Editor’s Note: MockingHeart Review recently sat down with Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Ted Kooser to discuss his new collection Red Stilts (Copper Canyon, 2020), the process of writing, and the state of our tense, rapidly changing world. An excellent conversation to read on this crisp Halloween!
Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief
MockingHeart Review: Hi, Ted. Good to talk with you! When we last spoke, your new book Red Stilts was just coming into the world. I’ve enjoyed so many of the poems therein, and as in other collections, here you shed light on the potency of “small” moments, showing them to be larger than one might first think. Could you speak a bit about the genesis of this new collection?
Ted Kooser: I try to write every morning, and I have no greater plan. It’s enough work for me to have one poem to concentrate on, and concentrating on that poem excludes everything but itself. I write a few promising poems each month, and many not so good, and many, many bad ones, laughably bad. Given time I can see which stand out as stronger than the others. Those I submit to literary magazines, where some get accepted for publication. If by the end of a year’s writing I have eight or ten poems that have found publication, that’s a good year for me. And eight or ten years of that, and I’ll have what may be a book of poems. I never plan, but since my life and personality are reflected in my writing, the overall direction of my life is an organizing influence.
MHR: This new book emerges into a year stricken by vast social upheaval, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and other concerns. How has 2020 been for you so far?
TK: On New Year’s Eve this year, many if not most of us will be happy to put 2020 behind us forever, don’t you think? That’s probably enough said…. But I will say that I pray that I will live long enough that our country will be reunited under wise leadership.
MHR: Red Stilts chronicles memorable moments, only some of which are overtly happy—I think first of the poem “Mother and Child,” where the two characters engage with “one / of those red, blue, and yellow / plastic play sets”—and we see that in many instances, color is of vast importance. In “Raspberry Patch,” a “black-and-yellow spider” and “white and blue butterflies” tend to their busy lives, and “the old garage lifts a yellow cuff.” What role does color play in your writing, and in your life around that work?
TK: I have enjoyed drawing and painting since I was a little boy. I love looking at the world, and trying to catch things I see with a sketch, and I sketch both in words and in line and color. My notebooks are full of both kinds of those sketches. At times when I’m not either drawing or writing I feel awful, as if I’m throwing my life away.
MHR: Family is a very important thread through the poems in Stilts. “An Overnight Snow” resonates strongly, wherein you hear “a word or two, muffled, back and forth between / my father and our next-door neighbor, Elmo Mallo, / who was out shoveling [snow], too.” When writing about family (and people in general, if you like), what do you find yourself focused on most? And in your estimation, what people-centered moments lend themselves best to a poem?
TK: Readers seem to prefer poems in which there are people. I don’t think that’s a considered preference, but I feel it there. I write a lot of poems about inanimate things, and though I delight in writing them they’re never as warmly accepted. As to writing about people, over the past twenty-five years or so the poems I’ve been happiest with are those in which I stand aside, invisible, and observe one or two people who are oblivious to me looking on. The poem you mention is an example of the type; others are the one about the man at the bulletin board in the grocery store entryway. the one about the man coming out of the bakery, the woman standing in the rain talking to the two men in a truck, and so on. Take the most ordinary moment, say a man flicking an ash from a cigarette, and describe it carefully, and everything out and around it will drop away and it will seem bathed in a remarkable light. I try to focus on things to the exclusion of everything else. If you look at some part of the world through a cardboard toilet paper tube, what you see gains in interest and even importance.
MHR: Because the book is so full of compelling snapshots I shouldn’t be this definitive, but “The Dead Vole” contains the moment that hits me hardest, even now. Holding this creature, this “dab of thunderhead gray,” the narrator muses: “even such a miniscule being, I thought, / ought to weigh something in death, / a little more than itself.” Leaning into that metaphor, what do you suppose death signifies? And importantly, what does (or should) it signify in our current moment?
TK: I am the narrator, Tyler. I never speak in a voice other than my own. Years ago, I wrote some dramatic-monologue-type poems but I haven’t written one for years. But to your question: I don’t think I have a good answer for you. In poems like the one about the vole I am myself trying to work out what death means. I’ve been working on that all my life, it seems. A few years ago the honors group at our university asked me to give a “last lecture,” what I would say if I were abut to die. I told my wife I didn’t know what I was going to say and she said, “Ted, it ought to be easy. You’ve been giving your last lecture all your life!”
MHR: Nature is always close by in your work, and in Stilts, even poems that aren’t about the natural world still keep it in the periphery. I think of “Applause,” the closing poem, wherein a girl finishes a performance: “At the close of her piano recital . . . the clapping keeps leafing down.” As in this poem, we often invoke nature to describe our lives. Why do you think this is so? What are we humans trying to say?
TK: I don’t know that I’m making a statement. I don’t intend to be. But I’m happy to be small part of the grand natural order and I suppose that shows.
MHR: Surely a lot of folks would like the world to go back to the pre-COVID world, but we’ve all made adjustments under the assumption that it’ll be a while. To that point, you mentioned in a recent letter that your writing practice has shifted somewhat. Now that things in the world are so different, what are your plans? And what should your readers keep an eye out for next?
TK: Earlier I suggested that I didn’t plan beyond the poem right under my nose. I really don’t know what’s to come, and I have no plan other than to keep writing. I do have more time at home now, and I like that. It’s a blessing to me when there are no invitations to go somewhere and do something. I’ve written a handful of poems about the pandemic, but I don’t like them much. They have a topic, and having a topic is to have an agenda. Agendas are poisonous. If tomorrow morning I find myself writing about an acorn, that’s what will concern me.
MHR: Lots of writers have rituals around their work—William Stafford’s pre-sunrise couch writing with toast, the music so many of us put on when we compose a poem or an essay, and so on. Do you have a writing ritual of sorts?
TK: As I said earlier, my routine is to get up early, four or four-thirty, and to sit with my notebook and coffee, hoping that something good will happen. Often what I write is silly, or goofy, or cheesy, or stupid, but unless I’m sitting there ready I’ll miss the good one when it flies past. Kate DiCamillo, the wonderful writer of books for young people, was asked at a conference I attended why she wrote so early in the morning and she said that she wanted to get her writing done before the critical part of her brain woke up. I thought that was a fine way to explain it.
MHR: And before we adjourn, I should ask—what advice would you share with writers who are just starting out in their craft?
TK: Read, read, read! Reading is how writers learn to write. When I was still teaching I told my grad students that they ought to read a hundred poems for every one they try to write. I have never seen a poorly written poem that couldn’t have been made better had the author read more poetry.
Ted Kooser has served as Presidential Professor at the University of Nebraska, and as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006. He won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, has received four Pushcart Prizes, and has authored many books, including fifteen poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. He edits the long-running and widely syndicated column American Life in Poetry.