Kim Stafford: To be welcome in the house of writing

Oregon's poet laureate and "roving listener" will speak in Newport about poems and the mysteries related to writing

Poet and essayist Kim Stafford is nine months into his two-year appointment as Oregon’s poet laureate. In that time, Stafford has made appearances in big and small towns around the state, with plans to visit many more in the coming months. On Sunday, he’ll be the guest speaker at the meeting of Willamette Writers’ Coast Chapter in Newport.

Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford at Eagle Creek. Photo courtesy: Oregon Humanities

Stafford said his Feb. 17 talk is inspired by a quote from Oregon poet Gary Miranda, who said, “People who don’t read or write may be spared the inconvenience of thought.”

Stafford plans to dive into that inconvenience by sharing poems, questions, stories, and mysteries related to the practice of writing. We asked him to talk about his experience as poet laureate so far.

What have you learned in your first few months as Poet Laureate?

Kim Stafford: I cherish my conversations with writers, teachers, readers, parents, veterans, inmates, people in the halls of power, and people on the street. In these conversations, I’ve learned that clear, evocative, inspiring language is treasured by people in all walks of life. This may be poetry on a page, a story someone tells, a letter someone has kept, or some other form of language doing all the work it can to connect one person to another, one generation to another. As I’ve said in many places:

Poetry is our native language. Everyone is welcome in the house of writing, and festive explorations on the page make communities more democratically inclusive, emotionally informed, and ready to face the challenges of these mysterious times.

Where have you traveled around the state?

I’ve taken several longer journeys: to John Day, Burns, and the Alvord playa … to Gold Beach and up the coast to Cannon Beach … and then out east to Hood River, The Dalles, Umatilla, Pendleton. In addition I’ve made forays to Newberg, Mt. Angel, Salem. By the time my appointment ends, in May 2020, I hope to visit the whole glorious grid of Oregon.

What are the conversations that have stayed with you?

People have told me about secret places they love, about lost friends they miss, about secrets and devotions, times of misunderstanding, and episodes of grace. Poetry seems to be a conduit for feelings and ways of understanding that don’t fit into other modes of expression.

Stafford finds inspiration in Oregon’s landscape. For example, his poem “Atavistic Memory” begins: “In a previous life I must have been / A woodsman, for pine-scent thrills.” Photo by: Kendrick Moholt

Are you finding differences from region to region?

Any differences I find from place to place are minuscule when compared to common themes and needs and connections that poetry can provide. To lose a parent in John Day is close to losing a friend in Gold Beach, and the remedies poetry can provide will be similar in each place.

Does poetry mean different things to different people?

For many, reading and writing poetry has been something they experienced in school, before the rigors of finding a job and raising a family. But many who turn up at my programs have a hunger to return to poetry as a way of understanding and expressing the enigmas of life. Again, the common ground is paramount, and differences are minor. A prisoner at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla has much in common with a veteran in Gold Beach when it comes to the struggle to understand trauma, and the need to tell the story of one’s own pain.

How do you adapt to that?

Part of my job, as I see it, is to share poems — to give readings, workshops, events where poetry that has already been written can be experienced together. But a bigger part of my work is to be a roving listener, to field questions, to “interview the audience” about local stories, and to give “optional homework,” inviting people to try a writing practice, to compose a poem for a place or person, and generally add their voice to their vote as a contribution to community and democracy.

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Willamette Writers will meet from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday in the McEntee Room of the Newport Public Library, 35 N.W. Nye St. Admission is free. For details, go here.

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This activity is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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