A Life Through Words

Ronald Koertge, South Pasadena’s poet laureate, at the desk where he writes 365 days a year. Photos by Kamala Kirk

Ronald Koertge began writing poetry in his early twenties and hasn’t stopped. Over the course of his career, the nationally acclaimed poet has published dozens of poetry books and young-adult fiction novels, won numerous awards, and in 2018 he was named the inaugural South Pasadena poet laureate.

“There are poet laureates all across the state,” Koertge told the Review during a recent chat at his Oxley Street house.

“There was a meeting of at least 60 of us several months ago. I enjoy making appearances at various public events. Last Labor Day, I read a poem by one of the English war poets at the War Memorial Building. When the large Moreton Bay fig tree on the west side of Library Park was declared a South Pasadena landmark, I read Joyce Kilmer’s poem ‘Trees’ to the crowd.”

An Illinois native, Koertge was attending graduate school at the University of Arizona in the early 1960s when a friend, Gerald Locklin, shared a copy of the Wormwood Review with him. After reading through the snarky, satirical poems in the publication, Koertge felt he could write something similar and rose to the challenge. At Locklin’s suggestion, he sent his newly penned poems to Wormwood Review editor Marvin Malone, who published them.

“Once I got a taste for that, I never stopped,” explained Koertge. “I thought it was really fun. I was 22 or 23 at the time, and I’ll be 80 in April, so I’ve been writing for that long.

After receiving his master’s degree in English, Koertge — pronounced kur-chee — landed a teaching job at Pasadena City College, where he taught for 37 years before retiring a decade ago. He made the move to South Pasadena and has been a resident of the city ever since.

“South Pasadena is an urban Eden,” said Koertge. “The people are friendly, the fruit is good, I like my neighbors, and I feel safe. Teaching at PCC was the best job I ever had. I taught English, creative writing and a weekly poetry workshop. I really liked teaching remedial English because I enjoyed seeing my students’ progress. I would sit with them and watch them get better, which is what I loved about teaching. After almost four decades as a teacher, I retired and decided to spend my time writing.”

While teaching, Koertge continued to write and publish his poems, which have garnered countless awards and accolades, among them the Friends of American Writers Young People’s Literature Award, being named among New York Library’s 100 Best Children’s Books, ALA Best Book, and more. He also ventured into the world of YA books at the suggestion of friend and author, Merrill Joan Gerber.   

Koertge with some of the many books that fill his Oxley Street home.

“I went to the library, read through a bunch of books and thought that I could do something similar,” Koertge said. “I wrote and published more than a dozen and I’m still doing it now. I’ve had wonderful reviews and I received a P.E.N. Literary Award for my book Strays, which is about kids in foster care. I received a lot of letters from kids who had read the book and I always write back to everyone who writes to me. That was definitely a high point.”

Koertge’s celebrated novels include Stoner & Spaz and Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, and his recent poetry book titles are Olympusville, which features a collection of poems about the Greek gods told from the point of view from different deities, and Yellow Moving Van, a series of funny poems about various subjects. His next book of poetry, I Dreamed I was Emily Dickinson’s Boyfriend, will be published by Red Hen Press in 2022.

“My poems are pretty easygoing, partly because some readers have complicated lives with enough difficulty already,” said Koertge. “I write a lot about fairytales. As a poet, I don’t want to add to that with dense poems that need scrutiny or puzzling out. I like people to read my poems and be glad that they did. I start with some things and see where I can go with it. I just skate on charm, I don’t have any deep insight into things, I’m not a serious person, and I just see what I can get away with.”

Koertge lists poets Kim Addonizio, Dana Gioia, Dorianne Laux and Suzanne Lummis among his inspirations. He reads the Poetry Foundation website every morning and writes daily. He starts his day by getting up early around 5:30 a.m. by walking for several miles with his wife, Bianca Richards. Afterward, he practices yoga before sitting down at his computer in his home office, where he writes until noon. He admits that he’ll spend a good portion of time floundering, making mistakes and throwing stuff away. He also has folders filled with incomplete poems that he may never finish — Koertge doesn’t mind because, he said, it’s all part of the creative process.

“When I need inspiration, I just ask for the idea,” said Koertge. “Plato believed that writers are the doorway between the infinite and the finite. Ideas circulate out there and it’s my job to keep the door open. I just ask which idea wants to step forward, then I entertain it and see where it goes. It’s my job to nurture it and bring it to life, like Victor Frankenstein. I don’t believe in writer’s block. The most important thing is to just start writing and don’t be afraid of writing badly. It’s like going to the gym — if you don’t do it regularly, you won’t get strong. I work 365 days a year. My idea of sin is to neglect one’s gift or talent. I’m not going to last forever. Am I going to be writing when I’m 90? I don’t know, so I want to write as much as I can now.”

Over the years, Koertge has seen countless styles of poetry come and go. A lot of the changes he has seen have to do with the Spoken Word, hip-hop and performance.

“There have always been poetry readings, but the poetry slams are full of life and energy compared to someone droning on about his grandfather or his lost love,” said Koertge. “There’s a happy sprit of ‘anything goes’ in poetry now. I tell my students to write what they want how they want and to see if they can get away with it.”

When he’s not writing or reading, Koertge enjoys going to the movies three times a week and often frequents Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, where he catches the latest independent foreign and art films. But at the end of the day, he can always be found sitting in his home office with his cat next to him, staring out the large glass window that faces the South Pasadena Library as he contemplates his next poem.

“While I love the finished product of writing, I truly enjoy the medium,” said Koertge. “Language is really interesting to me — I like the way it sounds and the way it feels in my mouth. I like to get up every morning and just fool around with it. And every day I think of how lucky I am. I’m lucky in my second marriage, I’m lucky in my work, and I’m lucky to be well. I just want it to go on forever.”

For more information, visit ronkoertge.com.