“I really see writing as a part of something bigger, which is one’s calling in the world,” said Kim Stafford, reflecting on the importance of his craft. “That calling will be active, but those words and stories can enrich that action.”
Stafford, Oregon’s Poet Laureate and a teacher at Lewis & Clark College, is due to stop by Cottage Grove Monday, Feb. 25, to meet students, local writers and read from his works at the library.
Stafford was born and grew up in Oregon. Though his father, William Stafford, was a well-known and accomplished poet, his renown came notably late in the poet’s life and Kim remembers much of his early inspiration for writing stemming from his own self-reflection.
“It was the internal world of dreams and imagination and being in nature coupled with being extremely shy when I was young,” he said. “Teachers in school taught me how to bring that forth in words.”
Stafford can still name the teachers up through high school that had a profound impact on his mode of expression, and he credits them with evolving his craft.
“I think it made writing a personal friend,” Stafford said. “Not a school task so much as a school companion.”
Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson were among his first literary influencers.
Thoreau, who famously wrote Walden and Civil Disobedience, appealed to Stafford for his independence and life as “a self-appointed student of the world.”
Dickinson’s writing, which Stafford categorized as “fierce and original,” and her lack of need for validation through publishing evoked in Stafford the image of the courageous writer.
“For both them, there was an ambition to write wonderful things, but not an ambition to have others say, ‘That’s wonderful,’” Stafford said. “It’s a self-directed life.”
Poetry found a home in Stafford’s life as he learned to explore this creative outlet.
“Poetry is our native voice. It’s what we learn as children – to be playful and inventive and curious with language,” he said. “To be a poet is just to continue that process and not get constricted by so-called efficiency, which is excluding of the evocative dimensions of language.”
While a lack of constrictions makes for a literary playground of creativity, Stafford does have his own loose boundaries for that playground.
“My definition of poetry is saying as much as you can in the shortest possible space,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean it has to be short, it just means it has to be compact and dense and rich.”
Stafford would go on to get his Ph.D. in medieval literature from the University of Oregon, and has found work as a printer, photographer, oral historian, editor and visiting writer at a host of colleges and schools.
His career as an educator and author has delivered him as far as Scotland, Italy and Bhutan and has seen the production of a dozen books of poetry and prose. For his efforts, he has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Governor’s Arts Award, and the Steward Holbrook Award from Literary Arts for his contributions to Oregon’s literary culture.
He is also the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, a body of the college which offers a broad range of studies for both teachers and adult writers.
“For seven years, at Lewis & Clark, I was the person who would teach anything to anyone anytime,” Stafford said. His classes spanned the topics of photography, oral history, folklore, journalism, linguistics, literature and composition.
To bring the studies into a collective orbit, the Northwest Writing Institute was founded. The goal was not just to provide an eclectic mix of courses, but to establish a home and community for writers to be reflective in their writing experiences.
“It’s a zone of exploration and place-based storytelling,” Stafford said. “It’s very inductive.”
Since its inception, the institute has launched numerous classes, workshops and programs around the state which have offered writing opportunities to fields as diverse as law, folk arts and ecology.
“Miraculously, 35 years later, I’m still doing it,” said Stafford.
In 2018, Governor Kate Brown named Stafford Poet Laureate of Oregon, a two-year appointment. Stafford is Oregon’s ninth poet laureate since 1921, succeeding Elizabeth Woody, the first Native American to be named the state’s poet laureate.
Stafford cited a sentiment Woody had left with him: “‘The more I do poetry, the less it’s about what the poem is and the more it’s about who the poem serves,’” he recalled.
In his poet laureate capacity, Stafford says he is “a servant of the people spreading words about words.” It’s in this spirit Stafford is meeting with young people in Cottage Grove to discuss the importance of literary expression.
He hopes to engender in students the idea that meaning and a role in one’s community can be cultivated through the reflective process of writing.
“Writing is the friend that never leaves you,” he said. “A place to explore your loneliness, your thoughts, your aspirations. A place to honor your community. I talk about writing a poem for someone – not so much about a subject as for a reader.”
Though the meeting may entail some writing, Stafford is mostly interested in having a conversation with young potential writers.
“I want to interview them about writing. When writing is easy, what makes it easy? When it’s hard what makes it hard?” He added, “And how could we share our techniques, approaches and attitudes so that writing could be an arrow in our quiver – a skill we could carry with confidence – and something that will help us negotiate the mysteries of the world.”
Stafford wants to encourage “a generation of thinkers and inventors with an active mind and heart in service to community. And writing is one way to do that,” he said.
Writing, too, can serve as a developmental accessory to other passions, Stafford noted.
“I actually advocate writing as a companion to some other obsession in one’s life,” he said. “Let’s face it, you’re not going to make money as a poet, but you can bring lyrics and speech to anything you choose to do. … You’re basically telling a story about yourself and to the extent the words are evocative and generous and playful and engaging, you will succeed.”
For a generation inundated by media, Stafford feels a silver lining rests in its ability “to take charge of that and turn it around and say, ‘I’m going to make something. I’m not just going to be a receiver and a consumer. I’m going to be a creator.’”
Creation, to Stafford, is a remedy to the often-destructive tones delivered by unceasing streams of news and social media sites. “You need to talk back to all that darkness,” he said. “And you talk back by creating.”
After visiting with students, Stafford will move on to Stacey’s Covered Bridge Restaurant and from noon to 2 p.m. to “talk shop” with local writers who are interested in discussing the craft.
Regarding his own methodology, Stafford credited his ability to create to a routine.
“For me, it’s less a matter of inspiration and more a matter of process,” he said. “I carry a little notebook in my pocket and throughout the day I overhear things, remember things or think of things and jot down notes and then every morning before it gets light, I have an appointment with myself and take out my notebook and pick something that caught my attention and find out what it wants to be.”
To wrap up the day, Stafford will be at the Shepherd Room in the Community Center at 7 p.m to present some of his work, discuss writing and hold a Q & A.