An Evening with Ted Kooser



we have a number of special guests who have joined us this evening including University of Nebraska president milliken and weekend they are cooling sang this event could not have occurred without significant collaboration with a number of entities both on and off campus you see the list in the program I particularly thank representatives from the Lincoln City Libraries and others representing the city of Lincoln I thank the staff of the lead Center for Performing Arts for their gracious work this evening and also thanking recognize individuals from the University of Nebraska prep including its new director of Jerry Dunham I also recognize the use UNL Research Council under whose auspices the nebraska lecture at the curve and also will thank Connie Herndon and Laura Lee Waldron who will serve as our Lincoln mayor Cohen Singh has a special presentation thank you as mayor of Lincoln it's a real pleasure and honor to be here this evening now it's how many children will have on those our University consider this remark from Maryland woman in Washington DC between Warren Buffett abrasca has everything yes we certainly keep good company right here in Nebraska Ted whether you like it or not there are many who consider you a hero your family your friends your colleagues and your fans are very proud of you this great honor we wish you well on your mission and thank you for cheering I would like growing list of accolades this is the highest honor that I can bestow there's truly a pleasure now for those of you that have never been around well I'd like to read this does hereby receive the key to the city by Proclamation the mayor you are hereby given honors and I signed it I have to tell you though we can't figure out what those rights and privileges me Thank You mayor saying I live in this area now for now my pleasure to formally Ted earned a master's degree in 1968 in university Nebraska and a member of our English faculty since 1988 native Iowan he earned his bachelor's degree from Iowa State University during that career had always found time to pursue his passion for writing in poetry we all the benefit of that passion he's the author of ten collections of poetry and prose the latter local wonder and the just-released poetry home repair manual were published by the University of Nebraska Press with respect to the repair manual ted has recently quoted as saying he did not read the review saying of words we would expect from Ted but brave words from the husband of the editor of the Lincoln journal star among his many awards and honors our two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships the Pushcart prize the Stanley Kunitz prize the James Boatwright prize a merit award from the Nebraska Arts Council and the mayor's Art Award from the city of Lincoln and of course the honor of serving as thirteenth poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress these are just a sampling of his honors I suspect however that Ted is more likely to receive personal satisfaction not from the honors but from knowing that thousands of people have been inspired by his poetry and from knowing that through his efforts he was able to take a pallet of words residing in a lien juxtaposition with one another and to rearrange them so that they brought fresh insight and perspective to the world in which we live I'm very honored to present to you Ted Cruz I want to repeat a little story that I told it the graduation exercises in December some of you know this story but it's it's my favorite story about being poet laureate Tom McAllen who grew up in Lincoln lives in Los Angeles now and tom was a student of mine many years ago and after the articles began coming out about me there was an article in the LA Times and in that article there was a small mug shot of me and Tom was showing a six-year-old boy the article saying that he knew this man and talking about what the poet laureate did and what the poet laureate might do and this and that and the other and when he got to the end he said so what do you think and the little boy said he looks like a hobbit and and then went on to say like he came from middle-earth tonight and here we are in middle-earth and all that wonderful this has been this has been wonderful for me and and I'm I'm very grateful to the University for putting this event together tonight it's great fun for me to have all of you people here listening to me readers are more important to me than anything else publications and honors are nice but the idea that there are people actually out there reading your work is really a wonderful thing I've had the feeling all through this I said publicly that and when it happened to me I began thinking of all the reasons that it shouldn't have happened to me you know in a typical Midwestern fashion right now as I stand here sort of looking out in this sea of faces I can just imagine it at any moment a huge foot will come down from above and just smash me flat you know I often start my readings with this poem it describes the sort of the state of contemporary poetry I guess it's called selecting a reader first I would have her be beautiful and walking carefully upon my poetry at the loneliest moment of an afternoon her hair still damp at the neck from washing it she should be wearing a raincoat an old one dirty from not having money enough for the cleaners she will take out her glasses and there in the bookstore she will thumb over my palms then put the book back up on its shelf she will say to herself for that kind of money I can get my raincoat cleaned and she will I'm fighting off a little head cold so if I'm snuffling up here please forgive me this next poem describes the little farm where my wife and I live we were about 20 miles from Lincoln north and west north of Garland a couple of miles straight west of branch toke lake in late spring one of the National Guard's f4 jet fighters making a long approach to the Lincoln airfield comes howling in over the treetops its shadow flapping along behind it like the skin of a sheep setting the coyotes crying back in the woods and then the dogs and then there is a sudden quiet that rings a little the way in empty pan rings when you wipe it dry and that it is Sundy again a summer Sunday afternoon and beyond my window the Russian olives sigh foolishly into the air through the throats of their flowers and bluegills nibble the clouds afloat on the pond under the windmill a cluster of peonies Huddle's bald-headed now and standing in piles of old papers beneath its lipstick the mouth of the tulip is twisted spring moves on on her run down broken toe shoes into the summer trailing green ribbons of silk I've been reading for hours or intending to read but over the bee song of the book I could faintly hear my neighbor up the road a quarter-mile calling out to his daughter and hear her calling back not in words but in musical notes and now that they have fallen quiet and I have listened long into their absence I have forgotten my place in the world but the world knows my place and stands and holds a chair for me here on these acres near Garland Nebraska this April in good health I entered my 65th year the perfect porcelain bells of lily-of-the-valley ring into the longshots ears of the ferns and horseflies sits in the Sun and twirls his moustache and brushes the dust from his satin sleeves this next group of poems is about people I've seen here and there there's sort of little portraits tattoo this is about you know what tattoos look like when they get old and we're seeing a lot of brand-new tattoos these days and so this is this palm serves as a sort of warning I think tattoo what once was meant to be a statement a dripping dagger held in the fists of a shuddering heart is now just a bruise on a bony old shoulder the spot where vanity once punched him hard and the ache lingered on he looks like someone you had to reckon with strong as a stallion fast and ornery but on this chilly morning as he walks between the tables at a yard sale with the sleeves of his tight black t-shirt rolled up to show us who he was he is only another old man picking up broken tools and putting them back his heart gone soft and blue with stories this is another one this is a this is a woman I saw in the in the grocery store parking lot a rainy morning a young woman in a wheelchair wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain is pushing herself through the morning you have seen how pianist sometimes bend forward to strike the keys then lift their hands draw back to rest and then lean again the strike just as the chord fades such as the way this woman strikes at the wheels then lifts her long white fingers letting him float then bends again to strike just as the chair slows as if into a silence so expertly she plays the chords of this difficult music she has mastered her wet face beautiful in its concentration while the wind turns the pages of rain this next one back in the 60s and 70s when people had really long straight hair you know you'll remember that they walk like this well well now now young people with backpacks when they walk they do this with their hands I've noticed they sort of they're kind of paddling ahead and I I saw this young man on campus with the green backpack on and and he looked exactly to me like a sea turtle lumbering up upon a pond to a beach paddling his way up ahead so this is a little portrait of a student the green shell of his backpack makes him lean into wave after wave of responsibility and he swings his stiff arms and cupped hands paddling ahead his extended his neck to its full length and his chin hard as a beak breaks the cold surf he's got his baseball cap on backward as up he crawls out of the froth of a hangover and onto the sand of the future and lumbers heavy with hope into the library I've written Valentine columns for this is the 19th year and this is last year's Valentine again I'm the observation of a looking at a couple of people I saw splitting an order I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole-wheat bread no pickles or onion keeping his shaky hands steady by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table and using both hands the left to hold the sandwich in place and the right to cut it surely corner to corner observing his progress through glasses that moments before he wiped with his napkin and then to see him lift half onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring and then to wait offering the plate to his wife while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon her knife and her fork in their proper places then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him this one this one came out of watching um Jim flowers on the weather news standing with the with the map and making this motion as he talked to the pin oh it's called weather central each evening at 6:15 the weatherman turns a shoulder to us extends his hand and talking softly as a groom cautiously smooths and strokes the massive dappled flank of the continent touching the cloudy whirls that drift like galaxies across its hide tracing the loops of harness with their barbs and bells and pennants then with a horseflies touch he brushes a mountain range and sets a shudder running just under the skin his bearing is Cavalier from years of success and he laughs at the science yet makes no sudden moves that might startle that splendid order or loosen the physics one would not want to wake the enormous Appaloosa mayor of weather asleep in her stall on a peaceful moonlit night and here's a figure skater again I'm very interested in these things that happen in life that happen in an instant and in this pawn there is that one flourish that the figure skater makes that really was what I was trying to capture in the whole poem skater she was all in black but for a yellow ponytail that trailed from her cap and bright blue gloves that she held out wide a feathery finger spread as surely she stepped click-clack onto the frozen top of the world and there with a clatter of blades she began to braid a loose path that broadened into a meadow of curls across the ice she swooped and then turned back and half way bent her legs and lept into the air the way a crane leaps blue gloves lifting her lightly and turned a snappy half turn there in the wind before coming down arms wide skating backward right out of that moment smiling back at the woman she'd been just an instant before and another of those at the cancer clinic she is being helped toward the open door that leads to the examining rooms by two young women I take to be her sisters each bends to the weight of an arm and steps with the straight tough bearing of courage at what must seem to be a great distance a nurse holds the door smiling and calling encouragement how patient she is in the crisp white sails of her clothes the sick woman peers from under her funny knit camp to watch each foot swing scuffing forward and take its turn under her weight there is no restlessness or impatience or anger anywhere in sight grace fills the clean mold of this moment and all the shuffling magazines grow still this is another one of those poems about something just in happens in a very universe in a split second really and I would guess that most of you have had this experience it's called in passing from a half-block off I see you coming walking briskly along carrying parcels furtively glancing up into the faces of people approaching looking for someone you know holding your smile in your mouth like a pebble keeping it moist and ready being careful not to swallow I know that hope so open on your face know how your heart would lift to see just one among us who remembered if only someone would call out your name would smile so happy to see you again you shift your heavy parcels hunched up your shoulders and press ahead into the moment from a few feet away you recognize me or think you do I see you preparing your face getting your greeting ready do I know you both of us wonder swiftly we meet and pants averting our eyes close enough to touch but not touching I could not let you know that I've forgotten and yet you know this next little group is about our poems about things my teacher and mentor Carl Shapiro who was here in Nebraska when I first came was a great poet of things and taught me a great deal about writing about things and what I tried to do is to pick very ordinary things and work with those and this one is about a spiral notebook the bright wire rule is like a porpoise in and out of the calm blue sea of the cover or perhaps like a sleeper twisting in and out of his dreams for it could hold a record of dreams if you wanted to buy it for that though it seems to be meant for more serious work with its college-ruled lines and its cover that states in emphatic white letters v subject notebook it seems a part of growing old is no longer to have five subjects each demanding an equal share of attention set apart by brown cardboard dividers but instead to stand in a drugstore and hang on to one subject a little too long like this notebook you weigh in your hands passing your fingers over its surfaces as if it were some kind of wonder David Kwan is a rights of Natural History essays he's a very fine writer and in one of them he described a moth that lives on tears no poet could resist that subject and this is the this is the poem and the title of the poem is the species name of this moth Lobeck Rasmus grisaille fusa this is the tiny moth who lives on tears who drinks like a deer at the gleaming pool at the edge of the sleepers I the touch of its mouth as light as a clouds reflection in your dream a moonlit figure appears at your bedside and touches your face he asks if he might share the poor bread of your sorrow you show him the table the two of you talked long into the night but by morning the words are forgotten you awaken serene in a sunny room rubbing the dust of his wings from your eyes and this one this one I was a smoker for a good long time and I was always I think one of the things that lured me into smoking was watching people blow smoke rings and I this is a fairly recent poem about the about that activity I don't whether people do it or not anymore you know smoking has become such a a thing to hide you know that people don't celebrate it by blowing smoke rings I guess smoke rings those silent exclamations those soft OHS that puffed out one after another and then like rubber bands peeled from the end of the morning paper gave up their shape and floated slack and twisted into the future those were the next-to-the-last grand gestures of the pleasures of smoking before each cigarette became such serious business such a bitter pill and the grand finale that one big ring puffed out and quickly a smaller ring blown rolling through it and then through that one all those years a sound in the night there's a clock at the end of the pasture talking and talking it's my neighbor's new electric sensor a red tin box with a steady pulse on a night like this chilly and still you can hear it knock for a hundred yards counting the stars with its bony knuckle a sound observed against the darkness but many of us have stopped in our places to listen a mouse with a globe of dew and her paws a coyote lifting his head from the grass his wet tail tipped with starlight even my father dead these many years has heard the flat remorseless counting and reaches out into the darkness and over the years from my mother's hand this is thank you I would guess that many of you have to have at some time in your lives tried to drink hot coffee out of a glass cup it stays hot for about five seconds and then gets cold rather quickly and and this little poem about depression depression glass for those younger people in the audience depression glass was was given out at grocery stores it's that it's a transparent glass in pastel colors my grandmother had a sad and you got a piece when you made a purchase you you've got a cup or a saucer or so on depression glass it seemed those rose pink dishes she kept for special company were always cold brought down from the shelf and jingling stacks the place like the panes of ice she broke from the water bucket winter mornings the flaring cups like tulips that opened too early and got bitten by frost they chilled the coffee no matter how quickly you drank while a heavy everyday mug would have kept a splash hot for the better part of a conversation it was hard to hold up your end of the gossip with your coffee cold but but it was a special occasion just the same to sit at her kitchen table and sip the bitter percolation of the past week's rumors from cups it had taken a year to collect at the grocery with one piece free for each five pounds of flour this this next poem is an experience that everyone in this room has shared I always have I love to read this poem it's so much fun the urine specimen in the clinic a sun-bleached shell of stone on the shore of the city you enter the last small chamber chastened a little closet chastened with pearl cool white and glistening and over the chilly well of the toilet you trickle your precious some in a cup it's as simple as that but the heat of this gold your body's melted and poured out into a form begins to enthrall you warming your hand with your fleshes fevers in a terrible way it's like holding an organ spleen or fatty pancreas a lobe from your foamy brain still steaming with worry you know that just outside a nurse is waiting to cool it into a gel and slice it onto a microscope slide for the Doctor Who in it will read your future wringing his hands you lift the chalice and toast the long life of your friend there in the mirror who wander smiles but does not drink to you that was once that was once published in the Journal of the American Medical Association my father told me that early in the 20th century there there were vendors who went from school to school public schools and they sold a portfolio of reproductions of great art and it was the same portfolio always that had malaise the Gleaners it had the end of the trail the Indian making a pot by the fire the that one with the wolf looking down into the snowy valley the the Gilbert Stuart George Washington the famous Lincoln and so on and I got to thinking that that many of our perceptions of the world may have been shaped in some way by looking at these pictures day after day in schools and I thought I'd try to write some poems about them and this one is about the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington this is the one yeah you know the unfinished portrait that has the the bare spot at the bottom also in this poem I might say that I rarely allude to something beyond the edges of my poems but I talk in here about his complexion and the fact that he had left a little started some bonfires and then retreated behind and that was something that Washington actually did as a military tactic tactic left the fires burning as he retreated the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington you know it as well as the back of your hand that face like a blushing bouquet of pink peonies set in the shadows of war the father of our country patient sucking the past from his wooden teeth his famous portrait never completed hung on the wall at the front of the classroom next to a black octagonal clock with the ghost of a teacher trapped inside tapping out time with a piece of chalk it was easy to see his attention was elsewhere he'd left a dozen campfires burning out there at the front of his face then retreated behind them at 58 he was old and broken this was no way to use up the days of a soldier celebrity urged him he had a little time for the likes of Gilbert Stuart that son of a snuff grinding Tory that slacker who sat out the war with the English perched on a chair in a cold stone barn according to Stewart he smiled only once when a stallion ran past he cared more for thoroughbred horses and farming than he did for the presidency on the wall between us and the future at the point where all the lines converged George Washington like any other man suppressed a deep sigh so heavy was life how futile it seemed to protest we learned our lessons while the big clock clacked it's roman numerals arranged in a wreath and sealed under glass those were lovely calico autumns then winter past with its long clean penance of light then spring with its Chaffey rustle we thought those Isles were parallel that our days would never arrive at the vanishing point before us always he who could never tell a lie kept his jaws closed on the truth one of the one of the great pleasures of going around the country doing poetry readings of meeting the people that are out there some you know marvelous inventive wonderful poets and and so on I was in Philadelphia a number of years ago at a small college and I gave a reading and I was invited that evening after the reading to the home of a English professor and his wife and it turned out that she was the step granddaughter of John Corr knows John cornice was one of the images poets whose all but forgotten today but he knew them all and knew all these people and so after dinner she said I thought you might like to look through some of the things that he had and she brought out this good-sized cardboard box full of of letters and mementos of one kind or another there were letters from TS Eliot and Ezra Pound and william butler yeats his calling card and all sorts of things like that I mean this whole box full of these original things I was completely stunned by you know just having my hands on them and then she said now Ted you're interested in painting aren't you paint a little I said yes and she said I want to show you this and she brought out from the side room a wooden box a flat wooden box and put it on my knees a box of pastels I once held on my knees a simple wooden box in which a rainbow lay dusty and broken it was a set of pastels that it years before belonged to the painter Mary Cassatt and all the colours she'd used in her work lay open before me those hues she'd most used the peaches and pinks were worn down the stubs while the cool colors violet ultramarine had been set scarcely touched to one side she did little patience with darkness and her heart held only a measure of shadow I touched the warm dust of those colors her tools and left there with light on the tips of my fingers it's really something I write a lot of poems that are really built on a single metaphor and I I loved playing around with the metaphor and sometimes sometimes you can take a rather ordinary object and make really make something special out of it with do by just simply working with metaphor this one's a example that's called telescope this is the pipe that pierces the dam that holds back the universe that takes off some of the pressure keeping the weight of the unknown from breaking through and washing us all down the valley because of this small tube through which a cold light rushes from the bottom of time the depth of the stars stays always constant and we are able to sleep at least for now beneath the straining wall of darkness it's a telescope then are these then there are these poems that really don't need any kind of figurative language because the the message they carry is so has enough power in itself and this is this is an example of the other kind of poem a deck of pornographic playing cards we were 10 or 11 my friend and I when we found them up under a bridge on top of a beam where pigeons were resting someone had carefully hidden them there on each was a black-and-white photo no two cards alike we grew quiet and older young men on our haunches staring at what we feared might be the future the pigeons flap back to their roosts rustling and cooing the river gurgled as it slipped from the bridges cool shadow there were women with big muzzled dogs women with bottles and broom handles stallion stood over the bodies of others the woman smiled and licked their lips with tongues like thorns we grew old we were two old men with stiff legs and sad hearts we had wanted to laugh but we couldn't we had thought we were boys come there to throw stones at the pigeons but we were already dying inside I don't whether my friend Keith Jacob Sagan is here tonight or not but this is a family story that Keith gave me and I tinkered with a little transformed it a little it's a it's a straight narrative poem I think it's very much like a like an outline for a Willa Cather novel in a way it also has a sort of cinematic sense to it I was very much taken with this story the beaded purse dressed in his church suit and under the shadow of his hat the old man stood on the wooden Depot platform three feet above the rest of Kansas while the westbound freight chuffed in and hissed to a stop he and the agent and two men commercial travelers waiting to go on West pulled mailbags out of the steam then slid out his daughters coffin canvas over wood and set it on a nearby baggage cart not till the train had rolled away and tooted once as it passed the shacks on the leading edge of the distance and not till the agent had disappeared dragging the bags of mail behind did the old man pry up the nail down lid with a bar he brought in a wagon hat in hand he took a long look he hadn't seen her in a dozen years at 19 without his blessing she'd gone back east to be an actress now and then writing her mother in a carefree narrow do well cursive to say she was happy living in style a week before the agent sent word that there was a telegram waiting and the old man and his wife wrote the town to read that their daughter had died and her remains were on the way home remains that's how they put it she was wearing a fancy yellow dress but was no longer young and pretty she looked like one of the worn-out dolls she'd left in her room at the farm where he would sometimes go to sit a bag of women's private underthings had been stuffed between her feet and someone had pushed down next to her an evening bag beaded with pearls he opened the purse and found it empty so he took a few bills out of his pocket and the men then snapped it closed for her mother to find then with the back of the bar he tapped the lid in place and went to find the station agent the two of them lifted the coffin down and carried it the few hard yards across the sunny dusty floor of Kansas and loaded it onto the creaking wagon then clapping his hat on his head and slapping the plump rump of his mare with the reins he started the long haul home with his rich and famous daughter in that a marvelous story the stories like that all over the Great Plains wonderful stories a few family poems here this first one I wrote really to capture a name my mother's first cousin IRA Freid line had a that was his name and it was such a beautiful name and I love this man and I went to see him in the nursing home shortly before he died and he had developed like a lot of old people a very pronounced age spot a very almost solid black blue-black age spot on one hand that went up into his the sleeve of his shirt and that's a part of the poem – it's called a goodbye handshake though you and the nursing home are miles behind me now your hand with this dark blue age spots is here in my hand your fingers warm from all the hot steel handles they held in your 88 years levers of threshing machines of sickle bar mower zand Baylor's but cooling now and slowly going all blue-black over brown like a pool of blue oil on the floor of a barn that darkness working its way up into the cuff of your new plaid shirt up past your elbow sharp as a plowshare there on the wheelchair armrests easing over your heart like a shadow a hundred miles down the road stopped by the highway and sitting in shade at the edge of a shimmering cornfield I say goodbye I am headed both farther and further than you IRA Freid line with love I take your blue black hand which is held nearly everything once and has squeezed it shyly and politely and this one I wrote a month after my mother passed away in 1998 mother mid-april already and the wild plums bloom at the roadside a lacy white against the exuberant jubilant green of new grass and the dusty fading black of burnt-out ditches no leaves not yet only the delicate star peddled blossoms sweet with their timeless perfume you have been gone a month today and have missed three rains and one night long watch for tornadoes i sat in the cellar from six to eight while fat spring clouds went somersaulting rumbling east then it poured a storm that walked on legs of lightening dragging its shaggy belly over the fields the meadow larks are back and the finches are turning from green to gold those same two geese have come to the pond again this year honking in over the trees and splashing down they never nest but stay a week or two then leave the peonies are up the red sprouts burning in circles like birthday candles for this is the month of my birth as you know the best months to be born in thanks to you everything ready to burst with living there will be no more new flannel nights to it sewn on your old black singer no birthday card addressed in a shaky but businesslike hand you asked me if I would be sad when it happened and I am sad but the IRS I moved from your house now hold in the dusty dry fists of their roots green knives and forks as if waiting for dinner as if spring were a feast I thank you for that were it not for the way you taught me to look at the world to see the life at play in everything I would have to be lonely forever mother had another first cousin by the time mother died it was the last first cousin whose name was pearl Richards and she was living in Elkader Iowa about a good three hours from her mother was in the morning morning a mother died I got in a car and drove up to tell pearl the news and this is a an account of that visit pearl Elkader Iowa a morning in March the turkey river running brown and wrinkly from a late spring snow in Minnesota a white two-story house on Mulberry Street windows flashing with Sun and I had come a hundred miles to tell our cousin pearl that her childhood playmate Vera my mother had died I knocked and knocked at the door with its lace covered oval of glass and at last she came from the shadows and with one finger hooked the curtain aside peered into my face through her spectacles and held that pose a grainy family photograph that could have been that of her mother I called out pearl it's Ted it's Vera's boy and my voice broke for it came to me nearly 60 I was still my mother's boy that boy for the rest of my life pearl at ninety was one year older than mother in a widow for twenty years she wore a pale blue cardigan buttoned over a house dress and she shook my hand in the tentative way of old women who rarely have hands to shake when I told her that mother was gone that she died the evening before she said she was sorry that Vera wrote me a letter a while ago to say she wasn't good we went to the kitchen and I sat at the table while she heated a pan of water and made us cups of instant coffee she told me of a time when the two of them were girls and crawled out onto the porch roof to spy on my Aunt Mabel in a suitor who were swinging below we got so excited we had to pee and we couldn't wait and peed right there on the roof then it trickled down over the edge and dripped into bushes but Mabel and that fellow never heard we took our cups into her living room or stripes from the drawn blinds draped over the World's Fair satin pillows she took the couch and I took a chair across from her I've had some trouble with health myself she said taking off her glasses and wiping them and I said she looked good though and she said I've started seeing people who aren't here I know they're not real but I see them the same they come in the house and sit around and never say a word they keep their heads down or cover their faces with claws I'm not afraid but I don't know what they want of me you won't be able to see but one's right there on the staircase where the light falls through that window a man in a light gray outfit I turned to look at the landing where a patch of light fell over the carpeted steps sometimes I think my max is with them one seems to know his way around the house what bothers me Ted is that they've started to write out lists of everything I own they grow from room to room three or four at a time picking up things and putting them back I've talked to Wilson the chiropractor and he just says that maybe it's time for me to go to the nursing home I asked her what her regular doctor said and she said she didn't go there anymore that he's not much good but surely there's medicine I said and she said maybe so and then there was a pause that filled the room after a while we began to talk again of other things and there were some stories we laughed a little over and I wept a little and then it was time for me to go to drive the long miles back and she slowly walked me to the door and took my hand again our warm bony hands along the light hands of the shadows that reached to touch us but drew back and I cleared my throat and said I hoped she'd take care of herself and think about seeing a real medical doctor and she said she'd give some thought to that and I took my hand from hers and waved goodbye and the door closed and behind the lace the there's stepped out of the stripes of light and resumed their inventory touching the spoon I used and subtracting it from the sum of the spoons in the kitchen drawer I think that's it so it's not an uncommon thing some of you have probably had experience with older people beginning to see phantoms like that and in this instance they it seems to me that they serve the purpose of having come to help her across to get her things ready to go herself and I've talked to it I talked to a friend of mine who's a therapist about this and he said that he knew of many of these situations in that she's not psychotic because she still knows they're not real but you know these things happen this poem this next poem about my father begins rather inappropriately but I save it as it goes along so you can be prepared for that some of you have probably felt this way about aged parents father today you would be 97 if you had lived and we would all be miserable you and your children driving from clinic to clinic an ancient fearful hypochondriac and his fretful son and daughter asking directions trying to read the complicated fading map of cures but with your dignity intact you have been gone for twenty years and I am glad for all of us although I miss you every day the heartbeat under your neck tie the hand cupped on the back of my neck Old Spice in the air your voice delighted with stories on this day each year you love to relate that at the moment of your birth your mother glanced out the window and saw lilacs in bloom well today lilacs are blooming inside yards all over Iowa still welcoming you and this is the last poem I'll read tonight a self-portrait has some little towns out our direction that was I I was that older man you saw sitting in a confetti of yellow light and falling leaves on a bench at the empty horseshoe courts in Thayer Nebraska brown jackets soft cap wiping my glasses I had noticed of course that the rows of sunken horseshoe pits were like old graves but I was not letting my mind go there instead I was looking with hope to a grapevine draped over a fence in a neighboring yard and knowing that I could hold on yes that was I and that was i the round shouldered man you saw that afternoon in rising city as you drove past the amount abandoned minigolf fists deep in my pockets nose dripping my cap pulled down against the wind as I walked the miniature Main Street peering into the child-sized plywood store the poor red school the faded barn thinking that not even in such an abbreviated world with no more than its little events the snap of a grasshopper swinging against a paper cup could a person control this life yes that was I and that was I you spotted that evening just before dark in a weedy cemetery west of staple Hurst down on one knee as if trying to make out the name on a stone some lonely old man you thought come there to pity himself in the reliable sadness of grass among graves but that was not so instead I had found in its perfect web a handsome black and yellow spider pumping its legs to try to shake my footing as if I were a gift an enormous moth that it could snare and eat yes that was I thank you very much and now the moment you've been waiting for a couple of lawyers to come sit down with Ted and talk about poetry my name's JB Milliken I'm the president of the University of Nebraska and for the last six months people have asked me repeatedly what's it like being president there any surprises and usually the answer is no there aren't very many surprises but I got to tell you there was nothing in the job description about sitting on a stage in front of thousands of people talking about poetry with the US poet laureate so Ted that was wonderful and I don't know if those of you in the audience in the front have looked around but it is incredible to me that on a very snowy night in Lincoln the lead Center is almost filled with people to hear Ted Kooser read poetry as a wonderful state at my installation uh ten days ago or so Ted read one of my favorite poems which is so this is Nebraska and it has a special meaning for me because it was given to me when I was an undergraduate on this campus by a good friend so it's a great honor to be here tonight Ted and have a chance to visit with you one of the poems that you read tonight about your mother said that you your mother taught you how to look at the world to see life at play in everything I'm curious about the influence of people with whom we have relationships on art and in your case I'm interested in how your mother or other major influences in your life shaped the way you look at things and how you express yourself well I'm both my parents my Michael working okay it's not okay that better my parents were were wonderful people that to all appearance was very quite ordinary people my father was a store manager my mother was a homemaker and but they my dad was a marvellous storyteller I learned some of my love of stories from listening to dad mother was a very very quiet person very deep person and she she knew how to make a life out of very little and I think in a way what I'm doing in that poem is commenting on how much pleasure she took in the ordinary world you know she would you know a ripe Apple to her it was really something you know she she would you know polish it up and look at it for a long time and it was that sort of life that she perceived in that thing and I think they were an enormous influence on me we didn't have a lot of books in our house that we had a set of Alexander do MA we some novels John Fox Jr's novels of the app southern Appalachian sand some things like that that I read as a kid but they did belong to a group called playmakers that that every month they met at a different house and they would read plays aloud and when they came to our house I just loved that I'd sit in the corner and listen to them read these plays and and that was another one of those early influences so yeah and you know I've never really my dad's been gone for 25 years and and mother for six now but you know they're always with me I am I seem to be checking in on them all the time and I think I talk a lot in my book poetry home repair manual about having imaginary readers and my mother is probably my standard imaginary reader she's the person to whom I direct poems she had a couple years of college was wasn't interested in in in things and and that's the kind of reader I want you know it's not not at all sophisticated literary early or anything like that so it's a very long answer it saves Harvey and me for me to ask long question that's good because we have very few questions Ted in addition to obviously the your parents your life obviously is captured in your poetry and one way or the other and the kind of the oddest thing about your background perhaps when you think about you as poet laureate is the fact that you were an insurance executive for many years and did that do you think that that experience influenced your writing yes it did and you know I I think that what what happened was that well there in a number of ways but I was working all of us I think are interested in in finding communities that we belong to and and a writer who is that is in the chair of rhetoric at Harvard and his writing poems is writing them for an audience a peer group that is different from a man like me who was working a life insurance company among people every day who dad read poems since they were in the eighth grade and I I would I would show my palms to my secretary at like a benefit life and if she didn't understand them I would take them home and work on them and that sort of thing so it my my rather open style I think as a result of having worked for years and years with people like that who were not literary people and I'm very fond of them all and wrote a few poems about the office but not many well I was there Ted I want to come back to the question of influences on on art I'm reading right now Frank McCourt's early biography Angela's Ashes and he says that his childhood was of course miserable and that a happy childhood is hardly worth your while your childhood doesn't strike me as miserable a little Spartan maybe but certainly not miserable but is suffering necessary to good art maybe just to the Irish you know I don't I've never bought into that we have this romantic idea of the suffering artists and so on I mentioned earlier in my reading of my friend Keith Jacob Sagan who's a marvelous painter nationally renowned painter I don't think Keith would mind me saying that I think Keith had a blissfully happy child his parents doted on him my parents doted on me and I've you know been able to write so it isn't a prereq at all that's a good message for a lot of parents and Whitman we've been beating our kids for your your role as as poet lawyer this obviously in part at least to advance the cause of poetry and I guess this is as good a threesome to ask this question what would you tell two young named anxious to be lawyers as to why they should care about poetry well I think I think you could do it by showing them poems that might mean something to them I really has to be done by example I think the kind of so many people have been turned off from poetry by public school education swear poems had to be treated as if they were algebraic problems at one answer the teacher was the only one who knew the answer and if you didn't get it right you failed the course you know that sort of thing and and so but in order to bring people back and I think we have there are ways of just showing the poems that are that are open and generous and inviting and and say you know this is what poetry has to offer and I'm trying to try to do that I have a newspaper column it's going to be starting up in about I just several weeks now but it's going to be distributed free to any newspaper that wants to use it in which i'll i'll pick a poem by someone there's a short poem that most newspaper readers could understand and introduce it and try to kind of nudge people in the back end of poetry a little bit by saying this you know if you like this poem maybe you'd like others like this and so on so but an example I think is really the way to do it saying you know here's a poem I talked a lot early in my ten years poet laureate about looking at the world in fresh new ways and I used to use an example there's a poet out in Colorado friend of mine Joe Hutchison and he has a one-line poem about an artichoke which goes Oh hearts weighed down by so many wings you know that's the artichoke and there's something about that that once you get that in your head you can never go through the produce department again without thinking of that you know seeing those little hearts with those wings and that's the kind of thing that poetry can contribute you know can it can lift life a little bit like that Ted I want to talk a little bit about how your fame and fortune has altered your life you wrote a you wrote a book of poems published a book of poems with Jim Harrison called braided Creek where none of the poems are attributed to either of you and there's a poem in the book I think that addresses this point about this labouring too hard sometimes for fame or in the on the book jacket one of you again not attributed was asked about the source of the poems and either you or Jim said everyone gets tired of this continuing cult of the personality this book is an assertion in favor of poetry and against credentials so now I don't know whether you said that or whether Jim Harrison said that but assuming your shared I'm wondering how you cope now with that outlook being the nation's premier poet and everything that goes with that well one thing that I you know there are a lot of things that I have been thinking about I can't send out my own poems now to magazines because the worst of them would get published and so I've stopped that all together and I I've been thinking about using a sending them out under a pseudonym so that they be treated fairly you know that's one of the things I am I'm I'm quite concerned about the way that we attach poetry to poets there are a lot of well-known poets in this country who are marvelous delivers of their poems on on stages and so on and I wonder if once the person is gone from this world if the poems will hold up without them there to do the delivery and you know I believe and I grew up with poems that I found in books and read them and loved them and I still think that that's where poems are are at their best is on a page a private communication between the poet and a reader in a in a very quiet situation and it concerns me that that's that we put we're putting so much emphasis on poets and not so much on what they're what they're actually doing poetry readings are a lot of fun and you know there's some huge ones going on now that the at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey they have a tent that holds 3,500 people and many fill it you know with people coming to readings and so on but I don't know what celebrity is not particularly good for the arts I don't think I stuck with it for a little while you uh you mentioned that that carl shapiro had a an influence on you and i wonder if you could talk about that but also in the context does that translate into the kind of influence you think you have on on your students or how how do you think about the teaching role in terms of trying to influence people that for a work that really requires talent well you know we have we have a really good program here some of my colleagues in the creative writing unit are here tonight you know it's true that if i work with a group of poets for a semester i may 10th they may tend to start writing like i write but then they go and they write with hilda reyes or grace bauer and write in a different way and i don't know any way around that really i think that's okay that it happens that way that we you know all artists earn has learned through imitation and and all of us I began my writing career by imitating other writers and that's the way it works painters do the same thing I like my personal preferred way of teaching is to do a tutorial II I have my clamp I meet my students one-on-one for an hour a week and that that way I can deal with each one each one's idiosyncrasies in a in a different way in ansan so I really enjoy that but there's a certain amount of teaching you can accomplish I think there are things that really can't quite be taught you know and that's metaphor an association that sort of thing if a person is not gifted with the ability to make metaphors it's very difficult to show them how to do it at least I've never been able to figure it out so it's a kind of not a very good answer to your question but Ted I like your approach of writing for an ordinary reader because then I find that your poetry is accessible to me and but you are well educated well-read and presumably not an ordinary reader yourself I'm curious about those writers that you like to read that the ordinary readers for whom you write might not appreciate well there are poets whose difficulties are things that I can handle that I think ordinary readers might not be able to they're not my favorite poets you know most of my reading is not in poetry my leisure reading is you know I read I read novels and short stories and books of essays and so on my favorite reading is personal essays I love books of personal essays and local wonders that book of mine from Nebraska is sort of that kind of a book the personal essay seems to me to be the most natural way of communicating and words it's what we do in conversation we tell somebody how to do something or we ask them you know we raise questions and so on it's just like you just moved a conversation over into onto the page in a way it's very comfortable but sure you know I read I read people that I would not try to push on a audience of unsophisticated readers because I'm interested in what these people are doing of course I'm not and as a teacher I think I need to know about it you're the first poet laureate from the Midwest you fly to Washington and meet with all the I assume East Coast and West Coast literati we want to tell us something about that as an experience well it's um it's pretty heady stuff I I was in the Library of Congress in December and there November and there's an area there called the Kluge Center for scholars and scholars have Carol's there they're noted scholars who were working there and walking down the hall and my my contact at the library said here's a couple people I'd like to have you meet and it was John Hope Franklin a great black historian and John Carter who was the attorney who took the Brown versus Board of Education to the Supreme Court these guys are just there you know Cathy and I went to a concert in December and Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sitting right behind us you know and senator Levin is over here and we're trying to act like we're not from Nebraska but it's a the Library of Congress is for those of you who have never been to the Library of Congress you need to see it it's probably the most beautiful building I've ever been it is every every every little facet of it is in some way enhanced with art or sculpture or that sort of thing it's really it's really quite marvelous and so I'm really enjoying that part of it a great deal when I like Washington Washington easy to find your way around and although the first time I drove there they have turnarounds in Washington like these like we have here in Lincoln now I drove in write it I came in from South Carolina and I drove into the south across the across the bridge into Washington I got on one of those turnarounds and I went around probably eight or nine times in rush-hour traffic you know with everyone honking at me saying who is this geezer with these Nebraska plates you know until I finally just wrenched my way out and you know so there it's been rather trying to Ted I used to get Christmas cards from another Nebraska poet Bob Kerrey his poems were not as accessible to me as as yours and but I've read about your friendship with Bob first from him and more recently from you was it poetry that brought the two of you together well you know in a sense it was I mentioned Tom McGowan and that was I opened tonight the guy who was reading to the little six-year-old boy tom was a student and he was a friend of Bob's and he introduced me to Bob and Bob was you know this is long before he ran for governor wasn't even involved in politics at all at that time but he was interested in writing and he you know they Tom hooked him up with me because bob was interested in doing some writing and that's how we got to be friends and and have most of our friendship has been sort of surrounding you know has surrounded books and so on reading I don't see much of him anymore but you know I hear from him you know several times a year well now he's the university president he's really busy i-i-i think we could easily continue this conversation for hours but it is getting late and their snow outside so I want to thank you very much for participating in with a couple of lawyers for those of you who are interested in hearing Ted in another venue and eighty television is hosting an event in Kearney on April 16th at 7 p.m. at U n K's recital hall and Nebraska poet laureate will William clef will corn and several emerging Nebraska poets will participate in a taping for a future ne T program that event is also sponsored by the Nebraska Center for the book and the Nebraska Arts Council finally all of you are invited to a reception in the orchestral lobby where Ted will be signing books the university bookstore has some of Ted's books for sale and the Friends of the University Press is raising funds for the press by selling a special signed edition of one of Ted's essays these are available for purchase in the ticket holders Lobby just inside the lead main entrance so thank all of you for coming and thank you Ted for being here tonight and sharing real

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