Time Flies for Poet Laureate

Kooser Kicks Off Second Term With Reading

Posted October 7, 2005 at 3:07pm

It’s been a busy week for Ted Kooser, but most days since he was first named U.S. poet laureate, a little more than a year ago, have been hectic.

“I can’t even think right now,” Kooser says during a pre-breakfast phone conversation last week from his hotel room in Kansas City, Mo. “I’m getting way behind in my own work.”

He takes a minute to run through his calendar.

By the time Kooser, whose 2004 collection “Delights and Shadows” won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in April, arrives in Washington, D.C., to open the Library of Congress’ poetry season Thursday night, he’ll have [IMGCAP(1)]

appeared everywhere from Hallmark headquarters (where he was slated to do a workshop with the greeting card company’s writers) in Kansas City to a dinner in New York City for former and current poet laureates. In between, he’ll return to his home state of Nebraska to headline its book festival.

But Kooser, who was reappointed to a second term as poet laureate this year, believes that with eight months left to serve in the post (the LOC poetry season runs from October to May), it’s important to talk “to as many people as I can.”

Accordingly, Kooser, whose aim is to return poetry to a place of relevance in Americans’ lives, plans to build on many of the projects he began in his first season as laureate.

Since April, he’s authored a free, weekly newspaper column — which includes a line or two from Kooser introducing a poem by an American poet — published everywhere from rural weekly papers to national news outlets such as the Christian Science Monitor. The column reaches a circulation of nearly 10 million readers.

“I’m hoping to recruit more newspapers to the column through some mailings and visiting some newspaper meetings,” he says.

In November, Kooser will make a repeat appearance at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English in Pittsburgh, Pa., to talk up various means “of teaching poetry in schools.” And there’s his work on an LOC anthology of poems based on American folklore, a project expected to extend beyond his tenure as laureate.

Kooser, a retired insurance executive who for most of his career penned his pristinely imagistic poetry before putting in a full day at the office, also teaches at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and was named its first presidential professor in May.

This year, Kooser released “Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985” and “The Poetry Home Repair Manual,” “a kind of philosophy of the writer’s life” culled from a series of class e-mails he sent to his Husker graduate students.

“It’s done pretty well. It’s sold 20,000 books so far,” Kooser points out, with just a hint of pride.

After years of toiling in relative anonymity, there’s now “abundant” interest in his work, Kooser says. Even renowned artists such as Tim Rollins, best known for working with disadvantaged children, are turning to his verse as inspiration for artistic projects.

While there hasn’t been much downtime for Kooser, the opportunity to serve as a visiting artist at a prominent crafts school in downeast Maine this summer provided a rare respite from life’s current freneticism.

An E.B. White acolyte (whose everyman style and aptitude for capturing rural life is not unlike that of the late “Stuart Little” author), Kooser recalls a particularly sanguine moment — visiting the former New Yorker writer and grammar guru’s North Brooklin, Maine, home.

“I was invited over to the house where E.B. White and Katherine White lived and stood in the barn where Charlotte’s web hung. I saw the rope swing White made for his grandchild and sat in his chair in the boat house where he wrote,” Kooser recounts, almost reverently.

But for all his experiences, it’s clear that Kooser, the first poet laureate to hail from the Great Plains, hasn’t lost his characteristically Midwestern, self-effacing sense of humor, nor has he let the adulation of the moment go to his head.

At the LOC event Thursday, one of Kooser’s readings will include his unpublished poem “Success,” the succulent first line of which begins: “I can feel the thick, yellow fat of applause building up in my arteries.”

It’s a “tongue-in-cheek” commentary on what “doing this kind of work” is like, he says.

As for life after the poet laureateship, don’t look for another book of new poems out anytime soon — works like “Delights and Shadows” are time intensive and take a decade for Kooser to complete. “There’s maybe one more like that in me,” the 66-year-old author of 11 poetry collections says.

And Kooser doesn’t expect the whirlwind of activity to come to an end in May. “After being the poet laureate then you have to be the former poet laureate for a while,” he says slyly, adding that he’s “dying to do some painting again.”

In the more immediate future, however, there is the question of his stomach, and yet another media date.

“In about three minutes I’m going to get off the phone and go eat breakfast with the ‘All Things Considered’ people,” he says firmly.

Seconds later, Kooser’s on his way.

U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser will open the Library of Congress’ 2005-2006 poetry season with a reading at 6:45 p.m. Thursday in the James Madison Building’s Mumford Room. The event is free and open to the public.