More than 400 people took the opportunity to hear the 13th Poet Laureate of the United States, Ted Kooser, read from his works on Feb. 3 at The University of Texas-Pan American Student Union Theatre.
Reading poems with topics that ranged from an old man's tattoo or the experience of providing a urine specimen to describing the visit to his mother's childhood friend to tell her of his mom's death, Kooser clearly created a memorable experience for an attentive crowd of listeners.
Nolan Melhart, a junior from Nikki Rowe High School in McAllen who attended with a large group of Rio Grande Valley GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) students, said he had expected a younger man and something "more mainstream." But he came away pleasantly surprised.
Omie Espinoza, a UTPA sophomore majoring in psychology, said the University was blessed to have the poet come from as far away as Nebraska to South Texas.
"I feel like his writings are of life and I can relate to his poetry," she said of the poet known for his musings on small town America and the first Poet Laureate from the Great Plains. As Poet Laureate, he joined the ranks of Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren among others.
Kooser, who was appointed as Poet Laureate in August 2004 by the Librarian of Congress, started writing poetry as an 18 year old and is the author of 10 collections of poetry, most recently "Delights & Shadows" published last year. He has received numerous recognitions for his poetry including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and the Pushcart Prize. His work "Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison" won the 2001 Nebraska Book Award for Poetry. Until five years ago when he retired, Kooser spent 35 years working for a life insurance company and would write poetry in the early morning hours before leaving home for his job.
During the reading, Kooser told the audience that he liked writing about ordinary things or objects, and then read a poem about a spiral notebook and another on smoke rings. When asked "What is poetry?" from an audience member, Kooser replied "A poem is the record of a discovery and we need to look at poems as experiences. I give you a poem as an experience and you either keep it or reject it," he said.
"He is a master of metaphor. He has talked about metaphor as connecting disparate elements. His imagination enables him to make those connections and being able to do so is a real gift," Schneider said.
Before his evening appearance for the public, Kooser spoke with creative writing and poetry class students and attended a luncheon with President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas, Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo, interim dean of the College of Arts and Humanities Dr. Wallace Tucker and other English department faculty members.
"Obviously it is a very significant honor for UTPA to have the Poet Laureate of the United States here. He is also an academician, an innovator and an individual who seems very interested in taking the humanities to the people, particularly poetry. He was able to offer us some very good suggestions on how we might look for financial support for some of the things we want to do," said Cárdenas, who envisions a collaborative, annual poetry project with one or more UT System institutions.
Kooser described himself as "speechless" when he got the call to tell him he had been chosen as the nation's Poet Laureate. He said he was so surprised that he could not respond so they told him they'd call him back the next day. The one-year, $35,000 a year position, which provides an office space in the Library of Congress, has become more than ceremonial in recent years, offering an opportunity for the Poet Laureate to bring poetry to more people outside classrooms and libraries.
As Kooser autographed books for the long line of admirers wanting to meet him after the evening reading, he talked about his goals during his tenure.
"I am going to start a newspaper column featuring poetry that is going to be distributed free to any newspaper in the country that wants to use it. The name of the column will be 'American Life in Poetry.' That's my big project. I also want to figure out a way of assembling good ideas for English teachers, perhaps on a Web site, of teaching poetry," he said.
Until his Web sites are activated, Kooser suggested checking the Library of Congress site at www.loc.gov/poetry/ for more information on the progress of his projects.