Ted Kooser is a master at finding the beauty in ordinary things. Take silk flowers, for example. “I can't stop buying them,” says Nebraska's Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. The window display at his artist's studio in tiny Dwight, Neb., bears testimony to the obsession that began innocently enough. “A group of women wanted to have a book club meeting here years ago, so I went to every thrift shop in the area and bought silk flowers to dress up the place.” Before long, he had reason for new business cards: Ted Kooser, Artificial Florist.
Kooser doesn't do much writing in his one-room studio in Dwight. Instead, he comes here mostly to paint or read, or to take a trip down memory lane with Hoagy Carmichael, Faron Young, Webb Pierce and hundreds of other vintage artists in an extensive collection of LP record albums. “I play a polka album from time to time, too. After all, this is a Czech town.”
A few times a year, someone mistakes the studio for an antique or thrift store and pops in for closer inspection. The cheery “Poetry Made and Repaired” lettering on the window dupes visitors, as do Kooser's porcelain dolls, used books, antique desk and assorted items relating to the building's early days as a grocery store and then a craft shop.
The studio is across the street and around the corner from Cy's Café, Kooser's regular lunch spot. “I'll bet it's the only restaurant in Nebraska that serves roast pork and creamed potatoes,” he says.
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Kooser is married to Kathleen Rutledge, former editor of the Lincoln Journal Star. They live with a slow but faithful yellow Lab named Howard on an 1880s farmstead along a curving road about a dozen miles west of Dwight. Known as the Bohemian Alps for the Czech and German immigrants who settled here, the area has been the poet and essayist's inspiration for more than 30 years.
A typical day for Kooser starts before the sun breaks the horizon. He gets up at 4:30 a.m., makes a pot of coffee, answers his mail and email and writes in his journal. An overstuffed chair in a corner of the living room is a favorite spot for settling in with pad and pen. “Some of my best work is done before dawn,” he says, when the brain is just starting to awaken and random thoughts and observations spill onto his page.
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A weathered shack with chip board walls provides a place for reading diaries and volumes of letters, or simply for gazing through the screened window overlooking a small pond that welcomes all manner of wildlife, including a pair of Canada geese for a couple of weeks each spring. The shack is furnished with Uncle Tubby's recliner, a potbelly stove, a rocker that belonged to Kooser's grandparents, a desk, and floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with books and memorabilia. Tacked to the window trim: keepsake correspondence yellowed and brittle with age alongside snowy white animal skulls found in fields and gullies over the years.
A stone's throw from the reading shack stands a cornflower blue shed with a white gingerbread trim.
“It's a good place to take a nap,” he says. Indeed. It holds a bunk bed, an electric space heater, an alarm clock and a few books on a wood plank shelf. The space is so tight, two people standing inside would be a crowd.
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In a corncrib-turned-artist's studio, the colonizer emerges. Tin cans in tidy rows hold colored pencils, brushes and other art supplies while rainbows of soft pastels spill from wooden trays on work tables and easels. Amid the organized chaos sits a faded photograph of a happy little tyke son Jeff, now dad to Margaret, 14, and Penelope, 4. But the dozen or so soft pastel paintings of lush green pastures, golden fields and massive skies are what captivate the eye. “I can knock out one in the morning and feel like I've accomplished something,” he says of the Bohemian Alps-in-miniature tacked to the wall. “I've looked at the landscape so much over the years that I don't need a photograph to render it.”
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Ted and Kathleen became acquainted in 1976 in Lincoln. He was working for an insurance company and teaching a night class in creative writing at UNL. She was about to embark on what would be a long and successful career in journalism (she retired in 2007 after 30 years with the Lincoln Journal Star). They moved in the same circles and chatted casually at social gatherings. “I began to pursue her relentlessly,” Kooser says. His silver Datsun, she noticed, always seemed to be casing her neighborhood. One day as she was walking to the grocery store, he slowed his car, leaned out the window and asked if she would help him with his velvet string tie. He was on his way to a party – quite “poetlike” in his corduroy jacket and ruffled dress shirt. She tied his tie, only to leave her gloves on the front seat of his car. “It might have been a Freudian slip,” she teases.
On their first date, they discovered that they had both lived in Ames, Iowa, and that her family's white ranch house had been on his daily paper route. He courted her with poems. And 35 years later, she still has his poems and he still delivers her paper, grabbing it before dawn from the mailbox at the end of the lane. Kathleen is the source of his greatest happiness; the one thing that he says he could not live without.
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Poetry became a hobby in high school. “I weighed 120 pounds and wasn't an athlete, so I had to do something to get the girls' attention. Poetry was a way to be mysterious and attractive.”
A reader's reaction to “Spring Plowing,” a poem about field mice, was a defining moment in his career as a poet. “I was in my 30s when I wrote it. A woman read the poem in a literary magazine and sent me a note saying that she would never pass a freshly plowed field again without thinking of those mice. I remember thinking, 'That's my job.' Forty years later, I'm still at it.”
Poetry writing wasn't his sole occupation, of course. He spent 35 years in the insurance business, retiring from the executive ranks of Lincoln Benefit Life in 1999.
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His favorite poem is always the one he has just finished. “I think, 'Oh, God, is that ever terrific.' And immediately it starts to decay.” He was raking leaves in his yard shortly after learning (in an email) that “Delights & Shadows” had won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. “I laid down on the ground, looked up at the sky and wondered what would come next.” About that time, a World-Herald photographer came up the lane to get the story for the next day's paper.
The Pulitzer changed Kooser' s life. “I'm an introvert, and I didn't immediately look forward to traveling to every corner of America for dinners and speaking engagements.” But he got used to it. He took a cue from southern humorist Minnie Pearl, who said, “Just love 'em honey, and they'll love ya right back.”
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His darkest personal shadow was the discovery of cancer in his tongue and neck in June 1998. A routine trip to the dentist led to surgery to remove a tumor, followed by six weeks of radiation. The diagnosis and treatment left him anxious, “miserably sorry” for himself, and unable to write.
But as autumn faded and winter approached, Kooser began to heal. Predawn hikes along isolated country roads helped him along the way. One morning in early November, he surprised himself by trying his hand at a poem. Soon, he was writing every morning again. He would paste his poems all intimately connected to the experience of getting better on postcards to lifelong friend and fellow author Jim Harrison. The correspondence would be the basis for “Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison” (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000). “When you have something like that happen, it gives you a massive dose of humility,” Kooser says, reflecting on his illness and recovery. “You're so delighted to be alive.
Ordinary life, in fact, is his greatest delight. “I don't need any more than what I have around me.”
This story is an excerpt from the World-Herald's Inspired Home Omaha Magazine, the metro area's largest glossy shelter and lifestyle publication. See the best of what Omaha has to offer! Subscribe for just $9.99 a year for six issues at inspiredhomeomaha.com/subscribe