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Poet laureate visits campus

Ted Kooser, U.S. poet laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, gives the Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award Reading on March 22
Ted Kooser, U.S. poet laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, led a writing workshop for more than 25 members of the University community on March 22. Later in the day, he received the Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award and gave a reading.

Kooser, a short, unassuming man in a gray trench coat, looks far more like the insurance executive he once was than a major literary figure. He began the workshop by talking about his upbringing, education and views on poetry.

The son of a storekeeper and a homemaker, Kooser grew up in Ames, Iowa. “From the time that I was small, I wanted nothing more than to be different from these people,” he said. “I wanted to be mysterious.”

Robert McCloskey, best known as the author of Make Way for Ducklings, was a big hero of his boyhood. Kooser loved his book Lentil, about an ordinary Midwestern boy whose harmonica playing saves the day in his small town.

Kooser decided he, too, should have a special talent, something that would set him apart from his peers. Writing and painting became outlets for him.

Kooser began college as an architecture student on the advice of his high school adviser, who said that would be a practical use for his artistic talent. In his junior year, Kooser left a math class in frustration and threw his slide rule into the lake at the center of Iowa State’s campus.

He switched majors, earned a bachelor’s in English and taught high school for a year.

Kooser then enrolled at the University of Nebraska for graduate school, mostly because poet Karl Shapiro, who won the Pulitzer in 1945, was on the faculty. Kooser ignored his schoolwork and spent a lot of time with Shapiro. Consequently, he lost his scholarship and was forced to get a job.

Kooser found work as a management trainee at an insurance company. He planned to save money and return to school.

“I didn’t know what insurance was,” he said. That was 1964. Kooser worked in insurance for 35 years.

“Somehow or other, I became vice president of an insurance company,” he said. Kooser, who never took a business class, credits his communication skills with his success.

Kooser liked the job’s regular hours and found he had the discipline to rise early most mornings to write poems. He published several books of poetry, never expecting they would bring him fame or fortune.

In June 1998, this pattern came to an abrupt halt. Kooser, who was a heavy smoker and drinker for many years, was diagnosed with cancer.

A tumor was removed from his tongue, but the cancer had spread to Kooser’s neck and he required six weeks of radiation.

“There were many mornings when I’d wake up and wish I hadn’t,” Kooser recalled. Kooser, now 66, said he feels lucky to have survived stage four cancer.

“There are marvelous things that come of an experience like that,” he said.

The years since have certainly been remarkable for him. He published three books between 2000 and 2003. And 2004’s Delights & Shadows won the Pulitzer. That year, he was invited to be poet laureate.

“It’s a good job, but it’s a lot of work,” he said of the position.

Kooser has done so much travel during the past 18 months that when someone asked him where he had been the day before he was in Binghamton, he couldn’t remember.

In addition to speaking all over the country, Kooser has begun a weekly poetry column that newspapers can run for free. He wants to bring a more accessible style of poetry to mainstream readers, many of whom have been turned off by elitist, difficult poems.

His own poems are quite accessible and often focus on everyday experiences.

Toward the end of the workshop, Kooser instructed the participants to “write a poem of feeling without stating the feeling.”

The writers read their surprisingly strong, even moving, poems aloud 15 minutes later. Topics included lovers, children and even a humorous take on the workshop itself.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08