Printer Friendly

William Stafford: an interview by Thomas E. Kennedy.

This interview was conducted in September 1991 in the office of the Cultural Attache at the American Embassy in Copenhagen. When I appeared at the door of the embassy at the appointed time, I was stripped of my tape recorder and camera by a young security guard "I'm here to interview one of America's greatest living poets," I explained "I need those to do the job." The guard was clearly unhappy, but had his orders. Finally, the press attache appeared and persuaded the guard to return my tools. Inside, the cultural attache and William Stafford greeted me with laughter. "You must be a dangerous man," Stafford said He is a silver-haired, ruddy-faced man with a quiet smile and cordial manner. He opened the interview by saying, "I figure we're in the same racket sort of so I am going to relax and you will kill me off or not depending on what you want to do with what I say."

Thomas E. Kennedy: In the dictionary of literary biography, Steve Garrison calls your poetry a log of explorations. Jonathan Holden calls you a "deep imagist," and Lawrence Lieberman calls you an "expansional" poet, working in confrontation with "the mystique of oneself." Donald Hall identifies your language as quiet, colloquial, and profoundly subjective and that it--together with the work of your contemporaries--signaled the end of the era of T.S. Eliot and the New Criticism. Do you think of your poetry in such terms? Do you think of your style of poetry as signalling the end of a previous era? How do you view your poetry both in and of itself and as a part of the American tradition? William Stafford: Let me start with what Donald Hall said: The end of T. S. Eliot. I and the people I know are writing the language of everyday and the background of this writing sprang out of the daily language. The "Tradition and the Individual Talent" which T.S. Eliot wrote about is not a written, but a spoken tradition. The great river of language is the language that we speak. Whether Eliot thought of it that way or not, the effect of his writing tradition is to make an artist feel that he is the end of a relay race, of a succession of writers. I think we are the continuing turning and overturning of the language not only of writers, but of everyone--delivery people, mechanics, barbers, children. So the tradition is not the tradition of literature but of human discourse.

TK: In your poem "Burning a Book" you write, "More disturbing than book ashes are whole libraries that no one got around to writing. Desolate towns, miles of unthought in cities and the terrorized countryside where wild dogs own anything that moves ... So I've burned books and there are many I haven't ever written and nobody has." This seems to me to embody poetically some of the dangers existing in the United States today, inter alia, in the hundreds of creative writing programs, where many writer-teachers, dependent on the university for their bread, might feel pressured to refrain from writing certain books or exploring certain thoughts, fearful from both the Right and the Left and chilled away from perhaps their best potentials. Do you feel that there is anything to this? Is the United States suffering a new McCarthyism today?

Stafford: I don't think so. I went late into those writing programs, and I was already formed. But I have been through them, and I don't feel alarmed. Maybe this is just a function of my being square, but I don't feel any pressure. I feel absolutely free. And the writers I know are not at all timid or reticent or guarded, except about their careers, and there's no way out of this. In any society, there are some things that will please people more than other things. You're in no danger in the United States, but you are enticed about certain rewards: Do I get invited to the White House? Don't kick too much. But I don't see how to get away from that in any society. Even in heaven, there's a jealous God.

TK: Do you think this affects the choices a writer makes? Does it cause important books to go unwritten, have an effect on the general freedom of thought and expression in the society?

Stafford: I think it does affect the choices--everything does. I've met many writers and students from abroad, and I don't know that it's any stronger in the U.S. than other places. An artist has to operate from an inner compass. It is not art when it's drawn by the numbers, when it's Hallmark cards for the market, and most writers I know are doing Hallmark cards for the market. You've got to be--I started to say tough, I don't know if you got to be tough. You've got to be reckless. A kind of divine recklessness someone said. And do it your way. Anything that guides you toward not doing it your way is eroding the compass or whatever you use as an artist. That's not government especially; it's not government in the United States. It is not any educational program any more than any other educational program. I feel lonely as an artist on purpose. Succumbing to an editor, to where the money is, trying to piggyback your second book on your first, all those things that people do: That is a human problem for all artists I presume.

TK: You taught at Lewis & Clark for more than thirty years in both the Literature and the Creative Writing departments.

Stafford: Mostly literature. I didn't teach writing if I had a choice.

TK: I read someplace you considered it a privilege as a poet to be able to spend your days considering great poems.

Stafford: If I said that I'd like to revise it a bit. I think a campus is a good place. There is a library. You have a lot of freewheeling people around you. Students and faculty enjoy this big bubble of protection from daily intrusion. It takes quiet, sustained thought, it takes reckless exploration of options to lead the intellectual life. I think the campus is one of the great good places.

TK: Yet the "politically correct" restrictions are a university phenomenon. In many years of submitting stories, this year is the first time I ever had anything rejected for allegedly being racist or sexist, and I was stunned because the works in question were in fact anti-racist and anti-sexist. Both rejections were from university presses or journals. One large university press in rejecting a short-story collection, sent their anonymous reader's report which praised its merits, but lambasted it for sexism--among other things because only one story was from a woman's point of view, and many of the stories were in fact anti-sexist. The note from the editor said, "We don't necessarily agree with this evaluation, but you might want to take it into consideration if you are considering a rewrite."

Stafford: My interpretation, if it were my own manuscript, would be, well, I happened to hit a dud who didn't get what I was doing. Lately I have done this myself for publishers. You read a manuscript, you write a letter that they can use for deniability, say, "Well I asked an expert." That is one way you earn your money, as an expert who can be blamed. The out-of-town editor. But I think because of a great scramble to try to undo injustices of the past, a new kind of orthodoxy is surfacing. Many people talk about this, and my small witness is, I see no reason to disagree with their disquiet because I think a new kind of orthodoxy is being established, the reverse of the old sometimes: Every oppressed person is a hero and a martyr, which is, of course, far from true. And they're like the oppressors. Some of the oppressors could not help it, they were a reluctant part of the troops. So for a while it seems you are subject to those hazards, people are sensitized, and they have over-learned some things.

TK: Back to poetry: There seems to be a great focus on so-called confessional poetry today. When you look at a poem like "Prufrock," for example, there certainly seems to be an element of confession, but it reaches beyond that to far greater issues than the merely personal. Are there great poems being written today in that mode, or is there a danger in contemporary poetry of becoming fixated in the personal and anecdotal?

Stafford: That label has been handy for a long time. But to tag a poet with being confessional or subjective is a weird thing, because in fact, objective things are convergences of a lot of subjectivities. There are fads not just among writers, but among readers, editors, in societies. They eat it up. One of the most popular books, a bestseller, in the United States recently is Iron John by Robert Bly. He conducts gatherings where people explore their subjectivity. That's what people are interested in. They used to think maybe that they were certain types, he-men or she-women, and now that's all gone. It's all part of the turmoil we were talking about before: The injustices that existed before as a consequence of this kind of cookie-cutter society. We're breaking down those problems, so there is a lot of turning over in myself, the person. As a reader, I get tired of having the writer, the poet, be the center of the universe at which everything happens. I like to go to the Tycho Brahe Museum to see someone who looked out. As a writer, as a person, I would like to do that. On the other hand, the seething inner decision-making part of a person looms pretty large. So I feel sympathetic with the topic that we're on, but I don't feel orthodox one way or the other about this. I can't put a label on our time. I think many of the writers I know have succumbed to a style but that is a part of what we were talking about earlier. They are having in their time and writers turn over what is given them by their society.

TK: I feel a similar thing happening in fiction with the split between the experimental writers and the so-called realists or neo-realists. The realists seem to go very close-up on subjective experience, and when, say, Raymond Carver is most successful it almost is like looking into outer space, but other times, it seems to fall rather flat and give a claustrophobic picture of existence.

Stafford: Yes, claustrophobia. I knew Raymond Carver. I know his writings very well. It has a strange effect, reading those things, but I wouldn't want to live there.

TK: Joseph Epstein complains that American poetry has grown less difficult. Walt Whitman once wrote that great poetry requires a great audience. Is one of the challenges of American poetry today that we who read and listen lack the ability to challenge our poets sufficiently to reach further than they do?

Stafford: I enjoy the writings of Joseph Epstein and am necessarily in awe of Whitman, but I feel disquiet again about this great audience label. As a writer, inside the writing, I don't care about the audience. You know, Whitman can worry about it. Critics, embassies, can worry about it. But as a writer, I could care less. You know, don't jiggle my elbow. I am doing something here that you got to get inside of. So I am not trying to create an audience or do something about my time. I am my time. And you want to find out what it's like? Here it is.

TK: In the sixties and the seventies American fiction became more intellectual and experimental, but American poetry, it seems to me, became simpler and more mimetic during the same period, and perhaps I've missed it, but I didn't see any great experimental things going on in the poetry of the sixties and seventies. I have seen so-called revolutionary or protest poetry and the experiment of coming closer to the rhythms of everyday language, of playing with the language, but I haven't seen something which I can equate with what happened in American fiction.

Stafford: Yes, imitative of daily life, that is what a lot of it is about. It's as close as possible, like Raymond Carver. No flourishes. Just what's there. That is an impulse I feel myself. On the other hand, I feel a lot of disquiet about the purposefully experimental. I mean purposeful anything. Purposefully patriotic, purposefully revolutionary, purposefully experimental, they're all leaving the center. They're all forsaking that inner compass that art comes from. The rest is artificial, drawing by the numbers. It disquiets me to see these blurbs on books. "This extends further." You know, the current trend of the experimental. I don't care where you're experimenting; what are you finding? What's there? I don't care if it's experimental. I am just doing what I find. Is it a pretty rock or not? if you like it, fine, if you don't, send it back.

TK: But the rocks you're writing about, are they primarily interior rocks or are they exterior rocks?

Stafford: Yesterday, I had a little twinge of this being out there in the University, where someone was complaining about students--"They're going into deconstruction and they no longer believe in truth." I had some feeling of being isolated from both sides. I mean, truth, mooth, what are you talking about? I don't feel either way. What I am doing is stumbling through this already mixed-up, serious experience of life, yes. So I have no labels to put on this. It's okay. I like to talk about these things but when I'm writing I'm in another mood, the mood of stupidity if you like, the mood of not knowing what is going on. Kind of sneaking along the trail.

TK: So the critical terminology is something you use after the fact. You don't use it whatsoever in your writing?

Stafford: That's right. I don't like absolute statements, but I'd like to erase all such considerations when I write.

TK: What about Language poetry? I never got very far with it myself. I don't understand it. I know it has some political intent, but I do not really know how to read it. Do you have thoughts about this?

Stafford: Yes, I do. I have encountered this. Anyone who is racketing around in our field encounters it, and I think this might seem a little strange coming from me because I am a language-that-I-meet-when-talk-to-the-mailman kind of poet, but experiments in the language, the Language poets seem as interesting as any other experiments, but no more. And I already said what I think about experimenters. To have a program is to abandon art. Right and left, I'm not there, you know, I'm here in the center.

TK: What do you think of poetry as a so-called transparent medium, in the sense of David Walker's book, The Transparent Lyric: that poetry, particularly contemporary poetry, is open-ended, leaving the final meaning to be created by the reader? It seems to me that much, perhaps most, of your poetry is quite specific, which is not to imply that it is simple but that it is nonetheless lucid, accessible, or at least approachable, there. Something which you have discovered and which 1, as a reader, must rediscover to experience it with you--as opposed to the idea of poetry as an open-ended thing, where the final experience is left to the reader to complete.

Stafford: Well, the area that we are in fascinates me--semi colon; I want to take the position that reading or listening, either, is an activity, and as a matter of fact all language has a shimmer in it. Even two plus two equals four, which is really a republican statement. It's alright with me if my poetry seems lucid and direct, but lucidity and directness are part of the strategy of discourse. And a person who assumes too fast that they've got it all is too fast. It depends on the receiver, depends on how far up you turn the interior volume. You can get a lot out of something that is simple. A part of the fun of writing, for me, is to have something that sounds so simple until later in the quiet of the night. Maybe a line like "Hope lasts a long time if you're happy." Is that optimistic or pessimistic? I don't know. I like the idea of putting forward things that put the reader or hearer off guard. Those who decide to be hard to nail down, that's interesting. Everyone is hard to nail down. Freud knew that, and I know that.

TK: Is the "meaning" of your poems in your possession, so to speak? When you've created a poem, is it completely your creation or is it also the reader's creation, in his experience of it?

Stafford: I think a poem is a crystallization of language. Language is just about to become this. So it's not my possession. Once I write it down, it's everybody's. Someone says what I see in your poem is such and such: I have no quarrel. The language is social. They own as much of it as I do. So I came to it my way, but they take it out their way. The language crystallizes, I make a lucky pass through some language, someone else grows lucky about it, okay they may take it. I have a poem called "The Animal that Drank Up Sound," and I was in Iran when the Shah was there. The translator of my poems came to me and said, "Some of your poems are so political." He was afraid to translate the poem. I thought it was an Indian legend, but when I looked over his shoulder, I felt the Shah looking over my shoulder, and I saw it was a terribly political poem there where they had censorship.

TK: In a piece in Field twenty years ago you said, "At times, without my insisting on it, my writing becomes coherent, but I do not insist on it, for I know that in back of my activity there will be the coherence of myself, and that indulgence of my impulses will bring recurrent patterns and meanings again." Where does your writing issue from? Is it spontaneous overflow or planned activity that you comprehend and guide with your intellect?

Stafford: Whether or not a critic calls the writing reasonable, planned, intellectually satisfying, depends pretty much on where the critic enters the process. I mean, first there is nothing; then there is something. What happens in between? Well, the critic might say, you begin to have a plan. I say, How do you begin to have a plan, and where does it come from? A student challenged me on this once, about how hazy it all is at the beginning. He quoted a writer--I think it was Ferlinghetti--who said, When I write anything, even a poem, I know exactly what I am doing. I have an outline in mind. My response is, Where did you get the outline? There was a time when you did not have the outline. Then you have the outline. What happened in between? That is the creative part. So I think he left out the interesting part, the creative instant. So I write from--I'll be vainglorious--a succession of creative instants. A critic comes along and says, Ah! This makes sense, so you must have planned it ahead of time. I don't know what to say. I think I go through the same process the critic does. He explains it one way, I explain it another.

TK: Does that plan come from the totality then of your person, or does it come from some kind of Jungian collective source?

Stafford: The Jungian metaphor is sometimes handy. That's what I feel about that. It is inevitable, and probably buried in the language. I am already getting myself into trouble trying to extricate myself from this. A person is lost in the woods; they bring a tracker to find this person. The tracker brings his bloodhound in the back of his pick-up. The journalist or critic comes up to the bloodhound and says: "Mr. bloodhound, what is your plan?" The bloodhound goes Sniff sniff sniff sniff. The critic says, "I mean, you know, you must have a principle on this to find this person." The bloodhound's going Sniff sniff sniff sniff. I'm the bloodhound. The critic wants to have a plan.

TK: Is the poet's role an elite one, as Eliot suggested, "to purify the language of the tribe," or should we be mourning the days of popular poets like Kipling, Housman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E.E. Cummings, perhaps even Robert W. Service. I always liked him from when I was a kid.

Stafford: Sure, I can recite some of those. We can probably do it in unison. "A bunch of the boys were whooping it up/at the Malamute saloon/ The kid that handles the music box. . ." TK. ". . . was playing a ragtime tune . . ."

Stafford: See? Those things have grabbed us earlier. We could do a lot of that. I don't make a big distinction about this. Poetry happens wherever the language gets lucky. People are talking in the street; they like some things they say more than other things. You can see it by their expressions. I think we all veer into and out of these intervals of relative illumination, clarity, or maybe even dizziness. Some of that comes in a literary way, and some of it comes in this language way, and as a writer, I don't restrict myself to the literary way. I feel easy. I feel the limits. This is the function of where we are in relation to a sustained interest in discourse. I have a sustained interest in discourse. We have the terminology for it, we've been near this neighborhood before, we can find our way in and out of these topics that we're on. I think that's fine.

TK: It seems to me that there is little lyricism in American poetry today and that song is not one of the major parts of contemporary poetry. Maybe I have a tin ear. T.S. Eliot is considered elite, but to me his language has always been symphonic, musical, and when I read T.S. Eliot it doesn't matter to me whether I understand what he is saying because I find the language so musical and beautiful. And I feel the same about Dylan Thomas, his surprising turns of song, and even Robert Frost and E.A. Robinson seem to me to have a good deal of music, whereas much of the poetry I read today seems to have only the very faintest remnant of music. Is that because the poetry that I am pointing to is not very good poetry, or is this the result of abandoning fixed meter, or some sense of meter beyond the rhythm of everyday speech? Or am I mistaken?

Stafford: This is an enticing area for anyone in discourse. Not just a poet, anyone, a talker, a writer of anything, a listener. I feel completely sympathetic with the drift about T.S. Eliot and the rest, too. When I look at some of this poetry, I wonder what kind of a tin ear does this person have? They have a tin ear, that's what kind of tin ear they have. In between in this sandwich, that's the area of manoeuvre for us, I think. What you said about liking T.S. Eliot even when you don't quite understand it, language is like that. When you listen to speeches of the President, the melody is what's getting to you. If you think it's all intellectual, think again. These writers are better than that. So you are succumbing to a melody and if you think that you're not it's just what he'd like you to think. And some people just haven't got that. They think they can do it in a non-elegant way, and just so they got the message right, they got it. The message is not just what they think it is.; it is the total experience. I think poetry is the form of discourse in which that haunting part, that double part of language, is particularly important; for it to be absent is to forego a lot of the richness that the language offers. When Milton, to take a champion, says, "Avenge. oh Lord, Thy slaughtered saints, whose bones he scattered in the Alpine mountains . . ." I haven't come to a rhyme yet, but all the syllables are like a team of sled dogs. All sorts of things are happening. So, a poet is totally responsible. A prose writer ought to be totally responsible, but we allow them quite a bit of leeway.

TK: We have to write so many more words. I understand that you have been very attracted to fiction and read a lot of it.

Stafford: I read a lot more prose than poetry. I have more respect for current prose writers than current poets. There is something about life, especially in the United States, which drains the talent out of the poetry area of literature. Maybe one of the great big drains is the label of the dollar bill, and if you got talents of discourse and you like to eat well, guess what? Should you do a novel or a collection of poems?

TK: Depends on your novel, too. Actually, the money is in speech-writing.

Stafford: Other kinds of discourse. And you know we are surrounded by people who don't "get" it. They're proud of that. That's a stupid thing to say, but they say it: I don't get it. Okay, you don't get it. That's interesting.

TK: What writers do you like?

Stafford: I think Cervantes said, "I'm the kind of person, when I see a piece of paper blowing down the street, I got to pick it up and see what is on it." That's the kind of reader I am. I read anything, any trash. And I tend toward pretty good trash. But when I read for fun, I read Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Pascal, a lot of others.

TK: You have a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa for which you did a creative dissertation. Do you feel that the current MFA and other creative writing university programs suffer from a lack of scholars on the staff and would do better to have perhaps something approaching more of equal time between scholarship and creative writing?

Stafford: At Iowa, when I went for my Ph.D., I didn't know about the other option. So I took all the courses, old English, Latin, the various periods. I took the writtens and orals, and then handed in a Ph.D. thesis. I like being freighted with that experience of having read under stringent conditions these works. Otherwise, I would not have done it systematically. But if I didn't have gusto for it, I wouldn't have done it. If someone was thinking about doing this just to get a job, I'd say forget it. But if you can't help yourself, go ahead, it's fun. But my fear is that if the MFA program -decided to take on the scholarly part, the scholarship they would promote might turn into something like developmental periods in the collected works of Philip Whalen or something like that. I'd rather read Milton.

TK: Well, I was thinking in terms of more emphasis on the masters. And more communication between the creative and academic departments. When I took my MFA, I was very happy that there were some instructors there with Ph.D.s, and T was always appalled to hear people going around complaining about being forced to read dead poets.

Stafford: I share your disquiet. We're in hat kind of world. I think maybe the crucial distinction is the degree of gusto a student has. If they are reading Milton as a duty to pass the exam, then they have missed the flight. It's a dead bird they're studying. Maybe what we are up against so often in education is not the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law.

TK: You were born and grew up in Kansas and then moved to Oregon?

Stafford: There are various small diversions. During World War II, I was drafted out of Kansas, and for four years I was a conscientious objector. Whatever concentration camp I was sent to--i use this word about the barracks, wire cots, etc.--first to Arkansas, then to several places in California, ending in Illinois, for those four years, I was outside of Kansas. This was my transition time, when my life turned around, when I knew it wasn't stable, when my own country was a foreign place. So in a way, I was quickly transported to Siberia, and it made a difference. And even in Oregon, I was not there a lot of time. I taught a year in Indiana, a year in California, a while in Alaska, Montana, Vermont, etc.

TK: Is Oregon home now?

Stafford: Yes, but Kansas also feels like home. They say you can't home, but when I go back to Kansas, do I feel at home? Yeah.

TK: What about the use of language? Do you find a difference?

Stafford: The short answer is no. The difference is only superficial. It's easy to talk with Texans. Even New Yorkers.

TK: So there really is one American language?

Stafford: To say otherwise when you are abroad would be misleading. Of course, there are nuances. There are differences between north and south Denmark for all I know. Some eskimos have a southern accent.

TK: What about differences in culture?

Stafford: The big difference is, there are people who are positive, there are people who think they know where the center of the universe is. They are foreigners wherever they are. I don't think they know where the center of the universe is. The more positive they are, the more vulnerable they are. There are a lot of maybes in this experience.

TK: Have you read the experimental fiction writers of the last twenty years or so? Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, etc.

Stafford: As one of those people like Cervantes who catches up any piece of paper that's blowing by, and when they blew by, I read them and I didn't put them in the garbage can. But there is a big river of language, and they are exploring tributaries. The Mississippi is elsewhere. The Mississippi is the language that flows around me every day. Even far-out people when they want to find out the direction to go they join the river. The tradition that I am a part of is our big river of language.

TK: You spoke once about the loneliness of the poet, and the poet's misguided need to check with others for validation of his work. Is there anyplace a writer can go for affirmation, or must he just labor alone?

Stafford: Once when I was travelling in the East, my host, a very friendly guy and a good writer and teacher in a good university, asked who my committee for my books consisted of--who I sent a book to when it was about ready for publication, to look it over and give ideas about it? I said, I send it to an editor. He picked up a book there in his living room and opened it. I think it was by Maxine Kumin, and it said, special thanks to so and so and so and so. He said they had a hot line back and forth, and every time they write a poem they call up and read it to the other one to hear what they have to say. Then he picked up another book and there, too, this writer said special thanks to so and so--Raymond Carver, Tess Gallagher and some others, etc. And I said Oh, well, I'm from the West, and I didn't know about this. I just write my books myself, and I send them off and see if they send them back. Well, while I was there the mail came, and there was a manuscript from a very well known poet--he was ready to submit and wanted my host to look it over and give him ideas of how to change it before he let an editor see it. It's like a student paying someone to fix his term paper. I didn't say this to my host but I thought, that is cheating. Is it your book or not? Is it a committee book? Yeah, it's a committee book. I have always thought poetry is the kind of discourse nobody edits. If you write prose, if you're Thomas Wolfe, you're saved by some heroic editor, but if you are a poet, editors don't want to get into that. They will say yes or no, but they won't say here's how to improve it. If they know so much, why don't they do it? My wife doesn't even see a piece before I'm done with it. My son, who is a writer, doesn't see it. A soldier once asked Gandhi, When shall I lay down my rifle, and Gandhi said, When you have to. What I say to an editor is, Am I begging you to publish my book? No. If you'd like to, do it, if you don't want to, send it back.

TK: As a committed pacifist who did not serve militarily in the Second World War, what are your thoughts on the recent war in the Gulf?

Stafford: I was appalled by this war. Like many others. I thought they did the wrong thing. I mean, incinerating all those people. Riling up the whole world. A collossal failure of understanding, of the possibilities. Failure of imagination. A swashbuckling excursion that may have consequences. Creating stable conditions takes deftness, the accumulation of world opinions. It's better if you can begin to make it happen by millions of intricate little adjustments. But every now and then someone sees a short trip, thinks, Well, we can neglect the secondary effects of this, and we can decisively win this war, so let's do it. And as a human being, a hostage to those things happening above us, you know, let's see if we can do it without killing so many people.

TK: So you are opposed to war. Period.

Stafford: I am. I remember the person beside me in a cot in Arkansas. He just got his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. His draft board called him in: "Oh, so you're opposed to war. All wars? Even a good war?" He said, "Show me a good one."

TK: What are your thoughts in general on recent developments in the world? East Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain? Do you think that the world now has a real chance to turn from the bloody past and to try to shape peace, or is man doomed by his own folly to continue to repeat the bloody past?

Stafford: (Chuckles) We're not betting money on this, are we? I don't want to manage my estate by my response, but because I want my response to be in terms of possibility, I feel cheered. I welcome all this, very much so.

TK: Do you see the increasing trends of international initiatives as a positive trend--the growth of the European Economic Communities and the increasing importance of the United Nations ...

Stafford: Yes, I'm a positive liberal, and in all those standard ways I could be categorized as one. I went to graduate school in economics, not literature, at the University of Wisconsin. As an economist, I am on the side of free trade and the natural adaptability of various regions as a resource for the world.

TK: In your poem, "Waiting in Line," you seem to praise consciousness, even the moment of it that allows an elderly person to be aware, standing on a corner, that it is time to say goodbye to all of it, as a moment of great joy, presumably because it is a fully experienced moment. Do you see poetry as a continuing quest for the refinement of consciousness?

Stafford: I'm leaning toward yes on this. I sort of like to wander around in between yes and no, that is my area, in between, there is a lot of maybe in my life, and in my language, but I think the answer is yes. It has to do with the difference between unconsciousness and full consciousness. I think all of us, perhaps especially in the literary life, are inducers of realization. And there is another part of me that wants to go and sleep in the sun. I don't want to neglect that. I don't want to be a frenzied seeker of sensation. There is something else. So it is not the same as sensationalism. act, I'm sort of on the dull side deliberately, but being helpful, nondestructive has illuminated life very much I think.

TK: But writing poetry and dedicating your life to it, do you feel as you look back at ourself in earlier periods of our life that our consciousness is more refined now, that you have come to a higher level of sorts, that in some way your work has had a cumulative effect on your totality as a human being? Or do you look back and say, well that's who I was then, and I can't be that person anymore, because now I'm here?

Stafford: Luckily for me, I can say I don't know. I do not feel formed as a person. There is a lot of rigidness in that. I am not the kind of writer who says, This is what I wrote when I was beginning; isn't it stupid? See what I've become now? No, this is what I wrote then, and, it still looks pretty good to me. I feel congenial about it. You may think it's bad, but that is your privilege. I know where it comes from. I feel at home. There are both gains and losses as the years go by.

TK: I am thinking also of the poem you wrote in which there is a line that says something to the effect of--it is too late for earlier ways of doing things; now we must act in accordance with the light we have at this moment.

Stafford: Yes.

TK: You once said, "Writing can be a liberating thing for the individual. It does not have to be held to the task of producing masterpieces for later generations. The idea of engaging in an activity which is helpful in itself is a part of our lives now more than it was before and I think that is good." I agree, but it also occurs to me that if the people who have produced masterpieces--I think of those most important to me, T.S. Eliot, Dostoyevski, Shakespeare, etc.--had not done what they did, I don't know what I would do. And I wonder who will do that for our own times? Who will create the masterpieces of our own times--if indeed we are worthy of masterpieces?

Stafford: This is tantalizing to me because like you I have enjoyed the works of these people. But something about banking on that disquiets me. As a writer I would be harming my usefulness to pay much attention to this. That burden is not my burden. I read an article recently that said, If you are a student writer now you must be sure to read so and so and so and so, you know, the author's friends. I thought, Poor Sophocles! He didn't have a chance to read Adrienne Rich. Too bad. No, what we rely on is what the tide brings, and what it brings today is what we use, and to think of what the tide should have brought is not the function of an oyster. The oyster takes what the tide brings. That is what I do. If I did not have Adrienne Rich, I'd make do with Sophocles.
COPYRIGHT 1993 World Poetry, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kennedy, Thomas E.
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:"Feminine technologies": George Oppen talks at Denise Levertov.
Next Article:John Berger: an interview by Nikos Papastergiadis.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |