State of the poet laureate

A conversation with Kim Stafford, Oregon's new laureate, who carries on a family tradition of spreading the word and its power to all corners

Broadway Books, the lively literary-oriented bookstore in Northeast Portland, recently hosted a celebration for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s ninth, and newly appointed, poet laureate, who succeeds Elizabeth Woody for a two-year term. We met for a bite close to the venue beforehand, joined by his longtime friend and fellow poet and teacher, Tim Gillespie. The conversation clocked in at under two hours and meandered with gusto and ease. We spoke on subjects ranging from his views on teaching, to the perils of writing programs, to the wonder of Verslandia, Literary Arts’ citywide youth poetry slam, and even to the late Irish mystic and poet, John O’Donohue (Kim brings him to mind in so many important ways), but it was truly Stafford’s way of seeing–and his friend’s way of seeing him–that left echoes for days and also sent me home celebrating Governor Kate Brown’s auspicious appointment.

Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford at Eagle Creek.

Chatting with Kim Stafford is a bit like stepping out of time. There’s something both ageless and perennial about him. He possesses a sort of egalitarian everyperson quality and inspires the feeling that he has always existed somewhere, that you could run into him anywhere, from a muddy river bank to a fancy lecture hall — that he’s spent a hundred lifetimes cultivating just the skills that make a great poet. His roots are deeply Midwestern, with a father (the poet William Stafford, who also served as Oregon’s poet laureate) from Hutchinson, Kansas, and a mother whose family hails from Beatrice, Nebraska — both quaint, conservative towns. But his parents met and fell in love in California, perhaps recognizing “each other’s homesick Midwest ways,” Kim wrote in his riveting book, Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford.

Kim has lived in Oregon for most of his adult life despite early years that found the family trailing behind his “gypsy scholar father.” By Kim’s eighth year of life, he had moved eight times. His father was “always looking for a different job. California, Iowa, Indiana, Alaska, from the Midwest to the West Coast. We did that several times,” the younger Stafford said. Even though there’s a hint of the way-back Midwest to him (a practicality, maybe, or a certain restraint and graciousness I always associate with some folks from my own birth region of Missouri) Kim belongs to Oregon as surely as rain belongs to the valley, a fact he seems proud of, and one that seems fitting for our new poet laureate. He relishes the diversity of our great state. “Having coast, mountains, Eastern Oregon, enables us to have different powers of thought than other, more homogenized environments,” he said. He also sees the benefit of connecting all of our disparate parts: “I am hoping that poetry can make the cultures of communities more diverse, the emotionally informed communities deepen, and make communities more curious about themselves and each other.” 

Calypso lily. The laureate takes his camera with him on his journeys around the state, and brings back visual as well as verbal images. Photo: Kim Stafford

The state’s new poet laureate is a gifted photographer and musician, too. “I play three chords,” he told me, “and Jan DeWeese [the Portland mandolinist, banjo player, and music teacher] makes it sound like music,” Stafford is a self-professed wanderer who finds refuge in hearing others’ stories and losing time in the sublime mystery of Oregon’s landscapes. Consider his poem Atavistic Memory:

In a previous life I must have been

A woodsman, for pine-scent thrills.

Or was I the hunter’s apprentice,

Bowing to read the deer’s print

in dust? Cook’s helper, master

of the broom—how sweeping

soothes my mind? Silk in

my fingers takes me weeping

to my harem cell. Being beggar’s

daughter prepared me to be

consoled by one coin’s glint.

Is this why I am called to honor

everyone I meet?

Edwin Markham was Oregon’s first poet laureate, appointed in 1923, and the post has been filled since, with the exception of a long spell between 1989 and 2005. In 2006, funds from the Oregon Cultural Trust were used to reinstate the position, citing its significance. Lawson Fusao Inada received the nomination and served until 2010. According to the Cultural Trust website, the 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” — exactly the work that Tim, Mr. Stafford’s friend, says Kim has been doing for decades. Kim is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis and Clark College, where he has been teaching since 1979. He holds three degrees from the University of Oregon, including a Ph.D. in medieval literature, and has hosted countless writing workshops as far away as Italy, Scotland, and Bhutan. As poet laureate he will travel widely across the state and offer readings and workshops. He also aims to create a comprehensive poetry website that he hopes will be a vast resource for all Oregonians — educators, writers, and readers alike.

Curious about the process of becoming poet laureate, I asked Kim to explain it to me, and also about how it felt to receive the news. Anyone can nominate a poet for the position, he told me. Then it goes to a committee, which, Stafford explained, “must balance many things: diversity, age, background, and then the poet writes a proposal and others offer letters in support.” Kim has been nominated three times: “The third time is a charm,” he said with a smile. “It’s an odd thing,” he acknowledged, “to choose one person to represent poetry, because it is such a huge spectrum.” In his characteristically modest manner, he added, “It’s not about me. It’s not really about poetry, even. My job is to encourage all voices. … To get every person to drop their reticence and bring forth what is within them, and that is what I will try to do.”

What about his reaction to receiving the news? “My daughter wrote me a poem,” he said warmly. “That was the best part.” I did not express my own thought at the time, which was, “Of course she did! She’s a Stafford. That’s what your people do!” Kim’s father, William Stafford, was perhaps Oregon’s best-known poet. He served as the state’s poet laureate for 15 years, until 1990, and in 1970 was appointed Poet Consultant to the Library of Congress, a position now known as National Poet Laureate. A pacifist to the core, with a legendary habit of waking up at 4 a.m. to meet the page, the elder Stafford managed something along the lines of 22,000 pages in his lifetime, around sixty-five volumes of prose and poetry, one of which, Traveling Through the Dark, earned the National Book Award in 1963. Kim serves as executor of his father’s literary estate, and clearly inherited his passion for all aspects of the art form, from the absolute imperative belief that one must cultivate a habit of writing (“the writer needs to show up to the page and the muse comes to the moving pen and you see what happens”) to a reverence for what he calls “the moment of genesis.”  In his mission statement he describes it this way: “There was nothing — a clean slate, a blank page — and then Shazam! there is a little vision, a lens, a seed, a declaration of independence from silence, from defeat, from the reticence of fear. In that act, you begin to work as if in the early moments of a better person, a better citizen, a better friend.”

Kim has published more than a dozen books, including several volumes of poetry and a gorgeously authentic book on the craft of writing called The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft as well a powerful memoir that addresses the haunt of his brother’s suicide, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared. Most recently, though, he has been enamored of the Do It Yourself kind of poetry, self-publishing a handful of chap books including The Flavor of Unity: Post Election Poems (a book he was generous enough to mail to my house, at the request of a friend, before his ever having met me), so strong is his belief that “poetry can be part of that work of beginning, re-framing, re-envisioning the world.”

“For years, I looked down on self-publishing,” he said, discussing his newfound zest for DIY. “I thought, ‘well, real writers don’t do that.’ But now I love it. If a poem doesn’t fit on a page, I just revise the poem!” His friend Tim added some context here, saying the act is perfectly aligned with the Kim he has always known, and telling me how Kim used to keep his written notes and would hand-sew a binding. “I still do that!” Kim interjected, and they both laughed. His newest collection, Wild Honey, Tough Salt, forthcoming from Red Hen Press, is set for release at the Association of Writers & Writing Program’s AWP Conference & Bookfair to be hosted in Portland in March 2019.

Poet laureate and giant cedar: words and the land. Photo courtesy Kim Stafford

Carlos Fuentes, in his tribute to the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, wrote, “Things do not belong to all. But words do. Words are the first and most natural instance of a common property.” This notion that words are our most significant and unadulterated resource, and that they belong to everyone, is most central to Stafford’s ideology. His passion to serve every part of Oregon and to embolden every citizen of our state to discover and make use of their words as an act of exploration, of “free speech,” seems grounded in an idea fundamental to his life as a writer and a teacher, as a child of two teachers, that not only can poetry far outreach its sometimes elite and academic reputation, but that it also can go a fair distance, as he puts it, toward “repairing the world.” A few days after our chat, I landed on a term that summed up my impression of Kim most fully. He strikes me as a great practitioner of possibility. He is haunted, he told me, by a section of W.H. Auden’s poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

 

Stafford seemed unable to abide the idea that poetry makes nothing happen. “It does make something happen,” he said thoughtfully. “It must. Poetry is the research and development section of the human enterprise, where we clarify our thinking so our actions will be useful. To go straight to the action would be catawampus. No, it isn’t the end, but it is the beginning.”

Oregon whitebark pine. Photo: Kim Stafford

Kim maintains a disciplined writing schedule. “I get up and write a page every day and an idea. Then, I often look into my notebook. If you write every day, you may not write something great every day, but it will be your day. You will have started going into the wilderness of your mind and coming out with a treasure.” His joy of teaching also clearly lends optimism and vigor to his purpose. His friend Tim prompted a story about one of Kim’s seminal moments from childhood at Lost Lake, one of Oregon’s treasures. “At Lost Lake,” Kim said, “You get way out in this boat and they would lift up this board and you would look down into beautiful, illuminated depths … that happens when the bottom drops out from your protection, your denial, when you stumble into telling something you have waited your whole life to tell or say.” Speaking to the anecdote’s connection to the classroom, Tim added to Kim, “You have been a wonderful sailor, boat tender. You have taken that board away for a lot of people.” I enjoyed Tim’s perspective on his friend immensely. In the theater you learn that character is not necessarily revealed by what you say or what you do, but by what others say about you. Tim brought this to mind as I watched how he interacted with Kim, and I also though of a moment apart from the conversation. In passing, I had mentioned Stafford’s appointment to a former Lewis and Clark employee named Jocelyn. “He’s amazing,” she beamed. “No matter who was celebrating a birthday or retirement, no matter their status or their position, Kim always made a point of coming to the parties to thank them. Not everybody did that, but he did,” she said. “In fact,” she added, “most people didn’t do that, but Kim always did.” I imagine he always will.

Fuentes went on to address something else of significance in his tribute to Neruda: “Pablo Neruda is only the owner of the words he wrote because he is not Pablo Neruda: he is all men; he is the poet.” Somehow I think this passage would delight Kim, perhaps because he is well acquainted with his role, his task, and seems perfectly humbled by his place in The Great Conversation, one that began long before his birth and hopefully will far outstretch our lifetimes. In any case, I, for one, am grateful for the poet Kim Stafford, well suited to take the mantle as Oregon’s new poet laureate.

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