Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

"Lived in the Half-Light, the Twilight": An Interview with Ted Kooser

by Laine Derr

When asked about poetry, Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate of the United States, responds, “One important objective for me is to write clearly and accessibly.” 

His writing reminds me of youthful days spent on my grandparents’ farm in Oregon, picking raspberries, having meals under a weeping willow, its shadow brushing slowly across our picnic table. 

“Anybody can write a poem that nobody can understand,” Kooser continues, “but what’s the point in that?”  

Laine Derr: You write of memories that you will hold onto forever, stories shadowed in mystery.  If it is not too much to ask, would you care to share a memory that still visits you from time to time?

Ted Kooser: If a memory is strong enough to come back again and again, I’ve probably already tried to write about it. Memory seems to me to be made up of many little film clips, brief in length. Though I seem to remember a Thanksgiving dinner, I really only remember a moment or two. Or perhaps I’m only imagining that I remember some detail. Mark Twain said something like “I have finally attained an age at which the things I remember most clearly never happened at all.” Perhaps the reason that life seems to me, now in my late seventies, to have been so short is because if I splice all those tiny film clips together the whole movie runs about five minutes.

LD: During your maternal grandparents’ secret courting, recounted in Lights on a Ground of Darkness (University of Nebraska Press), your grandfather is depicted as “stealing up through the woods to meet her in the shadows of the house.” Do shadows, what they hide and illuminate, play a distinctive role in your writing, your creative process?

TK: Of course, my title Delights & Shadows suggests two sides of life, its delights and its darker moments. Most of it gets lived in the half-light, the twilight, and I often find myself writing in that sort of vague and mysterious light. That may be why I so enjoy writing very early in the morning. I’m answering these questions at 5:00 a.m.

LD: In your poem “Tattoo” from Delights & Shadows, a bold image of a dripping dagger has faded over time, transformed into a bruise “where vanity once punched him hard / and the ache lingered on.” Is your use of an overriding image like a tattoo’s deterioration essential to your poetic process, a reflection of human frailty and change?

TK: It’s true that many of my poems incorporate a central organizing metaphor, but I don’t see that to reflect how I feel about life and the world. It’s mostly a delight of mine to discover a figure of speech and play it out as far as I can make it run.

LD: As with your ancestors, who placed their hands into the fertile ground of the Turkey Valley and planted life, do you hope your words will thrive for years to come?

TK: I do hope at least a few of my poems and a little of my prose will survive me, at least for a generation or two. Since I was a boy I have wanted something from my life to endure beyond me, and my effort toward this end has been through writing. I also paint and draw, and I like the idea of somebody having one of my paintings on their wall years after I’m gone.

LD: Do you feel your family has lived on because you’ve continued their rituals and heartfelt gestures? I’m thinking, for example, of your father’s “tradition” of placing flowers every summer on an unknown grave.

TK: My father was a very sentimental man who late in his seventies would tear up when he mentioned his mother, and this apple hasn’t fallen far from that tree. My expressions of feeling in my poems have gotten me accused of sentimentality, but if you don’t risk sentimentality you’re not being human. I’d rather be human than not. 

LD: Throughout your poetic work, you elevate everyday gestures to mindful contemplation, to sacred acts.  In “Mourners,” people are gathered to say goodbye, but through the routine of touch, “they keep saying hello and hello, / peering into each other’s faces, / slow to let go of each other’s hands.” Are you aware of this as a writer, the ways we are connected as a community through simple acts?

TK: I am certainly taken by the way we are connected by simple acts, but I’d never sit down to write and say to myself, “Let’s see what you can write about how we’re connected.” Instead, I try to describe something that’s caught my attention, like the man with the tattoo or the mourners in the churchyard.  I have never written a successful poem that started out from an idea or message. Here is a new poem, perhaps too fresh to show off, but a good example of what I’m trying to say. My challenge is in getting the description just right. I’m not sure I’ve done that quite yet, but….

A MAN ON A BRIDGE

He is either halfway across or halfway back,
stalled between one side of the day and the other,
the dark river, clotted with foam, flowing down
under him, his hands clamped on the iron rail
as if he were trying to steer the clumsy bridge
upstream, the paint flaking under his fingers,
his whole body seeming to strain with the effort.
so much so that he cannot turn to watch a man
much like himself roll slowly over the bridge
in a loaded gravel truck, and then another man,
in a car that comes from the other direction,
both of them weighing him down with their lives,
their ordinary days, going about their business
while he stands at a standstill, hands clamped
to the bridge, the muscles in his shoulders flexed,
shoving his life upstream against the current.


Laine Derr is a graduate of Northern Arizona University’s MFA Creative Writing program, has published in Thin Air, interviews with Carl Phillips and Ross Gay, and is currently based in Rockville, MD.