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.
Accomplished as he is, Keillor still claims to have one failed ambition. As a young man he desperately wanted to be a poet but quit "cold turkey," as he has said, when he realized a poem he had written was "cheap and fraudulent." That, however, did not spell the end of Keillor's interest in poetry. He reads a poem each morning on the air for The Writer's Almanac and every so often serves as the editor of a poetry anthology. The third of these collections, Good Poems: American Places, will be published April 10.
In an interview with the AARP Bulletin, Keillor covered a range of topics, from how he chooses the poems he reads on the air to his conflicted feelings about retirement.
Q. Regarding A Prairie Home Companion, you've said, "I'm not sure a person should be doing this much beyond 70." On the other hand, you recently referred to yourself as the "not retiring" Garrison Keillor. Do you plan to scale back at some point?
A. I am planning to retire in the spring of 2013, but first I have to find my replacement. I'm pushing forward, and also I'm in denial. It's an interesting time of life.
Q. What do you think about retirement in general?
A. When I was younger, I was all in favor of it, and now that I'm at that age, I'm not sure. I sure don't want to make a fool of myself and be singing romantic duets with 25-year-old women when I'm 75. But on the other hand, it's so much fun. And in radio, the lighting is right.
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?