Portland-based singer-songwriter Paula Sinclair grew up on a farm near Lexington, Kentucky as one of 14 children. The chaotic, freewheeling atmosphere of her home life did not lead naturally to an appreciation for poetry.
“If someone had said to me, ‘You know you’re going to put music to poetry,’ I would have never thought of that because I was just not a poetry reader,” she explains.
So it may come as a surprise to Sinclair more than anyone that she has written music to accompany many of Oregon poet William Stafford’s works.
However, Sinclair feels her rural upbringing gives Stafford’s poetry special resonance.
“There’s a kind of country kinda feeling running through a lot of his poetry,” she says. “His poetry is very sophisticated but down-to-earth; it almost seems simple at times.”
Sinclair also thinks Stafford’s simple, straightforward poems lend themselves to musical treatment.
The first one she put to music was ‘Our Story.’ That one went smoothly. But when she got to work on ‘A Story That Could Be True,’ the process mysteriously ground to a halt.
“For about two months I couldn’t put music to it. And then I was invited to my first Stafford picnic,” she recalls. The now-annual picnics take place every summer in Lake Oswego and bring together lovers of Stafford’s work. It was there that Sinclair found what she needed.
“I heard all these stories about William Stafford and met all these people that had known him for years, including Dorothy [Stafford’s wife], and the very next morning I got up and the music came to that poem. That’s a real magical feeling. I mean, I woke up and there it was, just waiting for me.”
Singing that song still moves Sinclair today (see video clip). Sinclair’s continuing exploration of Stafford’s work has led her to at least one conclusion about the former Oregon poet laureate’s deeper intention.
“I think he wanted people to discover who they really are, he wanted them to find their own poetry, because if you truly know yourself, I think anyone could be happy. It’s when you don’t know yourself and you’re lost, it’s hard to be happy,” she says.
Sinclair would know. In addition to supplying her with an abundance of lyrical material, she also credits Stafford’s poetry with renewing her creativity.
“I had reached this really dark place and I couldn’t write and the poetry was like a lifeline to me; it just helped me reconnect with my creativity and it made me feel worthy of being creative again … It brought me back to life.”
Years later, Sinclair’s affinity for Stafford’s work endures. “Sometimes when I’m working on his poetry, there’s a presence in the room. Each poem has its own spirit. And then the body of work has a spirit and then of course, there’s the spirit of William Stafford.”