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Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser has answered the 15 writing questions chosen as most helpful for middle and high-school students from over 1500 questions received through The Student Publishing Program, a free creative writing program that publishes and promotes student poetry books with 100% of profits going back to each school.

(Don’t forget to also click here to read the teen poems that we’ve already begun publishing alongside Ted Kooser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poems. And teen writers - you can still click here to submit poems!)


1.) “I sometimes suffer from Writer’s Block. What’s the best way for me to get back in the game and start writing again?” -- TANISHA, high school student

[TED KOOSER]: “These blocks usually arise because we are trying to write something great but don’t know how to achieve that greatness. William Stafford, a very wise American poet, said that when we get stuck we ought to just lower our standards. I’ve found that to be very good advice.”

2.) “I was wondering, Do you ever get made fun of because of your writings? I'm not sure if I want to share my poems with other people because I am afraid that they may think my poems are dumb. I really want to send a poem to publishers but I am not sure if I should.” -- KATELYN, middle school student

[TK]: “Much of writing is accepting failure. I write every morning but only succeed in writing something that seems worthwhile about once a month. We all write dumb things, but unless we are writing we’ll miss the good things when they come along. The important thing is to keep writing, with the hope that your work will improve with practice. And it is extremely important, even essential, to read a lot of poetry. I ask my students to read 100 poems for every one they try to write. We learn from every poem we read.”

3.) “How old were you when you first started writing poetry, and what was it that first got you interested in writing?”-- AMANDA, middle school student

[TK]: “I wrote poems as a grade schooler, but didn’t really get serious about it till I was about 18 or 19. I wasn’t any good at athletics, I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t play a band instrument, but I had a talent for writing and I was encouraged by several wonderful high school teachers.”

4.) “I haven't had a very rough childhood, and a lot of my poems reflect that; do you have any suggestions of where I can get inspirations that would help me write a poem with more serious value and deeper meaning?” -- OLIVIA, middle school student

[TK]: “You don’t need to be unhappy to write well. And I don’t think you should set a goal to write deep and serious poems. If you do, you’ll never get going. Just write what you want to write, be playful and thoughtful, and in time your more serious thoughts will begin to surface. ”

5.) “What kind of poem is most favored by readers (e.g., happy, sad, funny, or a combo)?” -- BAILEY, middle school student

[TK]: “Every reader is unique, and brings to his or her reading a complex personality. When one person is sad, she may like poems that go along with that sadness. Another reader when sad will want happy poems. While it can be helpful as you write to think about somebody out there who may read your poem, because it will help you write more clearly, it is best not to worry about the mind set of your reader.”

6.) “How do you come up with your poem ideas? What inspires you?” -- DALTON, middle school student

[TK]: “I write early every morning and write about whatever pops into my head. I start by writing in my journal, and if I’m lucky something surfaces while I’m doing that, something that I may want to tinker with and see if I can make it into a poem.”

7.) “How do you know when you are a good writer?” -- ERIC, middle school student

[TK]: “None of us is capable of making an accurate assessment of our own writing because we are too close to it to see it accurately. That’s why it’s helpful to show your poems to other people, especially people who will be honest in their responses. It’s also helpful to set your writing aside long enough that it begins to look like something somebody else wrote. That will help you see it more clearly.”

8.) “I love to write, but sometimes when I'm really in the mood to write for hours, I can't think of anything good. Is there any way that I can organize my thoughts into something that makes sense?” -- CORI, middle school student

[TK]: “The problem here is that word, good. If you wait until you can write something good you’ll never start writing. You have to write first and let the judgments about the value of your writing come later. As to organizing your thoughts, that is best done when you are revising your poem after you have let it cool off for a few days. If you let a poem rest, lots of its organizational problems will come to light.”

9.) “What is the most important advice you could give to help get poems successfully published?” -- COLOMA, high school student

[TK]: “The most important thing for any aspiring poet is to read poetry. You should read and read and read. Every poem you read will teach you a little something about writing and you’ll be a better writer for what you’ve read and what you’ve tried to write. Getting published will come when you have read and written enough to have really learned the craft.”

10.) “What should I say when someone asks me why it's important to write poetry?” -- CELIA, middle school student

[TK]: “If it were me, I’d say, ‘It’s important to me. It’s something that I enjoy.’ ”


1.) “How can we help teens hone their powers of observation, especially early teens?” -- CINDY, middle school teacher

[TK]: “As you know, lots of young people are impatient to get on to the next thing, and for that reason they are not good at lingering over anything. I once gave each of my students an onion and told them to carry it around with them for a week and write down everything they could about it, including any associations that arose. This forced them to really look at something closely and intently.”

2.) “As a teacher of young students, I’m wondering how best you think I could make writing fun while still teaching the structured, formal aspect of it. I don't want writing to seem like a chore, but there is surely merit in teaching the students how to structure essays, the rules of punctuation, how to organize ideas, spelling, etc.” -- MEREDITH, middle school teacher

[TK]: “I sometimes think we ought to divide the English curriculum into work and fun, and try to balance these. It’s a killer to have to teach a whole unit on literary form, and maybe there’s a way to interrupt the dull stuff by inserting something that’s fun. By fun I mean the introduction of poems like those of Shel Silverstein and others whose writing is for the most part play, and then, if one is teaching poetry writing as well as poetry appreciation, to devise exercises that bring out the playfulness in the students. Unless poetry can be shown to be a means of finding pleasure, once students graduate they’ll never look at it again.”

3.) “With your ‘American Life in Poetry’ project focusing on poems by contemporary writers, I’m wondering if you think books by contemporary authors or even by students’ own contemporaries might have particular advantages over the classics for interesting young adults in reading and writing. How do you think the classics compare and do they have any particular advantages of their own?” -- STEFFIE, librarian

[TK]: “I think it helps to show students that people are living and writing all around them, that literature hasn’t all been written by people long dead. The classics have much to offer, and should be taught, but it may be helpful to mix in contemporary writing. The Brooklyn Museum hangs classic paintings right next to contemporary ones, and the effect is vital and refreshing.”

4.) “In this era of the ubiquitous ‘high stakes’ tests, how would you defend the teaching of poetry?” -- STAN, middle school teacher

[TK]: “My Russian pen pal, Yulia Belova, tells me that standardized testing was the ruin of the Russian education system. Perhaps we could suggest to the administration that standardized testing is a communistic idea. But, seriously, I know what teachers of poetry are up against and I don’t have a good solution. I heard a teacher mention recently that she intended to teach poetry despite the emphasis on testing. She said, If I get in trouble, well....”

5.) “If you usually make many revisions to your poems, could you describe the nature of your revisions, perhaps giving an example or two from a particular poem?” -- KAREN, high school teacher

[TK]: “Karen, we don’t have the space here for me to show you how I’ve revised a poem, because I revise and revise and revise and revise, and it may take me forty versions to get a poem into the shape I want it. The versions may only differ around one punctuation mark, and I don’t keep files of the various changes. But I will say that it’s my personal choice as a liteary artist to revise away from difficulty toward clarity and simplicity. For example, I know that it is easier to make sense out of complete sentences with proper punctuation, so I revise my drafts toward complete sentences. I also avoid using material that will exclude too much of my potential audience. For example, I know a little about Russian history, but I wouldn’t drop General Kutuzov into a poem and expect my readers to know all about him or to Google him. Instead, if I wanted him in the poem, I’d figure out a way, within the poem, to explain who he was and why I thought it appropriate to include him. Revision for me is all about thinking of my reader, and trying to extend a helping hand to him or her. I don’t want to throw in obstacles. But remember, this is MY way of doing it. Every writer is free to set his or her own standards of excellence. Some writers revise TOWARD difficulty, and that’s their right.”


Copyright © 2002-2007 Student Publishing Program (SPP). Poetry and prose © 2002-2007 by individual authors. Reprinted with permission.