Friday, April 11, 2008

Generations of Stafford Poetry

Poet William Stafford was a native of Hutchinson, Kansas, and his work is revered here, with good reason. He was the Poet Laureate of the United States in 1970, before the position had that title, and won a National Book Award. His portrait is part of our mural downtown. He's holding a page that says, "Any star is enough if you know what star it is." He wrote more than 20,000 poems through his daily practice of quiet time spent writing. For those of us who are dedicated journalers, I feel compelled to mention he also kept a daily journal for 50 years.

I appreciate the use of the language in poetry. It requires so much from the writer, and has a lyrical quality unlike any other kind of writing. Poets write and speak with a beauty unique to the form.

Tonight I went to a poetry reading by Kim Stafford, one of the four children of William, who is an exceptional writer in his own right. He read some of his work, and some of his father's. He also sang some songs he had written. It was a fabulous evening.

Of course, it's difficult to "report" on an evening of poetry, but there were some incredibly poignant moments.

One of those was when he was relating the last conversation he had with his father, when they were talking about events that had occurred in his father's youth. His father told him those stories were ones he hadn't told, that he was, "waiting for someone to ask." That struck Kim - that his father, who wrote every day for 50 years, had stories he hadn't told, for which he had been waiting to be asked.

He was also funny. He talked about being in New Orleans and going to the famous Cafe du Monde and the waitress coming over and saying, "You want anything mo' baby?" He said, "Just to hear that every day the rest of my life." Needless to say, that got a big laugh.

He said after leaving there, walking down Decatur street about 2 in the morning, they came upon upon a woman who was a sanitation worker, crying at a shrine of candles, coins and flowers. He asked her what was wrong and she told him her hairdresser, Robin, had died because he'd been generous and given his key to the wrong person. She said Robin also told her, "You're more than the sanitation." She told Kim that Robin was like that with everyone.

Kim went back to his hotel room and wrote a song about it. Unbeknownst to him, it was recorded when he played it the next day, and ended up being used at Robin's memorial service. When he later got an email from Robin's family, Kim said he realized that that was the absolute best circle of creation. First, "you hear something that must be told." Then you shape it with whatever tools you have available to you and "you give it back." The song was beautiful and included the line, "You be you, like no other, Robin said to me."

He said he was reminded of a quote about how the deepest poetry will be spoken by ordinary people in times of great trouble. That seems true in so many cases.

I cannot lay claim to any poetry. I fear I do not have the necessary command of the language to write poetry, but I do believe in times of trouble we share our souls in words - written and spoken - that are meaningful like no other. For me it has been things like Remembering Mama and writing down my core beliefs, where the language works for me seemingly effortlessly. The work shows through in the daily writing. Maybe the lesson is to spend time in deeper contemplation on an emotional level more often.

Kim gave us some "homework assignments," one of which was related to his father's poem, "Why I am happy." He suggested we all write about why we are happy. I have so much to be happy about, thankful about, that it could be a very long piece.

Another of his father's poems he mentioned was, "Vocation." The last line of it is, "Your job is to find what the world wants to be." Kim said he may use that line above the doorway when they build the William Stafford Institute for Peace.

Kim is the executor of his father's body of work, and said at one point he asked his mother if she thought he had done enough for his father's work. She responded with a question - what do you think he would say. It occurred to Kim while he was sheetrocking, that if he asked that question of his father that his father would probably answer him by writing using Kim's hand. As soon as he posed the question in his head, the answer came to him. He then asked how to know when he should focus on his own work or his father's work and the answer came, "Do what is most alive."

I love that concept. "Do what is most alive." It's how I live daily life, as much as possible, to do what is most alive (intense, different, daring, possible). I've never thought of it that way, so this gives me something to think about. It seems important to explore this further.

Kim read a couple of poems about his Aunt in Nickerson who he's staying with. The last one he read was a perfect illustration of why poetry can express something with such a beautiful turn of phrase. He planted the image of a phone there that can reach anyone they've lost because she remembers the good in them. He wrote that "she has been keeping house for everyone," a phrase I just loved. It speaks of home and all it means. Just lovely.

He also wrote a poem for the director of the art center, about his exhibit that is on display. What an honor to have a Kim Stafford poem about your work. Amazing.

A number of us went to dinner with Kim before the event, and I had the opportunity to chat with him a bit. He's a very personable gentleman. He will also be at the poetry event on Saturday that I promoted a few weeks ago. I'm guessing you might still be able to secure a spot if you're a reader who's in the area and interested in attending.

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