Friday, January 14, 2011
A fellowship of poets
I feel strangely at home in the company of poets and lovers of poetry. I say “strangely” because I met most of these people for the first time yesterday. But poetry involves a unique set of values and a certain way of looking at the world. We agreed, in the words of a Stafford poem that was read several times during the day, that “it is important that awake people be awake…the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—should be clear: the darkness around us is deep” (“A Ritual to Read to Each Other”).
At different times during the day, people told stories about William Stafford. I had my own story to tell. In 1992, a year before his death, Stafford did a poetry reading in Newberg. Only about 25 of us gathered at the Catholic Church in town to hear him. At the end of the reading I mustered up the nerve to approach him and tell him that I, too, was a poet. His response was not only warm and accepting, he asked to see some of my poems and wrote out his address. I sent him a few poems right away, keeping my expectations somewhat low. After all, he was a Poet Laureate and I, an unknown.
But his response came immediately. He said he liked my poems. He asked if Hal and I might like to come to his home and get better acquainted. He drew me a map to his house.
I still have that letter, tucked into one of his poem books. We spent a wonderful morning in his house in Lake Oswego, sitting in the breakfast room, overlooking his garden. He read new poems to us, I read mine to him. We talked about the writing life. I learned that he got up every morning at 4:00, sat awhile in the silence (how Quaker-like), then wrote from what he received. Every morning. And he was a prolific poet. What impresses me today about this memory, added to the other stories I listened to yesterday, is what a gracious person William Stafford was. A poem, as well as a poet.
Recently a movie was made about Stafford and the peace movement, based on his journals and including the testimonies of other contemporary poets. It has a great title, “Every War Has Two Losers.” I bought a copy but haven’t viewed it yet. I did see at the conference another movie about the friendship between Stafford and Robert Bly, “A Literary Friendship.” Excellent. I will watch it again this week. Another testimony to the fellowship of poets.
When I returned home a package awaited me in the mail, a small volume of poems, hot off the press, written by Chilean poet (and friend) Luis Cruz Villalobos. He had previously sent me a digital copy, but this is the real thing. His first published book of poems, Breve mente, a play on words that could simply mean “briefly”—and many of the poems are strings of brief stanzas—or it could mean “brief or little mind”—a typically humble statement (like Saint Paul’s “I am the least of the smallest of all the saints”), or even “snippets from the mind”. I know enough about poetry not to ask, to simply let the ambiguity play in my own mind.
I am touched to see that Luis dedicated the book to me, and to another poet friend of his. This is a first, and I accept with gratitude and with a renewed intention to “be awake” and let the signals I give be clear. It helps to know that, while the darkness around us is deep, there is a gathering place where friendship, poetry and peace are possible. Our mandate is to extend it gently into the darkness.