An Interview With William Stafford Essay Research

An Interview With William Stafford Essay, Research Paper

This interview was conducted on February 6, 1971, at William

Stafford’s home in McLean, Virginia, and was published in Crazy Horse 7

(1971). Dave Smith is the interviewer.

Dave Smith: Does the poet mythologize his own world in the sense that he makes the

things of his world better or worse than they are?

William Stafford: If I could think of an image for myself, instead of

domesticating the world to me, I’m domesticating myself to the world. I enter that world

like water or air . . . everywhere. Mythologizing, yes. I’m writing the myth of the world,

not the myth of me.

Smith: You go out into the world rather than bring it into you?

Stafford: I do go out into it, but in the way of permeating it. As a poet I am

picking it up, though I am not making it into me; rather, I am making me into it. We are

just working with images here but I don’t feel as a writer that it is my function to turn

experiences into manifestations of myself. Instead, I am like a reporter. I am like the

electric eye.

Smith: What, then, is the role of "craft" in the writing of poetry?

Stafford: It occurs to me as I travel to campuses for readings that many of the

people I meet have the feeling that there is a mechanical ability involved in the making

of poetry. That, especially among young poets, poetry requires a craft of them that they

don’t have. But that isn’t the way that I see poetry. Poetry and prose to me are very

close to the same thing. The distinction is not so much in the craft that’s gone into it

but in the way you present it to a reader. If you say something in such a way as to ask a

certain amount of attention from the reader, that’s a poem. And if you don’t alert him to

its being a poem and let it be prose, well then that’s prose. And prose can be every bit

as complex and difficult, it seems to me, as poetry.

Smith: Does this say anything about the unsuccessful poet-turned-novelist?

Stafford: Well there is something I don’t think we are going to get at in this

discussion that makes a difference. There are some very intelligent people who just can’t

write a good story. It just takes something else. You have to be possessed or there is

something inside you, a story, that writes itself.

Smith: Do you think it is disappointing to discover you are writing about


Stafford: Yes I do. It is a dangerous thing to want to be a writer and to have to

press so hard that in poem after poem, in page after page, you are asserting something,

you are pressing to establish something. Instead you have to go venturing along, to be

willing to give it up, to give up all kinds of assertions in favor of some inner thing I

can’t quite identify here. It is like a development, a pre-development of what you started


Smith: Do you experience dry periods and read as a kind of cure?

Stafford: I have a lot of gusto for reading, yes. I read a lot, and all kinds of

things, but not as policy, rather just because I’m addicted to reading. I just like to

read. I don’t experience those times when I don’t have anything to write because I write

whatever it is that occurs to me. Some writers experience difficulty that may be because

their standards are too high. They feel they can’t write well enough. But I write anyway.

I think that activity is important.

Smith: Do you think that it is impossible to "go to school" on other

poets when you can’t get at something you want?

Stafford: I don’t think it is that conscious with me. For one thing I don’t know

what I’m trying to achieve. I just write and find out what happens. And, besides, my

reading is more in the nature of excited looking around.

Smith: Do you read many of the new books of poems?

Stafford: Well I read a lot of poems but I do read them fast. So that each time is

like a little recognition. Just to see how it goes really. And I neither feel greatly

influenced by nor turned off by the poems. I just feel a kind of comfortable cordiality in

my reading.

Smith: Did you ever hear what Ford Maddox Ford said about Joseph Conrad? That the

only great man is the man who is naive because he can still be delighted with and

surprised by the world?

Stafford: Yes, I like that. I like that idea. Because the contrary attitude of

feeling that you have solved things beforehand seems a false stance. That is, what unfolds

from time cannot be anticipated and the naive stance toward it is the only realistic

stance to take. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Nobody does. I think that his

distinction is that if you feel you have it solved, then you are not a writer. But if you

feel that you are exploring something that hasn’t happened yet, then that’s the way it is

and that’s what a writer does.

Smith: As a graduate of the Iowa workshops, what do you think of workshops?

Stafford: They can be done without, I would say. But on the other hand, in my own

case, I like sociability and I like to be around other writers and I like the feeling that

it is OK to be a writer. And in the big society not very many people are. You may feel odd

or lonesome. Are you really doing something that normal people can do and get away with?

You can go to a workshop and meet a lot of people who have similar interests and they talk

about what they are reading and writing. I like workshops and though I don’t think they

are essential I do think they are convenient and fun and, for many people, helpful. I

don’t really see any harm in them. Even in workshops you can go away and write if you want

to. It’s allowed.

Smith: What of the persistent rumor that workshops turn out workshop poems?

Stafford: I have heard many writers say that. Good writers, too. But it did not

seem that way to me, partly because I did not think others were trying to impose their

will on me. Or their way of writing. And if you follow gently but insistently the

development of what you are writing yourself then you won’t be distracted by others. And

it is true that workshops are made up of people like people anywhere else. So, sure, they

often do selfish, shortsighted, partisan things, but, on the other hand, it is hard to do

without people. I don’t see this as a thing wrong with workshops but with people. So you

don’t get away from the weaknesses we all have if you go to a workshop. But those

weaknesses aren’t more prevalent at workshops than in other places.

Smith: What is your reaction to cliques or groups of poets who seem to

dominate what is going on in parts of the country?

Stafford: As a matter of fact, to find that certain groups of people like each

other is a human thing. And you wouldn’t want a person to erase himself every morning. No,

he has a certain leaning and that is legitimate. I don’t think there is anything wrong

with that. It’s part of the human condition. So I think that in poetry, the writing of it,

the publishing of it, the rewarding of it . . . human things go on, but no conspiracy, no

cartels, no syndicates; it’s not like that. It’s not any kind of formal policy. It is just

looking forward to what is written by someone whose work you know and like.

Smith: What is your feeling about new developments in poetry, particularly with

respect to deviations from more traditional forms and approaches? What do you think of the

split line?

Stafford: I like the idea of the longer visionary poem. I like the idea of

following a hunch to see where it will take you. I like long works. Of course, I like

short ones too. Whatever allows your impulse to reach some kind of fulfillment.

Smith: But you don’t write many of the long ones do you?

Stafford: No, not often. But I like them.

Smith: Do you ever feel a weakness in not writing longer or sustained pieces?

Stafford: I do feel a weakness. I think that long, sustained, magnificent epic

works are better than little ones. Now about things like the split line . . . I don’t have

strong feelings about this. It is just the way you put the poem on the page is sort of

interesting but it is not crucial. It’s more whether you are following the unfolding of

coherent development of a far-out idea. I like that. Now whether you do it with the split

line or whether you do it with big or little type . . . that doesn’t make much difference

to me.

Smith: Then what do you think is the distinction between the prose poem and the

more orthodox form?

Stafford: If it is put in prose form on the page without the line-breaks then you

have given up some of the opportunities that there are for acrobatic swingings from line

to line and emphasizing certain words or phrases. But you gain something in that the

reader will feel that you are not trying to bamboozle him with white space. Of course, I

like prose myself. Not just prose poems, but prose. So the prose poems don’t worry me. You

gain something and lose something.

Smith: Do you have a theory about line-break?

Stafford: Yes, I do have a theory. For me, one line ends and another begins where

you perceive an opportunity that gets insistent. It is not a matter of counting out the

line or feeling that the natural length of the line in English at this time is five

stresses or four or three or two. It’s that whenever I’m writing a line I know sooner or

later that I am going to come to the edge of the page and I begin to see certain

opportunities. Here might make a variance; there I might emphasize a certain word, give me

a little suspense, or something else. And as I get farther and farther toward the edge of

the page it becomes more and more important for me to choose one of those options.

Smith: Does the time consumed in writing affect your family?

Stafford: It doesn’t affect them at all so far as I can tell. Because I get up at

an early hour and the day’s work in poetry-writing is done so inconspicuously that they

don’t even know it happens. When I send out the poems, they don’t know I send them out.

When the poems are published, they don’t know they are published.

Smith: Do they read them?

Stafford: No. Almost imperceptibly these things go on in our house. And I like it

this way. To pull a family into the effort and the encouragement or discouragement of your

writing is a distraction and it makes the house reverberate with things that, it seems to

me, are foreign to other people’s lives.

Smith: A writer’s family is very important, however, isn’t it?

Stafford: I talked to a writer who, by the way, was very successful and he said

that he did his work by having a room in his house with a good solid door which he shut

and then told his kids never to make any noise around that. So he succeeded and then he

said to me, "Now the kids are grown and gone and I don’t know whether I did the right

thing or not."

Smith: Some writers speak of the antagonistic nature of writing and teaching. Can

you comment on this?

Stafford: I hear many people say that. But I don’t know that teaching

is damaging to the writer. On the other hand there is a wonderful convergence between the

two since when I’m teaching or when I’m engaged in reading on the college campuses, I am

writing and the students are writing and it seems that my experience makes me more

perceptive and humane about what they are doing. And that is a harmony, not a distraction.

I divorce my writing from my teaching in the sense that I do my writing at home and it has

little to do with the campus.

Smith: What does being Library of Congress consultant in poetry mean?

Stafford: It means that I go, as one of three people who work in the Poetry Office

at the Library, to a job in which I represent current writers. That’s the way I am

welcomed by the people who work there who are the experts in many fields, and I have met

many generous, perceptive, and helpful people. Who am I? Well I’m someone who knows

writers and is doing the same thing they are and if they come around I meet them and

acclimate them. If anyone there at the Library has a need to know something about them,

I’m ready to help. And I help set up tape recordings for the archives of poetry

recordings. One of my functions is to induce selected people to record.

Smith: Do you enjoy it?

Stafford: Yes I do enjoy it. If I had my druthers, some days I’d stay home and

write or go hiking with my dogs. But in the sense that if one has to have a job, I’d say

it is a very enjoyable job.

Smith: What do you see in your future?

Stafford: We’ll go back West and I’ll keep on writing poems. I keep following this

sort of hidden river of my life, you know, whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I

follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of

crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along. So I inhale and

exhale. I experience, write poems, get now and then great feelings of being on the edge of

writing something that reverberates through my own self and that’s very interesting. But I

don’t have any big or sustained project or any ending revelation that I can tell you


Smith: Do you have any comment about the future of American writing?

Stafford: I like to make a distinction here about American poetry. I think that

what is really happening here is happening in almost imperceptible ways, with thousands

and millions of people; that they are more or less harmoniously living their lives in

terms of the immediacy of their own experience, and that this is what American poetry or

the poetry of any area is about. The harmonious reverberations that you get out of life.

Now American poems . . . that is a different thing. Poems go in waves and schools and

fads. The poems in America, if you identify them in the superficial way we have to do if

we sift off from a newsstand what’s being published, are pretty largely social engagement

poems and they are intellectualized and they are characterized by quite a bit of satire

and bite. They are very closely linked to the topics of international affairs, commercial,

surges, politics, whatever the styles of fashion are. Those interest me but somewhere

underneath all this there is a greater or lesser validity of the connection between the

lives of individuals and the requirements of their daily lives, what they have to do for

beans and how they feel about what they have to do for beans.

Smith: Are you speaking of the yearning for originality?

Stafford: That is right. There is a scramble for that.

Smith: Is that superficial and will it not last?

Stafford: Yes, I think actually, although it is cowardly of me to say this because

I think most of what is happening is always superficial in the sense of "will it

last?" It is not superficial in another sense. It happens to be the actuality of the

experience at the time. Of course that is important to us; it is what it is all about. It

is like the air we breathe. So poems will disappear, poets will disappear, but the harmony

between the requirements of one’s life and the possibilities for a kind of sustained

community and a continuity in one’s feelings, this kind of harmony that one can sometimes

achieve, that will go on for quite a number of years. I’m pretty optimistic about that. It

seems to me that in our own time we have seen a larger proportion of society concerned

about that interior-exterior harmony than used to exist. I believe that we used to be more

lost in that mad rush for things. You know as Emerson said, "Things are in the saddle

and ride mankind." They are in the saddle and they are riding mankind but more people

are trying to figure out how to get things out of the saddle.

Smith: Do you believe there are real social changes taking place?

Stafford: I think there is a change in the sense that more people than ever before

are willing to take a risk for nonmaterial good than used to be. We used to think that

material good was it. The rest was a fraud. Now we think that this harmony . . . whatever

it is I am groping to say . . . is the real poetry of America. Or poetry is one

manifestation of that kind of harmony. And we now feel that that is what it is all about

and that to multiply things while hazarding that other is a mistake. I think that is more

clear to us now than it was before. And linked to what we’ve just been saying is one of

the things that probably occurs to us all as we consider putting our time and effort into

some kind of activity: is the activity that one engages in as a writer important? Yes, it

is. That’s what I’d say in conclusion. That is right in the center of what, as a matter of

fact, is important.

From American Poetry Observed: Poets on Their Own Work. Ed. Joe David Bellamy.

Copyright ? 1984 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.


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