Spending quality time with poetry

Ted Kooser served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006 and will be visiting the Rogue Valley next week as part of the Chautauqua Poets and Writers Series. He will give a talk and read from his work at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25, at the Mountain Avenue Theatre, Ashland High School, 201 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland.

Kooser also will conduct a writing workshop the morning of Friday, Oct. 26, with students from Ashland and Crater high schools. At 9 a.m. Thursday, he will be interviewed on Jefferson Public Radio's "Jefferson Exchange" show.

In 2006 and 2007 the Chautauqua Poets and Writers Series has featured presentations by Naomi Shihab Nye, Jane Hirschfield and Alberto Rios. These writers and Kooser are all teachers. Kooser is a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The Chautauqua organizers have as criterion for their speakers that they have the desire and ability to work with students. When they visited the Rogue Valley, they met with other teachers and students at Southern Oregon University and local schools. The guest lecturers talk about who they are as teachers as well as writers, noting that a lot of people come into the teaching profession as artists.

Kathi Bowen-Jones, Ashland High School English teacher and Chautauqua coordinator says the series "Provides the opportunity for people to open up to see what's available to them in poetry." She has observed the interest in poetry and the writers among her students. And she has been delighted at the level of their participation in the public dialogues with the speakers. "It's an opportunity to see our students interact and live in a thinking community with adult kind of thinking."

The author of 11 volumes of poetry and many essays, Kooser comes from a long lineage of Poets Laureate, staring with Joseph Auslander from 1937-41. Since that time there have been a number of honorees, including: Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Louis Untermeyer, James Dickey, William Stafford, Richard Wilbur, Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins, Louise Gl&

252;ck and current Poet Laureate Charles Simic.

Kooser, who lives on a farm near Garland, Neb., and was raised in Iowa, was the first U.S. poet laureate from the Great Plains. His voice has often been hailed as a voice for rural America. The land and its creatures and growing things often find their way into his poems. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington called him "a major poetic voice" whose work accessibly touches universal themes.

Kooser says he often looks closely at ordinary things to see if he can't get something special and poetic out of them. Sometimes that can take odd turns. He wrote a poem about his father:

"Father, May 19, 1999. Today you would be 97 if you had lived, and we would all be miserable, you and your children, driving from clinic to clinic, an ancient, fearful hypochondriac and his fretful son and daughter, asking directions, trying to read the complicated, fading map of cures."

Retired in 1998 after working 35 years for an insurance company, Kooser says he held a day job for decades because of the eternal bane of the artist: Poets don't make a living.

Kooser's poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The American Poetry Review and in many textbooks and anthologies. He has written plays, fiction and criticism in addition to poems. He was editor and publisher of Windflower Press, a poetry house. He is the recipient of many poetry prizes, including a Pulitzer.

A fanatical re-writer and editor, Kooser sometimes re-writes a poem 40 or 50 times, always in the direction of clarity and simplicity. His book "The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets," is an attempt to share some of the wisdom he's gained about his art over the years.

Kooser says he got up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. for so many years to write before going to work that even his retirement in the wake of a bout with cancer, he still rises early to write poems such as one called "Selecting a Reader," (from 2005's "Flying at Night") from which this passage comes:

First, I would have her be beautiful,

and walking carefully up on my poetry

at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,

her hair still damp at the neck

from washing it. She should be wearing

a raincoat, an old one, dirty

from not having money enough for the cleaners.

She will take out her glasses, and there

in the bookstore, she will thumb

over my poems, then put the book back

up on its shelf. She will say to herself,

"For that kind of money, I can get

my raincoat cleaned." And she will.

Tickets to Kooser's Chautauqua presentation are $15 general admission and $12 for students. Tickets are available at A Rug For All Reasons in Medford and Bloomsbury, The Bookwagon and Tree House Books in Ashland. Call 482-8771, Ext. 197.

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