Poet Ted Kooser talks about mothers and sons

  • Article by: JAMES CIHLAR , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 8, 2010 - 2:18 PM

A Q&A with the Pulitzer Prize winner.

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Ted Kooser

Photo: Mark Hvidsten, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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Two recent books by poet Ted Kooser explore the little miracles that happen when we live in harmony with the landscape. "Lights on a Ground of Darkness" is a tribute to his mother's family history, richly intertwined with the Turkey Valley of northeastern Iowa. "Bag in the Wind" finds poetry in the forgotten relics of everyday life.

In honor of Mother's Day, Kooser -- a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate -- talked about the enduring ties between mothers and sons, and the virtues of gardening, recycling, living long and staying put.

Q You have made your mark in many ways, and yet "Lights on a Ground of Darkness," a small book about your mother and her family, holds a special place for you. Why was it so important to finish writing it before she passed, and what was her reaction to it?

A I wanted to let her know that our family, which could have been seen to be so very ordinary, was really not, that it had been quite wonderful growing up among those people and I was thankful to her for bearing me. I was anxious about showing it to her because I was afraid it would make her sad -- nearly everyone was dead by then -- but she read it and liked it.

Q I love the garden imagery in the poem you include at the start, especially "The peonies are up, the red sprouts / burning in circles like birthday candles." What is it about spring and gardening that speaks so well to the ties between generations, between mothers and sons?

A One of the graduate students with whom I've been working, Ben Vogt, has written a book-length memoir all centered about working in the garden with his mother. I think that people are at their best when they are working at one of the original human occupations, one of the things the human family was doing 20,000 years ago, and digging in the dirt is one of these. And with that comes intimacy, it seems to me.

Q You recall as a young boy listening to your mother and her father tell stories about their extended family. How important was your mother in encouraging you to become a writer?

A Mother supported nearly everything that I wanted to do, though she disapproved of a couple of my choices in girlfriends. She read to my sister and me when we were small -- parents did that then -- and I'm sure that that was important in my interest in writing stories and poems. My father was a terrific storyteller, and that was important, too. One of his friends once said to me, "I'd rather hear your father describe a person than see the person myself."

Q Your grandfather was born the same year that barbed wire was invented and lived to see the invention of the atom bomb. Do you feel his generation was unusual for the amount of change they witnessed?

A I do. There was so much dramatic change between 1874 and 1972, when he died. My wife's aunt lived to be 113, was born in 1893 and lived through the entire 20th century, from end to end. We, too, are seeing a lot of change in our lives, but the inventions aren't nearly as spectacular. I was thinking just yesterday that death, when it comes, will be a welcome relief from relentless change.

Q "Lights on a Ground of Darkness" presents a surprising, affectionate portrait of what some might consider flyover territory. What is the benefit of staying in one place?

A I know people who have lived all their lives in one place, with a few forays out into the greater world, and I am always enchanted by their grasp of nature and history. One of my neighbors can tell you the common names and uses of every plant and animal in the county.

Q The love for your mother infuses this book, and yet she's less visible in it than her family. What was she like in later years, and how did you two interact?

A Mother was always very much in control of her life, very disciplined and independent. She spent the last 20 years alone, after Dad died, and entertained herself by sewing and reading and watching a little television. She read the local newspaper cover to cover and was always intelligent about current affairs. She had very little income, but could live a week on a half a head of lettuce and two or three hot dogs and still manage to save a few cents along the way.

She and I were very close, very much alike, and not a day goes by that I don't think about her. In fact, it seems that at some point every day I think for a passing moment about each of my family members who have gone on. They are in many ways the most important presences in my life.

Q Does your industriousness have something to do with your mother, and with your Midwestern upbringing?

A I write because I enjoy it, and I'm all for doing what I enjoy. That explains the industriousness -- it's just me at play. I do think my parents' work ethic has served me well over the years. For 35 years I was able to hold down an executive job at a life insurance company and write and publish, as well, and that takes a certain drive.

Q Your new release, "Bag in the Wind," finds beauty in the mundane, narrating the imaginative journey of a lowly plastic bag as it finds re-use in new circumstances. What drew you to writing a children's book about recycling?

A When I started the story, I had no idea that it would be about recycling. I felt like writing about the peregrinations of a plastic bag blown here and there. I have only rarely begun any kind of writing with an idea. Most of my work, my poems and essays, begins with some image that catches my interest, in this instance a bag being blown along.

Q There's a moving scene in "Lights on a Ground of Darkness" in which you and your mother, by then in her 70s and widowed for five years, visit the stone church your great-grandfather helped build in Iowa in the 1850s. You observe a stencil pattern of irises on the walls, "surely the work of an infinitely patient feminine hand." This book pays tribute to women's work. As you wrote it, what surprised you about the role of women on the prairie?

A I have been observing the women in my family since I was a tiny boy, standing in the corner of a kitchen watching my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, and my great-aunts work. And they worked, hard. My mother had a cousin who with her daughters-in-law would kill and dress a hundred chickens before lunch. I've read of threshing crew cooks who baked over a hundred loaves of bread every morning. If there are stereotypes present in our thinking about rural life, one would be that of the hard-working male farmer, toiling in the sun. But the women I knew worked harder and complained rarely.

James Cihlar is a St. Paul poet and the author of "Undoing."

  • LIGHTS ON A GROUND OF DARKNESS

    By: Ted Kooser.

    Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, 72 pages, $10.95.

    BAG IN THE WIND

    By: Ted Kooser.

    Publisher: Candlewick, 48 pages, $17.99.

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