September, 2006 Vol. 31 No. 3
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Published September 2006

A Poet for the People

U.S. poet laureate brings his down-to-earth observations to Hawaiʻi

by Libby Young
poet laureate Ted Kooser

Selecting a Reader

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will.

From Ted Kooer’s Sure Signs (1980, University of Pittsburgh Press); used with permission of the author

He’s been called "a true American treasure," a "master of metaphor." For the past two years, he was the U.S. poet laureate, the first from the Great Plains. And yes, he did win the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. But for all that, Ted Kooser still seems to be the same plain-spoken, self-deprecating kind of guy he’s always been—as at home at a fish fry as in the Library of Congress or a ceremony in New York.

Kooser will visit the islands Nov. 6–10, 2006 for "Kooser Week in Hawaiʻi." He will be the featured speaker at a series of talks and workshops sponsored by Windward Community College and University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Distinguished Lecture Series, as well as at Volcano Arts Center on the Big Island (see schedule). He hopes to share what makes poetry such a unique form of writing. "Poetry is a way of drawing from a chaotic world a little piece of perfect order—the perfect word in the perfect place," he explains. "I want to help people discover that."

As U.S. poet laureate, Kooser made it his mission to connect with ordinary Americans who might consider poetry too obscure or the domain of the intellectual elite. "The most rewarding part of the job has been reaching all the people who said they felt excluded from poetry for many years," he says. "They said I was showing them a way to return to it. That’s exactly what I wanted."

Kooser is all for any way you can get people interested in poetry. "Slam poetry, rap poetry—I think all of those are little doors through which people can enter poetry. I’m for holding them all open."

His recent book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, was one way to share what he’s learned from more than 50 years of writing. It’s been described as having "all the comforts of a long and enlightening conversation with a wise and patient old friend—a friend who is willing to share everything he’s learned about the art he’s spent a lifetime learning to execute so well."

One of Kooser’s favorite roles as poet laureate was talking with teachers about nurturing student creativity, especially in the face of No Child Left Behind pressure for higher test scores. "This really is a tough time for education. There are some teachers who are asserting themselves and making poetry work. But many are as afraid of poetry as is the national audience."

Why should people care about poetry?

"For the same reason we want them to care about music and painting. It’s a part of life and the human being at his or her most noble state. In the arts, we are at our best and most removed from the kind of baseness with which we live all the time."

Although he claims, in his playful, tongue-in-cheek way, that he became a poet as a teenager to impress girls, Kooser has lived a life that balanced the obligation of making a living with his need to write. He admits to a "checkered career" as a college student at Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska, where he earned his master’s degree in 1968. For more than 25 years, he worked an 8–to–5 day job at a Nebraska insurance company to pay the bills and put food on the table. But he always wrote, every morning from 5:30 till about 7 a.m. "I never saw myself as an insurance executive, but rather as a writer in need of a paying job."

Website photos of Kooser typically depict him relaxing in a broad, wooden Adirondack chair or smiling affably in a checkered shirt and jeans. But there’s no mistaking the clear, steady gaze of someone who has spent his life observing the smallest of life’s details—and distilling them for meaning. From a jar of buttons to dishwater, from birthdays to book clubs, Kooser ponders those daily moments many would consider hardly worth writing about. He insists these are the very moments that do matter—small pieces of daily living that define us and connect us as human beings.

"I think a poem is the record of a discovery," he explains. "It can be a discovery in the world or in the process of writing. You record it as poet and the reader participates in that occasion of discovery.

"I do think attention span has been affected by the pace and nature of contemporary life, but you can train people to pay attention to detail. Get in the present moment and quit thinking about what happened yesterday and what’s going to happen tomorrow. Try to notice what’s going on. The detail is what makes your experiences unique."

A life-changing experience

Kooser, who survived a bout with cancer in 1998, says the ordeal made him even more aware of people’s common humanity. "You don’t go through an experience like that without it changing you forever. There’s a tremendous dose of humility that comes out of illness—sitting in oncology waiting rooms with people from every walk of life suffering just as you are—everyone just trying to stay alive.

"Now that I’m an old guy, one of the things I’ve learned is the need to be kind to other people. It means accepting people with the sense that most people are trying to do the best they can."

Like many writers, Kooser believes in the axiom, "Write what you know." He wants local poets to take pride in things local and find the universal in their own sense of place. "If you look at Delights and Shadows (the collection that won the Pulitzer Prize), there are lots of poems—"Garage Sale," "Tattoo"—that could have been written anywhere.

"The thing that is crucial is to give people the confidence to write about their lives, even though they think, ʻOh, my life is boring. I live in this little town and nothing ever happens.’ They ought to have the courage to address their lives, and do it with enough detail, so it will become of interest."

He says the most important thing writers can do is to persevere. "Show up for work and write every day," he advises. "If you sit around waiting for inspiration—the great moment—nothing’s going to happen. Be willing to write stupid things, fail 29 days out of 30.

"For me, it’s a good year if I produce 10 or 12 poems I like. It’s very important to not try to write something good or great. You just want to be writing something so you’re not defeated to start with. The pleasure of writing is in the process of writing. It’s sitting there all by yourself, entertaining yourself. You get a kind of rush out of that."

And, in Kooser’s case, 11 full-length collections of poetry.

Libby Young is a professor of journalism, newspaper advisor and Star Poets project coordinator at Windward Community College

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Kooser Week in Hawaiʻi

U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s five-day residency in Hawaiʻ in 2006 includes these public events—

Major co-sponsors include the Cooke Foundation, Windward Arts Council, Honolulu Advertiser, Starbucks Coffee Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiʻi Literary Arts Council, ʻIolani School and Bookends Kailua.

Details at Windward’s Kooser week website.

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