For the past 15 years or so, poets and poetry lovers around the world have earmarked January 17 as a day to pay tribute to the late poet and pacifist William Stafford (1914–1993) with public readings from his works. A celebration of Stafford’s life and literary legacy has already commenced in Oregon, and special events around the country and abroad are being scheduled throughout 2014, as publishers, booksellers, librarians, poets, and readers join his family in commemorating the centenary of his birth in Hutchinson, Kans. The festivities actually launched in Oregon last January, when the state’s Heritage Commission issued a proclamation declaring the entire centennial year to be an “event of statewide significance and cause for statewide celebration.”
It is a rare occasion when the Heritage Commission declares a certain day, month or year a statewide celebration,” the Oregon Cultural Trust notes on its Web site. The Stafford centenary is now in the company of other notable events so honored, including the 100th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition and the Sesquicentennial of Oregon statehood.
“He was the most prolific poet of the second half of the 20th century; he wrote every day of his life,” explains Doug Erickson, director of the Stafford archives at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., where Stafford, who was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1970–1971 (the precursor to the U.S. Poet Laureate position) and Oregon’s Poet Laureate for 14 years (1975–1989), taught for more than 30 years. During his lifetime, Stafford published more than 60 collections of poetry and prose; many more of the 22,000 total poems he wrote were published in literary journals and magazines.
“If someone wanted to publish any of his work, he would let them do it,” says Erickson. “His poetry went out into the world. He was accessible to people. I can’t think of a greater legacy than his poetry.”
Lewis & Clark is sponsoring a two-day academic symposium on Stafford’s literary legacy that is taking place on campus and off, at city landmarks, on February 7–8, hosted by Matthew Dickman, with appearances by Li-Young Lee, former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, and Stafford’s son, Kim Stafford. The symposium is only one of scores of special events being scheduled, including those sponsored by the Oregon Library Association, which declared Stafford its featured author for the entire 2014 Oregon Reads program.
More than 100 OLA member libraries are adding Stafford’s published works to their collections and organizing programming around five books written by him, plus Kim’s 2002 memoir, Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford (Graywolf Press). All six were selected as OLA’s 2014 reads. Lake Oswego Public Library, in the town where Stafford lived for 45 years, kicked off the centennial on January 7 by giving away to local patrons 1,000 copies of one OLA selection, the newly released paper original, Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems (Graywolf Press), edited with an introduction by Kim Stafford.
The commemoration will expand to the East Coast and the Midwest in late January: Kim Stafford and Naomi Shihab Nye will headline two events at Poets House in New York City on January 25 and Kim will headline a Graywolf-sponsored event at a church in downtown Minneapolis on January 27. Tribute readings will be held in late February at AWP’s annual conference in Seattle, as well as offsite, with readings on February 27 followed by a reception at a local cafe. The evening will include readings by Kim and 28 other poets from the newly released anthology, A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford (Woodley Press), edited by Rebecca Lachman.
This spring, Kim Stafford will spend a week in Kansas, making stops at Washburn University in Topeka, bookstores, and libraries. Watermark Books, in Wichita, is planning “something ambitious,” owner Sarah Bagby tells PW, but, pending confirmation with the multiple publishers involved, she was unable to confirm details. Bluebird Books, in Hutchinson, is planning a late winter/early spring event “for the community that involves the family,” but store owner Melanie Green withheld details, as she is still “in conversation with the family.” And this fall, Dominican University in San Rafael, Calif., is hosting a two-day tribute to Stafford that his son will attend.
A number of independent bookstores— most of them on the West Coast— are holding authorless events this winter, with their local poets reading Stafford’s writings. Kim Stafford will be participating in several of these events, including a January 19 event at Powell’s in Portland moderated by Oregon’s current Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen. Annie Bloom’s Books, also in Portland, is serving birthday cake at its January 15 poetry reading; 10 poets are participating in Village Books’ January 17 event in Bellingham, Wash., and nine in Albuquerque’s Bookworks’ January 26 event. Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books’ January 23 event will feature readings by Washington’s current Poet Laureate, Kathleen Flenniken, and four other local poets. Diesel Books in Oakland, Calif., is partnering with literary magazine Poetry Flash to host an afternoon of poetry on January 26; the participating poets have yet to be announced.
Poetry readings honoring Stafford are being held as far away as the Glasgow Buddhist Centre in Scotland on January 19. And Broadway Books in Portland, Ore., isn’t simply hosting a one-day tribute to Stafford on January 23: during the entire year, every in-store event will begin with the reading of a Stafford poem.
“Now is the time for poets everywhere to take up the baton of what William Stafford started; that’s the message Kim wants to convey,” notes Mary Bisbee-Beek, a Portland-based independent book publicist who is setting up events for Kim Stafford, as well as acting as traffic manager between a “small coalition” of individuals that first advocated for 2014 being a year of celebration—including Kim, Erickson, and Petersen— and some of the organizations, publishers, booksellers, and librarians participating in the centennial.
“My goal is not so much to honor William Stafford, but to invite others to do what he was doing: being a seeker by writing,” explains Kim Stafford, who is his father’s literary executor and is headlining more than 25 public events, as well as a number of private events that, to date, have been scheduled through November. “His legacy as a teacher of poetry was to emphasize the availability of the experience of writing to everyone. I want to invite people to be literary citizens, to use William Stafford’s poetry to bear on their own lives.”
The centennial is also being marked by several regional and national independent and academic publishers with the official releases this month and next of three collections, all of which include both previously published and unpublished poems. Besides Ask Me, the fourth collection of Stafford’s poems published by Graywolf since 1983, and A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford (Woodley Press), there is Sound of the Ax: Aphorisms and Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press), edited by Paul Merchant and Vincent Wixon, which will be released in February.
Two previously unpublished works of prose, both of which are included among OLA’s six 2014 reads, are being officially released this month: The Osage Orange Tree: A Story (Trinity University Press), illustrated with original woodblock prints by printmaker Dennis Cunningham; and a children’s picture book, Everyone Out Here Knows: A Big Foot Tale (Arnica Creative Services), illustrated by Angelina Marino-Heidel.
Ooligan Press, a teaching press affiliated with Portland State University, also is contributing to the commemoration by publishing this month a collection of essays and poems written by Oregon middle grade and high school students inspired by Stafford’s works: We Belong in History: Writing with William Stafford.
After Gov. John Kitzhaber selected Everyone Out Here Knows to represent Oregon in the Pavilion of the States exhibit at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., 2,000 copies were rushed to print in October; it is now going into a second, 5,000-copy print run, and there will be a bilingual edition released in June. In response to bookseller demand, Graywolf made Ask Me available in December in time for holiday sales with a 10,000-copy print run. At OLA’s request, the press also released it in e-book format. It is, executive editor Jeffrey Shotts explains, only the second poetry title released by Graywolf in digital formats; the first was Incarnadine by Lewis & Clark professor Mary Szybist, who won the National Book Award in poetry in 2013—exactly 50 years after Stafford received it for Traveling Through the Dark, his first major collection.
“We’re trying to be nimble, and offer the work in as many formats as possible,” Shotts says. “Our hope is that the book will excite readers who already know Stafford’s poetry and welcome those who are reading Stafford for the first time. We thought it was very fitting to publish 100 poems during the centenary. This year also marks Graywolf’s 40th anniversary, so it seems especially fitting to celebrate one of our longtime, bestselling poets on this year’s list.”
Lists of events and activities celebrating the centenary of Stafford’s birth can be found at www.lclark.edu/william_stafford/, www.oregonreads2014.com, and at www.stafford100.org. Events are still being scheduled and updated.