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Home Arts & Culture Former Poet Laureate and Seward Native Ted Kooser Speaks on Writing Poetry

Student Bethany Schilling receives an autograph from Ted Kooser, who visited the Seward Memorial Library to describe his writing process. Photo by Morgan Consier.

By Morgan Consier

Aspiring poets and writers often believe they need a great idea in order to produce great writing.

Ted Kooser, former United States Poet Laureate from 2004-2006 says that practice, not a single great idea is what makes any writer good.

“I’m good at it (poetry) now, and I guess I am, good enough to win some big prizes, the reason I’m good at it is that I’ve done it every day for 60 years. And if I had taken up anything else, I would be good at it,” Kooser said.

During an event at the Seward Memorial Library on Sept. 23, Kooser shared some of his life stories and how those experiences translate into poems.

Over the years, Kooser has had a plethora of poetry books and individual poems published, but he admits that not every poem that he writes is worthy of publication. Poetry doesn’t always flow from him when he sits down to write.

“So often what we want to do is write something great, and we can’t. I write every day and my guess is that twice a month I have something that’s worth sending out and trying to get published and the rest is just exercise, calisthenics,” Kooser said. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. You just have to write and not think about that.”

Instead of starting each poem based on an idea, Kooser bases them off metaphors.

“I draw out the metaphor until the skin is so tight and it’s about to burst,” Kooser said.

Even though Kooser’s published poems look polished, they don’t start out that way. Kooser admits that he can’t write well right off the bat and that he will revise each poem 30 to 50 times.

“I keep of track of all my revisions, because oftentimes I will revise a poem beyond the point I should have, and then the poem is bloodless. And then I can back up and say this was better two versions ago,” Kooser said.

Kooser believes in letting each poem sit for a while before editing it and also finding someone else who will read your work and give you honest feedback.

I think the best time to go back and read what you wrote is later in the day when your rational mind can distance itself from what you’ve done, because immediately you can’t see things,” Kooser said. “For me, even within 4 to 5 hours, I begin to notice things I didn’t notice before that don’t work.”

Kooser’s wife, Kathy, acts as his reader and a reminder of his imaginary audience. This audience he writes for is comprised of everyday people, not just literary critics.

“I am not interested in writing for professional literary people. I like them fine, and I’m happy when I write something they like, but I don’t want them as my primary audience,” Kooser said.

To those who are interested in writing poetry, Kooser advises them to start small.

“None of us knows if we have a book in us. What I want to say is I think I have a paragraph in me. I had a paragraph in me today and I’ll have another paragraph in me tomorrow,” Kooser said.

Junior Bethany Schilling said that Kooser’s emphasis on the importance of revision was a good reminder to her that not every initial draft will be great, but that continuing to write and revise can help make each draft better than the last.

“Kooser, however, puts a tremendous amount of work into each and every piece. His dedication to editing and not settling for anything less than he’s capable of has inspired me to be a more intentional and hard-working writer,” Schilling said.

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