In Conversation With Helen Frost

In Conversation with Helen Frost

Welcome to a new year. In December, I asked Helen Frost to do an interview for January focusing on the William Stafford centennial. We have emailed one another over the last few weeks about Oregon’s former Poet Laureate as we honor his legacy.

Jone: First of all Helen, I wish that we could be somewhere having tea, surrounded by William Stafford’s books as we discuss his legacy and influence upon us.

Helen: And I agree, talking over tea surrounded by books would be lovely. That was what I loved about our time at the Highlights workshop.

Jone: I’ve been thinking about Stafford since contacting you.  How to start, where to begin?  It’s funny but I actually didn’t know of him until after graduating from Lewis and Clark in 1974.  I think it’s possible I met Dorothy Stafford first because I taught in Lake Oswego as she did.  I know that I took at least one writing workshop from him.  And I remember Stafford talking about following the thread.

Helen: I have always loved what the two Williams–Stafford and Blake–say about the golden thread. Stafford finds the golden thread inside an image or idea and follows it into a poem, somehow carrying his readers along even when the trail is mysterious.

Here’s one of my favorites, of Stafford’s poems: “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border”   http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/237528
I love the way he can turn too-easily-accepted things on their heads, or inside out, and invite us to look at them from a new angle. 

I first met William Stafford through his poetry, of course. I think the first time I heard him read was in the late 60’s at Syracuse University. A few years later, I wrote to him and he replied! That was very exciting to me. When I moved to Oregon in the late 80’s I met him on several occasions, at the home of mutual friends. I was active in the Lane Literary Guild, and one year we invited William and Kim Stafford to lead a workshop and give a reading together. What I especially remember about the workshop is that there were one or two people who brought very rough drafts, which, as one of the organizers, I found mildly embarrassing. How could someone present careless work to William Stafford and expect his careful response to it? But his response to every poem was thoughtful and generous. “What is the gift of this poem?” he would ask. We would find that there always was a gift, and through his gentle guidance, we could find it. 

Then, about a decade later, I received an award from the Poetry Society of America the same year that William Stafford received the prestigious William Carlos Williams award.  My mother attended the awards ceremony with me, and was most impressed when I greeted this honored poet by saying, “Hi, Bill.” I don’t think I said it with the intention of showing off to my mother, but in any case, “Bill Stafford” greeted me (and my mother) with characteristic warmth. There was something about him that cut through convention, and invited friendliness. 

Jone: Stafford does have a way to turn “turn-easily-accepted things on their heads, or inside-out” especially when it came to war.  

He’s such a master of observation of the ordinary: “Ode to Garlic” (http://poetrypill.blogspot.com/2012/03/ode-to-garlic.html) which reminded me of Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Traveling Onion.” ( http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/23310)

One could be amazed at the volume of poems Stafford wrote unless one is aware of his writing routine.  I am inspired by the way he would wake and begin the day writing.  To me that’s ideal but with the growing demands of school, I am learning to spend my lunch writing at school.  

Oh, to have been at that workshop with both Kim and his father. Your response reminds me about how I feel when students have shared their very rough drafts with visiting authors.  And Stafford, just a simple question about the poem being a gift. . It makes all the difference in the world.  What would the impact be on young writers if we asked simple, nudging questions?
How lucky your mother was to see you get your award along with meeting Bill.

In what ways does Bill continue to inspire you? 

Helen: I do think my life and work are influenced by William Stafford’s life and work, though something about the word “inspire” stops me a little short. I’m not quite sure why; maybe that hesitation itself comes to me through him, feels a little pretentious maybe. Let me think out loud here a bit–inspiration is breathing, right? I’m glad I’ve been able to breathe the same air with him, by being alive on the same planet at the same time, and by being in the same room with him, and with poetry, in a more literal way. But I’m not sure about being “inspired by” another person, as if they could tell (or teach) you how to breathe. 

One thing I remember him saying, though I don’t have the source, is that he wouldn’t want to think of his poems changing someone, that that would never be his motivation in writing. He asked how he would feel if someone entered a conversation with him saying, “I think I’ll try to change Bill today.” That makes me smile, and like so much of what he did and said, it relaxes me into my writing and into a certain way of being in the world. Trusting others and myself to be who we are without too much nudging. 

I guess that is a kind of inspiration, isn’t it? 

And yes, “Ode to Garlic” is all about this kind of strong and joyful humility.
Thanks for reminding me of that, and of Naomi’s poem which does sound Stafford-influenced. Lovely to think of these two poems in the same “poetry stew.”

Have you heard about the anthology in honor of the centenary of Stafford’s birth? A Ritual to Read to Each Other: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford
I have a poem in it that I’d be happy to share if you’d like. (Note to readers: Poetry Friday will feature this poem.)

Jone: I’d not considered the use of ‘inspire’ in that manner before, wow!  I think of all the times I have used the word.  Influenced is a more accurate choice.

Stafford’s lessons for me have been to observe the landscape of daily living in closer detail.  I read back through my interview with Kim Stafford last year.  His comments about his father support what you remember him saying about his poems.  

William Stafford always looked for what the the next writing exploration would bring him. His writing is so much about ‘trusting who we are without too much nudging’ as you suggest.

Have you visited the William Stafford Archives (http://www.williamstaffordarchives.org)? Such a fabulous resource.  Kim Stafford has an article, “Let’s Talk Recklessly” in which he explains that his father would encourage the polite talk to cease in exchange for talk that would require gossiping “freely about uncertainties and strange beliefs and lean forward and tumble into the liveliest possible interchange.”  If you could have been at the table with William Stafford during a ‘talk recklessly’ time, what might you have discussed with him?

Yes, I am anxious to get the new anthology, A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford.  Next Sunday, January 17, I am attending a celebration at Powell’s Bookstore on Hawthorne.  Kim Stafford with be there and will the Oregon Poet Laureate, Paulann Peterson.

Helen: I haven’t been to the Stafford archives yet, though I do hope to get there sometime in the next year or two. Just looking at the website is impressive!

Inspired…influenced..”in conversation with”–that is a good choice of words for the subtitle of that collection of poems that have been gathered around the Stafford centennial, don’t you think?

As it happens, I do recall a particular conversation with Stafford that I would categorize as “talking recklessly.” I’ll recount it here without mentioning names, though in the actual conversation we recklessly did talk about an actual person. I was young and not-yet-published, or very minimally published, and a one-on-one conversation with Stafford, in the safety of a friend’s home, brought up an experience that was troubling me: a workshop in which a famous poet had, I felt, used student poems as a vehicle to showcase his own wit and cleverness. He had been relatively easy on me, though I felt embarrassed by some things he had said about one of my poems, and I was having a hard time letting go of that. But what I found more troubling was that this poet had been unduly harsh to several people who seemed to me particularly vulnerable to criticism. Many people would have steered clear of such a conversation, and perhaps good manners should have dictated that we not discuss another poet like that, but Stafford drew me out, asking for details I really did want to offer. Then he said simply, “That’s not teaching.” Our conversation moved on, and I felt somehow eased of a burden. 

As for today, if I could talk with him now, yes, there are things I’d love to ask and share with him. But this is an online interview, which means that though I am talking with you on the surface, I am simultaneously talking with the whole world now and forevermore. I think this has altered our conversations somehow–the seeming intimacy of online exchanges, while necessarily holding back on private matters.. 

Jone: Thanks, Helen. I am not sure you could have stated any better how communication has been forever altered with the advent of social media. There’s a reckless conversation to have with Stafford: social media. I wish we had more time to virtually chat and I wish you could be in Oregon as we celebrate Stafford’s life and legacy. I am looking forward to sharing your poem Friday and seeing it in the book, Ritual to Read to Each Other: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford.

20140114-210220.jpghttp://www.facebook.com/woodleyanthology

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4 thoughts on “In Conversation With Helen Frost

  1. Jone, thank you for sharing this interview with Helen Frost. I love her books, and some of William Stafford’s poems, although I do not know many of them. I am excited to learn about the anthology, which sounds like something to hold onto. Thank you Helen, for your wonderful books, thoughtful stories for ‘influencing’ my students! What a wonderful thing it must have been to have conversations with Stafford!

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