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Know the West

A part of something old: writer Kim Stafford's storied places


In southwest Portland lies a strip of untamed land, bounded by busy roads in a dense, urban landscape. It is not a park, simply a tract of woods that developers missed. It is also not pristine nature, but it is what writer and Portland native Kim Stafford calls a "scattered Eden."

Those woods are just a few blocks from where Stafford and I meet in one of the city's ubiquitous coffee shops. Sipping his tea, he shifts his attentive gaze away for a moment, across the traffic and toward the woods, where he spent uncountable childhood hours. Stafford has a broad forehead framed by wavy graying hair. "To me," he says, "a place like this is an island that's never been conquered, a metaphor for that wild part of the mind." That wildness, according to Stafford, is manifest in horsetail pushing up through a crack in the sidewalk and cottonwood seedlings growing in an abandoned storefront. Such things, he writes, "remind us of what we have over-run, but on which, in the end, we rely."

As a teacher, author, photographer, folklorist, filmmaker, oral historian, poet, letterpress printer, singer/songwriter and pacifist, as well as the literary executor for his late father, poet William Stafford, Kim Stafford has made his life a practice of inquiry. His award-winning publications include poetry collections, such as A Thousand Friends of Rain; a memoir of his father, Early Morning; a collection of essays about place, Having Everything Right, and a volume about the writer's craft, The Muses Among Us. "I find that I'm surrounded by eloquence that is lost ... unless I get out my little notebook," Stafford says, pulling a slim softcover from the pocket of his floral-print shirt and flipping it open to reveal pages brimming with notes. He felt a burden lift, he explains, some years ago when he realized that a writer doesn't have to originate new ideas, but simply distill the best ones that already exist. "I don't have to be a prophet. I'm the servant of the prophet. The prophet may be a child or a stranger or a creek or a puzzle."

Stafford's latest book, Prairie Prescription (Limberlost Press), exemplifies this approach: poems about Nebraska, gleaned from family lore. "These are the stories my parents told," he says. "They didn't write them down. I had to write them down." Another book of essays, stories and poems about his late brother, called One Hundred Tricks Every Boy Can Do, is forthcoming from Trinity University Press.

Sharing stories, whether they originate in family, culture or landscape, is our common responsibility, Stafford says, a way of connecting with each other and inhabiting the world. When I spoke with him in late August, he had just returned from a month-long trip to Italy and Ireland, and was taken with the way that native stories, thousands of years old, are still told there today. Here, Stafford sees a brutal schism between the oldest stories of a place and contemporary culture. As he flew back home from Europe and looked down on the forested slopes of Mount Hood and Mount Adams, he says, "I felt this tug of belonging and loyalty, but the land, though beautiful, was sort of anemic. ... I thought the work of our time is to remember, reconnect, and create the stories that belong."

One way Stafford has engaged in this work is through his over three decades of teaching at Lewis & Clark College, where he is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute. He's also taught at countless writing workshops elsewhere. Twenty-four years ago he co-founded Fishtrap, which hosts conferences, residencies and workshops in northeast Oregon's Wallowa Mountains and promotes, according to the website, "clear thinking and good writing in and about the West."

Stafford believes in using the arts to strengthen civic identity. As a participant in numerous public events -- he read a poem at Gov. John Kitzhaber's inauguration -- he sees the artist as the Bard, the one who speaks for the community. In Early Morning, he asks, "Can I write words to carve in stone at the transit mall? Can I write a song for saving a river? Can I write a blessing for an art school. ... Yes, always yes."

Stafford explains that a poem he wrote for the pediatric intensive care waiting room at a Portland hospital was meant to comfort worried parents. "Naknuwisha" (which in Yakama means to care for something precious) does not promise that everything will be all right. Instead, it offers a more helpful truth: the Earth has the suffering child in her hands. Above the din of foaming milk and grinding espresso, Stafford recites the verses for me in the rhythmic voice of a practiced poet. The words seem surrounded by silence:

Young friend, be part of something old.
Be home here in the great world,
where rain wants to be your coat,
where forest wants to be your house,
where frogs say your name and your name,
where wee birds carry your wishes far
and sunlight reaches for your hand.
Be home here.
Be healed.
Be with us all,
young friend.