A Conversation With William Stafford
William Stafford was born in 1914 and grew up in a series of small Kansas towns. As a conscientious objector he served in Civilian Public Service camps in Arkansas and California during World War II. He earned his degrees at the Universities of Kansas and Iowa, and taught for many years at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon.
Over the thirty-some years that Stafford has been publishing poetry he has become one of the most widely recognized and admired of contemporary American poets. His many collections of poems include the National Book Award winning Traveling Through the Dark (Harper, 1962), Stories That Could Be True (Harper, 1978) and most recently An Oregon Message (Harper, 1987) and A Scripture of Leaves (Brethren Press, 1989). He has also published three books of prose, two of them in the Poets on Poetry Series from the University of Michigan Press. Now retired from full-time teaching, he continues to publish and speak widely.
Stafford has insisted throughout his career that writing is what matters, not writers. Yet as David Young points out in Field recently, Stafford “has a larger public and a better claim to being our pre-eminent living poet than anyone else I can think of.” His influence has indeed gone far beyond whatever ivory tower or secluded glade poets are consigned to by those who claim to be “practical.” His essays on a way of writing in which the process is significant even when the product is expendable have influenced a whole generation of writing teachers, and through them many more students. His essays and interviews on nonviolent teaching are both a resource and a challenge to those like me who hope to go beyond teaching about peace to teaching peaceably. And perhaps most importantly, his poems continue to appear at an amazing rate, always with the compassion, clarity and humility we have come to expect from him.
What follows is part of a conversation between William Stafford and myself in August 1988 at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Having received a summer research grant from my college to explore Stafford’s work in relation to his pacifism and his experience as a conscientious objector, I had certain kinds of questions in mind. But our talk ranged widely, as you’ll soon discover. —Jeff Gundy
Jeff Gundy: Einstein remembers his father giving him a compass, and the critic Gregory Ulmer has also commented that the compass is not something that restricts, that means you have to go in this certain way, but something that gives you a sense of direction. This reminds me of the little paragraph that’s at the beginning of You Must Revise Your Life where you say you have to have security of character to be a writer.
William Stafford: You know, the strange thing, I was thinking about a compass. Security of character would be like a compass, you know? Other people may say that this way is north, or this way might be north. But the compass just says — north. That’s what we count on. And I think writers have to count on something in themselves, that means if they’re not going to do it when they’re writing, then who is? They’ve got to make the decisions.
I can remember taking a compass to class, when I was teaching. And I’d put it on the desk and get the kids to look at it, and sort of spin it around, and it would go north. And I would say, “There’s something in this room that we’re not aware of, that the compass knows. We’re surrounded by these things. Why should we assume that our senses are bringing us what’s happening?” And we’d start a discussion.
JG: I’ve had that kind of thought too, that there is always something here we’re not aware of. Radio and TV signals are another fascinating thing: you go down the road, or I turn on this stupid radio/tape recorder here.
Stafford: Yeah, yeah; it’s there. But you don’t know, without help. My son Kim tells about this woman who went over to teach at the Warm Springs Indian reservation, and this woman worked up her first lesson very carefully, and she went in, and she told them what they were going to learn. And she wasn’t getting any response out of them. They were just sitting there, looking down, looking away. So the next meeting she tried even harder. But though she thought she really had a lot to give them, and she was giving it to them, they just sat there. So she had a friend on the Warm Springs reservation, an Indian, a good friend, so she went to him and said, “I can’t understand it! I’m teaching this course and I’m all prepared, I really knocked myself out the second time. And he said, “Well, tell me, what was it like?” and she told him how they sat there and he said, “Oh, it’s very simple. They’re embarrassed for you. They felt sad that you had to claim all this knowledge. And they just didn’t want to look at you. They were being kind to you! So she had to go in at the same level with them, get them to respond to her, things like that.
JG: In college I was in a fine arts class that I was pretty hostile toward really. And I was in the middle of the fourth row of this great big lecture room. Toward the end of the term I met the teacher in the hallway and she said, “Oh yeah, I remember you! You’re Gundy! You sit in the fourth row. I like you! You react!” I was out there and I was not very good at not acting bored when I was bored or hostile when I was hostile and she liked that — it surprised me to no end, but she did.
Stafford: I remember someone said in the Civilian Public Service, “I feel that if struck I should give off a clear note where I am. But I don’t have to go around beating myself like a gong.” You know — this is really getting at little things — but I have felt sometimes when I’m present, say on a panel or something, and I’m up there where people are seeing my face, and I’m sitting there listening, and there’s something I don’t agree with that I can’t show what I’m feeling. But if I keep my pleasant smile, I’m betraying myself. I can remember even in class, sitting there listening to teachers. And I didn’t want to keep my pleasant, accept-everything face, I wanted to show enthusiasm or doubt, or… it’s a kind of feeling of wanting to ride the contours of human relations alertly and purely at all times.
JG: You want to avoid that kind of mask we put on.
Stafford: A person ought to know, not just when you’re breaking with them, but when you’re enthusiastic and less enthusiastic and a lot less enthusiastic. I mean, it’s not just “Everything’s fine until it’s war.” It’s a dailiness. I believe it is part of our responsibility to each other.
JG: And now when I stand up in front of a class, I’m just so thankful for anybody who reacts, rather than just sitting there with that blank look on their face.
Stafford: Strange, but I think of something I just read in Nietzsche. I was reading Beyond Good and Evil, and he has this part in there in which he said, “There’s an element of cruelty in teaching, and in learning.” I think what he was getting at is this: that if you force yourself to learn, you’ve got to be stern with somebody. It’s you that you’re being stern with. But, there was another phrase he had, “A certain courtesy of the heart is lacking,” which came when he was talking about Mozart. He said, “How lucky we are to have had a person like this, with such courtesy of the heart.” I had the feeling that what he was doing was recognizing that although the process of creating something is a kind of a joyous thing, it’s a finding, a current of closures and satisfactions in the material of the heart you’re working with, if you have some kind of overarching purpose you’ve got to override some of those feelings, you’ve got to turn away from the enjoyment of encounter and suppress part of yourself in order to get to a predetermined goal. I guess my ideal is a kind of artistic creation and a kind of living, too, in which we enable each other to live by those little signals from now, now, now.
JG: So if you’re trying to do a Cantos…
Stafford: Yeah, yeah. “I want to be number one. So move over Dante, here I come!” Something like that. But there could be other reasons to do something as magnificent as the Cantos, and I would like it if these were the way it came to me. I wouldn’t like to do the Cantos in order to be number one. In fact, in this thing I have called “Making Best Use of a Workshop” I raise the question, “Did you come here in order to write the best possible poems?” The students expect this to be one of those innocent things, and they say, “What else?” Then I try to push them a little farther, say, “Or did you come here in order to learn how to do the poem most likely to be published?” It’s different, it’s different! “Or did you come here to learn how to do a poem that’s the least vulnerable to criticism?” Or did you come for something else? That’s what I want to get the whole workshop to be about.
JG: Something else.
Stafford: And I think it’s related to this courtesy of the heart. Courtesy of the heart, a way of living, and of converging with experience. Somewhere I’ll say something like, “Successful people can’t write poems.”
JG: Well, it all depends on what you mean by success, I guess.
Stafford: Maybe in another tradition someone would say, “Successful people can’t do the blues.”
JG: I’ve been in workshops too where by the second or third day you can tell that there are various agendas, and some of them don’t seem to have much to do with actually trying to learn more about the business of doing poems.
Stafford: That’s right. A workshop is a fascinating place. Whenever I do one, I learn from it. And actually, I wouldn’t want to make it seem that when I do it this way, “How to Make Best Use of a Workshop,” it is boring to people. They love it. Once they get a taste of it, they’re addicted to the kind of life in which you are finding your way forward by what’s given to you, using the person you are and the situation you are in. It’s different from trying to craft a poem, or being number one, or getting published.
JG: I remember a guy bringing a paper to class in graduate school. We were critiquing papers, and he told us about how he had written this so he could get it published in this particular journal, that was what he wanted to do with it. And we started talking about it, and I had some kind of question about some part of it, something that I wanted to understand better, and he said, “OK, I’ll leave that part out! And here, oh, if you don’t like it, I’ll just get rid of that…” And I just sighed for him, he was a friend of mine, and you just kind of…
Stafford: And pretty soon you get the piece of writing written by the committee.
JG: Yeah…and it seems to me that that comes back to that idea of security of character that we were talking about at the beginning. That he had no sense that he really had something that he wanted to say, he had this terrible sense that he wanted to publish something.
Stafford: Oh, right…oh, yeah, yeah, that helps me! I’ve thought of it in a much less nuancy way, that it takes a combination of humility and arrogance to be a writer. I mean, I suppose there’s a humility about any presumption about yourself. But there’s the arrogance of “Nevertheless, this is the way it’s going to be!” And this sort of relates to what I remember someone said to me, “Do you judge a piece of writing by how it sounds? Or by how it reads on the page?” And I said, “I judge it by how it smells!” I think there are these innumerable little nuancy decisions you make, what order things come in, how long you stay with a part of it, how soon you go to another part, all those little revelations of where you are, you know, where your priorities are, and how they might better be. So if you were alert enough, listening or reading someone, sometimes it would begin to stink, even if they were saying the right things.
JG: I’ve had experiences like that, at readings, all of a sudden…
Stafford: There are a million little signals in language.
JG: And sometimes it doesn’t have anything to do with language — you may think that you agree with the opinions that are being expressed, and the language is capable and all that, and all of a sudden you just find yourself—
Stafford: You know, I think this is related. Just a couple of days ago I was thinking of a book called From Two to Five, by a Soviet child psychologist. I love that book. From two to five, that’s the age when the human individual masters language. By the age of five they’ve got the — oh, what would you say, the syntax — the way to find the way through the language. But then I got to thinking later about writers’ conferences, or the way you say “Has your child learned to talk?” and you say yes or no. Actually, the answer is “no,” no matter where they are. Because nobody has got there finally. You’re still learning, at, say, seventy-four. And the ability, that is the language skills, is not something that you suddenly fill a cup and you’ve got it. It’s forever.
JG: It’s like with writing you say they’re “competent” or “incompetent,” and that sort of thing, divide everybody up that way.
Stafford: Yeah, that’s right. You say, “It’s good — is it perfect?” You know, that’s a surreal question.
JG: I’ve had poems that I tried to write five or six times. And three years later all of a sudden it occurs to you that the way to write that poem doesn’t have any of the same words in it as it had before.
Stafford: Like it’s born again?
JG: Yeah. It’s something almost completely different, but now it’s got a language that seems to be at least halfway equal to what’s there.
Stafford: You know, I realize that in one of George Eliot’s novels she has a saying, someone says, “So-and-so ought to be born again. And born different!”
JG: I could think of some candidates there! On that business of personality, I have a collection — it was a Bread Loaf Quarterly-Writings for a Nuclear Age. You had a little piece in there—
Stafford: Yeah, that’s right, I do remember that.
JG: And there’s an article in there by Eric Larsen about individual nostalgia, which is really critical of a lot of current writing, as tending toward a sort of easy nostalgia. At one point he says, “In extreme cases there is in fact a wistfulness for the past so pervasive and so numbing of perception that it creates a failure to see clearly, as any art must, what the true material of its own present age really is.” It seemed to me descriptive of a lot of poems that I read too. “Here I am,” you know, “back when I was nine I did this and I did that… and it was all sort of neat then, or something.” You have a lot of poems about the past, too, but I don’t get that same sense of sort of dwelling in it, or…
Stafford: I have the feeling that-this is partly just intellectual — but I would just have the feeling that in any kind of material in a poem, what happens to it — whether it’s participial, or finite verbs — where the transitions are, that’s where the dance is. And so the critic comes along, and says, “Yeats’ poem about Byzantium I don’t like very much because I’m not interested in Byzantium.” Well, there’s a lot such a person is missing. I guess hardly anyone would be that dumb. But they do the equivalent, often, when they criticize modern poems. Nostalgia, yes, but I often have the feeling that it’s engaged nostalgia. I think it’s making a judgment, and using its material to do that. But, then again, I guess one reason I came to the conclusion John Ashbery might be really OK is that I was impatient with poems and poets who were measuring their relevance only by engagement. Thinking and poetry are beyond engagement, although they serve engagement.
JG: Your poem “Next Time” is in that same collection, and then there’s a little comment on it as well, which says something about “anticipated nostalgia, a mood of trying to realize things that pass.”
Stafford: I remember the poem “Next Time.” I’ve read it in readings a number of times. It’s really a pretty emphatic poem, when heard. “Next time what I’d do is…”
JG: And it’s really about not waiting until things are past to be nostalgic about them.
Stafford: Yeah. Anticipated nostalgia.
JG: I was reading a book by Louis Simpson this summer, and he too says several times, using Jay Gatsby’s phrase, that poems shouldn’t be “just personal.”
Stafford: Well, I think I understand what he’s getting at. And if I translate this to my own life, though I’m not sure I do, I’ve often come away with a feeling of loss and mushiness from poems because people think that what a poem does is to indicate some feeling they’ve found out, or something that has happened to them, and so forth. But poems are much more than that, other than that. And so I’ve been at a reading in which almost every poem had something like this, “I was walking down the street, and I found this thing or the other.” And then there are those poems in which the person speaking might be the actual writer, but then it also might be something else, a hill, a river. For one thing, to have the persona always be the writer is just too narrow. For another thing, the experience that comes out of writing, that feels precious to me, is more adventurous than just the reporting of something that’s already happened. It’s the giving off a clear note.
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