August 8, 2011

from A CONVERSATION BETWEEN TED KOOSER AND ALAN FOX

FOX: Absolutely. How has the notoriety which comes with being Poet Laureate affected you?

KOOSER: Well, again, basically I’m kind of an introvert. It was very difficult for me to do all that public stuff, but I felt like I was being called to do it and that I better show that someone from Nebraska could do that kind of thing. I was the first one ever chosen from this part of the country at all. So I really worked at it 7 days a week and I made 200 appearances in the 20 months when I was actually in office and did a lot of interviews. And now that I’m getting away from it I can remember what it was like before. One thing that’s dangerous about the notoriety, I think, for a writer, is that I could write a poem right now, right while we’re sitting here, and send itsomewhere and somebody would pick it up and publish it and I don’t want that to happen. So I send out less and less of my work. I don’t send out anything unless I am absolutely sure that it is as good as anything I’ve ever done before. There are poets who haven’t been that cautious, who are publishing on the virtue of their notoriety, people who have achieved some celebrity. Or to publish too much—you publish book after book. It’s not a good idea.

FOX: I would think, at least for me, that better work comes from inside and from the joy of writing rather than “I want to be known, I want to be in twenty different journals” or whatever.

KOOSER: Yes, it’s a field in which you cannot will yourself into success. It just doesn’t happen. You have to accept what happens and do it as best as you can and hope something good will happen. My career as a writer is sort of a serendipitous thing in which I have had little bits of good luck here and there along the way. One of the examples I think that’s so typical of what’s happened to me is that in 2001, the University of Nebraska Press published this book of mine, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, which is a book about living in Nebraska, rural Nebraska, and the assistant director at the time told me before it came out, he said, “You know, you’re well-known in this state, it’ll probably have a pretty good local readership, but we certainly don’t have any hopes for national distribution of this by much.” This was long before Pulitzer and Poet Laureate and all that. So the University of Nebraska Press and all the other publishers go to this New York book expo that year, I think it was in the spring, and here is this huge, I guess, convention center with tables and tables of books from all the publishers. University of Nebraska Press probably does 100 titles a year maybe, so they’re all out there, mine is among them, and here’s University of Pittsburgh and here’s Harper & Row and Random House and all these people are in this room. A woman comes walking along the University Press table and she sees my book and she cracks it open at random to a passage about a cowboy shirt that my mother made for me when I was fourteen that I can still wear and she was touched by this passage. Well it turns out, her name is Jill Lamar, and she’s the woman who picks the books for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers program.

FOX: Whoa.

KOOSER: So there I went. And then Barnes & Noble picks it, it comes in third in their national non-fiction contest, and I’m up and running with that book. And, you know, there have been other things like that where I’ve just been standing—there are so many good writers in this country and lots of them have not had the breaks I’ve had. And who’s to account for that? I mean, I did have to write the poems and I had to write fairly well to do this, it wasn’t as if that was all luck, but to be noticed and so on. And the Pulitzer—Copper Canyon, a very small operation, at that time I think they had nine people on the whole staff and they don’t have a lot of money and it costs $50 to submit a book to the Pulitzers and they weren’t going to submit my book, it’s another $50. And then at the last minute they decided that they’d do it. And they sent it in and [snaps fingers].

FOX: That is real serendipity. I’ve always felt you do the work and what comes of it comes of it.

KOOSER: And that would be true whether you were a poet or an artist or somebody selling neckties at a ready-to-wear store….

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010

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