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Behind The Scenes: William Stafford Project

William E. Stafford

William E. Stafford

Lewis and Clark College

On the occasion of the centennial of William Stafford’s birth, OPB explores the life and impact of Oregon’s beloved poet laureate through special programs on Oregon Art Beat, State of Wonder and Think Out Loud. Some of the producers who worked on our coverage were new to William Stafford and some had connections with his poetry dating back to grade school. They share with us how the man and the poet impacted their lives.

Allison Frost, Senior Producer, Think Out Loud
Before I moved to Oregon in the late ’90s for grad school at the U of O, I hadn’t heard of William Stafford. Fortunately, one of my mentors gave me an essential “What you need to know about Oregon” brain dump that included Stafford. (It also included land use planning and former Governor Tom McCall.) When I moved from Eugene to Portland, one of the first poems I heard was Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” at the Unitarian Universalist Church. Since that time, I’ve heard it a number of times in a number of places. It’s one of the essential poems in the new collection, Ask Me. Although working on this project, I learned Stafford wrote tens of thousands of poems on lots of different themes, the idea that the most important thing in the world is understanding and connection among and between people remains, to me, the thing I think about when I think of Stafford.

Jule Gilfillan, Producer, Oregon Art Beat & Oregon Field Guide
It was in fourth grade when our teacher Mrs. Hjelseth read us “Traveling Through the Dark.” The poem recalls (presumably) Stafford’s experience of coming across a deer that had been hit on the Wilson River Highway. He recalls how that highway is a twisty one and he was concerned that just leaving the dead deer on the road could cause more accidents, so he pulls over and intends to move the deer off the roadway. As he does, he discovers the deer’s belly is still warm — the fawn she was carrying is still alive.

I remember the feeling I had as a child hearing this and the urgency I felt about that unborn fawn … of course, Stafford chooses differently and it sparked a passionate discussion in our classroom. It was my first encounter with the power of poetry and one I never forgot.

I didn’t know that Stafford was a pacifist before I began working on this project. Discovering his deep commitment to nonviolence, particularly during World War II, impressed me deeply; he took a difficult stand when the tide was moving powerfully in the opposite direction and that seems to have grounded his life and art utterly. Working on this special reminded me that there are a few rare humans who do manage to live in integrity and I find that very inspiring.

Robe Imbriano, Producer, Oregon Art Beat
When someone as precise and preternaturally awake to the world as William Stafford writes 20,000 poems, he allows a wide variety of us to view his work through our own prisms. Mine was easy. Stafford was a transplant. He lived a very rich and determined life elsewhere before he made the decision to stay and grow it here. His understated passion, a humor so subtle it’s almost mischievous, his love and respect for nature, his clarity — it all travels well, but his words are at home in Oregon. So for us transplants, seeing Oregon through the prism of William Stafford is as initiating as it must be for the grade schoolers who grew up here. It’s a conversion of sorts, because after reading Stafford, Oregon and I will never be the same.

In the Oregon Art Beat show, you’ll see an amazing — and Stafford has me choosing my words more carefully, so I mean “amazing” — range of people who dropped what they were doing and enthusiastically came out to read for us. Among them, I had an unforgettable session with Mary Szybist, who recently became the first Oregonian (and Lewis & Clark professor!) to win the National Book Award for poetry since William Stafford, exactly 50 years later. She lost her mother just months before she won the award, and she read a Stafford poem for us, “The Little Girl by the Fence at School,” that helped her with her grief. We were speechless when she finished reading, and so was everyone who happened to pass our edit room as it played — which it did again and again and again. 

Every story we work on brings some measure of learning or revelation — it’s why so many of us do it. But every once in awhile, I get to work on a project that nourishes my spirit and deepens my understanding of the world by forcing me to stop and pay attention to details the busy stuff bullies us into skipping. Stafford reminded me that in those very details, there’s poetry.

Katrina Sarson, Producer, Oregon Art Beat

When we started working on Discovering William Stafford, I didn’t have a favorite Stafford poem. I fell in love with his personal story – young pacifist from Kansas; married his wife, Dorothy, after just three meetings; father to four; professor to thousands; National Book Award winner; and probably best known for his practice of writing a poem every morning.

Then I discovered “The Way It Is.” It starts with the phrase “There’s a thread you follow” and the rest of the poem provides gentle reminders about the importance of following your thread. Does he mean career? Life? Being a poet? Knowing Stafford, probably all of the above. The poem eloquently expresses how I feel about life and its unfolding. I’ve read and reread that poem more times than I can count, and every time it slows me down and reminds me to take a breath. I like to think that was Stafford’s intent.

Stafford’s thread led him from a tiny town in Kansas to Lewis & Clark College in Portland, and up to the present day. He wrote poems about the grand things that went on around him and the tiny details of things his children said at home. And there are two stories that everyone tells and retells: First, he got up every morning before sunrise to lay on his sofa and write; and when asked what to do about writer’s block he had a simple answer: lower your standards and keep writing.

Poet. Pacifist. Parent. Professor. There’s so much to tell about William Stafford – and so much more to explore. Our Oregon Art Beat special is just the beginning. In honor of the centennial of his birth, I hope that you, too, will discover William Stafford.

William Stafford

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