Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

A Tribute to Ted Kooser: An Interview with Ted Kooser

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

A Tribute to Ted Kooser: An Interview with Ted Kooser

Article excerpt

TMQ: How would you say your parents influenced your becoming a poet?

Kooser: My father was a storekeeper, loved the public, and was a marvelous storyteller. I remember a woman once said to me that she'd rather hear my dad describe a person than see the person herself. He had an interest in the theater, too, and he and Mother belonged to a group that got together to read plays. Sitting in our living room listening to those plays was, I think, my first experience of literature as fun. We also had a few books, a collected Balzac, a collected plays of Ibsen, the novels of John Fox, Jr., the works of Dumas pere. I read them all.

TMQ: Same question about the landscape and the people of the Great Plains, particularly your region of Nebraska-Iowa. What role have they played in your becoming a poet and in your work?

Kooser: I have never lived anywhere else, and I've always written about what I've experienced. I might have written about different landscapes if I'd lived somewhere else, but I think the poems might have been much the same. My interest is in writing about the ordinary, and the ordinary is everywhere.

TMQ: What poems by other writers have served as touchstones for your own writing?

Kooser: I have been thinking lately how much I may have been influenced by May Swenson's poems. I think To Mix with Time was one of the first books I read and reread. Several years ago someone brought out a posthumous book of her nature poems and when I read it I recalled how much I'd been inspired by her. I also remember being very interested in the poems of John Crowe Ransom. Also E. A. Robinson and Frost. I read anything and everything when I was young and I couldn't possibly list all the poets who've had some influence on me. Today I look to Nancy Willard and Linda Pastan and other Americans, and Thomas Transtromer and Roll Jacobsen, the two last in Bly's translations.

TMQ: You mention that your father was a marvelous storyteller. I've heard from some of your close friends that you love to tell stories and to hear stories, as well. What role does narrative play in your work?

Kooser: I have written very few poems in which narrative seemed to be leading. There's a poem in Delights & Shadows, "The Beaded Purse," that is indeed a narrative, but it seems quite unlike most of my work, which works with single moments rather than sequences of moments. Poets have tried to write narratives in verse and some of them are quite effective, at least to me as a literary person, but I have always wondered how they might be received by everyday readers. Novels are much less intimidating than poems, and if I were to choose between reading a good story in verse and one in prose I think I'd go for the prose. Literary people have interest in narrative poetry, but it's my guess that most narrative poems wouldn't compete very well in paperback on an airport book rack. David Mason has a new poem about the Ludlow Mine disaster that is very well done, and a part of it has been in Hudson Review.

TMQ: Still dealing with influences, but in a different vein. Was religion a significant part of your life growing up? Has religious belief been important to your poetry?

Kooser: We were Methodists but only went to church a few times a year, on holidays usually. I am not a traditional believer by any means, but I do believe in a universal order. But it doesn't have a personality. I don't think I have been much influenced by anything in any way churchly.

TMQ: Your work has sometimes been described as "accessible." What is your view of such labels? I ask this because I find your work accessible, but not at all simplistic, yet I believe that some readers, and even some critics, have trouble separating the two.

Kooser: I don't object to my poems being called accessible, and I work hard during the process of revision to make them clear. I revise away from difficulty and toward clarity and simplicity. …

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