Opening The Moment
A CONVERSATION WITH POET WILLIAM STAFFORD
MORE than by the phone line, we were linked by weather. I sat in Massachusetts listening as a warm July rain pelted the garden. William Stafford - one of the most vital and open-hearted modern poets America has produced - sat in his workroom on the other side of the continent and looked out on "a typical Oregon day. Can't tell if the water is coming from the ground or the sky. It's just wet!" Though he's lived in the West for decades, the Kansas lilt persists in his voice and his laugh. After several hours of conversation, the distance between our two windows seemed surprisingly small. Stafford's nine collections of poetry have earned him numerous honors including the National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Shelly Memorial Award. During his years as a professor at various colleges and writing centers, his beliefs about the process of poetry writing were both popular and controversial. He emphasized a relaxed spontaneity, free from prejudgements or literary standards. He is unique, not so much for the approach, but for the extremes to which he carried it and for his daily commitment to its practice. In these excerpts from our talk, it is easy to sense the light and daring spirit that animates all his writing. At the same time, it is hard not to be challenged by his passionate attention to the inner and outer weather of our lives.
Steve Ratiner: Can you set the scene for us: If we were looking in on the start of your work day, what would we see?
William Stafford: My morning writing would begin for me by getting up about four o'clock. Every other morning I take a run, about three miles, and on such mornings as that I would still get to my writing by about five... . Then I would have an uninterrupted time until about 7:00 or a little later at which time my wife would naturally get up... . I lay down on the living room in front of a big, I guess you would say picture window which looks out on our quiet neighborhood. The giant fir trees, some other shrubs and trees, rhododendrons and so on outside. I'm lying there relaxed... . I have a blank sheet in front of me. I put the date on top, and I start letting whatever swims into my attention get written down on the page... . I probably have as relaxed an approach as anybody does. I welcome anything that comes along. I don't have any standards. I know that I'm the only one that is going to see this, unless something eventuates that I think might be helpful to an editor. I put it this way because I am not t rying to contend for a place in magazines or in books. I'm just letting my attention flow where it wants to flow... . And the relaxation of it is part of the charm for me.
Where do the beginning points come from: from within the room, the imagination?
I immediately think of really barefoot beginnings of poems. I think of one that starts, "Walls when they meet,/ hold each other up,/ the ceiling goes out So I mean, I'm looking at the room I'm in. Or it may be the sound of the birds outside, or it might be the residue left from a dream I just left from my sleep... . I don't try for being relevant to current experience but if it invites itself, I welcome it. The feeling is of greeting anything at the door and saying, "Come on in."
As both poet and teacher, you've been open and generous about the process that produces your work. What does such extreme receptivity give you as a writer?
For one thing, I think it's a defense against being stampeded by current, intentional engagement with what other people think is important. It's very subjective, but it is the kind of subjectivity that makes you available for what is [making] a valid, actual individual impression on a human being: yourself... . I'm afraid that getting published has often pushed me toward trying to repeat what has succeeded, and I don't want to do that. I want to stay as trusting and innocent as I was when I first started to write, and I don't want to have presumptions that what I write will be accepted... .
I've read your poetry for many years now, and it seems to me that you are not only willing but take almost a pleasure in allowing yourself to be lost. I was not surprised to see in your new collection, "Passwords," the poem called "The Day Millicent Found the World." Millicent kept pushing further and further into the woods until finally she knew she was "Lost. She had achieved a mysterious world/ where any direction would yield only surprise." What is it in "being lost" that holds such allure for you?
I believe it's kind of an emblem for that deliciousness that I was trying to get into my explanation earlier about the "delicious writing" of the early morning. That if you're lost enough, then the experience of now is your guide to what comes next. ... None of us know what comes the next second. We manage to survive in our lives by staying inside the bubble of our assumed self-sufficiency. That's nice, cozy - but as a writer, as a thinker, as maybe a meditator, I have a sense of being in a set of circum stances that's much more wilderness than most people assume.
Much of the time, we are willing to do almost anything rather than face the unknown, the wilderness. When we drive in our cars, we'll go on for endless miles, rather than admit we're lost. We drive our lives that same way until a crisis stops us. But that fear blunts our experience of the world, doesn't it?
Yes. One of the metaphors I have thought of before ... oh, we had a dog, an Airedale, who would stick his nose out the window when we we're driving. And I would see that eager sniffing, inhaling experience the dog was having and I would think: if only I could get the world like that.
How long has this daily regimen been a part of your life?
Well, I became vividly aware of doing it regularly in about 1942.
After five decades of this discipline, can you say how this has shaped your life's experience?
I give a sigh, because I realize that the first thing that occurred to me was that it's made it lonely. ... I believe it was Clarence Day who [said that] in the novels of Joseph Conrad you get the feeling of [being] on a ship where they're all below celebrating, and there is someone up there at the bow of the boat who realizes how deep the ocean is down there, and where they are going, and that around them is this mystery. So getting up early and being receptive like this, day after day, is a reminder of the depth and mystery around us... . I think another thing is: Your life gets centered all over again every day. The daily practice is enough to take you out of the current of your obligations ... and put you in relation all over again to something that feels like the big current outside of us, the tide of the eventfulness of being alive.
For most of us, it is only the rare moments, of some surprise or emergency, that make us so fully awake, present to our experience. It requires an act of great will.
On the campus where I was teaching, someone said to me about the time I retired, "Well, Bill, you still writing as much as ever?" and my impulse to respond was, "Yes, but I'm trying to taper off." The person who was asking me was thinking, "Oh, this is someone who has to nerve himself to do it," but I turned it around thinking: I'd have to nerve myself not to [write] ... . To some people this seems surprising, even other writers I talk to. By the way, maybe my circumstances have helped or hurt me into this. Let me explain what I mean. When I said I could remember vividly starting in 1942, that was when I was drafted, right after Pearl Harbor. I was sent off to a Conscientious Objector's Camp, and in that camp your life was suddenly drastically changed from outside... . It was like a work camp or prison camp.
How did that prompt the beginning of this writing method?
Well, it made me want to preserve a part of my life for my own. And the early morning was free time. The government never thought of harnessing us at 4 in the morning. They thought they were being cruel if they harnessed us at 7:30. Well, that gave me 3 1/2 hours of freedom.
I think this has been the situation for many women poets - Sylvia Plath comes to mind - who, because of their commitments as mothers and wives, would get up earlier than their children in order to have time to write.
Yes, in fact, often when I meet people and they talk about not having time to write, I have to avert my eyes, not to look accusingly at them.
But if this pure spontaneity is a proper orientation for writers, what does that say about academia that wants to hand down the traditions and the critical standards?
Well, I think at least on the face of it, it seems there is a conflict here. I don't think that there really is because, in the best kind of education, there is a leading-forth of what is available to the individual human being. It is not so much like putting an overlay, some kind of grid on the developing person. ... The kind of education I am interested in, the kind of education I think I profited from, has been the welcoming process, allying the self to what is available to that self ... at that time. But there are many people who teach in the University who are professors of writing, not writers. There are professors of philosophy, not philosophers. Wittgenstein made a big distinction. When I first read him, it was like a breath of fresh air, but the way, and I thought: Yes! ... [There is a way] for forwarding the explorations of the individual soul in this life. That is different from the [tradition] that says: Now I will give you the standards, now I will give you the standards, now I will give you t he marks to shoot at... . Recently, I read someone's article that said, "You can't be a writer now, if you haven't read... ," and then he named of a certain bunch of our own peers, you know, current fashionable writers. And I thought, "Poor Sophocles!" The professors I have valued the most have been the kind who would listen in a kind of limber way as conversation was going on, and they would embrace the possibility of confessing to whatever ignorance they felt... . Then there is the other way, that is to try to be invulnerable, to put on the armor, to wear your Phi Beta Kappa button and lecture others.
That way props up the "little" self, and probably makes you feel better when you go to bed at night - and it actually impoverishes you.
I feel it does. Armor is fine, but it keeps you from knowing what the weather is like... . I feel that one [must] stay flexible, stay a participant.
Clearly the real value for you lies in the process, not simply the final product. But I'm curious about what rests at the heart of this process. There is a line in one of your essays that says, "it is as if the ordinary language we use every day has a hidden set of signals, a kind of secret code." A secret code implies a message from someone or somewhere. What are you tuning into?
I think that what is there in the language is the history of the language. Sort of what Nietzsche was getting at when he said "any word with a history can't be defined," or that 'every word is a prejudice." ... I have this feeling of wending my way or blundering through a mysterious jungle of possibilities when I am writing. This jungle has not been explored by previous writers. It never will be explored. It's endlessly varying as we progress though the experience of time. The words that occur to me come out of my relation to the language which is developing even as I am using it... . I am not learning definitions as established in even the latest dictionary. I'm not a dictionary-maker. I'm a person a dictionary-maker has to contend with... . I'm a living element in the development of language.
One of my favorite poems in your new book has that delightful combination of attitudes: pride, wonder, and utter humility. In "The Way I Write," the poem seems to declare that this activity is absolutely crucial to the universe and, at the same time, is completely insignificant. As if Dante, Jefferson, and Emily Dickinson are hanging on your words important/ additions but immediately obsolete, like waves."
But this makes me think that if you write the way we have been talking about - the way I think I do, accepting what comes - then many of those poems will seem insignificant and they are insignificant, and even ludicrous and grotesque to those who have "standards." [I'm] willing to look awkward when I try to catch one that can't be caught, to stumble because of the inability of language to get there from here. So I don't feel protective of the poems... .
But, as readers, we can't easily dismiss this impulse as insignificant, maybe because we feel it within ourselves, maybe because you take the work so seriously. "The ocean and I have many pebbles/ to find and wash off and roll into shape."
Yes, I think it is possible to take a stand that will enable you to laugh them off, but I guess what I'm saying is that the ocean finds them important. Me too.
But then there is a crucial pause in "The Way I Write," a questioning that stops your hand on the page.
My hand stops, and I don't put into the poem what could be after that question, because I'm not in the same universe as those people who think there's an answer. It doesn't stop arbitrarily, it doesn't stop whimsically; it stops necessarily. Well, Wittgenstein said, "Some questions shouldn't even be asked," and the implied answer that's in that space - there's nothing there. I don't know, that's the next poem.
Would it be far from the truth to say then that - whether we're talking about the elegies or the love poems - William Stafford's work is poetry of praise?
Yeah, I would be ready for that. ... Praise in the sense that it is an embracing of emerging experience. It is a participation in discovery. I am a butterfly, I'm not a butterfly collector. I want the experience of the butterfly.