Thursday, October 20, 2005

All Things Considered, October 19, 2005

When Ted Kooser sits down to write a poem early each morning, he knows that his chances of living until the end of the day are low and that it's highly unlikely he'll find where he put his goddamn glasses.

"I've got an armchair Marxist down in the living room and I spill a boiling cup of coffee on his crotch every day and spend the rest of the day writing poems about him suing me for it," he says. "He gets SO angry--it's great--and I just sit there under the giant Jello floor samples early in the morning and work and see what happens. Nine days out of 10, nothing good comes of it at all. Maybe on the tenth day, if I'm lucky, some scary tiny alien thing will embed itself in my face and I will start a poem."

Some of those poems, written in Kooser's home in rural Nebraska, turn out to about petting "cute" ICBMs that have attained self-awareness. Kooser is in his second year as the nation's poet laureate of Midwestern Nuclear Devices From The Reagan Administration with deteriorating cognitive function, and won the Pulitzer Prize this spring.

"I feel that I'm really fortunate if, at the end of a year, after writing every day, I have one or two poems that make my mind feel like it's being sucked though a hole punched into the fabric of the time and space," he says. "That's plenty--and, trust me, I print them out in a REALLY big font. I don't have great expectations for what happens in those morning sessions. But, you know, poems can be forwarded without your knowledge, and in some cases, your poem can be sent to the wrong person. Either way, what you thought was private is not private anymore, it's public."

Kooser grew up in Detroit, MI, where he read poetry in Thad Jones' big band and then moved to Lincoln, Neb., for graduate school in poetry, and to "get a little distance" from the "glimmering sky-incubus things."

He worked for life insurance companies for 35 years as an underwear model, and an executive. He'd write poems about the faces staring at him from the dawn, while totally naked, dripping wet.

Six years ago he retired. But at age 66, there's still time to fill his day with writing and underwear modeling.

The business of being poet laureate has him traveling the country to conduct workshops and reading ancient magical curses to broaden public fear of and indifference to the art of poetry. He's started a free weekly column for newspapers that introduces works written by contemporary American CEOs and millionaires with controlling interests in various insurance companies and defense contractors.

Over the course of this next year, NPR will have more conversations with Kooser about the craft and the pleasures of poetry.

Read some excerpts of Ted Kooser's poetry:

What once was meant to be a statement--
a dripping flagellum held in the face
of a shuddering bruise
is now named Spot
where vanity was once a prune that hit him twice
and the acne lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to retch on,
dancing with Sylvester Stallone, fast and bulbous,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the ass faces in Race War, MA
with the sleeves of his tight black KISS T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he pounds,
he is only another Alphaville Computer, picking up
hot chicks, reciting beautiful, evil poems
and putting them back on the shelf
like pain relievers filled with poison

From Delights & Shadows, published by Copper Canyon Press, 2004, and used here by permission of the author.