William Stafford Interview. From Konza Issue #12, Summer 1986
Kansans still claims poet, William Stafford as one of their own. He lives in the northwest now but he says “it took WWII to uproot me from Kansas.” The works of this native son are a doorway to a deeper understanding of this land and its people. This interview was conducted by Dan Bentley and Mark Larson on Feb 2, 1984 when the poet was visiting KU.
I first met William Stafford at a reading in 1983 when I was visiting my hometown, Dighton Ks. The next year, Mark Larson and I were given the opportunity to interview him under the auspices of Kansas Area Watershed Council’s newsletter, Konza when he was doing workshops, personal consultations and readings at the University of Kansas. Thanks to Beth Schultz.
The interview was wide ranging covering topics such as shamanism, storytelling, teaching literature, dreams as writing inspiration, the poet as activist, the topic “identifying some as artists is dangerous to art” and more. Later William gave Kaw Council poets personal critiques of their poems. Dan Bentley
DB WE know you spent a good part of your life in Kansas, where do you live now?
WS I’ve been living out in Orgon, south of Portland, just west of the Cascadian, Willamette Valley. I’ve been retired for about four years from Lewis and Clark College and now I’m full-time living and traveling around like this.
ML Could you say something about living in Oregon and in Kansas and what influences that has had on your writing.
WS To be back here reminds me how different this feels. In Orgon I feel those trees and mountains shouldering in on me around the horizon. In the writing I’m not sure how much difference it makes. I can say it doesn’t make any difference in my feeing about writing. That comes from more immediate things, syllables, words and phrases, all kinds of experiences, not just landscape experience.
DB I read that you worked for the Forest Service, have you kept up that kind of contact with the land?
WS Well, one of our sons works for the Forest Service…but yes. We’re often out in the National Forest and the Public Lands out West. That kind of scenery has a great tug for me.
DB Do you have a special spot you go to recharge?
WS Yessss…there is an area, it’s a big area, but it has a feel like the stamping rounds, you know, the “homeplace”. That’s along the Cascades, on the east side of the Cascades from Mt Jefferson down to the Three Sisters in Orgon.
DB It was a special treat for me to hear you read last summer in my hometown, Dighton. You grew up in Kansas, is there any area that stands out like your Cascadian place, in Kansas?
WS There is and despite the fact that I was here in Lawrence as a student and have lived as far east as El Dorado, it’s the Western Kansas part that feels as if that’s where it all began to me, so being out in Dighton …was… “that’s the way the world outta be…..just a world.”
DB I thought it was interesting at the reading that you immediately got into talking about race. Have you noticed changes since you’ve been gone in terms of the social climate?
WS Yes, even that night I looked around when I read “Serving with Gideon” and I said “some things have changed for the better and race is one of them and everybody was nodding, it’s better now, even here at KU. When I was student here it was impossible for black and white students to sit together and be served in the student Union and I was part of a group of friends, black and white, which tried to break it down.
ML Was that in the 30’s?
WS Yes, it was in the 30’s clear up to WWII.
DB What do you see as the poet’s role in political and social issues, or is there one?
WS Because this is a question that often come up and because I know many poets, I would say that most of them feel a special opportunity to have an audience and score some points about their political point of view. As a citizen I feel an eagerness to do things about oppression and injustices. As a poet I want to be careful not to load my writing with pre-established opinions and instead to let the adventure of writing be an adventure of discovery. So, not matter how we feel about the role of poet we can see that there might be some danger in assuming that you’ve already got all the truth before you start to have these adventures.
DB As a citizen have you been involved in peace issues?
WS Oh yes!! And as a mater of fact, as a poet. I take part in anti-nuclear readings and parades and that’s where I see my friends, you know.
DB When you were in Dighton you made some reference to the poet’s relationship to the shaman. I was wondering what you consider the relationship between magic and poetry to be?
WS I can’t remember how that came up in Dighton. I really can’t’. I can imagine saying it but I don’t remember the connections. Do you remember anything about this?
DB Well, we were talking about how we needed rain and how it might be coming…
WS Oh yeah, that was kind of a joking thing but it worked. We brought a good rain. Well mysterious things surround us all the time. We shut them out of our work-a-day lives by neglecting to realize that it’s mysterious out there. Poets and shamans and people themselves, when they’re in extreme situations, are shaken out from their ordinary securities realize that it’s mysterious. When you write you’re flirting around the edge of the known all of the time and I suppose in this way you could connect with the shaman. But I never have felt that any individual has any more potential contact with the mysterious than anybody else. So I don’t set up as a shaman….or a magician…well a magician, maybe.
DB (laughter) Do dreams ever enter into your writing?
WS Frequently. I am in the habit of writing down my dreams when I wake up. I get up early to write anyway. I’m told that the more you write them down the more you remember. I’m pretty good at remembering my dreams, maybe more often than I’m aware of they enter into that day’s writing. Do you find it that way? I don’t like to let them get away.
DB Yes, I do. I also find that the more I write them down the more I remember. I had one poem come to me backwards in a dream like reading a page bottom up.
WS Oh these poets are weird. I can fully understand doing that. Sure, any pattern.
DB One of the things KAW Council is trying to do is to renew interest in storytelling and revive the art of conversation. I was wondering what place you feel storytelling and the oral tradition have in the world today?
WS Immediately I get excited when you say that. To me, the literary life comes from the language we talk so I’m often set aback when someone says to me “what great writers influenced you most”. The assumption back of such a question is, of course, that it must be something written. No….for me the language I live in is the language I talk. Writing is a way of putting on the page what comes about as a result of sound. The influence I feel from language is from everything that’s in the language and a small part of that experience is the literary experience. It’s almost as if my life is lived within the language, as if in the water. Every now and then I surface with something and report it, record it on paper then I’m down there swimming under water again. I keep getting all these signals from the people around me.
ML You were saying you look to everyday language for inspiration and we talked a little about story telling. Something that’s about half-way in between is reading out loud. When you were growing up did people read out loud, literature or poetry?
WS Yes they did, come to think of it. I grant you this, I’m forced to concede they did. And that was a part of what enticed us into literature and into writing ultimately. That reading aloud was just part of the gusto for stories and for those openings and closures of telling stories and rehashing what happened last night. I thought even then, I guess, that literature is like a retelling of experience with some enhancement that is made possible by having time to think about it….so it can maximize its impact. It’s very closely related to the kind of talk we interchange when we reminisce.
ML I grew up in North Central Kansas and out around Garden City. I heard men telling stories and it seem that they were distinctly telling stories and not just gossiping. They were gossiping too, but the stories were being put together more consciously. Sitting in the shade of a tree, waiting for repair on a combine, it seemed like people talked partly to inform and partly to entertain. It seemed that they had a storytelling ability that the people at home didn’t. The stories at home were more strictly gossip.
WS You make me more aware than before of a distinction that I would phrase spontaneously like this…that for many people, talk is incidental to the main things they’re doing but there are some people who take a longer breath and make what they’re telling more of a center of their lives. They take joy in the excursions into language that the telling of stories of poems allow them.
ML Just speculating… I wonder if that doesn’t come from the cowboy tradition out there?
WS Yeah, I wonder too…in fact, I wonder if what make me uncomfortable with some places is that there were no occasions where you could have those kind of excursions when you were sitting in the shade because you were always in someone’s way when you were sitting in the shade. There they’re in a hurray and they say “what’s your problem?” If you don’t have a problem and just have something to say— that’s a little bit shattering. You need to have a place where it’s OK to have communion.
DB One of the things KAW Council is trying to do is environmental education through the arts. We’re trying to use work with words, visual images, the artist’s response to the land to create an environmental awareness if there is not one there already. As artists ourselves we are seeking to respond to the land and record our perceptions and feelings. You’ve been a teacher of poetry for years; do you have any advice for those of us who are trying to educate the public in these areas?
WS I like to participate in something like this. I’m heart and soul in it. One thing that immediately occurs to me…in the arts we have to sequence experience in such a way as to give anyone in the audience and opportunity for an experience that will have immediate value to that person. I think the arts don’t save their reward for later…they give them now. So that you would overload a student, for instance, say a student in high school, with John Milton, Paradise Lost. It would be no reflection on the power of that poem to say that most high school students aren’t really ready for that torrent of rhetoric. You can turn them off. I would just enter into a dialogue with anyone who is doing this. We should try to go forward with material that will be available for the people involved, that will give them pleasure as well as condition them for further, deep pleasure.
DB What do you mean exactly by “material that will be available to them?”
WS Say poetry…I think it should be poetry that has early rewards. One of the definitions of poetry for me would be…something that proceeds, succeeds by virtue of offering sequential, felt rewards. There are some things you can study to get future rewards. You can study carefully income tax instructions so that you can minimize how much you have to put out….but it might not be a pleasure, it’s a sacrifice. The arts are an immediate pleasure and an ultimate reward. I wouldn’t choose material on the basis of its abstract quality but on the basis of its relevancy and helpfulness to the immediate situation. Much of that material would be related to things near your home.
DB In KAW Council we’re trying to take our inspiration from what’s under foot. That seems like a good place to start. Do you have a favorite Kansas poem?
WS When I was down in Los Angeles, last week, I found myself reading “The Farm on the Great Plains”, a poem of mine that’s about going back or trying to go back to the farm. (He reads it for us upon our request, page 34 in Stories That Could Be True.)
ML That has, to my ear, some of the austerity you see in Western Kansas.
WS Yes, and I have a great appetite for that. There, in the midst of the Huntington Library which has everything, birds, plants, art…many people in the audience responded to this austerity…in the middle of all of that.
DB The telephone line is a strong Western Kansas image….how do you use imagery in your work.
WS The imagery that comes to me when I’m writing would be from a recollection of perception of what is really there. The first thing about it is it would be simply descriptive, just accurate. But these things that are present are always more than just what they are. They’re related to other things, prior experiences or there’s something about their pattern the words used to identify them that begin to form links and it’s just like crystallizing out from one thing to many others. So when you write it’s like magic ‘cause when you touch on something, immediately there are filaments of association that go out to other people. You don’t have to anticipate how other people will react, all you have to do is react validly yourself and you’ll have company. That’s the way I see it.
DB That resonates with me. ——– I don’t quite know how to ask this next question but I’ll try. I’m aware that poets deal with feelings in a way that almost no other discipline does. I was wondering, can you tell us how the poet conveys feelings?
WS Well, it seems to me that framing this issue….as I relate it to my experience in writing, I welcome feelings. I don’t always trust them but I treat them as significant somehow. So that when you write, you by no means try to eliminate that part of your life that has to do with preferences and relations, significance and values. You welcome all that, that’s the trusting part. The distrusting part is that you realize all these experiences and nuances can be misleading in relation to other ends. You may become overly sentimental, you may over balance about one experience and unbeknownst to you such allegiance you immediately feel to one value is betrayal of another value. So you begin to think, to compare or just find an adjustment and balance by pursuing a story or a feeling until you begin to see what it leads to and writing becomes like living….like the succeeding adjustments we make to experience. One gain, I think, in writing, over experience, is some experiences are so dramatic or harrowing or overwhelming that you are not able to control them in real life but in art you are always ready with some framework, resolution, perspective. So you can combine the chaos of living and the restraint or enhancement of an alternative way of living, thinking, art, with all that weight of reference from memory, association that’s in words and language. I think that sounded more like something formulated than I thought it would.
ML I wonder if you’d say something about rewriting?
WS I do go back over my poems. I write a lot that I don’t go back over ‘cause I just don’t feel like it. I’d rather go on usually. But sometimes what I feel comes close to some kind of satisfaction, I’ll go back and try to feel satisfied again or to try to find out why I’m not completely satisfied. I’ll juggle it so the process of revising is very much like original composition, it’s just that you do it again to see what kind of signal you get from the material. I’m always looking for further signals or adjustments and hoping that what has been done so far will lead me to some kind of enhancement of what has been done so far. It’s not the same sort of thing as going back to correct mistakes. As with many things in art, little adjustments start to suggest themselves. I might go back through something and see that it said what I meant then but I suddenly see that it’s now possible for it to mean something else so I give that a chance to see if I like it better.
DB Any thoughts on writers block?
WS When that comes…..lower your standards and just start writing and keep writing without regard for content. The block will most likely go away.
DB Would you care to elaborate on your statement “identifying some as artists endangers art.”
WS (Laughs) I have all sort of impulses when you raise this issue. It’s complicated and important to me. For art to be valid it must reach people, not as something they ought to respond to but as something they do respond to and the imposing of obligatory worship of certain things as being art and therefore worthy, is a violation of what art is about….so I assume, in my way of conceiving of art, that individual human beings respond validly to art, in this sense, participate in art and are artists if that art is itself to be a part of human experience. You cannot have separate group of people who are artistic, who are making material for other people to have a high regard for unless there is the assumption that that regard is based on some kind of participation in the art, otherwise it’s just something outside of human experience. It’s considerations like these that make me make statements like the one you quote. It’s inclusive or it’s irrelevant. I don’t intent to be a part of some audience that feels “I oughta like art”. If I like it, fine…if I don’t, it doesn’t make any difference if they prove it’s art or not.
DB In his book of essays, Standing By Words, Wendell berry writes “My standpoint here is the assumption that no statement is complete or comprehensible in itself but in order for a statement to be so, three conditions are required. 1) It must designate its object precisely, 2) Its speaker must stand by it, must believe it, be accountable for it, be willing to act on it and 3) This relation of speaker, word and object must be conventions, the community must know what it is.” And later in this essay he says “We are speaking where we stand and we shall stand afterward in the presence of what we have said.”
WS Back of what Wendell Berry is saying, I sense a human being I want to ally myself with. I understand the fervency with which he says these things. He’s been faked by language too often. I have that sort of feeling. I understand that. There a lot of it I feel just right about but where he says “this relationship of speaker, word and object must be conventions, the community must know what it is” I get a little nervous. The implication is that knowing what something is and what it means is a function of the honesty of the speaker and of the sharing of the reader or hearer in what is announced in what is said. But what is announced in what is said is only part of what is said. Language acts out things. I would be possible for instance to say something that could be taken by one person to have one meaning but would have another meaning to another. For instance, something like Swift’s A Modest Proposal. It would possible for someone to read that essay and to assume that the writer is advocating that the Irish poor eat their children in order to solve their economic problems. That’s what is said but that isn’t what it means. Actually, it’s an indictment against people who can read an essay like this and not get really furious about what’s going on; it’s just the opposite of what it says. So, the presence of irony, of all sorts of complications in communications are exceptions to Berry’s statement. Back of what Wendell Berry is saying—I like it all but it’s pretty complex.
(Upon our request, Mr. Stafford reads “Stories from Kansas” page 177 from his book of the same name.)
WS When I was traveling to Calcutta, with very few other passengers, I landed one afternoon and went through customs. I’d been told that those Bengalis really love the arts, poetry especially. I had my suitcase there and one of them said “What brings you to Calcutta?” And I said “I give talks about poetry.” They said “Do you have any of it in there?”, he tapped my suitcase, it was like contraband…”let me see it.” So I got out my book and it just so happened he opened it to “Stories from Kansas.” So he stood there and he read this poem and looked at me. Then he went over and showed it to the other person on customs and they looked at each other and he came back over to me and said, “I like your poem, ‘Stories From Kansas,’ not too many words…makes its point….go right ahead.”
DB (Laughter) What a passport!!
WS Yeah! It got me into the land of the Bengalis.