Saturday, October 22, 2005

Ted and Me

As a kid I enjoyed being a pen pal. Pen pals, often people who had never met in person, exchanged letters and generally corresponded. I collected pen pals from several states and a number of countries. I saved the foreign stamps in my collection and kept all the letters in a cigar box.

Fast-forward to today and being a “pen pal” has taken on a whole new meaning with the Internet. Now, you can fire off a note to anybody who has an email address and usually get a reply. Factoid of the week is that email addresses have exceeded phone numbers as a way of contacting people. So, there you are.

Some years ago on National Public Radio I heard an interview with a college professor from Wales who had studied comedy and discovered, or determined, the funniest joke ever told. That has to be qualified somewhat, and it’s actually the funniest joke ever told in the UK among literate people in the 20th century. “Ever told”, therefore, is a bit of a stretch. And, in my humble opinion, the joke was funny but not that funny.

To get to the point, somewhat, I had the professor’s name and college and armed with that information it was an easy couple of clicks to discover his email address which he had conveniently listed on his department’s website. Minutes later I had sent him a note expressing my opinion and sending him what I thought was the funniest joke I had ever heard; as if it mattered.

Later that day I received a reply thanking me for my interest and in the course of a few days we exchanged several more notes and jokes. And, that was that.

Well, not quite.

Over the years I’ve sent email notes to all sorts of people I would normally never cross paths with in my day-to-day life. For example, after reading the book “Contact” by Carl Sagan I corresponded with Jill Tarter at the SETI Institute about the strategies of contacting extraterrestrial civilizations. I also received a nice note from Emeril Legasse on soufflĂ© techniques. I think ET would enjoy an orange soufflĂ© flamed with Grande Marnier.

Thus it was that this week I heard on NPR an interview with Ted Kooser, the 13th Poet Laureate of the United States.

Heavy stuff.

But, when the interviewer asked about writing something clicked. The question was, can you tell when the words are working, when what you’re trying to write is coming together?

I commented before Ted answered, oh, yes, boy howdy! In my case, the story is either pushed or pulled. When it’s pushed it’s hard work. Every word is a strain and the result is OK but not anything to write home about. Email or otherwise.

Then, there are those magical moments when the characters come alive and pull the story out of me and it’s such a rush. The story is alive and it’s all I can do to keep up.

Back to the interview, Ted commented that, yes, sometimes the words came easily, like a flock of geese coming in.

Flock. Of. Geese. Coming. In.

Yes, that was it. Perfect. The words come down in formation, still in the air with a destination in mind. I’ve heard the whooshing sound that geese make on the descent and that’s the sound the words make as they work together to tell a story.

The pen pal in me awoke. I Googled Ted’s website and he graciously published his email address. In a rush I sent him a note about the NPR interview and writing and geese and words and his description and how much I appreciated what he had said.


The next day I received a reply. This is the cool part. I received a reply from the Poet Laureate of the United States, Ted Kooser.

To me.

He sent me a poem. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. It’s a personal poem from him to me. It’s about writing and words and geese and the rush when ideas crystallize and it was his words, the Poet Laureate’s, to me.

In what may be a poem considered by the Nobel committee for a prize in literature I am nevertheless compelled to share it with the blogging community and the world.

Here is Ted Kooser’s poem to yours truly, me:

Thanks, Bill.

Ted and me. We’re tight.


Kalyn Denny said...

Very fun.

Antique Mommy said...

Bill, you may be pushing and pulling those geese, but from my vantage point it looks delightfully effortless.

Andrew Purvis said...

Actually, there is a great tradition to his reply. It is said that a poor student (perhaps at Harvard, though I am not sure I have ever heard a definitive version of this tale) wrote to Twain using words somthing to this effect: "Mr. Twain, I understand you are paid $1 per word for what you write. I am a student and do not have much money, but here is one dollar. Please send me your best word."

Twain, perhaps sensing the underlying sneakiness in the student's letter, though probably realizing a chance to make a point, replied with, "Thanks."

Oh, and poet laureates can be pretty cool folk. I had the opportunity to speak to Robert Pinsky earlier this year and found him not merely affable but quite generous with his time and enthusiasm.

Anonymous said...

Emeril, huh? Do tell, my boy.

MF said...

Very sweet. Charming, even.

Bret said...

It certainly beats stalking. I think.

schmims said...

Bill that was so funny I laughed out loud. AT. WORK. Thanks Bill. They all know I'm not doing any work.

I got an response email from the national fiddle champion. I thought that was pretty cool. An email from the national fiddle champion!

Anonymous said...

Good tale-telling. Are you a writer for real? Like novels? Like true stuff? Hmmm. I heard that interview also. I, however, did not write Ted nor did I receive a poem from Ted.