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A Man of His Words, Nebraska State Poet William Kloefkorn

July 7, 2010 3 comments

UPDATE: It is with some sadness I report that the subject of this story, the poet William Kloefkorn, has died.  He was a real master of his craft. I only met him the one time, when I interviewed him at his home for the profile that follows, but in the space of that two hours or three hours, buoyed by having read one of his autobiographical works of prose, Out of Attica, it was apparent enough that I was in the presence of a formidable yet gentle sage. He will be sorely missed, but his writing lives on.

New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt suggested I profile Nebraska State Poet William Kloefkorn and I’m glad I did.  I knew the name but not his work and it was a pleasure steeping myself a bit in his writing in preparation for interviewing him. Whenever I read a master wordsmith like Kloefkorn I am humbled by their considerable talent and my own modest gift by comparison.  His work exemplifies the spare, delicately modulated style I admire in many writers.  He warmly welcomed Jeff and I to his home, where we spent a pleasurable couple hours in his company.  As one who writes feature profiles, kt is my job, of course, to try and capture the essence of my subject in 500 or 1,000 or 1,500, or 2,000 words or more.  This story is 4,000-some words, a length that few print or online publications allow journalists to write at these days.  But Jeff, my editor on this project and on more than a hundred other stories the past 12-15 years, generously allows me to write at length.  I try not to abuse that privilege, rather use it to tell richly textured stories.

 

 

The late William Kloefkorn

 

 

I always try to be true to the voice of my subject, but in this case I made a concerted and hopefully subtle effort to minic, as a kind of homage, Kloefkorn’s distinctive writing voice in my own writing. I never heard anything from him after the story appeared in the Horizons, and so I don’t know if he approved or not, or whether he even recognized what I did in terms of style.  In case you see this Mr. Kloefkorn, let me know.

If you enjoy reading my Kloefkorn piece, then check out some of my other stories about Nebraska writers, including profiles of:  poet Ted Kooser, folklorist Roger Welsch, and novelists Ron Hansen, Richard Dooling, Timothy Schaffert, and Kurt Andersen.  Look for posts in the near future on James Reed, Sean Doolittle, Carleen Brice, Robert Jensen, Scott Muskin, and Rachel Shukert.

A Man of His Words, Nebraska State Poet William Kloefkorn

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The rhythms of the small south central Kansas town writer William Kloefkorn grew up in are deeply imbued in him, right down to the marrow.

Nothing much ever happened there, or so it seemed. But with the passage of years and the angle of vision that distance brings, more than enough went on to burnish the memories of Nebraska’s State Poet. The smallest details provide rich fodder for Kloefkorn poems and stories as well as memoirs that take the measure of that place and its people.

He left decades ago, yet that past is fresh in his mind: the farm pond he fished in; the tree house he built; the kitchen fire he started — proof that he’s never really abandoned those roots and that one can go back, at least on the page.

Attica, Kansas was a conservative, barely hanging-on rural hamlet whose closed strictures you either made your lot with or whose dust you shook off your pants on the way out of town. He dedicated an entire book of poems to it, Out of Attica.

“I loved my little hometown, but I also despised it,” Kloefkorn said with the luxury of perspective and the duty of reflection, his deep amber voice belying his short-lived gig as a radio announcer. The retired University of Nebraska Wesleyan professor spoke from the parlor of the classic ranch house he and his wife Eloise share in Lincoln. Large picture windows look out on a well-tended backyard.

 

 

 

 

At the time this sensualist and contrarian felt his small town diminished him, but it did in fact yield much, including his wife, who was his sweetheart. Then there’s the  lifetime of material it gave him.

Still, there’s little doubt that hometown’s small horizons would have stifled this free-thinking, high-spirited man. Besides, the struggles of his family’s subsistence life deflated him. He wanted no part of that hard scrabble existence or the harsh judgment imposed by gossip or scripture.

“There were about six or seven churches there for 700 people, a pool hall, no drinking, legally, no dancing. My parents were very poor, we moved around a lot, always trying to move up a little, but it went like this,” he said, pantomiming the zig-zags of an up-and-down graph. “I think we moved eight times inside the city limits. They were very hard working people. My dad worked for the county doing WPA projects. Kind of a handyman really. They tried all kinds of little businesses — a cafe, a filling station, a grocery store.”

Without knowing it, Kloefkorn trained as a writer by closely observing his boyhood haunts — the barbershop, the pool hall, the movie theater, the farms, the grain bins, the open fields, the school, the churches — and their inhabitants. Characters, all.

“I got to know that town inside out, upside down, I got to know every square inch. I could still do the newspaper route today and name the people pretty much.”

His parents, whose divorce after he left home shocked him despite their frequent disagreements, were long-suffering souls. His tight-lipped father said little besides the curse words he expertly strung together in a kind of profane poetry. When the son tried imitating him he got his mouth washed out with soap for the trouble. As family lore has it, Will’s mother gave birth to him after milking a cow. Only after completing her chore did she give in to labor’s call. That’s the kind of hardy, stubborn, we-shall-endure stock he comes from.

Kloefkorn didn’t want to end up like his embittered, pent-up father or his German immigrant grandfather, whom he admired and despaired for at the same time.

“My granddad was one of my heroes, I worshiped that guy. He had all kinds of ability, all kinds of talent. His wife was a former school teacher, a very sharp woman. She gave up her teaching when she married him to become the farmer’s wife. They just eked out an existence on their little farm. He was so happy he escaped his family, his father was abusive. He counted himself lucky to have gotten away from it.”

Similarly, Will’s father counted himself lucky to have escaped the family farm and Will deemed himself fortunate to have avoided a dreary hand-to-mouth life.

He said his grandfather “resorted to the last bastion of hope, which is called religion, and religion of the most sordid type– right-wing fundamentalism. It did suppress all vestiges of imagination and creativity. As a young man my grandfather had been a member of what he called illiterarie. They had read and memorized a lot of stuff. Anything fun became a sin in this Old Testament, fire-and-brimstone, Pentecostal church. I detest that church with a passion.”

An unrepentant agnostic, Kloefkorn takes delight, as his grandpa did, in tweaking the nose of authority and decorum. He makes no bones about his quarrel with God. He has no truck with organized religion, no use for puffery or counterfeit dandies.

“My grandfather, much to the chagrin of my grandmother, would recite stories he’d memorized (and perform songs on his accordion). I was fascinated by his language, not only with the stories but the way he delivered them. It was delightful and at the same time it was pathetic.”

The poet has oft-written about Grandpa Charles.

The first inkling of a writing life came in high school, with the arrival of a comely young female English teacher who recognized in Will a bright, curious mind that needed to be challenged. He didn’t read much of anything outside what was assigned, which was little to start with, but he did like what he read. Similarly, he just wrote what was assigned.

“She noticed I wasn’t doing very much. I said, ‘Well, to be honest with you, I’m taking this because I’ve taken it before and I didn’t have to work very hard.’ She was very gracious about it. She totally unnerved me by saying, ‘Look, if you’re not too

interested in what’s going on in class why don’t you do me a favor,’ and I thought she’d say drop the class, but she said, ‘and instead of attending class go to study hall and write something for me. By the end of two weeks bring it to me and we’ll look it over.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Kloefkorn said he dawdled the first week away not doing “hardly anything except pester a couple of gals. I had no idea what to have for her. Well, I finally began to write a story and the more I worked on it, the more I got into it and by the deadline I had it done, and that amazed me. It was a 20-page story. I took it to her and we spent an hour talking about it. She not only read it but she offered some suggestions. She said, ‘You know, you could make this a longer story or you could write another story.’” He opted to rejoin her class, but the experience had invigorated him. “I discovered I liked to write — I didn’t know that before.”

At Emporia State University he found the pathway for reaching his potential.

“That college experience for me, it was such a departure from how I’d been taught, it was such an opening up, it was incredible. That was really a big stage.”

Everything was new and different.

“The first time I was ever on a college campus was the day I matriculated,” he said.

“I took a freshman English class and I had of all things a male teacher, and I promise you I didn’t know there was such a thing. Here was a young man standing nicely dressed in front of class, sharp as a tack. On the first or second day he wrote us a poem, and I was stunned. He read it without apology, talked about it clearly, asked us about it, and I’ve never forgotten that experience.

“It was beginning to occur to me that language is so interesting and it kind of snowballed from there. I really did enjoy writing. As an undergraduate I had another professor I enjoyed writing papers for. I was writing to impress the profs, that was half of it. I wanted to do well so I worked hard.”

The English major set his sights on a teaching career. He and Eloise married between his junior and senior years in college. “It was just a good time,” he said.

 

 

 

 

He played football for a time but after quitting the team he satisfied himself as sports editor of the school paper, which he ended up managing.

“I thought maybe I wanted to be a journalist.”

He also dallied in radio for a back water station, his sonorous voice made for the air. Then his sensibilities as a writer got rocked. His younger brother John and a mutual friend showed up one day excitedly saying they’d just finished a novel that he simply had to read. They promised it would upset everything in his well-ordered world. The novel was J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and true enough once Kloefkorn read it, in a single sitting. he was never the same.

“I was caught up in the voice of Holden Caulfield. I don’t think it was only the voice though, he was reflecting a lot of attitudes I had. The phonies were coming in the (g.d.) windows and I felt the same way. I think a lot of readers did.”

So much was he taken with it, he soon started his own coming-of-age, anti-establishment novel. Typical of most first novels, it was a fairly autobiographical tale of a young man off at college. He composed it on an old Royal typewriter and when done sent it to Macmillan Press. “I’d never sent anything anywhere — and I felt, Well, hell, it’ll be published in a couple months.” He didn’t know the extreme unlikelihood his manuscript would be accepted, much less responded to.

“Well I did get a reply, very soon actually, a one-page, single-spaced typed letter. At the time I didn’t realize that’s a pretty good rejection. I felt it would be an acceptance and anything less an abject failure. Anyway, they liked it but they said ‘there’s one major flaw that has to be corrected. You need to rewrite the book in third person so it doesn’t sound as much as it does now like the voice of Holden Caulfield.’”

He had no idea until then how he’d “borrowed too heavily from Salinger,” imitation being the highest form of praise. “You talk about being influenced without knowing it,” he said. “They were so right. I picked up some of Salinger’s phraseology I needn’t had because I had my own pool hall lingo that would have done nicely.”

Long story short, that first novel, The Voice of the Turtle, remained tucked away except for a few half-hearted attempts to revisit it. “I was scared to,” he said, “Then on an impulse one day I burned it and two other novels I’d written — one for my master’s thesis and another one.” All unpublished. It was his ritual purging of that period in his writing life. He sort of regrets doing it.

“I wish I hadn’t done it in a way. You know, you’re kind of haunted by that stuff. I mean, I’d kind of like to go back to that first novel.” He said “it might be worse then I thought.” But then again it might be better than he imagined. He said that wishful thinking is “Twains’ definition of faith — ‘faith is believing what you know ain’t so.’”

He said those formative projects helped him realize “I really do enjoy language and enjoy using it to tell stories, and in the process perhaps reflect some attitudes and perceptions.”

It was the early 1950s. The Cold War and Korean War were on. Sensing he was about to be drafted into the Army he joined the Marine Corps. He became a 1st lieutenant in charge of a platoon of flame throwers, rocket launchers and demolitions. More life experience to tap for his work.

After his military hitch was up he taught school, one year of high school in Kansas and after getting his master’s at Emporia and doing some additional study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he taught four years at Wichita State University.

It was during this time his writing vision was broadened again. He was introduced to The Beats and other contemporary poets whose free verse he found appealing and liberating.

“I’d never read any poetry like that. I guess a lot of us hadn’t. What it did was open up the possibility of subjects. The Beats were just fearless in that, and in just using any form. This suggested you can write about anything. What I think I learned from them is it’s not the subject you write about, it’s how you write about the subject. I’ve learned that since in other ways.”

The more poetry he immersed himself in the more revelatory it was. Reading Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, he said, was like reading about “the people in my town.” The same with reading Edward Arlington Robinson and other poets, including Ted Kooser, whose work reverberates around the seemingly mundane.

All of a sudden the small town background Kloefkorn hadn’t thought properly belonged to poetry became a bottomless well or mine to draw on. It feeds him still.

“It just keeps opening up, the landscape, then it gets all interwoven with the people, so it’s hard to tell where the landscape ends and the people begin, and vice versa,” he said. “And it’s not only the place and the people but what’s going on politically and otherwise, and so it’s the place and the time and the people that make up what you might think of as a landscape. You’re mining it.”

 

 

 

 

Much of his childhood coincided with World War II, and he’s written his share of remembrances describing what it was like to be a boy amid the nationalistic fervor and drama of that era. Since moving to Nebraska a good share of Kloefkorn’s work has dealt with his adopted home state, including his beloved Loup River jaunts.

The move that brought him here to stay came in 1962. when a friend recommended he apply for an open faculty post at Nebraska Wesleyan. Kloefkorn had reservations about fitting in at a straight-laced Methodist school. But his friend and fellow reprobate insisted the liberal arts college would leave him to his own devices, academically, philosophically and otherwise. Kloefkorn came and interviewed and was hired the same day and he said with the exception of a minor fracas “I taught there 40 years and said whatever I (g.d.) pleased in the classroom and never had an ounce, not an ounce, of problems.”

His transformation from novelist to poet took time but once he got the hang of it he knew he was where he was supposed to have been all along.

“It took me a long time to turn the fiction spigot off and turn the poetry on,” he said.

Someone asked him recently what is poetry and he answered, “It’s an attitude looking for something solid to sit on”. He has been described as a lyric poet. “Frequently the poem does what I want the poem to do by leaving things out, so it’s more distilled and relies more heavily usually upon figurative language, especially on metaphor. I don’t want the poem to be obscure.” he said. “I would like my own prose to be rhythmic and I would like my poetry to be somewhat prosy.”

He certainly looks the part of poet today. This old lion of Nebraska scribes has a mane of white hair and a prominent forehead that suggests wizened reflection.

Poems come when they come. He said he has sat down intending to write one only to have it morph into a short story, and vice versa

One of the many appeals of poetry, he said, is that “there are so many types and different ways of approaching subjects.”

He said poet Gary Gildner helped him see the difference between the literal and the nonliteral. That lesson helped Kloefkorn write about his high school basketball team, whose coach kept telling the players, Kloefkorn among them, “One of these days you’re going to gel.” That was the mantra through 17 consecutive losses. It never happened. In the resulting poem, “Waiting to Gel,” Kloefkorn suggests that gelling need not occur in the space of a season or a lifetime. The expectation lives on in spite of time or even death.

Because poetry is, as he puts it, “a slow moving commodity,” getting any poem published is a coup. Kloefkorn’s early work drew the attention of master Nebraska poet,Ted Kooser. “He had looked at some of my poems,” said Kloefkorn. “He had a series of poetry postcards, and he put one of mine on a postcard. I was very proud of that.” The poem, entitled “After Ten Winters,” goes:

“I stand alone at the footmof my grandfather’s grave trembling to tell the door to the granary is open, sir, and someone lost the bucket to the well”

Kooser and Kloefkorn collaborated on the book of poems Cottonwood County.

Kloefkorn got things published in minor periodicals but his breakthrough came with The Prairie Schooner. He’d received several rejections, but always encouragement to submit more. The noted literary journal finally published his “Funeral for an Old Man.” The Old Man of the title was his grandpa.

“It was really thrilling. Getting your first poem accepted by a major publication is a big boost and it helps to get other confirmations. I don’t know you ever get enough to make you completely comfortable. In fact, I may be more confident than I am comfortable. I’m confident in what I’m doing, but sometimes I’m a little nervous.”

More poems were published in more periodicals. He’s had several books of poetry published and his work has appeared in numerous anthologies. He was named Nebraska State Poet in 1982. He’s since received numerous awards and honors for individual works and for his body of work. His “bad lungs” be damned, he’s still at it, too. As a concession to his health he’s cut back on his public readings.

Another thing he’s curtailed is his work in public schools. After being named State Poet he initiated the poets-in-the-schools program in Lincoln, which eventually brought him to virtually every school in town. He worked with students of all ages but he was surprised how much he liked working with grade schoolers.

“I discovered it really was a challenge and a lot of fun working with elementary school students,” he said. “We would compose a poem on the board and have great fun choosing over a word. We would just kick around the possibilities. Man, that was fun.” Fourth graders proved his favorite, he said, because of their bright imagination, fair vocabulary and decent focus. He fondly recalled an exercise that had a class collaborate to compose a poem. On their first pass they came up with, After dinner, Jim decides to nap. Dissatisfied, the kids substituted die for nap, and then concocted a back story to explain why, After dinner, Jim dies. An incredulous Kloefkorn said, “So in this 4th grade class we’re talking about nap, then suicide, then murder, all just by changing that one little word.”

 

 

 

 

He said students were fascinated to know that “if you keep talking about this long enough and you ask enough questions you’ve got a play or a novel. That’s the way a novel’s written sometimes, just by taking things back.’ The students were so good and spontaneous about that.”

Teaching was much more than the means that allowed him to write. It was a vocation every bit as much as writing. “They fed into each other,” he said. He put it down this way in words, “Not many things, if any, are more important or more fulfilling than are classrooms filled with eager, vibrant students.” He said, “By far the interaction with the students was the best part of it. I do miss that.” Not so much the politics and bureaucracy of academia. “I was not a good administrator.”

He found himself leaving committee meetings without the foggiest notion of the dry procedurals discussed, but he did find them fruitful for an unlikely reason. “There’s almost always a poem in a committee meeting, so I’d be there listening for that. Even with all the horseshit that goes on somebody would say something, a phrase or a word, that clicked and reminded me of something.” Thus, the notes he scribbled during meetings were not minutes but ideas for poems.

Like most parents of his generation, his folks demonstrated little outward affection or praise. He’s sure they were proud of his teaching and professor’s credentials. As for his writing, they had no real frame of reference to discuss his work.

“I would send my dad every book I wrote, and inscribe it to him. When he was killed by a drunk driver John and I went in and took care of his belongings, which were few and far between. I opened a drawer and found everything I’d sent him, rubber-banded, every one of them in absolute mint condition, which suggested to me my dad saw my books as something to preserve, something to care for.”

Nonconformist or not, Kloefkorn said he thrived at Wesleyan thanks to tolerant colleagues and administrators who admired his independence. As for his cursing, he did not censor himself. He unleashed a blue streak every time a piece of chalk broke in his hand. He was always apologetic in case he’d offended someone. For fun once, he installed a student as a surrogate curser. It happened to be the daughter of two ministers. One day her mother visited class. On cue, he broke the chalk and the girl let loose a torrent that pleased both mother and teacher.

He said the question of obscenity or profanity is one of “appropriateness.” “In writing class we get that out of the way really early,” he said. “Language is language.” If not used in the right context, it falls flat or veers off into vulgarity or bad taste. “I also think it’s the spirit of the thing, too We’re talking about language. Once we know that, once we get that out of the way, it’s a dead taboo.”

If nothing else, Kloefkorn believes in being himself. “If you’re not, they spot you right away,” he said. You won’t catch him acting the phony. Not alive at least.

Yes, he’s retired and not as vigorous as he once was, but he’s still prolific. He has no fewer than four new works forthcoming: New & Selected (poems) from the University of Nebraska Press; In a House Made of Time from Logan House Press; and This Place, These People and The Zoo Fantasy, a children’s book, both from Nebraska Life.

It’s never been all about work for Kloefkorn. He is, among other things, a sports fan, a lover of wood, a whittler (he has an impressive collection of pocket knives in his office). Cranes and walking sticks he’s carved from driftwood found along the Loup adorn his home. He’s also the father of four adult children, a grandfather of 11 and a great-grandfather of two. He is, of course, a storyteller wherever he finds himself and whomever he finds himself with.

 

 

 

 

Given his druthers though, he’d most likely be somewhere amid nature. The Sand Hills maybe. The Loup River definitely. For years he and Nebraska folklorist and friend Roger Welsch led what they dubbed The Loup River Expeditionary Force, a fancy title for a tribe of men who went on annual trips along the river, boating, fishing, camping, cooking, shooting the bull. This pilgrimage was their deliverance, offering its share of the sublime, the absurd and the harrowing.

“The Loup is a beautiful river,” he said, “but the river’s not necessarily tame. It has its moments.”

A near drowning was enough for one member to quit.

Kloefkorn knows its currents and channels, its sandbars and beaches, as intimately as any river rat. His ode to the river is his book of poems, Loup River Psalter. His excursions ended in 2003. He’s looking forward to a Loup reunion this summer.

Just as he and his brother John found that time could stand still on the river, a well-rendered poem can erase all temporal boundaries to transport the reader where the words and their meanings and the images they conjure take you. Reading Kloefkorn, you are enveloped in the earth-worn truth of a man who has, paraphrasing the poet, breathed in the fullness of life and time, and found it good.

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