Garrison Keillor occupies such a special place in American letters that the writer to whom he is most frequently compared is the legendary Mark Twain. A rangy man with a sonorous voice, Keillor, 68, is a humorist, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, radio personality and, lately, the editor of a new poetry anthology.
Perhaps best known as the droll host of American Public Media's A Prairie Home Companion, which he created in 1974 in his native Minnesota, he is now heard on some 590 public radio stations across the country. Each week, more than 4 million listeners hear Keillor delivering "The News from Lake Woebegon," his trademark monologue about a fictional Minnesota town where time stands blissfully still. A Prairie Home Companion became a movie in 2006, directed by Robert Altman and written by Keillor, who appeared in the movie as himself.
Keillor has a way of reconciling seeming contradictions. A purveyor of all things folksy and down-home, he is a highly cultivated, worldly man (he and his third wife, violinist Jenny Lind Nilsson, have homes in St. Paul and Manhattan). He was a writer for the New Yorker magazine, in fact, doing a piece on the Grand Ole Opry, when he got the idea for A Prairie Home Companion. And his "News from Lake Wobegon" remains both a paean to small-town life and a send-up of it.
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.
Q. Does age give you an advantage in writing it? Finding meaning in it?
A. Good Lord, no. The advantage is with youth, as in most things. They have the energy and bravery and pizzazz, they go slamming around, and we old coots tiptoe along the edge. But we have high hopes. And there are exceptions to the rule. I'm reading Edward Hoagland's latest book, Sex and the River Styx. He is one of the greatest prose stylists of our time, he is 78, and this is his best book — great God, I am stunned at this accomplishment. And Robert Bly, closing in on 90 and writing beautifully and more humorously than ever. And Donald Hall, likewise. I'm 68, and I am cheering for my elders.
Q. What are your favorite places to visit, apart from St. Paul and New York City, where you have homes?
A. Everyone of course loves San Francisco — I adore the Inner Sunset district along Irving Avenue and Golden Gate Park, so fresh and unpretentious, lively, multiracial, easy-going. I love Austin, Texas, and New Orleans and odd places like Mackinac Island and Plainfield, Vt., and Washburn, Wis. And for sheer friendliness, there's no place like North Dakota. I never sat down with North Dakotans but what I felt … I was with family, and politics never mattered to us at all.
Q. You own a bookstore in St. Paul. How do you feel about the Kindle and other digital reading devices versus printed books?
A. I favor people reading by whatever technology seems hospitable to them. My wife takes her Kindle on trips, I pack books in my suitcase. Either is fine. I happen to love the sensual experience of walking into a bookstore and examining the wares, picking up books, smelling them, admiring the covers, reading the first page or two. In 15 minutes, I can always find at least five books that really deeply interest me. I can't do that online. It just doesn't excite my viscera the way physical books do. This is a learned pleasure going back to when I was 10 and rode my bike downtown and walked into the reading rooms of the Minneapolis Public Library. It's not a pleasure I can transfer to a digital image on a screen, just as I can't get as excited about a picture of a naked woman as I do about one who is walking across the floor toward me.
Q. You take A Prairie Home Companion all over the country. Are the audiences different in different places?
A. Quite different. More reserved in the Midwest, more lighthearted on the coasts, which is partly a function of transportation. In the Midwest, it's too easy to get to the theater: You just drive and park and walk in the door. In New York or L.A., it's a big struggle; you have to plot your course and have alternate routes in mind and be prepared to deal with unforeseen harrowing developments. Coming in from Westchester or Montclair or Hartford to Town Hall on West 43rd in Manhattan can try men's souls, as does the trip from Ventura or Manhattan Beach to the Greek Theater in Griffith Park in L.A., and when you finally get to your seat, you're just so darned grateful, you're giddy before the show even starts. And then if you should have a beer or two … well, that audience is a pushover. In the Midwest, they are stone-cold sober. I know those people. A tough crowd.
Q. Can you recall the most unexpected/outlandish thing that ever happened during one of your live shows?
A. It's always the exact same thing — I walk down to the front of the stage and say, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon," and the audience gets very quiet and I can't remember a single thing. Not a thing. Terrifying. Happens over and over. I think, "Damn, I have got to get me a teleprompter." My heart about stops. But you start talking about the weather and the special in the Chatterbox Café and it starts coming back to you, like rocks looming in the fog, whatever it was you thought you were going to talk about. And sometimes something better comes to you, some new startling thing. That's the reason not to use a script.
Q. You've written novels, essays, a screenplay or two, even an advice column (for Salon). Is there anything you haven't done but would like to do?
A. A play. That's my dream.
Q. Tell us about what you're working on now.
A. I'm working on a screenplay about a son of Lake Wobegon coming home for a funeral and finding out that, despite his long years of exile in distant cities, he still belongs to these people. It's scary how much he still belongs here. These people have the power to make him ashamed, which distant cities do not. His conscience resides here. The next novel is a Guy Noir mystery in which the old detective is all lined up to become a multimillionaire thanks to his friendship with a brilliant woman, Naomi Fallopian, who has come up with the perfect weight-loss scheme.
Q. Do you have any advice for older folks who might want to explore writing as a second career?
A. Write whatever is in your heart to write, but have a trusted friend on hand who is prepared to tell you that it's no good if it is no good. Very important to avoid vanity work at this stage of life. Vanity is for people in their 30s.
Q. What do you want your legacy to be?
A. I just want people in St. Paul and Minneapolis to feel that I was some sort of community asset and not a big embarrassment. It may be a close call.
Q. You've said most adults and children don't read poetry. Is there anything to be done about that?
A. Life is a carnival, people are wildly busy, there are love affairs to be pursued, arguments to be waged, omelets to be made, gardens to be tended, plus ballgames, movies, auctions, bike trips, and poetry is very patient. Emily Dickinson has waited 120-some years for you to read "Success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed," and she can wait a few more years. Same with Walt Whitman, same with Dorianne Laux, Billy Collins, Philip Booth, Maxine Kumin, May Swenson, and all the others. They'll be around. You will catch up with them eventually.
Evelyn Renold is a writer and editor who lives in New York.