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The Author Speaks

Interview With Garrison Keillor on 'Good Poems: American Places'

Radio host to retire, says he's 'in denial'

Q. How do you go about finding the poems you read on The Writer's Almanac and collect in these anthologies?

A. I look at several hundred books of poetry a month, though for most of them it only takes a couple minutes to see that they won't work for the Almanac. Poets seem to want to be elusive and opaque, and pose mysterious riddles, and that's fine for them, but our radio listeners are busy doing other things and need to be able to get the message in one hearing, no smoke, no mirrors. And when you come upon a fine, surprising, readable poem, it is thrilling.

Q. Reading a few of the selections in Good Poems: American Places, I had the feeling you defined "place" rather loosely. One example: "Why I Have a Crush on You, UPS Man," by Alice N. Persons.

A. UPS goes everywhere in America, so the Persons poem could be in Minnesota or Maine or Malibu, but it's definitely in America somewhere.

Q. In the introduction, you refer to poetry as the "truest form of journalism we have." Can you explain?

A. Poetry is a record of the life around us and in us, and you'll get a better idea from poetry what it was like to be alive in 2011 than you will from the New York Times.

Q. Your daughter is 13. Does she like poetry? Do you read poetry to her?

A. I make up little rhyming poems for her as we fix breakfast or walk to church. Sometimes I write her a limerick, such as: There was a young lady named Maia / Who said to her daddy, "Hey, hiya / Could you tie my shoes / And read me the news / And while you're up, peel a papaya." She's more interested in songs than in poetry, and it isn't my job to try to redirect her; I just want her to remember "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and "The Minnesota Rouser" and "You're a Grand Old Flag," which we've been singing together since she was 4.

Q. What were the first poems you read, and who were your favorite poets?

A. I loved Frost, of course, the good grandpa of poetry, and tried to imitate Ogden Nash and somehow got my hands on an LP of Lawrence Ferlinghetti reciting poetry to jazz, which seemed utterly cool to me. In school they were pushing Shakespeare and Wordsworth, which I didn't warm to because we had to listen to recordings of Sir John Gielgud, and he struck me as girlish and simpering. I was very jingoistic about poetry, and still am. The Spanish and South American poets who've been so influential on American writers don't interest me at all. Rimbaud, Rilke, Ted Hughes, they all leave me cold. Give me a poem set in Pittsburgh, and I am happy.

Q. Why would you say we need poetry? Why should we read it?

A. I would never tell you you need poetry, but if we were eating dinner together and you said something disparaging about poetry, I might look you in the eye and recite "A Blessing" by James Wright or "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver or "Since Feeling Is First" by E.E. Cummings, and you would be moved by the straightforward musicality of it. Composers keep trying to set these things to music, and there's absolutely no need to — true poetry IS music. You would be touched by the music of our ordinary American English.

'I'm 68, and I am cheering for my elders' >>

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