poetics inquiry: William Stafford

From the daily writings of William Stafford, 1976. (William Stafford Archives, Estate of William Stafford)

This page will be curated.

To date, I’ve spent nearly 22 hours at the William Stafford Archives over four days in October 2018 (16-19). I could choose precision, to be accurate about the years or the wealth of days I read through, but that is not what this poetics inquiry wants to be—in this moment.

My initial dive into William Stafford’s daily writings were based on family and friend’s requests that correlated to their dates of birth and the year my mother turned 20 (the year before I was born). Other years were chosen for different, but equally significant, connections: the year Audre Lorde taught “The Poet as Outsider” in Berlin (1984), his death (1993), and first archived year (1950).

Nearly every page of Stafford’s daily writings was hand written in black pen—most during early morning hours—and marked by date, month, and year. Many captured a dream, or a series of them. Tigers were noticed as early as 1951.

It felt familiar being in quiet witness to Stafford’s writing practice. I recognized that particular somatic pleasure from following my own curious inquiries, which I learned to practice as the physical act of writing from You Must Revise Your Life and Writing the Australian Crawl. Stafford’s methods (both his teaching and writing practice) are an integration and affect of attention. A temporary identification with the smallest moments and awareness of agitation. Stafford’s pace felt similar as knowing my own breath. I experienced that devotion for unknown possibilities. 

What was consciously refined in that first light? What was never meant to be seen?

At the speed of living – real time – a cloud is soft. 13 December 1975

I organized my final day around his personal correspondence. Stafford’s external communication was prolific and with a swath of individuals so wide I had to pick a direction to move towards.

I chose years curated by names of poets I recognized: Caroline Kizer, Denise Levertov, Ursula K. LeGuin, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, Louise Glück. I didn’t have time to explore as many specific places, as in publications, institutions, and landscapes I have been fortunate enough to call home, yet they still managed to find their way into my view.

On typed pages and telegraphed replies, I found threads about the weather anchored to place. There were countless references to convergence while often admitting his chores at home needed to be done before committing to more readings, teaching workshops, and advising.

I want this poetics inquiry to center work, which is intimately shaped by my understanding of class—both born into and theoretically earned. Evolving (and stagnant) racial and gender politics are seeped into my thoughts of who I collectively see, value, and ultimately validate as an Artist. Filtering what is useful to me in all this noise is in perpetual revision.

How is the world? Not who owns it. What I want is to know. 5 June 1983

Stafford’s politics and ethics were similar to Audre Lorde—daily. Both were conscientiously creating during wars and conflicts that were ongoing or beginning, but never ending. Stafford wrote outside much of that aggressive discourse but didn’t passively ignore it either. I noticed quiet marks of frustration were phrased as questions and often expressed in his dream notes. I appreciated recognizing well-worn paths through all the mundane activities of managing one’s survival in (violently) contested cultural conversations. I’m learning how this consciously lived politic and its disciplined practice is focused on exploring ideas beyond dominance.

I want this poetics inquiry to be about mutual desire, a sense translated in and through the body. As a distinct location, the body is a landscape where scripts of justice—and its lack—concentrate.

How does this fascination support the hard work of maintaining honest boundaries in my own writing? 

Nobody knows the future. Maybe it is good. 14 January 1976

Stafford is most often coupled to nature. His ecopoetics reflect a reverent respect for what exists now and remembering who existed long before us. Listening, Stafford gave voice and agency to  non-human characters such as mountains, trees, stones, and rain as snow.

It’s hard not to wonder how Stafford would write about the contemporary West being on fire. I imagine his experience putting out wildfires during WWII would support what he knew to be the distance between devastation and renewal. Measured in the frequency of trust and echoed as hope, it’s not surprising that Stafford’s perceptions are so widely recognized as imagery associated with the natural world.  

There is more coming. Please hold onto that anticipation.