Ted Kooser began his writing life as, essentially, a “side hustle.” He worked a day job at an insurance company, and he’d get up in the morning, hours before he had to go into work, to write poetry. That morning hobby became much more. After decades of these morning writing sessions, and after publishing countless pieces, he received a call that he was being named the Poet Laureate of the United States. He was so shocked that he got into his car and broke off the side mirror backing it out of the garage.
He still gets up every morning in the same way to do the same work. He’s no longer with the insurance company, but his routine is otherwise unchanged. So what better person to ask about writing habits and a lifetime of work.
I do have a favorite chair and I like opening the mornings in the same way each day, with coffee, my chair, my dog and my notebook. I can of course write elsewhere, but have the best luck with this routine.
I very often read the poems of someone whose work I admire. Just now I’m rereading all of the poems of Nancy Willard, who died recently. She has been one of my favorite writers for many years. I find that if I read a poem I am moved by I often feel like I’d like to strike up a kind of conversation with the poet, and my response may be an attempt at a poem of my own.
No goals, ever. I just sit with my notebook and see if something will happen.
Most often my poems begin with an association between a couple of disparate things, a metaphor, though sometimes they arise from something I’ve seen that seems to be haunting me. The other day I wrote a poem about a passage in a book that I must have read twenty-five years ago.
I revise and revise and revise, part of my objective being to have a finished poem that looks as if it had been done in a flash. I revise until I can’t think of anything I can do to improve it further. Though in a few days I may notice something else I could do with it. Eventually I move on to something else.
William Stafford, one of our great poets, said that the best thing to do about writer’s block is to lower your standards, and it’s the best advice to give someone who’s stalled.
No, I don’t. I do have a lot of books on writing that I’ve kept mainly to loan to my students, but none of them stands out as being especially remarkable. I wrote my own book on poetry writing, THE POETRY HOME REPAIR MANUAL, and I hope it’s helpful to people, but the best things for young poets to be reading are poems. I have suggested to students that they ought to read a hundred poems for every one they try to write. That’s really how you learn to write poetry.
I was almost always busy with the insurance work during the day, and though I might make a note of something, they were paying me to be an insurance executive and not a poet. I did nearly all my writing in the few hours before work, getting up early and sitting by myself just as I do today.
Among all my poems there are only a few that are related to that work life, “Four Secretaries” being the one that comes first to mind, being a better poem than the others:
All through the day I hear or overhear
their clear, light voices calling
from desk to desk, young women whose fingers
play casually over their documents,
setting the incoming checks to one side,
the thick computer reports to the other,
tapping the correspondence into stacks
while they sing to each other, not intending
to sing nor knowing how beautiful
their voices are as they call back and forth,
singing their troubled marriage ballads,
their day-care, car-park, landlord songs.
Even their anger with one another
is lovely: the color rising in their throats,
their white fists clenched in their laps,
the quiet between them that follows.
And their sadness—how deep and full of love
is their sadness when one among them
is hurt, and they hear her calling
and gather about her to cry.
What I did learn from those 35 years at the insurance job was how to talk to people who aren’t literary professionals, and that has helped my writing immeasurably.
No, and in fact it worried me because suddenly the journals were asking for poems to publish and I was afraid they’d publish something just because my name was on it. So since then I’ve tried to be very careful what I send out.
My first wife and I were divorced when my son was just two-and-a-half, and they moved back to Iowa from Nebraska, so I didn’t have the opportunity to do much parenting as he grew up. I tried to be helpful but it’s very difficult to be a long-distance father. I wrote a few poems about that experience, one or two of which seem to have some worth.
I use email but I write lots of real letters, and I have a number of writer friends who write real letters back. It’s one of my joys. One of my constant correspondents is Connie Wanek, a fine poet, and Connie and I exchange several letters every week.
I am not on Facebook, or any of the other social networks, and I don’t want to be. I like fountain pens and good paper and the slow and thoughtful pace of communicating in handwriting. I remember reading that Shelby Foote wrote his million-word three volume history of the Civil War with a hand-dipped ink pen, and when he was asked about that he said that when you write that way you have to think about every word you put down. I’d guess that about one in every four emails is an apology for saying something in a hurry that didn’t come out right the first time.
And I like postage stamps! Designing good-looking stamps is one thing the government does superbly, quite possibly the only thing.