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'American Life' from Its Poet Laureate

Poet Laureate Ted Kooser's American Life In Poetry is a free weekly column providing a brief poem and description as a way to bring verse to the masses. Monday, Kooser won a Pulitzer Prize.

45:21

Other segments from the episode on April 4, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 4, 2005: Interview with Ted Kooser; Commentary on March madness.

Transcript

DATE April 4, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Ted Kooser, US poet laureate, discusses his poetry
and his life
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Ted Kooser, is the US poet laureate, the 13th writer to have that
distinction. He doesn't like poems that require elaborate explanations, and
he doesn't write them. His new book, "The Poetry Home Repair Manual," offers
practical advise for beginning poets. His book "Winter Morning Walks,"
published in 2000, was a series of short poems that he sent on postcards to
his friend, the writer Jim Harrison, during the period Kooser was recovering
from oral cancer. Many of those poems were about mortality; that's a subject
he's always written about. His latest poems are collected in his book "The
Delights and Shadows."

Kooser is the first poet laureate to be chosen from the Great Plains. He grew
up in Iowa and lives in Nebraska. The writer Charles Baxter said of Kooser,
`He has great gifts for both portraiture and landscape and another gift for
dramatizing what is nearly invisible. He is a seer.'

As Kooser points out in "The Poetry Home Repair Manual," you'll never be able
to make a living writing poems. He hasn't. Until his recent retirement, he
worked at a life insurance company. Let's start with his poem "A Death at the
Office."

Mr. TED KOOSER (US Poet Laureate): This poem is probably almost 40 years
old. I had my first job in the insurance business working for a company
called Bankers Life Nebraska. And this was a woman in our department who had
died, and the poem is set on the morning following her death.

(Reading) `"A Death at the Office." The news goes desk to desk like a memo,
initial and pass on. Each of us marks `surprised' or `sorry.' The management
came early and buried her nameplate deep in her desk. They have boxed up the
Midol and Lip Ice, the snapshots from home, wherever it was: nephews and
nieces; a strange, blurred cat with fiery flashbulb eyes, as if it grieved.
But who grieves here? We have her ballpoints back, her bud vase. One of us
tears the scribbles from her calendar.'

GROSS: The details in that poem are so recognizable: the Lip Ice in the
drawer, the snapshots from home. I love your description of the blurred cat
with the fiery flashbulb eyes. You know, you write in your book "The Poetry
Home Repair Manual" about how important it is to have details in a poem.

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the details in that poem, about
deciding what to put in?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, the more specific the detail, the more true the experience
seems. You know, if I had said--rather than Lip Ice, if I had said lip salve,
it would have been a different thing altogether. But using the brand name
even makes it more specific and, therefore, more real somehow. I'm not sure
exactly how this works psychologically, but this is something I've learned
over the years.

GROSS: When you say at the end, `But who grieves here?'--here in the
office--what were you thinking with that? That...

Mr. KOOSER: You know, I'm, of course, speaking ironically at that point. I
mean, we--there were people who felt sorry about it, but it seemed as if the
management was, you know, moving too quickly to just sort of obliterate her
from history, you know. And I--so I'm speaking sort of tongue in cheek at the
end about, `We have her ballpoints back, her bud vase.' In other words,
`After all, we got our things back,' you know, that sort of thing. So...

GROSS: The office that you refer to in that poem, the office at which you
worked for many years, was a life insurance company. And you worked there
until retiring in 1999.

Mr. KOOSER: That's right.

GROSS: How did you end up a poet working in an insurance company for most of
your career?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, I was a poet first, and I came to Lincoln, Nebraska, to go
to graduate school because Karl Shapiro, who was a famous, celebrated poet,
was here, and I wanted to study with him. And I was given an assistantship as
a graduate student and just did a terrible job as a graduate student. I
didn't do anything I was supposed to. All I cared about was poetry and
hanging around with Karl Shapiro. So at the end of the year, they kind of
threw me out of the graduate program, said they were cutting off my
assistantship money and so on. So I had to find something to do.

My first wife had a job teaching school, but I needed some sort of source of
income. And I was fumbling through the paper, and I came upon this management
trainee job at an insurance company, and I thought, `Well, maybe I could do
that, you know, make some money, and I can back to school on my own tuition,'
and so on. So for some reason or other, they hired me to this. I had no
business training. I had never had a business course. I didn't even know
what insurance was, really. But they hired me, and I went to work there.

And I began writing my poems early in the morning. I'd get up at 4:30 or 5
and write until I had to get ready to go to work. And that set me up in sort
of a habit that I have persisted in all these years. And I worked for that
first company for eight years, and then I moved on to another company and did
the rest of my time at the second company. But it was always--the job was
always, really, to support me as a writer. But I never really returned to
academic life. I don't think I would have been good at it, although I am
teaching a little bit now in my dotage.

GROSS: So what was your position at the life insurance company that you
worked at?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, I started out answering letters from policyholders who
were writing in about their beneficiaries and so on. And then I moved into
underwriting. And I was--the underwriter is the person who reads your
application and decides whether or not your medical history will allow you to
have the policy and so on. I did that for 25 years probably. And then I
moved into the marketing department and public relations as a writer, and I
headed up a department of public relations, did the company newsletters and so
on. And that's what I was doing. I retired as a vice president of public
relations for Lincoln Benefit Life company.

GROSS: One of the things I find really fascinating here is that, as a poet,
many of your poems are about mortality. Now you worked for a life insurance
company, which is also about mortality. But, you know, the language that you
use in a life insurance company to discuss life and death is really different
than the language you're going to use as a poet in talking about it.

Mr. KOOSER: Well, yes, I think that's right. And, you know, it's not--the
language of poetry is not the same sort of actuarial language for sure. I do
think that, you know, I--having been an underwriter all those years and
reading medical reports day after day about people being ill and having fatal
illnesses sometimes and everything, there really was a kind of morbid
experience for me that I think must have soaked into my bones a little bit.
But, you know, poetry is really about--in many ways is about keeping death
sort of in the corner of the room and acknowledging it's there and celebrating
life because death is there waiting for us and so on. I think a great deal of
literary poetry is that way. And so, you know, I came to that kind of
naturally, I think.

GROSS: Well, there's a poem I want you to read that I think perfectly fits
the description that you just gave of poetry (laughs). This is a poem called
the "Mourners."

Mr. KOOSER: OK.

GROSS: Could you tell us when you wrote it?

Mr. KOOSER: I wrote this maybe 10, 15 years ago after a funeral here locally.
It was a sunny day, and, you know, everybody filed out of the funeral out onto
the yard of the church. And it just struck me. I was standing apart from
them. I like to be always sort of on the outside looking in. And I was
standing apart from this group of mourners thinking about the way they were
interacting. Here's the poem.

(Reading) `"Mourners." After the funeral, the mourners gather under the
rustling churchyard maples and talk softly, like clusters of leaves. White
shirt cuffs and collars flash in the shade, highlights on deep green water.
They came this afternoon to say goodbye. But now they keep saying, "Hello,"
and "Hello," peering into each other's faces, slow to let go of each other's
hands.'

GROSS: That poem is included in Ted Kooser's latest collection of poems, "The
Delights and Shadows," and Ted Kooser is the poet laureate of the US.

There's no `I' in that poem. You're talking about them, about the mourners,
but you're obviously there as a mourner yourself. Why did you not include
yourself in the poem?

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, gosh, Terry, I'm not sure about that. I very rarely use the
first-person pronoun in a poem. I much prefer to be observing something at
some detachment. And, I don't know, I would have--don't think it would have
felt right with me in that group of mourners. I needed to be standing apart
looking at them.

GROSS: You know, we were talking about mortality and poetry. A few years ago
you really had to deal with your own mortality. You had oral cancer that
affected your tongue. Your salivary glands were removed. You don't like to
write about your feelings very much. You like to hold things at a distance.
But when something like cancer hits you, how much of a distance can you put
that? I mean, that's a hard one to...

Mr. KOOSER: Yeah. You know, when I was going through radiation therapy and
so on, I didn't write at all. And then as I was coming out of it--since I had
had head and neck radiation, I was photo-sensitive, and I couldn't be out in
the sunlight without getting a terrible burn. And so I would go for really
early morning walks before the sun came up. And then I would try to fasten on
to life. You know, when you've really looked death in the teeth, you tend to
be very attentive to everything in life and want to celebrate even the least
thing. And so I would find thse--something on my walk, a rock or something
like that, and take it home and try to write a little poem. And then my
friend Jim Harrison, who's a poet and novelist, was down in Arizona that
winter, and I would paste them on a postcard and send them down to him. And
it was really very good for me to be doing that.

Poetry, for me, is a lot about trying to find some little piece of order in a
very disorderly and sometimes chaotic world. And I was really facing disorder
and chaos with cancer. But the fact that I could make a little poem every day
was very reassuring to me, and, you know, it was quite a marvelous experience.
And this book was written--I wrote 130 of them day after day, which is--I'd
never written like that under any other circumstances, you know? And it was a
very unique experience. And the book, I think, shows that; that it's a sort
of a different critter from the rest of my work.

GROSS: I think it's interesting that you wrote these poems each day on a
postcard. Postcards are so informal and tossed off. You know, you don't
labor over a postcard. Did the fact that you were putting them on a postcard
help you fuss less and just write?

Mr. KOOSER: You know, to tell you the truth, Terry, I think I put them on
postcards because they only cost 23 cents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a practical answer.

Mr. KOOSER: Yeah, rather than the 37. But I've always liked a postcard
almost as a literary form. Early in my writing career I wrote poems based on
the messages that had been written on old postcards that I'd find at antique
shops and so on. And, you know, they're so marvelously compressed because you
have just this tiny, little space in which to write. And so all the poems in
that book, of course, are quite small, too. But, you know, the messages are
sometimes quite marvelous. Like a typical one would be, `Just a line or two
to let you know that everything's all right before the postman comes, and I
see him coming up the walk right now. Goodbye'--you know, that sort of thing.
And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Sickness can make you very self-absorbed because you're monitoring the
changes in your symptoms, you're often depressed, and there's not a lot of
energy for engaging with the world sometimes. So what are some of the things
that you found most healing? I mean, like, for instance, you took a walk
every day before the same came up. Was that a way, in part, of getting out of
yourself, of trying to get out of preoccupation with symptoms?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, I think that, in part, surely, but, you know, I was--I had
been very ill, and head and neck radiation is very tough. And I really needed
to get my strength back. So the walk was as much for exercise and trying to
get my strength back as anything else. And it just happened that I was
able--as I have been most of my life, was able to make something out of
something else, you know, to get a little bonus out of those walks by writing
a little something about them.

GROSS: I'd like you to read a poem from "Winter Morning Walks" from February
9th. And maybe you could just set it up for us.

Mr. KOOSER: All right. This is one of those poems I wrote following a walk.
At this time I'm back in the house, sitting in my chair with my little
notebook. `February 19, 35 degrees and drizzling'--in this poem, I talk about
flickers, which is a--a flicker is an oversized woodpecker. We have a lot of
them out on the Great Plains. And this particular one is called the
yellow-shafted flicker. They are marvelous big birds. And so here we go.

(Reading) `When I switched on a light in the barn loft late last night, I
frightened four flickers hanging inside peering out through their holes.
Confused by the light, they began to fly wildly from one end to the other,
their yellow wings slapping the tin sheets of the roof, striking the walls,
scrabbling and falling. I cut the light and stumbled down and out the door
and stood in the silent dominion of starlight till all five of our hearts
settled down.'

GROSS: What a lovely image at the end. Was there a point when you thought of
it that way, of all five of your hearts quieting down?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, you know what that is, I think? It's just being in the
natural community, you know. We all--you know, I'm afraid, they're afraid.
You know, it's a--and it was a frightening experience, frankly, to be up in
that attic with these birds flying from one end to the other. You know,
they're good-sized birds, and so I was--my heart was beating wildly, and
theirs were, too. And I just thought, `Well, we're all in this together.'

GROSS: My guest is the poet laureate Ted Kooser. His latest book is called
"The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Fund Drive)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ted Kooser. He's the poet laureate of the United States.
His latest book is called "The Poetry Home Repair Manual," and it's about
writing poetry. His latest collection of poems is called "Delights and
Shadows."

I want you to read a poem from "Winter Morning Walks," and this is one is set
November 14th. And I should mention that each poem starts with, like, a
description of the weather that day.

Mr. KOOSER: Mm-hmm. (Reading) November 14, in the low 40s and clear. My
wife and I walk the cold road in silence asking for 30 more years. There's a
pink-and-blue sunrise with an accent of red. A hunter's cap burns like a coal
in the yellow-gray eye of the woods.'

GROSS: That poem is almost in two parts; one part you're thinking about your
mortality, and then the other part is almost like--more like a haiku or
something.

Mr. KOOSER: Yeah, yeah. It's the--most poems are upside--you know, most
poems would be the other way around; you'd have the image first and then the
more general information afterwards. But this one, you know, I'm with her,
and yet I'm looking to the side and seeing something in the world, other than
us and other than our thoughts.

GROSS: You know, the poet Secusin D'Ada(ph) once said something to the effect
that the most important organ in your body is the one that hurts (laughs). I
think how true. And you had a little tumor on your tongue that had to be
removed, and the tongue is already at the center of your body. It's the part
that you need for talking, for swallowing, for eating. And it's such a
sensitive part of your body, too. And, you know, as a writer, what was it
like for you during that period right after the surgery--and I imagine there
was a period like this--when you couldn't talk?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, we were afraid, going into the surgery, that I'd have to
learn to talk again and so on. As it turned out, they didn't have to take as
much tissue as they thought they would. But, yeah--but, you know, my
objective was to try to do everything the doctors told me and get through
this, and I could set writing aside and doing poetry readings and stuff.

One of the interesting things about this: I had a marvelous doctor at the
University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, a guy named Bill Lideot(ph).
And he--we had our first appointment with him, and he said, `Now I'm going to
have to take a piece of your tongue out. Is there--do you do any public
speaking?' And I said, `Well, nothing that I couldn't give up if I had to.'
And my wife was there, and she said, `Well, you know, he is a poet. He does
poetry readings.' And so Bill made a note of that, and I didn't think any more
of it. And then we got--had another appointment in about a week or 10 days,
and by that time he had gone to the Omaha Public Library and checked out my
books and read them. You know, you don't find doctors like that. That was a
really marvelous thing. So it set us up in a position of--or in a
relationship of trust that I rely on to this day.

GROSS: But was there a period when you couldn't speak?

Mr. KOOSER: No. Actually, I could speak. I didn't sound very good, but I
began speaking almost the minute I came out of anesthesia.

GROSS: And was there a period when you felt like the world was centered
around your mouth and all the things that it couldn't do quite right?

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, yeah. And, you know, you should be able--there was a lot of,
you know, discomfort with this, if not outright pain. And, yeah--you know,
the whole experience was very much day to day, you know, and fighting, you
know, this terrible fear, you know, that something's going to happen next; you
know, something more is going to happen and so on. I think cancer patients
probably almost--you know, spend so much of their time looking over their
shoulder waiting for something to come sneaking up behind them again, you
know.

GROSS: And I'm going to ask you now to read a poem that's about anxiety. And
this was also from your book of a hundred poems that you wrote on postcards
when...

Mr. KOOSER: OK.

GROSS: ...you were sick. And this is a poem from December 25th. It's a
Christmas Day poem.

Mr. KOOSER: OK. (Reading) `December 25th, sunny and clear. Sometimes when
things are going well, the daredevil squirrel of worry suddenly leaps from the
back of my head to the feeder, swings by his paws and clamors up, twitching
his question mark tail. And though I try the recommended baffles, tin cone of
meditation, greased pipe of positive thought, every sunflower seed in this
life is his if he wants it.'

GROSS: Ted Kooser will be back in the second half of the show. His latest
books are "The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning
Poets" and a collection of poems called "Delights and Shadows." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Ted Kooser's poems and reflections about his father, memory
and the fading of memories and the question many of us ask ourselves: How do
those bold tattoos look when you get older, much older?

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with the poet laureate Ted
Kooser. He's the first poet laureate from the Great Plains. He grew up in
Iowa and has spent his adult life in Nebraska. Kooser's latest collection of
poems is called "Delights and Shadows." In his new book, "The Poetry Home
Repair Manual," he offers practical advice for beginning poets.

You'd worked your whole adult life in the life insurance business and wrote
your poems in the very, very early morning. You quit at about the age of 60
after getting diagnosed with cancer. And now you're poet laureate, something
I'm sure you were not expecting.

Mr. KOOSER: Absolutely not.

GROSS: How did you find out the news, and did you have any idea what it would
mean, like what it would mean in terms of day-to-day life, what your duties
would be?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, you know, I--this is something that had never occurred to
me in my wildest dreams it would ever happen to me. And I was at home one
night--it was a Friday evening, I remember--and my wife was in Washington, DC,
on business. And I got a phone call, and the man said, `Ted Kooser?' I said,
`Yes.' `Ted Kooser the poet?' I said, `Yes.' He said, `I'm wondering how
you'd like to be the next poet laureate of the United States.' And I was so
completely flummoxed by this and sort of stammering and, you know, trying to
come up with something I could say and so on that he finally said, `Well, I
think I'd better call you back tomorrow.' And it was like that.

I've told a story about--I immediately realized I had a couple of CD
movies--DVDs overdue at this little town nearby, and I jumped in the car and
threw the movies on the seat, just completely taken up with all this poet
laureate stuff. And I backed out of the garage and ripped the side mirror off
the garage--on the side of the garage and drove all the way to the body shop
and got the price on it; it was going to be $140 to fix the mirror, and went
home groaning about having done that, pulled in the garage and I still had
those DVDs on the seat of the car, you know, that sort of thing. It was like
that for weeks, really.

GROSS: Right. Now you're the first poet laureate from Nebraska or from the
Great Plains, for that matter. And just describe where you live in Nebraska.

Mr. KOOSER: Well, we are in eastern Nebraska. Lincoln, Nebraska, is the
state capital. We live about 20 miles north and west of Lincoln in an area of
low rolling hills that were eroded out of the plain by a glacier of some kind,
some kind of formation. It's very pretty country. We have 62 acres. It's
wooded, rolling hills, as I said, prairie grass. I have a little pond, some
old farm buildings that I've converted to various purposes. I have a library
building, a building where I can paint--I like to paint--things like that.

GROSS: Now as I mentioned, you're the first poet laureate from the Great
Plains. Do you think of your poetry as being rooted to your sense of place?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, absolutely it is. We tell young writers to write what they
know. You know, of course, I've never lived anywhere but Iowa and Nebraska,
so that's what I know and that's what I write about. It is interesting to me,
though, Terry. At times, people talk about seeing the Great Plains in my
work. But if you look at the individual poems, you know, I have a poem about
a tattooed man at a yard sale and, you know, there's nothing specifically
Nebraskan about that or Great Plains, for that matter. But there must be just
enough little pieces throughout that sort of add up to something.

GROSS: I happen to really like that poem, "Tattoo," that you just mentioned.
It's in your collection, "Delights and Shadows." Would you read it for us?

Mr. KOOSER: Sure. "Tattoo."

(Reading) What once was meant to be a statement, a dripping dagger held in the
fist of a shuddering heart, is now just a bruise on a bony old shoulder, the
spot where vanity once punched him hard and the ache lingered on. He looks
like someone you had to reckon with, strong as a stallion, fast and ornery.
But on this chilly morning, as he walks between the tables at a yard sale with
the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt rolled up to show us who he was, he is
only another old man, picking up broken tools and putting them back, his heart
gone soft and blue with stories.

GROSS: Did you know the man you were writing about?

Mr. KOOSER: No, I didn't, no. I just--there again, you know, I was watching
from afar, from some distance.

GROSS: Do you have any tattoos?

Mr. KOOSER: No, I don't, no.

GROSS: Yes, I didn't think you did.

Mr. KOOSER: Do you?

GROSS: No, actually.

Mr. KOOSER: OK.

GROSS: No, but I often wonder what it will be like for people who have a lot
of tattoos when they do get older.

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, yeah. You know, when I set that poem up at readings, I often
say, `I'm sure that there are people in the audience who have tattoos.
Tattoos have become very popular. But this is a poem about what they look
like after 40 years.'

GROSS: Right. Now you grew up in Ames, Iowa. Your parents met when they
both worked at the general store. Did that store exist when you were growing
up?

Mr. KOOSER: Yes, it was a dry-goods store. And they met there. My father
was the drapery manager and my mother was a clerk who had come to Ames to live
with her sister the way young women used to do. And they met there. And
recently I had a lovely letter from a woman who remembered them as young
people. She had moved away from Ames before I was even born. My parents were
very formal. I never saw them embrace. I never saw them kiss. You know, I
think they were very fond of each other, but they were very, very formal. And
this woman told me--she said, `Your father was so dashing and handsome, and
your mother was so sweet and demure. We thought it was the romance of the
century, you know.'

GROSS: What did your father end up doing professionally?

Mr. KOOSER: He was a store manager all of his life, retired in his 60s. And
he was the first manager of the first branch that a big department store in
Des Moines, the Yonker brothers opened back in the days when nobody had even
thought of a branch store or, you know, any kind of franchising at all. And
he stayed with Yonkers all his life.

GROSS: You write about your mother that she kept track of every penny the
family spent, and she kept track of it in dime-store spiral notebooks.

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Did you ever use those notebooks to write poems?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, not the little ones that she used, but I sure used spiral
notebooks, of course, yeah. Yeah. Yes, Mother was amazing. She could live
for a couple of weeks on a half a head of cabbage and two wieners, you know.
She was just like that, you know.

GROSS: Now you say, `She walks beside me through every store I enter,
saying, "Do you really need that?"'

Mr. KOOSER: Absolutely. I'll never get--she'll never let me go, you know. I
used to actually--I had her buy a couple of automobiles for me once. She was
so good at that kind of thing. She would walk into the showroom with her
little Mamie Eisenhower pillbox hat on and carrying her little purse that
matched, and somehow or other knock the price off, you know, several thousand
dollars, you know, by the time she was done with these salesmen who were sort
of wringing their hands and looking as if they'd been beaten, you know.

GROSS: Now I think your mother died while you were getting your radiation
treatment?

Mr. KOOSER: Actually, she died before I'd been diagnosed.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. KOOSER: She died in March, and I was diagnosed in June.

GROSS: Well, that's pretty close.

Mr. KOOSER: Yeah. Yeah. I've often thought that, you know, perhaps the
grief of dealing with her dying, you know, had maybe knocked my immune system
or something or other like that. Who knows? You never know about those
things.

GROSS: Did she live near you, and were you very close?

Mr. KOOSER: She lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is about 300 miles from
where I live. But you know, we were very close, and you know, I talked to
her, you know, a couple times a week and so on. Yes, I was very devoted to
her and she to me, I think.

GROSS: Now your father died--What?--about 20 years ago.

Mr. KOOSER: Uh-huh. He did, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. You have a really interesting poem about your father that's in
your latest collection, "Delights and Shadows," that I'd like you to read for
us and to introduce for us, if you wouldn't mind.

Mr. KOOSER: All right. My father was born on May 19th, and this is a
story--there's a story that's told in the poem about how his mother saw lilacs
out the window at the moment of his birth. And I wrote this on his birthday.
"Father."

(Reading) Today you would be 97 if you had lived, and we would all be
miserable. You and your children, driving from clinic to clinic, an ancient,
fearful hypochondriac and his fretful son and daughter, asking directions,
trying to read the complicated, fading map of curers. But with your dignity
intact, you have been gone for 20 years, and I am glad for all of us, although
I miss you every day, the heartbeat under your necktie, the hand cupped on the
back of my neck, Old Spice in the air, your voice delighted with stories. On
this day each year, you loved to relate that at the moment of your birth, your
mother glanced out the window and saw lilacs in bloom. Well, today lilacs are
blooming in side yards all over Iowa, still welcoming you.

You know, Terry, on his hundredth birthday, what would have been his hundredth
birthday, my wife and I drove to Ames and went to that house, and there's a
lilac bush in the yard that was blooming on that day, a 100-year-old lilac.

GROSS: You know, I'm not really sure how to take that poem, like at the
beginning when you talk about you're glad he's dead and that he's not going
through the indignities of being the 97-year-old hypochondriac looking for
cures and everything. I don't know whether you mean that literally or whether
you're trying to make him and you feel better about the fact that he had to
die so long ago.

Mr. KOOSER: Probably all of that. You know, it is true that sometimes, you
know, I think he probably was spared a great deal of emotional suffering,
because he really was a hypochondriac. And if somebody had told him--he died
of acute leukemia that had not even been diagnosed until he was really on his
deathbed. But if someone at that time had told him that there was a cure in
Paris, France, for that, he would have insisted on getting there, you know,
somehow or other. And you know, even a quirky of some kind, a quack cure, he
would have wanted to pursue. And I don't know, I think he was spared a
tremendous amount of anxiety by just being taken, you know.

GROSS: How did somebody who's a hypochondriac and probably very absorbed in
symptoms manage to not get diagnosed for so long?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, you know, he seemed to be getting weaker and weaker over a
number of months, and he'd been to the doctor. And I frankly don't know how
it was not diagnosed. But he finally got so weak that he just collapsed, and
he died within 24 hours.

GROSS: Oh. What did your parents think about your life as a poet?

Mr. KOOSER: You know, Mother was more supportive than Dad was. You know,
when I was a young man, they thought, `Well, you know, maybe he ought to be
doing something a little more productive with his time, you know.' But they
were quite--I think they liked the idea. Of course, before they died, I was
publishing poems in some pretty good magazines and so on, so they saw me as
being somewhat successful, which helped, I think.

GROSS: What got you interested in poetry? Did you read it when you were very
young?

Mr. KOOSER: I did read it. You know, when we were in grade school, I had a
couple of teachers who were--you know, showed us how to write poems. And I
wrote some little poems. One of them my mother kept, of course. It was `I
love my dog, his padded paws. At Christmas he's my Santa Claus,' that sort of
thing, you know. I did a lot of that. And then in high school I wrote
hundreds of long, tortured poems to my girlfriend. And fortunately when we
broke up, she burned them all. It was just--is good, you know. So they're...

GROSS: No blackmail coming from her now.

Mr. KOOSER: No, they're out there. They're gone. They're all ashes now.
And then, you know, I always wanted to be--I think having grown up in a very
ordinary, middle-class family in an ordinary, middle-class community, I always
wanted to be different. You know? I thought, `Oh, boy, this--you know, how
could I be different from the rest of these people?' And you know, so I
painted and I wrote poems and, you know, I tried to dress differently, you
know, and all those things, you know, that you do in adolescence to try to set
yourself apart in some way. And poetry kind of came out of that, in a way.

And it was also about girls, you know. I mean, I kept seeing these pictures
of rumpled old John Barryman with his grizzled beard, and he was surrounded by
these gorgeous coeds. And you know, I didn't have much going for me. I
wasn't very good-looking. I had no athletic ability. But I thought, well,
you know, maybe poetry might be something I could do, you know, that sort of
thing. I'm speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But I think that was a big
motivating part of it early on.

And then I got hooked and started reading poetry. And before long, I was
completely immersed in it, and I've never let up.

GROSS: My guest is the poet laureate Ted Kooser. His latest book is called
"The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is the poet laureate Ted Kooser. His latest books are "The
Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets" and a
collection of poems called "Delights and Shadows."

So much of poetry, as you've pointed out in your new book, is about finding
the telling details and then describing them as accurately as possible. But
of course, memories fade, and I think that's part of the problem with any kind
of writing. You want to kind of grasp those specific details and you might
not remember them anymore. You have a really good poem about memory called
"Tectonics." Would you read that for us?

Mr. KOOSER: Sure. "Tectonics."

(Reading) In only a few months, there began to be fissures in what we
remember, and within a year or two, the facts break apart one from another and
slowly begin to shift and turn, grinding, pushing up over each other, until
their shapes have been changed and the past has become a new world. And after
many years, even a love affair, one lush, green island all to itself,
perfectly detailed with even a candle softly lighting a smile, may slide under
the waves like Atlantis, scarcely rippling the heart.

GROSS: Do you think of the loss of memory as being both a good thing and a
bad thing, 'cause, you know, like, the pain received as well as the vivid
memories of joy?

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, yeah. I think--you know, I've often quoted this line of Mark
Twain's, though, that I just love. At one point fairly late in his life, he
said, "I have finally arrived at the age at which the things I remember most
clearly never happened at all."

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. KOOSER: And I've arrived at that age, you know. You know, I'm not sure
about those early memories anymore. They may be fictions completely. I don't
know.

GROSS: Do you write them anyway? Do you work from them as if they were
truth?

Mr. KOOSER: Oh, sure, because they are truth to me. You know, I mean,
they're embedded in me and they're what I have of the past. And, sure,
there's truth there, you know.

GROSS: I'd like your last poem to be the poem that concludes your book
"Delights and Shadows." It's a poem called "A Happy Birthday." And there's
an image in this poem that echoes with an image that you've described about
your father. Your father used to work in a dry-goods store early in his life,
selling fabric for drapery. You have an image of his hand smoothing out the
fabric. And I mean, that's apparently a really strong image for you and a
very, I think, in a way, soothing one or pleasing one. And there's an echo of
that image in this poem. And why don't you introduce the poem for us.

Mr. KOOSER: Sure.

GROSS: It's called "A Happy Birthday."

Mr. KOOSER: Well, that's an interesting observation. I never thought about
that, but it is true and I have--there's a section in my book "Local
Wonders" which is exclusive about my father's hands and I'm beginning to see
them out the ends of my own arms, you know, as I get older. Anyway, here's
the poem, "A Happy Birthday."

(Reading) This evening I sat by an open window and read till the light was
gone and the book was no more than a part of the darkness. I could easily
have switched on a lamp but I wanted to ride this day down into night, to sit
alone and smooth the unreadable page with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

GROSS: So you were talking about your father when you wrote that line about
smoothing the unreadable page?

Mr. KOOSER: Actually, no, I wasn't thinking about him, but, you know, it is
true that we--I think a lot of us must have had this experience that all of a
sudden, you're sort of startled to see your hands, you know, that they are
something you've almost inherited from someone else, you know, and I have seen
my dad's hands on the ends of my arms and so there's--it's all mixed up. I
should--but in that poem, no, I wasn't thinking about his hands particularly.

GROSS: So what are you doing now as poet laureate that you haven't done
before?

Mr. KOOSER: Well, I'm doing a tremendous amount of traveling and, you know,
flying here and there. You now, I'm not much of a traveler. I'm getting the
hang of it but doing that and back and forth to Washington, so on. I have
done some things that I think were rather unusual. I invited John Prine to
the Library of Congress and sat on stage with John Prine and talked with him
about writing music and songs. Some things like that.

I'm also working on--we're about ready to release a free weekly newspaper
column that I'm going to keep up as long as I can in which I'll introduce a
short accessible poem and talk a little bit about it and then it'll be free to
any newspaper that wants to use it and it'll be posted on a Web site. It's
called American Life in Poetry and I'm really excited about this, but it has
been really like starting a small business, you know. It's--there's a lot of
work to this and I was helped by the Poetry Foundation in Chicago--put it
together and so on. I'm real excited about that and that'll be probably my
big project as poet laureate.

GROSS: Well, Ted Kooser, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. KOOSER: Thank you very much for having me. I was delighted to be here.

GROSS: Ted Kooser is America's poet laureate. His latest books are "The
Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets" and a
collection of poems called "Delights and Shadows." This is FRESH AIR.

After Ted Kooser's eloquence, forgive me for being blunt. As Kooser makes
clear in his new book, there's not a lot of money in the poetry business.
That's why he had a day job most of his life and that's why you're unlikely to
hear poetry anywhere on the radio except public radio. Our goal isn't to make
big profits, but we do still need to pay the bills and that's why your station
is fund-raising today. One of the bills your station has to pay is the FRESH
AIR bill. We charge stations a fee to broadcast the show and those station
fees go into our production budget so we can pay our bills. You see, there's
a direct correlation between your pledge and your station's ability to bring
you FRESH AIR. I hope you'll call now. Thank you.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Why the NCAA tournament is popular and draws
Americans together
TERRY GROSS, host:

Illinois and North Carolina face off tonight in the NCAA championships. Along
with other devoted fans, our critic at large John Powers will be watching.

JOHN POWERS:

I first got hooked on the NCAA basketball tournament when I was a kid.
Although we lived in Omaha, I always rooted for UCLA's fabled dynasty except
once in 1969. That year my dad's alma mater Drake University would have upset
them in the semis if the crooked refs hadn't handed the game to the more
famous team. As you can tell, I'm still bitter. Of course, back then the
tournament never seemed like that big a deal. Although American culture had
much less media, believe it or not, children, there were only three TV
networks. Nobody talked about March Madness. These days the tournament is a
name brand and the tournament may be a competition that sports fans love the
most, but not only fans.

When Illinois scored an epochal last-minute comeback against Arizona two
weekends ago, everyone I knew was excited from my mother in a Des Moines
hospice to my hip LA food critic friend who was mad at his wife for telling
him to turn off the game with four minutes to go.

Even though we now live in a big box culture which lets us pursue our
individual pleasures, be it video games, obscure art movies or TV networks
devoted solely to food, the NCAA tournament has become something that binds
America together. I know that may sound crazy, but these days a lot of
Americans find their community in pop culture. People throw parties for the
Super Bowl. Again, they don't really care about. They stand around water
coolers discussing "The Sopranos" or "Desperate Housewives." And along with
everyone else, they rush to blockbusters like "Spider-Man" or the new "Star
Wars." You've got to be there on the first day, Quentin Tarantino once told
me. That's part of the point.

Now nearly all of these things are, frankly, manufactured events designed to
make money. But part of the allure of pop culture is that sometimes it
manages to transcend its commercial origins and inspire genuine feeling
including feelings of community. That happened a few years ago when that
overblown talent contest "American Idol" suddenly unleashed an authentic
emotional groundswell for Clay Aiken, a passion that bound together millions
in a community that actually changed the show.

This same passion runs through March Madness. Only a fool would think that
the tournament is pure. Big time college sports are more about money than
education and you'll hear cynics say that most Americans only care about the
tournament 'cause it's a pretext for all those office pools. Yet those pools
are really less about gambling than giving people in the office something in
common. And though surrounded by money, the tournament itself miraculously
transcends all the greed and intellectual corruption that surrounds it. It
brings together teams from all over the country. This is a genuinely national
event and it gives small schools their shot at the big guys. Even better, the
games are played by kids of 19 or 20 with all the heady emotion and lack of
perspective this suggests. The games possess an erratic exuberance that
almost guarantees unpredictability. Kansas losing to Bucknell. The elite
eight two weekends ago offered three overtime games and was a marvel of blown
leads, heroic comebacks, buzzer-beating shots and agonizing last-second
misses.

They reminded me that what I've always loved about sports and what makes it
different from other parts of pop culture, it's wholly unscripted. You
actually have to play the game. When the final buzzer goes off tonight, the
champions will leap in joy while some of the losers will weep, overcome by
sorrow. And I'll be watching, aware that millions of Americans all over the
country are doing the same thing. We're part of a community however
temporary. T.S. Eliot once said that TV is a medium that lets millions of
people watch the same show and still remain lonesome. I'm betting he wasn't a
basketball fan.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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