If you’ve been paying attention to the world of poetry recently, you won’t have missed Ted Kooser, the United States Poet Laureate from 2004 until last September and winner of the Pulitzer for poetry in 2005. Kooser visited Santa Barbara in 2005 for a reading at UCSB and is returning in March as the keynote speaker/workshop leader for the Santa Barbara Writers Conference Poetry Conference. Kooser is known for his exquisitely evocative description, the accessibility of both his poetry and prose, and his plain-spoken, opinionated essays. Speaking with the man over the phone from his home in Nebraska felt very much like reading his works.
I know you teach at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and that you have the luxury of mostly working with students one-on-one, but I don’t know very much about you as a workshop leader. Well, we probably ought to examine the term workshop. I really have a lot of difficulty with traditional writers’ workshops. There are lots of things that go wrong. Sometimes little cliques can develop among people there, a couple of people rolling their eyes when someone is reading their work, and that kind of thing. Also, the biggest problem, I think, is when someone brings his or her poem to the workshop and everyone there feels it’s necessary to find something wrong with it. And that’s really not a very positive environment. That’s why I went to this one-on-one tutorial teaching, just to get away from that sort of group-think of the regular workshop.
When you are here in March for the Poetry Conference, you are slated to do a master class workshop. What will that be like? Generally there’s not a whole lot of time in these situations and I really prefer to mainly engage the people there in a conversation, tell a little bit about myself and my own work habits, and ask them what kind of obstacles they see to their own writing and how can we address those. That’s not to say we wouldn’t actually look at some poems. But generally I’ve had the feeling that in a conversation, sometimes you can get much more information imparted than you can by hovering over one person’s poem. You are coming to talk about finding poetry in the everyday. Yes. My idea of subject matter is that we can find plenty to write about in the most ordinary of lives if we just simply stop and pay attention. There’s a very short poem inserted in my prose book, Local Wonders, which I wrote some time ago and it goes, “If you can awaken inside the familiar and discover it new, you need never leave home.”
What’s the advantage of not having to leave home? There are plenty of advantages to going places and looking at things and so on, but I am saying it isn’t necessary to be a good writer. You don’t need to go to Paris, you don’t need to go to New York. I mean, you could if you wanted to, obviously, and that might be great fun, but there’s plenty to write about all around you.
Do you have a particular poem you’ve written that illustrates that? Oh, there are lots of ’em. There’s a poem in one of my earlier books that I think is such an example and it’s called “The Leaky Faucet,” which is basically about the sound that a faucet makes, dripping at night. I’ve written about the sound furnaces make when they come on, the sound refrigerators make when they come on. I write about things I see in the natural world right around me. I think my favorite poem in Delights and Shadows is called “Screech Owl.” It’s about a little owl I saw one morning walking up to the road while getting the newspaper. It’s that sort of thing. I’m looking at things around me to honor, in a way, or perhaps celebrate would be a better word.
We’re looking forward to having you come for the conference. Thank you. I’m looking forward to coming out. It will be a nice time of year for me to be out there. We’ll be at the point here where spring has not yet arrived and it’s cold and wet and muddy. It will be a nice break. Everywhere I go, I always meet people who I really like and it can be great fun doing this sort of thing.
There’s an irony in your leaving home to come tell us we don’t need to leave home. (Laughs.) That’s true.