“Are we witnesses or actors?” – Carolyn Kizer from “Twelve O’Clock”
From a tender age, we learn to anticipate expansive boundaries. This is how we survived.
Our inheritances can be found folded into cornered spaces where silence occupies itself. A similar appreciation to realizing how much our eyes have adjusted to darkness. We trade today’s exhaustion for speculative futures. Assassinations happen daily.
Diversions become elegant beginnings when you realize resistance has immortal roots. That’s why performing for an absent savior is a dishonest practice and violence is a loop of fractured sounds. Do you hear that echo abdicating its own existence?
The sun feels yellow today. Birds still relay their news through song. Incantations woven over and through the roar of their own destruction. A natural and honest alchemy. Such revision signals there is enough, a gathering of effort.
When they ask how you survived this century, what will your answer be?
I have to start somewhere and this is a good place to begin. I want this early reflection of my time spent at the William Stafford Archives to be a conscious wandering.
I knew I couldn’t finish. There was too much. I needed a respectable and intuitive pace. I had to make quick and deliberate decisions on what to capture and what to let go — a practiced, indulgent impulse.
“I would like to be known as an action philosopher.”
– Banana Yoshimoto, from the novel Kitchen
I wrote what came to my attention and catalogued patterns — wind, mountains, snow, trees, rocks, and secrets to name the most prominent. It felt the best, and most honest, way to honor Stafford’s daily writing practice. It was what I had learned to do from You Must Revise Your Life and Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation.
On August 17, 1993, eleven days before he died, he asked:
“What can butterflies do if they get mad at each other? Should they express their anger? Stop and get even? Are these questions about a butterfly trivial? And about you?”
And on May 13, 1951, at the age of 37, Stafford wrote:
“How do we know our perceptions have the same feel as others’?” (emphasis in original)
Graceful inquiries such as these found their way into Stafford’s daily writings, which also included his dreams remembered in the darkest shadows of morning light. Intimate and rooted in place, Stafford recorded the present in all its creative movements.
I learned how deeply mountains listen when trees and rocks tell their ancient stories.
Stafford’s lifetime dedication to following and listening — carefully — to what wasn’t being said, or said loudly, was powerful to witness. His repetition was seductive. A rhythm visualized into meditative language that demonstrated “…all living things are afraid (20 June 1975)” and a steady truth that “your hope keeps you awake (20 May 1975).”
What comes next is unknown and that’s exactly how it is supposed to be.
All those years and I still remember the exquisite details. This specific memory does not have a year attached without much difficulty nor can I remember the time of day it occurred. Yet I can summon the sweet smell of ozone and hold onto the thought of how my own breath, in concert with yours, folded into one timeless moment.
We had pulled off a mostly deserted I-90W to wait out a thunderstorm witnessed hours earlier, which we assumed was fleeting from a distance reserved only for endless and empty horizons.
We found temporary refuge in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Waiting in a potholed parking lot, bordered by a 55-ft Jolly Green Giant statue and a gas station that sold cheap pizza and cold beer, you read A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford as rain poured hard and thick from a dark sky.
There was so much we didn’t know about each other – or the world – and a sublime anchoring in such fearless truth.
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
This moment, which probably lasted no longer than an hour before we got back on the road, forms the shadowed edges of how I’ve been preparing myself for this upcoming poetics inquiry of William Stafford. I want to be witness to his early morning and honest daily writing practice — his golden thread. I hope to explore how he taught poetry that centered curiosity as a method of facilitating an effective learning experience, his own and his students.
I feel a pull to reference an intention I outlined before I went to the Audre Lorde Archive in Berlin, my first poetics inquiry. This poetics inquiry is also an artistic project, which will explore how lived experiences of the “boundaries of one’s imaginative sympathy line up, again and again, with the lines drawn by power.” I use this quote by Claudia Rankine to bring attention to the phrase: lines drawn by power. This expansion of reference feels necessary in context to what I know about Stafford’s personal history and the now.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
At the age of 27, Stafford chose to be a conscientious objector when he was drafted into WWII — a few years older than I was during that thunderstorm. He chose not to participate in a war that was framed as moral, just, and unquestionably popular. He served four years in various prison camps for his decision. I want to learn what it means to live a life grounded in a commitment to practice non-competitive creative integrity. A life, like mine, lived when the United States was never not involved in wars and conflicts.
I am reminded that I know only what brought me to today: a poem, a ritual, that has not broken the line.