Ted Kooser’s byline disappeared from a popular weekly poetry column, but fans need not worry. The Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, now an octogenarian, is as prolific as ever — maybe even more so in a pandemic.
As Kooser’s final installment of “American Life in Poetry” hit some 250 newspapers, his latest book — "Red Stilts" — is taking flight.
We caught up with Kooser in an online interview from his home in rural Garland, in the heart of Nebraska’s Bohemian Alps — his longtime muse.
Q. Your 17th book of new poetry, “Red Stilts,” was released in September. Your publisher, Copper Canyon Press, describes you as being at the top of your imaginative and storytelling powers. What sets ”Red Stilts” apart from your other published collections? Is it, perhaps, more personal and reflective of your life?
A. I’d like to think that all of my books have reflected the life I was living when the poems were written. The poems in “Red Stilts” are those of a man entering his 80s, a much different man than I was at 30, publishing my first collection, “Official Entry Blank.” Those early poems are embarrassing to me now, but they represented who I was back then.
Q. People are reading more because of the pandemic. Was the release of “Red Stilts” planned for 2020, or was the timing a happy accident?
A. Neither I nor Copper Canyon had any idea that this pandemic was on its way. The poems were collected mid-2019, from work I’d done since “Kindest Regards; New and Selected Poems,” which came out in 2018.
Q. What are you currently reading?
A. I’m always reading a number of books at the same time. Just now I’m reading two books of essays by Clive James, Julius Lester’s wonderful retelling of the Uncle Remus Tales, a new novel, “Snow,” by John Banville, and Richard Chase’s 1943 book of Jack Tales.
Q. You once told me that your favorite poem is the one you’ve just completed. Is that still the case?
A. Yes, I’m always thrilled with what I’ve just written, and that may last for about a half-day before it begins to smell, sometimes a really awful smell.
Q. You founded “American Life in Poetry” as U.S. poet laureate in 2005 in partnership with the Poetry Foundation and began offering a free weekly poem to roughly 150 newspapers across the United States. This week you offered your last installment — No. 823 — to some 4.5 million readers worldwide. What brought you to that decision?
A. The funding for the column was inextricably bound to my (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) teaching position, and I wanted to retire from teaching. Had there been a means of continuing the column from home I probably would have kept it up, but there was no way of putting that together.
Q. You established “American Life in Poetry” to raise the visibility of poetry. Will the mission continue under another author?
A. I asked my colleague at the university, Kwame Dawes, to take over the column, and he did so on Jan. 1. Kwame is a great asset to Nebraska. He’s the current editor of Prairie Schooner and the author of many books of his own poems. He also edits a series of poetry collections by African poets for the University Press.
Q. Each year, you donate bound volumes of personal correspondence and journal entries to the UNL Libraries. What will we find in your random thoughts and observations on the pandemic, quarantine and isolation?
A. In my lighter moments you’ll find an introvert relishing social isolation; in my darker moments you’d see me feeling very sorry for the hundreds of thousands of people affected. Just this morning I received news from a friend of the death of someone quite close to him. The virus keeps closing the circle, like one of those wire snares in the grass. Step into it and it snatches you into the sky.
Q. You’re a 20-year cancer survivor and have lectured on “Healing Through Poetry.” Did you find yourself drawing on your own advice to get through the trials of 2020?
A. Jon Hassler, the great Minnesota novelist, had a Parkinson’s-like disease, and he told me once that were it not for his writing he would have fallen into a pit of despair. I know what he meant.
Q. I last saw you at your studio in neighboring Dwight. Do you still hang out there?
A. I sold my building in Dwight this past April. I enjoyed it for a dozen years but didn’t want the responsibility of taking care of the property any longer.
Q. Is your collection of vintage LPs intact?
A. Yes, I have maybe 15 or 20 feet of LPs.
Q. You’ve had a lot of fun as Dwight’s Artificial Florist.
A. I’ve retired from the Artificial Florist distinction and returned all the flowers to the thrift shop where I bought them. Finis!
Q. Do you continue to be an early riser, starting your day at 4:30 or 5 a.m., drinking freshly brewed coffee while answering mail and writing in your journal?
A. Yes, the coffee first, the journal with the coffee, and then the mail.
Q. What was your journal entry for Dec. 29, 2020, the day I requested this interview?
A. “Snow blowing from the roof in feathery gusts.” There’s an Andrew Wyeth painting I’ve always loved called “Tenant Farmer,” a picture of winter stillness, a cold-looking old brick farmhouse with a deer carcass hanging from a bare tree in the yard, and from the roof of the house a little plume of snow is lifting.