Ted Kooser served two terms as U.S. poet laureate and during his second term was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He lives in rural Nebraska and teaches part-time at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. His poem “Sundial” appears in the Spring 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poem “Sundial”?
The subject of that poem is about twenty feet outside the window I’m looking out as I answer this. It was given to my wife and me by the late poet Leonard Nathan and his wife, Carol, who is also now gone. We exchanged Christmas gifts with the Nathans for many years. Leonard was one of my best friends and very helpful to me as a writer.
What was the hardest part about writing it?
They’re all hard to write, from the top right down to the bottom. I am an extensive reviser, and a short poem like this one probably went through several dozen versions. I try to revise toward clarity and a kind of ease, for lack of a better word. Though I spend many hours on a poem I like to have them look as if I’d just dashed them off, the way a good watercolor painting looks. That can be a lot of work.
“Sundial” takes as its jumping-off point a Christmas exchange best described as “not gift so much as habit.” Could you tell us a little bit about the role of ritual and pattern in this poem and/or your larger body of work?
I’d have a hard time guiding a reader toward the evidence of ritual and pattern in given poems, but I do happen to be a person of habits, and, for example, I get up at the same time every morning, and give approximately the same number of hours to my writing. I’m most comfortable living in a net of routines, which I find helps me to organize myself and get a lot done. In “Sundial” I was talking about the ritual of exchanging Christmas gifts, of course. That can become perfunctory.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I suppose we learn a little something with everything we try to write, so I’d find it difficult to fasten upon just one or two things I’ve learned in recent years. Early in my life it took a very long time for me to learn that we are most effective as writers if we can be true to ourselves and not try to model our work on that of others. And that’s the way we ought to look at being people and citizens, too. Thoreau said that all he looked for in writing was an honest account of a life.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I also paint and draw, and as a result my poems are often very visual. I also like to spend social time with very ordinary people, and their experiences of life are valuable to me as a writer.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
I have been writing for more than fifty years and it’s become so much a part of my life that I can’t separate it out and look at it. I know I wouldn’t feel complete if I weren’t doing it.
In the 1950s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo?
I am a person living among other people, and what I do with my writing should contribute something of use to others.
What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I can’t believe that the physical object of a book, its heft, its smell, the ink pressed into or onto the pages, will ever be replaced by a stream of digital data on a lighted screen. People who read e-books are not reading books, but are having an entirely different learning experience. I probably own ten thousand books, and I’m not giving one of them away.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I have two books coming out in 2014, one of poems from Copper Canyon, one of short prose vignettes from U of Nebraska. And U of Nebraska has just published the first book in a poetry series for which I’m the guest editor, Jared Carter’s marvelous Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems. I am immensely proud of this book. And I already have another in the queue, Connie Wanek’s Rival Gardens, also a new-and-selected. These are two of the finest poets in America and I’m honored that they’re letting me publish them.