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An Interview with William Stafford

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 something?

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 with.

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 about.

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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