Kim Stafford’s great energy swap

"We're back to where poetry has escaped the book. It’s not in the zoo of the library where it's looking out through the bars of its cage."

After a recent conversation with Kim Stafford, Oregon’s ninth poet laureate, an idea coalesced for me, that the great energy swap—the invisible exchange between sentient creatures that either fuels or depletes us—is really our most valuable currency. At least for me, this phenomenon has come more clearly into focus this past year when interactions have been fewer and somehow more deliberate.

I met Kim online via Zoom, and we enjoyed a serpentining conversation that covered his most recent book, QR Codes, the writing life, writing programs, editing and publishing, and the place of poetry in culture. Stafford is affable and authentic, even over a screen; his presence and amplitude filled the energy tank for days to follow. 

Singer Come from Afar – his most recent poetry collection, comprised of five sections and a masterful afterword – serves as a lighted pathway for weary travelers. A panoramic and compassionate inquiry into what it means to be human this exact second, the book is an account of a writer’s mighty vision and the execution of that vision, as offered by the poet himself. “Poetry is our native language,” Stafford told me. “It’s not some esoteric departure. Justified prose in books is a departure. To speak with pauses—that’s lines of poetry, where the pause is as important as the words. That’s how poetry works, and that’s how human interaction works. My mission is to restore poetry to its rightful place as our common language.”

Kim Stafford in his natural element Photo: Kendrick Moholt

If one considers art in the context of the artist’s impulse—the Great Why—Stafford credits his immediate poet laureate predecessor, Elizabeth Woody, for profoundly influencing him when she said, “The more I do this, the less it’s about what the poem is, and it’s more about who the poem serves.”  Stafford’s collection brims with poems in service—to veterans, to mothers, to inmates, to immigrants; as well as tributes—to nature, to action, to humbling ourselves to the monumental task of seeing and listening and caring.  Below is the final stanza from “Practicing the Complex Yes,” a poem of instruction about how we may speak to one another despite our differences:

Yes, and in what you say I see…

Yes, and at the same time…

Yes, and what if…?

Yes, I hear you, and how…?

Yes, and there’s an old story…

Yes, and as the old song goes…

Yes, and as a child once told me…

Yes. Yes, tell me more.  I want to understand…

         and then I want to tell you how it is for me.

The book is also a tribute to a daily writing practice that sought out the miraculous amidst the mayhem and brought it to the page at a time when many writers could barely pick up a pen.   

Stafford’s creativity did not wilt a whit in the early stages of the pandemic. It flourished. Turning his enterprising mind toward the task of reaching more people than ever before, he designed a series of QR Codes (yes, those ubiquitous codes that one can scan with a phone) that link readers to a smorgasbord of mixed media to companion the poetry. “I am all excited about the QR codes as a way to lift poetry off the page into films, translations, all kinds of things. And I can’t get any traction within the literary community … it must be that people associate it with marketing.” I think Stafford is on to something genius here. In no time at all, I can envision a world where store windows, libraries, community boards, and telephone poles are plastered with QR codes that offer readers a dynamic literary experience.

I received Kim’s book in the mail along with a printed page filled with QR codes that whisked me off on adventures far and wide (film, photographs, harp music by Bethany Lee, original drafts, a reading of one of the poems by a young child), and felt that in order to write an accurate account of Kim Stafford, one need only to get to the bottom of a single blazing question: How, in the face of one of the most dire periods in human history, does one remain so optimistic?    

“One reason I feel buoyant is my writing practice,” Stafford said. He detailed his four-step practice, which finds him up each morning to meet the darkness. “Every morning I experience miracles. There’s nothing. There’s a blank page. I can’t think of anything to write and then:  there’s something! And then I watch that little something grow. And it may not grow into something great and lasting and worthy of acclaim, but it does grow … so I start every day with a sense, not of doom and gloom, but the optimism of every seed. I’m with the seeds!  I’m with the buds unfurling! I’m with the birds that are throwing a song out there!”

I recall the first time I met Kim. I’d noted that I had never met a writer so delighted by a blank page, but it strikes me now that what fuels him isn’t personal optimism so much as an activist’s audacity. About the reset afforded by the pandemic, he said, “The 1918 epidemic resulted in the Roaring ’20s, which resulted in the Great Depression, which resulted in World War II. That was not a good learning curve. We have a chance to do better, and if we don’t, we are doomed.”

I asked Kim why he thought writers might struggle to create, to take up the call to action. “The realm of literature is burdened by dysfunctional ideas about fame and success and literary quality, reputation, publication … the very fact that writers use the word rejection for what is often apart from quality. There are so many reasons a poem comes back from an editor and yet we call it rejection because we think the literary enterprise is a judgment of our quality of soul, and that is a showstopper.” He even offered an antidote to this: “I think of it as a playground. ‘Oh, you didn’t like that poem. Well, I’ve got a hundred more!’”

Stafford joked that if he could choose a title for himself, it would be “The Czar of Fumbling Beginnings.” He retired last August from his longstanding professorship at Lewis & Clark College, where students undoubtedly benefited from his views on the generative process—a gift to writers who sometimes ignore their most innate impulses, conforming instead to notions of right and wrong / good and bad that pervade writing classes. Both Stafford and I studied in MFA programs, and shared some important takeaways about the workshop approach that aims to fix first drafts, to make them less “broken,” more palatable. “The writer Reginald McKnight said one time in the workshop, ‘We’re trained in school to polish a piece of writing, to refine it, but actually we should make it more primitive, more feral,’” Stafford said.  

Believing that the absence of first drafts in all finished manuscripts is a disservice to readers, Stafford will soon co-edit a book on editing. About his own process, he said, “For me, it’s an extension of the original impulse of the poem … how can I make it more like itself? How can I help it speak in its own voice, have everything it loves, get rid of things it doesn’t need?” And this gem, from his father, the late poet William Stafford, about when you stop revising: “When it no longer feels like creation.”

Kim Stafford. Photo: K.B. Dixon

This enthusiasm for mysterious creative energies that gift something from nothing has likewise inspired hundreds in the great state of Oregon, where his 2018-2020 poet laureate duties brought him to prisons, homeless shelters, community centers and any place he could share the good word of poetry. “I went to many remote places and people who came were often few, but their hunger was intense and that felt like a great privilege to me … we’re back to where poetry has escaped the book. It’s not in the zoo of the library where it’s looking out through the bars of its cage. It’s not imprisoned in school or the literary estate. It’s being handed to a person. It’s being read to a person. It’s been written with a person. It felt indigenous, like we are rediscovering how to be hunters and gatherers, how to be a village. How to take down the barriers between medicine and words.”  Indeed, while Stafford’s successor as the state’s poet laureate, Anis Mojgani, has published several poetry collections, as a two-time National Poetry Slam champion he’s perhaps best known as an advocate of the oral tradition that Stafford is suggesting here.

Stafford said that he felt moved by the exchanges. One person wrote after he’d given a reading in Cottage Grove, “I haven’t slept well for months. But after your reading, I slept well.” 

“What’s better than that?” Stafford asked with a smile.

When the pandemic abruptly ended his engagements with 25 events remaining on his calendar, he felt even more compelled to serve. Thus, the QR Codes emerged, as well as a poem a day on Instagram: “I just decided I’m going to do it on Instagram. I got to do it on Facebook … poetry is here not to be literature, but to serve. I think poetry can be a garden, but it needs connections to the forest. I beefed up my website, made a film of a reading with prompts and tried to put a workshop out there. I just tried to be as available as possible.”

He also contacted his editor at Red Hen Press: “Hey, I’ve got to have some pandemic poems in here. Aren’t all your authors doing that?”  They said, “No. Nobody.”  Stafford told them, “Well, I’ll have a section of pandemic poems. Otherwise, it’s a history book, not a book of current poetry.”

In addition to the poems written during his tenure as poet laureate, Singer Come from Afar includes an elegant afterword that distinguishes between “important” poems and “great” ones. The distinction should inspire anyone who’s ever had the impulse to write anything—a challenge to those believing that only “great” poems should be considered significant. It bears importantly on his own prolificacy, too: “It relates to the fecundity of the creative process. If I’m writing about a subject, there’s a certain standoffishness. Am I supposed to have wisdom to do this? How will it compare to other things on this subject? If I’m writing for someone, I feel all that drops away and it’s what can I say to this person, on behalf of this person?”

Consider the final stanza of the poem “Pandemic Coffee Restoration Ritual,” posted in the elevators at Good Samaritan Hospital this past year: “Dark and light together— / loving how they swirled. / Now you’ve had your coffee, / go repair the world.”

I imagine this poem sparked joy for exhausted healthcare workers and patients alike, and I doubt most of the poem’s readers were engaging in debate over its literary merit. Its significance—its greatness—cannot really be measured. 

Stafford brightens perceptibly when I ask about whether teaching has interfered with his writing: “Well, you know, my dad said, ‘One thing about a writing practice, you don’t deplete the reservoir. You stimulate the fountain.’ It’s not like you’re going to use up some finite resource, and I feel that way with teaching. It’s work and it’s responsibility. But it does stimulate the fountain—to be with others who are curious and who care about words. That’s good medicine.”

Stafford has even enjoyed teaching virtually, thrilled with how it brings people together: “I think that’s one thing that has made teaching really important during the pandemic on Zoom, to be able to look in people’s eyes and say, ‘How’s it going? What should we write about? What’s the story you’ve been carrying? Here’s our chance.’ So: against a backdrop of severe challenges, there’s the magic of making. Beautiful.”

Beautiful indeed, for a person so buoyed by the power of words and their ability to connect and resurrect us. “A person in the writing workshop at Coffee Creek women’s prison said, ‘When I’m in my cell, I’m an inmate. But when I’m writing, I’m a person.’” Stafford adds, “That’s whether you’re in prison or not. I think when you’re writing, when you’re doing words with someone who cares about your words, you are a person.”

Stafford left me with a story, based on a short story by the French writer Jean Giono, about a man who planted seeds. The tale’s origin, whether fiction or nonfiction, has led to such speculation that the beloved Whole Earth Catalog offered a reward to anyone with definitive proof. “To me, whether it’s fiction or not doesn’t really matter,” he said. “It’s the story of this humble shepherd who started planting acorns in a spoiled landscape in France and gradually changed the weather because his forest grew up. It’s such a parable for ‘You do what is in your power to do.’  Do it persistently, consistently, generously, and who knows what can happen?”

I realized that in trying to understand this writer’s “optimism,” I was searching for a blueprint for resilience, how to combat apathy in trying times. But it turns out it isn’t really about optimism at all. Perhaps it’s as simple as dogged determination— not to re-forest an entire desolate landscape, but just to plant a seed, to do every day what is in one’s power to do.

 I couldn’t have devised a more fitting ending to a visit with Kim Stafford.

***

Kim Stafford and the QR interactive codes: Here’s the first half on an insert in Stafford’s book Singer Come from Afar, with phone camera-accessible codes that can take you to videos of him talking and reading his poems aloud, or other extra material. It’s a technology that takes readers beyond written poetry and into the experience of spoken poetry:

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About the author

Danielle Vermette is a writer and actor. She arrived in Portland in 1998 with a BFA in theatre from the University of Central Missouri and has been an Imago Theatre company member since 1999, appearing in a dozen shows and touring nationally and internationally for many years in Imago’s show Frogz. She was a student in PSU’s MFA fiction program and writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction. She works in the Abdominal Organ Transplant Department at OHSU as the Hepatobiliary Coordinator.

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