On May 15, 2018, Governor Kate Brown named Kim Stafford the ninth Poet Laureate of Oregon.
We are lucky to have such an accomplished Poet Laureate with a diverse background in teaching and writing poetry. Kim Stafford grew up in Oregon and received his Ph.D. in medieval literature from the University of Oregon. His resume includes printer, photographer, oral historian, editor and visiting writer. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and children.
His book Having Everything Right: Essays of Place won a citation for excellence from the Western States Book Awards in 1986. Stafford has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Governor’s Arts Award, and the Stewart Holbrook Award from Literary Arts for his contributions to Oregon’s literary culture. Additionally, his work has been featured on National Public Radio. In his most recent book, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, an account of his brother’s suicide, Kim explores with poetry the heartbreak of loss.
Kim Stafford is the second member of his family to be named Oregon Poet Laureate. His father, William Stafford served from 1975–1990.
I am excited and grateful to have had the opportunity to interview our new Poet Laureate. Thank you, Kim Stafford.
Dale Champlin, OPA newsletter co-editor, interviewed Kim Stafford for our website.
Congratulations on becoming Oregon’s ninth Poet Laureate. What a wonderful opportunity! What do you look forward to in your new position?
KS: Sharing poetry with ready citizens—reading, writing, conversation—is always a pleasure for me. One thing I realized right away: Becoming poet laureate is not about me, and it’s never even about poetry, really. It’s about how I, with others, might use poetry to address divisions in the world.
What do you hope to accomplish?
KS: I would like to save us all through poetry, in the sense of “tikkun olam,” the repair of the world.
In this broad-ranging and diverse state, what do you see Oregon poets contributing to the world of poetry?
KS: In a democracy, we each have a vote that is an finite entity, but also a voice that is an infinite capacity. Poetry can be a way to enhance the voice, to freight the voice with beauties and clarities that make democracy work better.
How do you relate to people and their different voices?
KS: My motto: No true voice without every voice.
What does your writing practice entail? How do you keep a fresh perspective when you begin to write a poem?
KS: My daily writing practice happens before anything else, and informs the rest of the day. How can I have a chance to start this life afresh without the blank page?
What aspect of writing poetry do you find yourself most interested in? What do you find most challenging?
KS: I’m most engaged by the perennial experience of first nothing, then a little notion, then the beginning of a poem, then the feeling that something came from nothing. Pure magic, really.
What do you do to recharge?
KS: Sleep, walk, be still. But the writing of a poem recharges me, too. As George Herbert wrote in the 17th century, when he had been feeling old and worn down, “And yet in age I bud again, and relish versing.”
Do you have any tips for poets who want to write better poems?
KS: I’m afraid I have an oblique response to that, and it’s something my father once said: “I don’t want to write good poems. I want to write inevitable poems—given who I am, they are what I will write.”
That said, I do enjoy watching a poem get stronger, closer to its essential self, through the process of creative revision—not fixing the poem, but letting it shift and stretch and unfold before your very eyes as you enter into festive tinkering.
What writers do you enjoy reading? Who are your favorite poets?
KS: I am consistently stunned by listening to writers in my classes read what they have just written. There is a kind of collective ownership of what comes forth when we sit together to write.
Beyond the workshop, I’m guided largely by what students and fellow writers send me to read, including recently: Marie Howe, Mahtem Shiferraw, Terry Mackler, Lowell Jaeger…. But I’m always reading Naomi Shihab Nye, Pattiann Rogers, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman….
In your many years as a teacher and poet, what do you seek to encourage in budding poets?
KS: I like the idea of “budding poets.” Be a bud, with the urge to open. Find a way to experience pleasure in the process of writing. Ambition gets in the way. Thinking early about publishing blocks freedom of speech. Even striving for a kind of eloquence foreign to the what the poem is trying to be—this can be an obstacle. Simple pleasure in taking dictation on the mind’s voice feels like the most practical way to proceed.
How does being a teacher translate into being Poet Laureate?
KS: My classroom just grew to be the size of the state.
What is your ideal project?
KS: I have a weakness for a writing project that responds to a particular felt need that presents itself. I just wrote a poem addressed to the last graduating class at shuttered Marylhurst University. I wrote a poem for Alder College, which is just about to launch. I wrote a poem for Hunter Noack, who takes his Steinway Grand to outdoor locations around Oregon to deliver concerts under the sky. I wrote a poem for my wife’s friend who just lost her mother.
That is, I like a poem that is not just about something, but for someone. As my wise predecessor, Liz Woody, said about being Poet Laureate: “The more I write, the less it’s about the poems, and more about the people the poems serve.”
You mentioned starting a website to encourage a dialogue with poets around the state;
how will that work?
KS: My notion is to fill a website with poems, writing prompts, resources for teachers, songs, poetry films, and other tools and pleasures for writers. I hope to have this up and running by sometime in the fall.
Tell us about the Multnomah Arts Center Poetry Post. What was your inspiration?
KS: My daily writing practice has produced many utterances too small to be called a poem, and when I had a request for something to go on the post I sifted through hundreds of fragments until I found one that felt right.
How has medieval literature influenced your writing?
KS: I’m very much taken by the whole idea of “anonymous” as author to amazing poems that have thrilled readers for centuries. This has made publication less important to me than a longing to make things that people would want to carry with them, or give away, or tack on a telephone pole without a name.
When did you write your first poem?
My parents kept a record of odd things we kids said when we were small. One I remember reading, from when I was about 4: I was trotting along, chanting,
Over the bumpity rocks.
Over the bumpity rocks.
Oh isn’t it clever to sing about leather,
Over the bumpity rocks.
Clearly prophetic of genius to come!
You must have been exposed to poetry at a very young age. What poems do you
remember hearing as a youngster?
KS: The first poem I remember was uttered by my mother when I came home from elementary school, troubled by the teasing I got on the playground for my curly hair:
When we consider providence
We must admit it’s fair
That some are given brilliant minds
And some have curly hair!
Tell us about growing up in such a literate environment.
KS: I’ve written a book about this: Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. But in that book I explore how the notion of “making” a poem was akin to making a bow and arrow, or making bread, or making music, or even making the bed—language was but one of the sweet resources for fashioning artifacts of connection with each other and the world. Both my parents were teachers, so there was always a lot of talk about what we were reading, thinking, wondering.
You recently wrote a book of poetry about the political divide after our last presidential election. I found your poems warm and inclusive. How did you write with such lyrical quality while addressing such a divisive topic? How can a poet speak without ranting and still be a poet?
I think of writing in these dark times as a way of “settling your accounts” with division, confusion, anger, disorientation. So when I made a vow the morning of November 9, 2016, to devote my writing practice to seeking forms of convergence for our divided nation, I had begun my little book The Flavor of Unity: Post-Election Poems. Again, I find the experience of pleasure in making comes into the creative process, even when I start with grief or confusion or even anger. As we say to an angry young child, “Use your words.” When we find a way to use words, our need for fury is diminished.
In the new generation of voices do you hear promising tones of hope and artistic
Every class I teach, when we share our writing, I hear discoveries that are pure magic—an utterance that came “out of nowhere” to remind us of our heritage of sensation, insight, compassion, and connection.
Do you have any questions that you would like to answer?
As I writer, I take this question by the writer Carol Bly as my own: “How can I take the neat dent in the lid of a canning jar well-sealed … and the plain look of surprise on the face of a cow, when it meets you on the highway, and will not turn aside … or the way snow, when it first falls in the mountains, is so fragile you are afraid to touch it at all, and turn these things, through my writing, into something clear enough, and passionate enough, that teenage boys in America will not have to go do a war somewhere in order to feel alive?”
That is, how can I take ordinary, local, common things, and sing them in my poetry in such a way that we all wake up to the work we have to do together to heal the world?
I Am the Seed
Every chance I get, any place I fit,
in a cleft of grit, in ravine or pit
by ancient wit my husk I split—
I am the seed.
I fell to the ground without a sound,
by rainfall drowned, by sunlight found,
by wonder crowned, through luck profound—
I am the seed.
After fiery thief, after bout of grief,
though life is brief I sprout relief,
with tiny leaf, beyond belief—
I am the seed.
I am the seed, small as a bead.
Tell me your need. Your hunger I’ll feed—
any trouble you’re in, I will begin,
for I am the seed.
Up I rise to seek the prize
from all that dies by bold surprise
before your eyes, small and wise—
I am the seed.
Kim Stafford will be the keynote speaker at OPA’s fall conference, Sept. 29-30 at the Valley River Inn in Eugene.