Ted Kooser: Inhaling Life, Exhaling Poems

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser Reflects on Poetry, Good Advice

Ted Kooser to present at 2014 SD Festival of Books

2014 Festival author Ted Kooser

Note: South Dakota Humanities Council intern Anne Wempe interviewed four of our South Dakota Festival of Books authors to give fans an inside look at what makes these writers tick.

By Anna Wempe

I don’t know how many college students get the chance to talk to a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, nevertheless the former U.S. Poet Laureate, but this particular college student felt as if the earth’s velocity suddenly doubled upon interviewing Ted Kooser. The soft-spoken, contemplative man who I spoke with fulfilled every expectation. He rises every morning before the sun to sit and write and think, a habit formed from his years with a full-time job when time to write had to be carved out of the day early. “Everything is fresh at that time of day, not cluttered with junk from the day. And it’s nice to watch the sun come up,” he muses. Poetry seems to flow out of Ted Kooser like breath: inhale life, exhale poems.

His Midas touch of taking everyday and ugly objects and turning them to gold appears throughout his poems. He credits his teacher and mentor, Karl Shapiro, with some of this perspective. “I don’t know when I started writing about everyday objects… Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Karl Shapiro…wrote a good many poems about everyday objects. Maybe I started because of him. In fact, this morning I wrote one about a croquet ball sitting in the garage, covered in dust. It interests me.” And indeed, those ordinary moments feature in some of his most beautiful poetry as he invites us to see them through his eyes.

This humble man takes life as it comes, listing beating cancer and quitting drinking as his greatest accomplishments over any of his literary achievements. He seems quite thrilled, though, that he has an elementary school north of Lincoln named after him. “We go out there a few times a year…I actually started an art collection out there. I’m hoping children will be inspired by real art, not reproductions, so they can see how it really works. I got some of my artist friends to donate.”

The best piece of advice Ted Kooser ever received runs in the same vein. He had written a satirical novel about his job and the people at it and shown it to Robert Knoll at the University of Nebraska, who thought the piece was fun. But then Knoll told Kooser, “don’t be too hard on these people. Almost everyone is doing the best they can.” Knoll’s advice made a tremendous impact on Kooser. The spirit of “doing the best he can” and appreciating that everyone is “doing the best they can” drives his poetry as well as his life.

Having never lived anywhere outside of the Midwest and having a special love and appreciation for the area, Ted Kooser takes special pride in the South Dakota Festival of Books. Along with looking forward to seeing friends and acquaintances that will be there, he emphasizes the importance of the event for the region and state. “I have done other book festivals, but South Dakota’s is better than most states. Washington D.C., the big one, is fantastic, but Sherry DeBoer and the others who put on the South Dakota one do just a marvelous job…[i]t’s really amazing what they do.”

Kooser will present with South Dakota Poet Laureate David Allan Evans in “Reading & Musings from Two Poets Laureate” on Saturday, Sept. 27 at 10 a.m. at the Coliseum, Multi-Cultural Center at 515 N. Main Ave. in Sioux Falls, and again during “Book Lovers’ Brunch – Language & the Human Spirit” with One Book SD author Kathleen Norris on Sunday, Sept. 28 at 10:30 a.m. at the Holiday Inn, Starlite Room.

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