Nebraska's Poet Laureate Ted Kooser

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser has an undeniable way with words. But mastering just one art form wasn't enough for this Nebraskan - after a lifetime crafting written masterpieces, Kooser's newest creative pursuits have him practicing a different stroke.

From roller skates, weathered barns and hay bales, to trailer parks, barbershops and rural dirt roads, Ted Kooser sees art everywhere. His paintings regularly depict everyday scenes unnoticed by most passerby, and he often uses photographs he's taken during unplanned road trips as inspiration for the works, which are never for sale.

Alan J. Bartels

(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

After Ted Kooser became poet laureate of the United States in 2004 and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2005, the retired Lincoln insurance executive spent several years touring and speaking about his poetry. Having since settled into a slower pace of life that better suits him, Kooser still writes nearly every day. The creativity flowing through his veins consists of more than just the written word. At his comfortable studio in Dwight, when the mood is right, Kooser’s creativity flows from his 74-year old hands, to brush and then canvas.

When I asked Nebraska’s former U.S. poet laureate for an interview, Kooser replied with grace. Considering his stature and skill, I was not surprised when he responded efficiently with only the words needed to convey what he was thinking and feeling and not one word more. It was if he was carefully keeping inventory of his life’s allotment of words. “I’ve been interviewed almost to death,” Kooser said. “But, perhaps you and I can come up with something new.”

The first time I heard Ted Kooser speak was in a church in St.Paul. I knew the opportunity to hear a recently crowned laureate didn’t present itself to small-town Nebraska often, so I went. The small man’s voice resonated into me, velvety, but slightly textured, like a broken pencil lead: rough, smooth and sharp when needed. As the master beautifully described aspects of life overlooked by most, two women next to me quietly wept. This soft but strong force of the spoken word was new to me.

In the old building at 178 West Maple St. in Dwight in Butler County, you’d be hard pressed to come up with anything new. Kooser has been a regular at Cy’s Cafe in Dwight for years, and he was on his way there for lunch when he noticed the “for sale” sign in front of this place in 2006. “I thought, ‘It’s long enough where I can stand back and look at art,’ ” Kooser recalled. “It wasn’t a whole lot of money, so I bought it.”

This brick structure originally built as a Czech Fraternal Lodge now stands alone on this side of the block. Its utilitarian architecture perfectly fit later incarnations as a grocery store, and then later as a craft shop when Kooser found it. It would quietly blend into the background of Rockwellian Dwight if not for the bright floral designs painted around the windows and door, and the words “Poetry Made and Repaired” in large letters on a large storefront window. Each letter and flower was hand-appliqued by Kooser, who worked part-time as a sign painter to pay his way through college in Iowa.

I park next to Kooser’s Subaru and am delighted when I’m greeted by the endangered resistance of a good old-fashioned screen door as I walk in. A ballad by bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman echoes through the building. The screen door closes with a pleasant slam, and Kooser looks up from his easel and waves.

People sometimes walk in here thinking the place is a thrift shop. An antique partners desk sits in the middle of the front room. There’s an old trunk, too. Quilts are draped over furniture, fake flowers sit in the windows, and books fill shelves.

The ancestors of Kathleen Rutledge, Kooser’s wife and the first female editor in charge at the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper, were among the early founders of Valentine. They supplied meat to Fort Niobrara. “This was their desk,” Kooser said. “We still have their ledgers.” On the desk, a stack of business cards announces Kooser’s title as “Artificial Florist.” The trunk belonged to Kooser’s mother, Vera Moser, whom I feel I remember because of his poem “Mother” in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Delights & Shadows. “When strangers walk in, I let them,” Kooser said. “They think it’s a store. They pick up stuff and set it down, never asking how much it is. I don’t think I have anything in here that anybody would want.”

This place could also be mistaken for the Dwight Public Library. Kooser has nearly 5,000 books at his 1880s farm near Garland and about that many here in Dwight. Though this is a comfortable place for Kooser to read, some of these titles don’t thrill Kooser. He teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I don’tlike all of these books, but sometimes my students use them,” Kooser said of his library.

Kooser’s back room is a library of music from years gone by. Stacks of old vinyl records fill counter space next to the aged machine that pulls the songs from the obsolete, not-so-compact discs. Albums by one of his favorite singers, Tammy Wynette, occupy the tops of several stacks.Hundreds of cassettes fill a rack along one wall of Kooser’scomfortable home away from home. “Some of these tapes I may never listen to again,” Kooser said while pointing out the collection. “But I love them.” An unopened boxed set of poetry CDs reveals the most modern but perhaps least used of Kooser’s audio equipment.

As evidenced by the soup cans, plastic cups and glass jars holding paint brushes, this room is also where poet becomes painter.

An easel holds his latest work in progress. From a photograph he snapped near Dwight, Kooser paints the image of a road stretching toward the horizon, becoming thinner over the miles and hills of the Bohemian Alps.

Like the accumulation of fake flowers that took root when he began decorating after a women’s book club asked to meet here and then he couldn’t stop buying them, his inventory of brushes, colored pencils, paint and pastels could equip the art department at nearby Concordia University, “I just can’t resist,” Kooser said.“I love art supplies.”

While his poetry is efficiently to the point, Kooser hopes to do the opposite with his paintings. It’s proving to be a challenge. “I tend to get too fussy,” Kooser said. “I put in too much detail. I’d like to get to the point where I’m just suggesting shapes.”

He doesn’t do gallery shows and doesn’t sell paintings anymore. “I’ve sold a few over the years and never really felt good about it,” Kooser said. “I sold one 20 years ago for $400. I wish I could get it back.” He recently gave one away, to the plumber across the street. “They’re good neighbors,” Kooser said.

Other neighbors are at Cy’s Cafe where Janet Nemec carries on her father’s art of good food. Beginning as an Army cook, Cy was later promoted to White House chef for President Dwight Eisenhower. When we walk inside, everyone is gathered around one round table. They instinctively and politely shift to make room for us, and Nemec reaches for a couple of mugs and a fresh pot of coffee.

Kooser walks behind the counter and brings out some donuts. He gives one to me and takes two day-olds for himself.

After some talk of the drought, recent tree damage and last night’s rain, we end our coffee break to walk past the post office, a nearby vacant building that Kooser says “someone should buy,” and the Assumption Catholic Church that Kooser says is so beautiful “it makes you want to be Catholic.”

Back in the studio, the record is skipping. Kooser lifts the needle, and in that familiar velvety roughness begins reading from an unpublished poem pinned to the wall. I think it has potential.

Though he’s read his work in front of tens of thousands of people since I first heard him, I remind Kooser of where we first met.

I bring up those weeping women and Kooser nods knowingly. It happens when someone hears and finds great meaning in his words. Kooser hopes people will find his occasional paintings meaningful, too.

“I like everyday people,” Kooser said. “And it’s very important to me to touch people."

(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

For more Nebraskan poetry, check out Nebraska State Poet Bill Kloefkorn's Nebraska: This Place, These People, available in our store!

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