Eloquent Listener: Poet Laureate Kim Stafford

Stafford, a second-generation poetry healer, will follow in his father's footsteps with his new position as Oregon's poet laureate. Photo by Kendrick Moholt

In his new position as Oregon’s poet laureate, Kim Stafford is sharing a simple message: Use your words.

“We are living in a time when language is used in destructive ways, and I am eager to help Oregonians restore truth through poetry,” he says. “We are bombarded by news, but I feel like the news is half the truth, just events, facts, and statistics. Poetry helps people take the next step into meaning.”

According to the Oregon Poet Laureate website, the state poet laureate “fosters the art of poetry, encourages literacy and learning, addresses central issues relating to humanities and heritage, and reflects on public life in Oregon.” For Stafford, BA ’71 (English, Clark Honors College), MA ’73 (English), PhD ’79 (English), that means bringing poetry—words and meaning—to people from all walks of life.

Dastgah

By Kim Stafford

A wandering musician from afar

arrives on foot, dusty with the journey,

and quietly performs while strolling

the strange city, steps lightly alone

through crowded bazaar, traffic-choked

knot, sings a snatch of old song, hums

a rising scale that climbs through tenements,

threads the seething kink of honk

and curse, sings through smoke, strums

through rank despair that billows

from money rubbing on pain,

in order to hear, follow, and find

any other wandering player in the thick of it

also strumming oud, tapping tabla,

breathing trill in reed pipe so pure

it can be heard through all this

human din—until one by one

the players convene and begin to braid

one rhythm into the next, salt harmony

and honey dirge, operatic scale rising

through sorrow to the pinnacle joy

that could lullaby the lost and waken you.

Along with leading workshops and giving readings, Stafford wants to share poetry with people in homeless shelters and prisons, and with children and seniors. “Poetry is healing water,” he says, “and it should flow toward the place of greatest need.”

Stafford, 68, is a second-generation poetry healer. His father, William Stafford, published 65 volumes of poetry, prose, and criticism during his lifetime; he was a conscientious objector during World War II, taught at Lewis and Clark College for three decades, and was Oregon’s fourth poet laureate, from 1975 to 1990. He died in 1993.

The younger Stafford has continued his father’s legacy. He has published several books of poetry, is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis and Clark, and now has taken on the mantle of the state’s poet laureate. Like his father, Stafford writes in the early mornings.

For many, following the career trajectory of a well-known parent can be fraught with issues of identity. But Stafford says distinguishing himself from his father was not a struggle. For example, their writing styles differ greatly. The Kansas-born elder Stafford was “from the prairies,” and his style tended to the lean and spare. The Oregon-born son favors more lush and lyrical expression, bordering on what his father once called “baroque.”

“My father was my champion and confidante,” says Stafford. “There was no competition. We were like a family guild, sharing tools and processes and interests. We would give readings together—our differences were part of the entertainment.”

The younger Stafford stretches the borders of poetry to encompass different modes of expression. Besides publishing several volumes of poetry, he has written two memoirs—Early Morning: Remembering My Father and 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared, about his older brother, Bret, who committed suicide at age 40. His body of work also includes two books of essays, a book of short stories, two CDs of original songs, and a children’s book.

“I wrote essays and they wanted to become poems. I wrote poems and they wanted to be songs. I wrote songs and they wanted to be a soundtrack for a film,” he says. “You keep following where it leads.”

In his book of essays, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft, Stafford shares an epiphany he had while visiting a religious community in Iowa. “I close my eyes, and suddenly I feel a great burden lifted from my shoulders. For it comes to me that I am not the prophet, but scribe to the prophet. 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.”

In his role as scribe, Stafford listens intently to the world around him. Not only to the natural world, but to children, bits of overheard conversation, and spontaneous encounters with strangers. His ear is primed and ready. “Anything that causes you to gasp in wonder is a prophet,” he says. “I’m the secretary to that power. I’m the servant to that voice.”

Some of his most powerful experiences as a writer, he says, have come from situations in which he meets someone who is living a powerful story, “but doesn’t have the words to tell that story. My job is to make a poem or song for someone who can’t speak in their own voice.”

He recounts a story of meeting a woman weeping at an impromptu shrine on the streets of New Orleans. The shrine commemorated a friend of hers who had recently been killed. Moved by her grief, Stafford returned to his hotel room and wrote a song. The next day he sang it during a radio interview. The sister of the man who had been killed heard it and ended up singing it at his funeral. When she met Stafford, she told him his song had captured her brother perfectly, adding, “I can’t believe you never met him.”

“That kind of thing doesn’t happen very often,” he says, “but you’re always searching for a chance like that.”

In announcing Stafford’s appointment, Governor Kate Brown called Stafford “one of our state’s most generous literary teachers.” He has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award from the Portland nonprofit Literary Arts, and a Governor’s Arts Award for his contributions to Oregon literature.

Referring to his work, Stafford reverts to modesty, another trait likely inherited, then made his own. “However writing can serve someone’s daily life,” he says, “I want to help them do that.”

By Alice Tallmadge

Alice Tallmadge, MA ’87 (journalism), is a contributing editor for Oregon Quarterly.