poetics inquiry: William Stafford

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

I believe the deep creative integrity found in Stafford’s teaching and writing is a result of an affect of attention, an embodied identification with the smallest moments of conscious awareness and activated perception. Applying affect theory is one attempt to describe what being witness to Stafford’s practice of daily writing felt like.

I invite you to continue reading “Stafford: In Production” published in the Friends of William Stafford Journal (Volume 23, Issue 1. Fall-Winter 2019-2020) to learn how a poem, a ritual, was the catalyst for my poetics inquiry of William Stafford.

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

What I do know is that I experienced a specific devotion for unknown possibilities as I read Stafford’s dreams and his daily writings—handwritten in slanted cursive—before dawn fully presented itself. 

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

Selling poems is a little like selling your prayers. 8 June 1975

I wanted 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 actively creating during wars and conflicts that were ongoing or beginning, and never ending. Stafford wrote outside much of that aggressive discourse but didn’t passively ignore it either. I appreciated recognizing well-worn paths through all the mundane activities of managing one’s survival in (violently) contested cultural conversations. I continue to learn how to practice this consciously lived politic by exploring ideas beyond absolutism and dominance.

I wanted 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.

by calling love they thought they owned it… 15 September 1959

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 as a conscientious objector 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.  

What the sky heard, from open throats, it echoed back, it echoed back. 14 February 1993