Oregon Cultural Trust

Poet Q&A: Kim Stafford finds poetic fodder in nature, war, boyhood, and writing in new book, ‘As the Sky Begins to Change’

On the occasion of the publication of his 12th book, the Portland poet discusses writing with joy, living in the moment, and poems as acts of service.

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“Poems function as a contact point between strangers,” Kim Stafford says, “to offer a moment of intimacy that I don’t think could be carried out any other way than through poetry.”


Behold this empty space
between your certainty and mine,
this arena of sunlight free
of claim and counter claim,
this bright meadow where no one
has shouted, bullied, or begged,
where butterflies are sovereign,
where birdsong is our legislation,
where you and I could walk
out into the open, look around,
and speak — first of the children,
then of our dreams, and only then
of the work we will do together.

Meeting Halfway by Kim Stafford

This spring, Kim Stafford released As the Sky Begins to Change, his third book of poetry from California-based Red Hen Press. The empathetic and witty collection by the educator, writer, and Oregon’s ninth poet laureate deals with themes of nature, humor, war, politics, memory, and heartache. It has been set to music, quoted in The New York Times, posted in the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series, gathered in a chapbook sold to benefit Ukrainian refugees, and posted online in response to a Supreme Court decision — marking itself as a text of the times.

Stafford, who founded the Northwest Writing Institute in 1986 and co-founded Fishtrap Gathering of Writers in 1987, is also an emeritus professor at Lewis & Clark College and the author of 11 other books, including Having Everything Right: Essays of Place. I met with him over tea to talk about the book, his writing process, and utilizing poems as an act of service.

It was a sunny Portland day as I joined Stafford on the front deck of his home, surrounded by the chirp of birds and wind moving delicately through the trees. He welcomed me graciously and, as we chatted, told me about his start in writing.

“My parents kept a book of things we said when we were little. They called it Lost Words, and they would just write down things that I or my brother or my two sisters would say. One of the early reports — I must have been 4 years old or so — we were walking along, and I started chanting, ‘Over the bumpity rocks, over the bumpity rocks, isn’t it clever to sing about leather over the bumpity rocks?’ And you know, that makes no sense, but it was fun. And so I think, like all kids, I was just interested in language,” said Stafford. “There are strange things that happen in language, and you notice words…. Sometimes they hurt you, sometimes they make you happy. Then you find a book that talks to you in a way that people haven’t talked to you, and then you sometimes have a teacher who takes your writing seriously.”

Stafford explained that a teacher in high school, whom he later wrote a poem about titled Scholastica, was one of the first to encourage him. His father, William Stafford, poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1970 and Oregon Poet Laureate from 1975-1990, also played a role. Later, Stafford turned in a poem to his college professor in lieu of an essay. Rather than admonish him, the teacher told him to send it out. This, he said, was a turning point for him, and what he considers “the beginning.”

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“I think of being a writer as just announcing to yourself: This is what I do. Regardless of what other people think about it, or comparisons, or whether you make money, whether you get published, you just decide this is important to me, and you’re right. A teacher or another writer can bestow that consciousness,” he said.

When it comes to creating a tender collection in our tumultuous and ever-changing modern age, Stafford sees writing as a “matrix of experiences” that he holds in equally high regard. From handwriting to working on his computer, audio recordings to posting poems on social media platforms: All iterations of sharing poetry are valuable to Stafford. In the afterword of As the Sky Begins to Change, he writes that the moment of an individual reading a poem is like the meeting of two anonymous people through space and time. Regardless of the medium, he told me, “Poems function as a contact point between strangers to offer a moment of intimacy that I don’t think could be carried out any other way than through poetry.”

Poetry, for Stafford, is a gift of service. During a recent reading at Powell’s City of Books, and in the collection itself, he expressed that offering a poem as a purposeful act can leave a lasting impact on society. Poems with categorizations like “a gift for a friend,” “an anthem for an admired creature,” “a poem to cheer myself up,” and “a poem to encourage my students” all made appearances in hopes of reminding others of the importance of poems in daily life.

When I asked Stafford about the most important things he had learned or experienced as a writer, he spoke of the preciousness of the present moment.

“That I’m going to die,” he said. “And you think you know that. But as you get older, you get into graduate school, independent study, Buddhist training, and each day becomes more precious … each friendship, each connection, each encounter. When I started writing, there was a kind of infinite opportunity to write novels, travel books, anthems that people will sing together, and so on. You think, I’ll write things that’ll make people cry and laugh and celebrate. You have this great, appropriate spectrum of hopes,  expectations, and ambitions. Here, at the other end of that great journey, it’s more a matter of, Well, what is the essence? What is essential out of all the things I could do? What are the things I must do? I’m not building an ocean liner; I’m building a lifeboat. A little scrap of expression in the vast sea. So you know, that doesn’t have to be diminishment or disappointment, quite the opposite. It’s this page, right now. This word. This movement of my pen. This is everything.”

Below is an extended interview with Stafford, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“As the Sky Begins to Change” was published this spring by Red Hen Press.

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Can you discuss the process of writing As the Sky Begins to Change?

Stafford: Yes, it started 100 times. You know, here we are in this beautiful day, and this day will pass. Night will come, and then there will be dawn. Another beginning. And for me, the beauty of process is the opportunity to keep beginning, to have the privilege, again and again, to address the blank page and see what comes out of nowhere. My favorite source out of nowhere is silence, that empty place in your mind, where one can’t think of anything. Then, Oh, wait a minute, there is something I know, some little beginning I know. So it’s not exactly out of nowhere, but out of stimulus constantly coming into us from the world: things we overhear, things we read, things we dream, things we see. In the midst of all that incoming, your mind does a little switcheroo and it looks at something in a strange way from a different angle.

So the process for me is to experience the day, write down little phrases, and then in the morning and in my writing time, take one of those little nuggets for a walk to see where it goes. Do that every day for a couple of years and take 2 percent of what you wrote to gather in a book. If you design your life to create abundance, then you have the pleasure of distilling, selecting, and being very choosy to whittle it down.

How did the book’s themes emerge? How do they intersect and how did you gather the poems into their sections?

I’ll write a poem daily, and eventually, they’ll be part of a real book. But in the interim, I like to make little chapbooks that gather poems on a theme. I would have collections of maybe 30 or 40 poems in there, and my next book might take two or three of each. Because of this process, there tend to be sections of similar poems in a book. For example, I have a section in As the Sky Begins to Change called Plum Trees in War, basically about politics and war — so there’s that section. Then a section called Earth Verse, of poems for the Earth. I have cycles of poems that tend to be written under the spell of an obsession over a month or two, and then little books, and I glean the poems that want to be in a bigger book.

Like a map. You have these little roads and highways that feed into each other…

Yeah, or a river… many tributaries and little rivulets up in the mountains, and they find each other and they say, Hey, we want to be a big river together.

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The process of creating poems, for me, is a whole matrix. I have this little journal, and then I have this handwriting practice, and then I have this revision practice. Then I send some off to online magazines. I send some off to print magazines. I put some in little books. I give a reading, I make postcards to send to friends. I record it; I make a QR code so people can listen to it on their phone. I send it off to people. I feel this way about poetry: It’s a complete saturation of one’s consciousness to be; perceiving, wondering, drafting, revising, gifting, discovering, sending forth.

Do you feel that you’re creating a time capsule or stamped record of our time by writing this book?

There is this idea of an occasional poem that is written for an occasion or grows out of an occasion, and often, in literary criticism, such poems are frowned upon — as though it’s an expendable poem that might be useful in the moment but doesn’t have ongoing literary cachet. I don’t see it that way. If we’re having a political moment that deeply troubles me, I’m going to write about it for my benefit and the benefit of others living in this moment with me. But if I do it honorably, the poem may have ongoing use, or value, because the things we’re suffering are going to keep happening. It’s not like we only have one set of political villains. There will be others. And if I can write about this moment in a thoughtful way, what I have written may have continuing use.

What were the most challenging and rewarding parts of completing As the Sky Begins to Change?

I can’t think of anything, because struggle is pleasure. If you’re engaged in a core creative pursuit, the difficult is essential. Deciding which poems, what order, the structure of the book, wondering what the afterword should say.… This is a constant negotiation with myself about what is the richest gift I can give, unencumbered by ambition for anything except to give pleasure, healing, insight, or to participate in the work of our time. So that’s a struggle, but it’s a pleasure at the same time.

How were you able to negotiate seeing through characters’ eyes in a way that’s intimately imagined, while remaining true to your artistic vision?

One of the landmark genres in medieval literature and Old English is the riddle, where a creature — for example, an onion, a bookworm, a swan, the moon — speaks in the first person. These beings speak, and it’s the poet writing, composing this voice but honoring the source outside the poet’s consciousness. That’s something I often do, and a number of poems in As the Sky Begins to Change are some creature or quality speaking. And that fluid boundary between me as a writer and the imagined consciousness of this other being — that thin, gauzy, ultimately nonexistent boundary — is just a delicious realm to experience. That spirit of trying to inhabit another consciousness in writing the poem is a doorway to sharing consciousness with a reader, and is in service to the way of serving by way of making.

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Can you talk about the poem Dialect Spoken by One from the afterword of the book? 

Dialect Spoken by One is a poem that I thought was going to be in the book, and I kept putting it in and taking it out. It’s this idea that we share a common language, we use the same words, we have sentences. We have all kinds of customs for how words go together. We read books, we have conversation. But ultimately, when you decide to be an artist, you do it your own way. You take those common elements and you put them together in a way that draws on, for better or worse, the eccentric, strange, feral way of being that is your own.

To me, that’s one of the joys of writing — the language is a candy store, and here are all these beautiful words that we share. I think behind that poem is a sense that there’s a great tragedy in the world. There are whole languages that are being lost; native speakers dwindle to a few elders. To push back against that attrition in world culture by cultivating, enriching, and practicing your own way of being — your own way of speaking and seeing things — is one way to heal the world.

It seems that both you and the work have a connection to Buddhism.

We have taken two trips to Bhutan, and one thing I learned in Bhutan was the idea that every place, every person, every experience, every encounter has these four dimensions: the visible, the invisible, the secret, and the deeply secret. And I love that three of the four dimensions can’t be seen. That idea that you look at the world, you read, you encounter other people, that’s the beginning. 

Some of the poems, the ones about Ukraine, came from when the war started. A group of Buddhists around the world started meeting every morning at 8 o’clock on Zoom and we would sit in Tonglen meditation, which is you inhale sorrow and you exhale consolation, trying to have a reciprocal taking in of suffering and sending forth blessing. We would do that for 20 minutes in silence, and there would be people from Japan, Indonesia, Poland, Ukraine, and quite a number of people in Ukraine. Then, we would talk and listen to the members of the group in Ukraine and they would tell these amazing, dark, difficult, beautiful, inspiring stories. So, those started coming into the poems, and ultimately into this book.

During the Tonglen meditation of inhaling trouble and exhaling blessing, I started considering, Is this real? Can you really do that? But then I thought, Well, that’s what every tree is doing. It’s taking in carbon dioxide, and it’s giving forth oxygen. So, there’s a tree in the war zone that is selflessly contributing this respiration of oxygen. If a tree can do it, I think a human can do it, too. Yes, we suffer, and then we gift. Suffer, gift. Suffer, gift.

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How did you learn to talk about your work?

By writing everything, because I’m constantly interrogating my process. I’m constantly curious about, How does this happen? How does this work? How does language work? How do dreams function? What are they trying to do when I glimpse something on the street and it brings tears to my eyes? How does that happen? Out of nowhere, I remember something that happened 50 years ago. I’m constantly in school with myself about how existence functions, and watching and writing is just one way to try to keep track of and learn from that.

What advice can you offer to emerging poets looking to establish themselves?

I believe in a writing practice. I believe in publishing, first locally, then moving outward to putting your voice out in the world. I believe in finding books that inspire you and finding companions who encourage you. I think those are all of great importance, but maybe the most important is dogged persistence in finding and sustaining the pleasures of creation. The world won’t help you; the world won’t say, take time to yourself. Some friends might, but the world will say, achieve, work hard, put your head down, keep your nose to the grindstone. The essential thing is to step aside from that and listen to what is within you and bring it forth onto the page and trust that’s the most essential thing. I realized that that’s all I can do. I can’t do all those other things. I made a vow with a friend, and we said to one another: only do what only you can do, and only do what gives you joy, for joy is fundamentally practical in sustaining a life and helping others.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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