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Hanging with Ted

Agriculture.com Staff 09/29/2006 @ 8:50am

It was a gray and rainy weekend. Friday rode in on a cold wind that moaned across the prairie, muttering rumors of an approaching winter. In short, it was a perfect weekend for curling up with a book or for attending the fourth annual South Dakota Festival of Books. I did a little bit of both.

Friday evening found me listening to some top-drawer poetry being read by some top-drawer poets. They included Bill Holm; Lee Ann Roripaugh; Marilyn Chin; and none other than Ted Kooser, who just finished a stint as U.S. Poet Laureate.

Poets are a separate species from us mortals. They not only think in pictures, they have also somehow figured out how to write in them. Poets can take any old set of flaccid, lifeless words and make them sing and dance.

The poetry I heard that evening filled my mind with enough imagery to leave me feeling as if I had watched a full-length feature film.

Saturday's schedule was so chock-full of workshops and symposia, it was hard to know which to attend. At one point, in between such events, I stopped to grab a cup of joe at a coffee kiosk. This is how I got to hang with Ted.

Ted Kooser is a little slip of a man, gray-haired and balding, and is blessed with a surprisingly deep and rich set of vocal chords. His glasses slightly magnify his eyes and make them appear somewhat watery.

It's hard to fathom how Ted, a former insurance executive, could have used that same set of eyes to take cold, hard looks at actuarial tables, then catch a glimpse of a tree or a passing cloud and see a poem.

I asked Ted what it had been like serving as the nation's Poet Laureate. "It's been running 24-7," he replied. "I wanted to show them that someone from the Midwest could do this thing and do it right."

Ted is a Midwesterner to the bone. Born in Ames, Iowa, he now lives in Garland, Nebraska, a small town that has a population of 247.

Had there been any surprises? "A few," said Ted. "One of the nicest was being awarded an honorary doctorate from South Dakota State University last spring. I think it's kind of funny to be called 'doctor' after having been kicked out of graduate school."

Kicked out? What for?

"Oh, I wouldn't toe the line. I wouldn't do all the stuff they said I should be doing."

All to our benefit. For example, in Ted's book, Delights & Shadows -- which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 -- a poem titled "Mother" describes an April thunderstorm: "Then it poured, a storm that walked on legs of lightning, dragging its shaggy belly over the fields."

Whoa. If that ain't good writing, I'm the pope.

Another author who didn't "toe the line" was Pete Dexter, who received the 1988 National Book Award for his novel Paris Trout.

Pete arrived for his workshop dressed in a loud floral shirt and a neon pink Yankees baseball cap. His demeanor was that of a mangy coyote who seemed surprised to have been caught in the headlights as he gnawed on roadkill.

As he began his talk, Pete noted that he had just received both good and bad news. "The good news is, I found my tooth," he said, pulling a partial denture from his shirt pocket. "The bad news is, it was on the floor of the truck." After giving it a quick swish in a glass of water, he deftly popped his partial into his mouth.

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