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William Stafford: “His Poetry Was a Way of Teaching”

 

The 100th anniversary of poet William Stafford’s birthday was celebrated in 2014 by teachers and lovers of poetry, as well as by the many NCTE members who own dog-eared copies of Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises, the NCTE book he co-authored in 1992 with Stephen Dunning.  

In an interview with The Council Chronicle, William Stafford’s son Kim Stafford shared memories of his father’s life and work and talked about his own journey to becoming a poet and educator.

 

The Council Chronicle: January 17, 2014, began the 100th year since the birth of your father, the poet William Stafford. He was enormously admired as a poet and teacher and continues to inspire writers and educators; the group Friends of William Stafford is even requesting a commemorative US stamp be issued.  

What qualities of his life and work do you think are most responsible for his long-lasting legacy?

My father’s teacher at the University of Iowa in the 1950s, Paul Engel, said something like, “The most important writing will occur at the intersection between the most ordinary daily experience and the most extraordinary imagination.” I think this notion rhymed with my father’s own habits of composition—to start with common experience, then dive deep into what that experience might hold. So his poetry is both accessible and ambitious for deep meaning. At least that’s how it seems to me.

This approach to writing, “starting with little things,” lies behind his publication of over 60 books in his lifetime (and a dozen following his death in 1993), his winning of the National Book Award for poetry in 1963, and a career of witness for writing and reconciliation.

In his daily writing, he might begin by talking about a friend from high school (“Thinking for Berky”), and by the end of the poem, say “We live in an occupied country, misunderstood; / justice will take us millions of intricate moves.” He might consider the testing of an atom bomb from a lizard’s point of view (“At the Bomb Testing Site”). He might begin with a memory that his home town pharmacist “prescribed Coca-Cola mostly,” and spiral down by the poem’s end to a resonant statement about racism and the life of witness (“Serving with Gideon”).

I think this approach guided both his writing and his teaching: be available at an entry level, but unafraid to go as far as need be to do the human project of the seeker.

He told me once that offering a poem or a lesson was like handing a cup of hot coffee to a friend: “The hotter the coffee, the more important it is to extend the handle of the mug.”

CC: What activities and publications are being planned to celebrate your father’s life and work?

When my father died in 1993, the poet Robert Bly predicted that “William Stafford will be read more in the next century than in this one.” His reason was that my father’s poetry addresses the primary issues of identity, violence, justice, and a sense of home on earth—all issues that our careening modern world hungers to understand.

Perhaps for this reason, “The William Stafford Centennial 2014: 100 Years of Poetry and Peace” will be accompanied by at least six new books by and about my father. 

CC: What can you tell us about this quote from your book about your father (Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford): “My father used to say that poems are not made of words, but of contexts.”  

My father once said when he was starting a poem, he didn’t know what it was going to say, but he felt a tug on his left shoulder, and sensed how the poem would smell. (He would sniff an opened book before beginning to read.) For him, I believe, reading and writing were visceral activities, not mental exercises. If you look at his drafts for poems (several hundred are available at http://www.williamstaffordarchives.org) you often see he would write a few lines of prose, details from daily life—then a poem would begin “out of nowhere.”

My own guess about his process is that he would indulge in wide-ranging thought in his early-morning long solitude, and eventually come upon a “realm of thought” rather than a particular idea.

As he once said about his never-afraid-to-fail writing process, “I must be willingly fallible to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.” He would find entrance to that realm, that frame apart, that context for discovery, and only then begin to write. He did not write “by inspiration,” but by the habit of setting aside uninterrupted time each day to ponder, to wonder, and to write. 

CC: Did your decision to be a teacher have anything to do with your father being a teacher?

At our house when I was growing up, with my mother and father the two teachers among us, the dining table was a place for all kinds of reckless talk—gossip about relatives, family stories from the heroic age of the Great Depression and the War, legends from our family journeys—and often, ideas alive in poetry and fiction, philosophy, economics, and art.

When I found out in college that one could be paid to continue conversations like that, disguised as writing class, I was all in. 

CC: You’re a writer in your own right, as well as director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, and former director of the Oregon Writing Project there. Can you share a few details about the path you took to becoming a writer, and what it’s meant for you to be involved in the Writing Project? 

Teaching writing is hard. It’s humbling. There is no one way. As my father’s poem “Lit Instructor” says: “Right has a long and intricate name, / And the saying of it is a lonely thing.”

But this work need not be lonely, thanks to organizations like NCTE and the National Writing Project. My path into this guild of writing teachers was a long meander. Armed (or burdened) with a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature in 1979, I started by teaching photography, then folklore, then linguistics, then journalism, and finally teaching what I was doing in my own time: the writing of poetry, stories, songs, and essays.

In a blessed moment, an enlightened administrator at my college announced, out of the blue, “Let’s take all this Kim teaches and name it—The Northwest Writing Institute.” I’m like a weed seed that landed in a garden at the right time.

CC: What does this passage from your book The Muses among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft mean to you? 


When I write, I am secretary to a wisdom the world has made available to me. The voices come from the many around me, and I need more to be alert than wise.

The photographer Joel Meyerowitz has pointed out that most people use their eyes not to see beauty but to avoid danger as they travel through the world. And it seems to me we may be tempted to use our powers of hearing and discernment more to trade information than to savor the thick resonance of language and ideas, the little songs flickering around us every day.

The whole idea of “the muses among us” for me is that we are surrounded by half-formed wonders of poetry, story, and song, and any person who chooses to do so may take dictation on these abundant fragments, and grow them into episodes of literature.

The writer is not an inventor but a documentarian with attitude, recording and enhancing daily treasure of conversation and thought.  

CC: What did your father have to say about his involvement with NCTE?

Somehow my dad got onto a big committee with NCTE shortly after Sputnik and the space race. Education dollars were swinging toward the sciences, and the committee felt the humanities were in jeopardy. Someone on the committee suggested writing a book-length essay making a case for the importance of reading and writing for our nation. There was a predictable silence after such a weighty challenge, then my father said “I’ll do that.”

The result was the NCTE publication Friends to This Ground: A Statement for Readers, Teachers, and Writers of Literature (1967). His involvement with NCTE through this project and others was an important arena for his devotion to the arts, to peace, to learning—treasures, in his view, of this life.  

CC: What did your father most want to be remembered for?

After my father died, my mother said a wise thing: “Bill is known for his poetry, but I think his lasting influence will be as a teacher who encouraged everyone into the experience of writing.”

I think she was right, and I think my father might agree. Of his poems, he once said, “I would trade everything I’ve ever written for the next thing.” He was all about process, not accomplishment.

Poetry (like peace, and like teaching) is a project never finished. His poetry was a way of teaching—that is, being a seeker with others.                             

 

Investigate NCTE poetry resources here! 

 

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