Ted Kooser is a native of the Midwest and served as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2005.
Ryan Frant: Much of your work focuses on brief, evocative images (an abandoned farmhouse, a tattoo, etc.). What images best characterize the experience of living in the Great Plains, and where do the people of the Great Plains fit into these images?
Ted Kooser: Any and all images in a poem by me that’s set in the part of the country where I live are part of this place, and they all speak of life here. And the people are images, too. I don’t see much difference between describing an old wagon wheel than in describing a man walking past it.
Ryan: How can the written word—especially in artistic forms—help us understand the world around us in ways other disciplines cannot teach us?
Ted: This would be a good question to ask a specialist in linguistics. How does language work? I do think one can convey more content in a poem than in a painting or a musical composition, but what it contains, of course, is language, which those other arts don’t have as tools.
Ryan: Different writers often have different perspectives on the same subject. For instance, our political parties often cast different meta-narratives to describe the American experiment; indeed, some pundits go so far as to call this a culture war. In your capacity as U.S. Poet Laureate traveling our country, do you find these different worldviews as irreparably fragmented or reconcilable?
Ted: This country has been run by one pack of scoundrels after another for more than two hundred years, and has survived. Here is a poem I wrote a while back about our current situation:
Something has risen, bloated, belly up,
out of the depths of the well of America,
and the water that we’ve been drinking
and washing our babies with had, all along,
this horrible thing at the bottom, its lips
drawn back in the grin of rictus. No smell
to it now as it floats there before us,
its fur in an unintelligible cursive
over its swollen, china-white belly
with its rows of cold nipples, all the odor
diluted, drawn into the water. Will no one
come with a dip-net to lift it, dripping,
away? And will anyone ever be able
to drink from our common tin cup
without tasting that stink in the water?
Ryan: How do you see yourself carrying or altering the American poetic tradition?
Ted: I don’t see myself as carrying anything, Ryan. Or altering anything. My job is to write poems as best I can, and I have no strategies.
Ryan: What makes a poem distinctly American? Does this American exceptionalism view even enter the literary world?
Ted: I see poems from all over the world, and I read them as being reflections of life in the places they’re written. Poems written in America aren’t any different, in that they reflect life in our country.
Ryan: I have read that, like Wallace Stevens, you composed part of your poetry while working in the insurance industry. How do you see the arts existing within our economic system? Does this conflict between a mundane business life and an inspired poetic imagination actually help the poet refine his art?
Ted: I think my experience working with people who didn’t read poetry, who hadn’t read it since they were in high school, helped me to write for a broad general audience that I wanted to reach. I learned how to communicate with those people. My secretary was one of them, hadn’t read much poetry, but I would show her poems and ask her opinion and if she said she didn’t understand something, I’d do more work on the poem. I doubt if that occurred to Wallace Stevens, but who knows?