as much of our rich literary heritage to our own sons and daughters today. They are being short-changed.
KF: I enjoy your exploration of Ted Kooser’s desire to bring poetry to a general reading public, a commitment cultivated in part by his mentor at the University of Nebraska, Karl Shapiro. We also see this desire to connect in Ted’s weekly column, American Life in Poetry. Could you describe how Kooser’s “imagined reader” shows this commitment in his own poems?
MKS: It is no accident that Kooser’s concept of the “imaginary reader” shows up within the first few pages of The Poetry Home Repair Manual. “Who is your imaginary reader?” was his first question to our class. Many of us had never stopped to think who we were writing to, although on reflection, we discovered that we did indeed have specific reader(s) in mind.
The question is fundamental to any definition of poetry and to what Kooser understands as its purpose: “to reach other people and to touch their hearts.”
KF: You’ve known Ted a long time—as a student, fellow poet, colleague, and biographer—what was the most surprising or delightful anecdote you discovered in your research?
MKS: In May 1999, I drove out to Ted Kooser’s home for my first formal interview relating to my doctoral work. I hadn’t yet studied with him and didn’t know him well. As we sat down in his living room and the dogs settled down around us, he asked with some excitement, “Can I read you the draft of a poem I’ve started this morning?” His focus, his generosity, and his enthusiasm, I saw immediately, are all one.
Can you imagine how thrilling it was for me as a student of poetry to hear him read from his black notebook: “Today you would be ninety-seven / if you had lived, and we would all be / miserable” which upon revision became “Father”?
These three qualities have been present throughout all my work with him.