Interview by Derek Sheffield
If We Ever Die: Revisiting a Conversation with William Stafford’s Family
It’s been 15 years since I met with some of William Stafford’s family members, including his wife Dorothy, son Kim, and daughter Barbara. It was a transcendent afternoon for me. William Stafford’s poems had added so much to my life, and I had recently done my critical thesis for my MFA on his work. And here I was sitting at the dining room table I had seen in films. And here was Kim inviting me into Stafford’s study where I sat at his desk and tried on his hat…. Even now, I nearly levitate at the memory. Also, it feels a little spooky and intrusive. I mean, who was I to wear the Wanderer’s hat?!
One of the results of the interview, though, was that it humanized William Stafford for me. Hearing a little about some of the faults and limitations of my hero helped me along my own road. The most poignant moment came when I asked if there were any challenges too great for Stafford to handle. The room went silent. Dorothy asked me to turn off the tape recorder, and then she talked about her husband’s reaction to the suicide of their oldest son, Bret, and she wept. I felt bad, like I shouldn’t have asked the question, especially since I had an inkling of the answer.
The kinds of things Dorothy shared with me then—off the record—are covered beautifully and in more detail in Kim’s two books which have come out in the years since the interview. Early Morning explores his father’s life while 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do grapples with his brother’s death. Given the subjects of these two books, it’s interesting to hear again, in the interview, Kim’s epiphany about his brother and father. I should also say here that I was deeply impressed with Dorothy, and I’m grateful to have known her, if only a little. She died in October 2013, just a few years shy of 100. She had a vitality that was like a river in late afternoon sunlight and seemed as remarkable to me as the man I knew through words.
When we met, the War on Terror had just begun, and the United States had invaded Afghanistan and was making the case for war in Iraq, and these events entered our conversation. Once again, I wonder about Stafford’s reaction to contemporary politics. I think about his far-sighted quiet in contrast to the myopic bombast permeating the recent presidential election. But, also, I feel that such things would never be his primary concern. He was much more focused on the individual life, the ordinary miracles of every day. And now, typing that sentence, I remember a few lines from his poem, “Bess,” in which a librarian keeps the secret of her cancer from those around her:
In the last year of her life
she had to keep her friends from knowing
how happy they were. She listened while they
complained about food or work or the weather.
And the great national events danced
their grotesque, fake importance.
And these lines conjure a couple more from “You Reading This, Be Ready”:
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
I hope you enjoy the interview and that it sends you to William Stafford’s poems and maybe your own and, of course, the gift of what happens when you turn around.
Derek Sheffield: Dorothy, how did you and Bill meet?
Dorothy Stafford: That’s a story. My father was a minister in the Church of the Brethren, one of the three peace churches that supported the other camps. I was home for the weekend from Riverside, where I taught. It was my father’s turn to go to the camp in Santa Barbara to preach, and he asked me if I wanted to go along. I always liked talking to my father, so I said sure.
There we were in Santa Barbara at the camp, and it got dark. There was a full moon—isn’t that a good setting? Bill asked me to go for a walk. We walked a long way that night, across a dry creek bed, the way California streams are in the summer. I quoted something from Willa Cather that I liked: “pale stars in the sky, but I remember them all as flooded with the rich indolence of a full moon.” And Bill asked, “Do you like Willa Cather, too?” Then he told me about his family in Kansas, about how they moved from one little town to another. It was hard for the children, leaving friends and schools and familiar places, but a library was always waiting in the next town, with friends on the shelves to welcome them.
Bill described his family making weekly trips to the library, and I added the memory of my mother quoting a Dickens character at any appropriate moment and growing up with our parents reading aloud from works of Browning, Wordsworth, Longfellow, the Psalms.
Five dates from that conversation, on another moonlit night, Bill said to me, “How are you always going to feel?”
“Just like this, but you don’t even know if I can cook.”
And Bill said, “That doesn’t matter. You don’t know if I can bring anything home to cook.” Well, we gambled. It was a lucky gamble, and it lasted for 49 years.
Derek: What year was that?
Derek: Was he the same person then that he became?
Dorothy: I think so. I think that was one thing about Bill. He was consistent, all through those years, knowing who he was and never swerving from that knowledge.
Dorothy: Maybe inside, but not outside. No. He sent a lot of poems out to every little magazine going and when he got a request he sent something in. He was always active and publishing, and I don’t remember him ever saying anything about being impatient.
Derek: So he felt, maybe, that he was reaching an audience?
Dorothy: I think he just liked to write and wanted to share this writing with others. He was delighted, of course, when a book came together. His University of Kansas master’s thesis, Down in My Heart, came from experiences in camp, and his University of Iowa Ph.D. thesis was poems from the Iowa City Writers’ Workshop.
Kim Stafford: He had three pieces of advice for being a successful poet. The first was delay as long as possible the publication of your first book of poems. The second was send out a lot of poems to magazines. And the third was write better than anyone else.
Derek: Kim, I understand that you have written a memoir of your life with your father. Can you say a little about it?
Kim: It’s a mysterious process to sit down and try to put together all the different things you remember, for all the different reasons you remember those things and not others. But I tried to follow not Daddy’s story and not my story so much as the story of how we knew each other and the context of our family that was so rich a source for honoring stories and words and a life of witness. When we reprinted Down in My Heart, we added a subtitle, Peace Witness in War Time, and I think that subtitle speaks for the book I’ve written.
Derek: What’s your book called?
Kim: Early Morning. There’s one story that my editor wanted me to take out of the book. To protect me from reviewers, she said. The scene is when Daddy and I are talking, and he shakes his head and says, “Baroque prose. First Annie Dillard, now everybody.” I said, “Well, Daddy, that’s kind of what I write.” And he said, “You’re one of the worst.”
I can see why my editor wanted to take this out, but I find that a precious and a very characteristic response to a fellow writer. Not so much to a son, but just to another writer. The subtext is that praise can do more damage than… something other than praise. Also, it exemplifies his love of talking recklessly. He would often start a conversation, “Let’s talk recklessly.” And I think he was marking my distance from him. He was pointing out my independence in kind of an odd way. Of course, he wrote a few Baroque things himself.
Derek: Did you win the battle with your editor?
Kim: Oh yeah. It stayed. No dithering around.
Derek: No dithering around, yeah. Barbara, you’ve done some collaborative projects with your father, pairing your illustrations with his words. Can you say a little about what that was like?
Barbara Stafford: Dad was always trying to get me to come forward with something visual. He never said no to anyone who would ask him for poems, and I think every now and then he felt he could say, “Hey, I have a daughter. Let’s get her work alongside mine.”
I remember there was one project, right before Dad died; someone approached us about doing a show together. So, Dad would send along poems to me and I would show him what I was coming up with. That was really a wonderful process, poems and paintings coming from each other. I will often still use one of Dad’s poems to get me started on a painting.
Derek: I heard a story about a time when you were a little girl and started waking up early to be with your dad when he was writing because you thought he was lonely. Is this how you remember it?
Barbara: I remember, and I think that all of us would probably share this feeling—we had no sense that we were getting in Dad’s way with his writing. But he would get up so early so that he could have his writing time, and I did get this idea that maybe he was lonely. So, for a brief period of time, I would get up to keep him company, and he never said a word to me about it being his writing time. He would just get up earlier.
Derek: What did you do while he was writing? I assume he’d be lying out there on the couch…
Barbara: I’d sit or stand on the register and my nightgown would billow with the heat and I’d just talk to him. But he would get up earlier. I don’t know how long this went on, but I would get up earlier and he would get up even earlier and finally I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get up any earlier.
Derek: What kind of father was he? My perspective as a reader, knowing him only by his work, is that he was like the father in his poems, the one who could hear little animal steps, the one who invited his son to hear the first bird. In other words, he wasn’t controlling, but participatory. Is my vision close to home?
Kim: He was the best as a daddy. I think because he would accompany you. It wasn’t that he was interested in you—this is what I felt—but he was interested in everything. So, you would be accompanied in whichever way your life turned. As you grow up, you get interested in different things. He says in his daily writings, “Some people take a conscientious interest in the hobbies of their children. I would make the best bow in the world.” He was following his own appetites and interests and curiosities. You didn’t feel patronized, or ignored. You felt accompanied.
Barbara: In response to something we’d say, he’d say, “Oh now, Shakespeare said something about that.” There were these presences around our table that made you kind of sit up a little bit and talk more. He would say, “Tell me more,” when you would offer an idea, without judgment, just wanting to follow it out. Mom and Dad both did that.
Another enduring memory for me is coming home after I’d left, coming home to visit. Whatever Mom and Dad would be doing, they’d stop and come and sit at the table and hope the visit would last as long as possible. They would always walk us into the front yard as we left and stand until we were gone. The message was, “You’re welcome here and we want to know all about your life.”
Kim: It was how he taught also. This was the whole idea of interviewing the students, rather than teaching them. To draw everything forth and then notice a little unusual part of what’s been drawn forth and follow that. This is one of the things I really miss about Daddy—his ability to interview an individual or a group, and activate everyone in the group. I think that’s one way he dealt with fame. He refused to be famous, even though he was.
Barbara: He was great at turning things around and inside out.
Dorothy: I always thought of it as the way my mother did when she did the washing. She’d take the socks and turn them wrong side out. You know, things I had taken for granted for years, he would just upset and make me take a new look.
Barbara: And the humor too. Sometimes he’d say, “Oh you’re gonna be so mad.” He would throw out a word and say, “Now you know what that means, don’t you?” Well, nobody knew what that word meant.
Dorothy: When we were first married—I think it was the first morning—he said, “Well, Dorothy how is your Weltanschauung?” And I said, “What does that mean?” “What, don’t you know what Weltanschauung is?” It was always like that. Do you know what Weltanschauung is?
Derek: Sounds German.
Dorothy: Worldview. “How is your worldview?”
Barbara: But, I will say this: there were some things that were so clear about right and wrong. He wouldn’t meddle with the little things, but he would come down so hard, very clearly, with the big things. It got us to monitor ourselves the conscience of our lives because we knew we had to do it. There’s nobody telling us. That’s my experience.
Derek: Okay, let’s talk recklessly. If you had to pick one animal to identify with William Stafford, what would it be, and why?
Kim: Well, I think it depended on the day. Sometimes, he was definitely the wolf, in charge, alpha. And other times, he would be the quail or the dove or the antelope. There is that poem about the antelope that ends, “There will be that form in the grass.”
Dorothy: Or the monkey, reaching out with all its fingers, to get the nuance of the conversation, or the action.
Kim: I would say he’s not a herd animal, but the individual. The fox might be in there.
Barbara: Definitely an animal with a good nose.
Dorothy: Maybe a dog. At Christmas, he’d always smell the present before he opened it.
Kim: He said one time that when he starts writing a poem, he doesn’t always know what it’s going to be about but he knows what it’s going to smell like. “Love the earth like a mole, fur near.”
Barbara: When we’d be out looking for arrowheads—I know I’m not supposed to say that we did that—but when we did, Dad would say, “Let’s just think like a deer, or let’s think like a rabbit.” Often, it brought forth a beautiful point.
Dorothy: You know, when you get married, you have no idea what kind of person you’re marrying, really, or what kind of father he would make. Bill never went around cooing at babies, ever. But then when we had babies, he was wonderful, and so at home and so loving. It was a very nice surprise
Derek: And as I was listening to Kim and Barbara speak of him as a father, I was thinking of the many times that his children have entered his poems, and several times, verbatim. He was interested in the way they used language. In fact, Dorothy, you mentioned a manuscript comprised of things the children said.
Dorothy: Yes, Lost Words. He wrote every morning anyway, and he’d jot down what the children said. He gave the collection to me for Christmas. Then I kept track too.
Derek: Now, that brings me to a question that I don’t have written down, but one I’ve wondered about. You mentioned he would write every day and he would write down things the kids said. Then add all the correspondence he did for his writing and all the work he did for his classes—did he ever leave the desk?
Dorothy: Oh yes. After writing in the mornings, he would teach and then afterwards would be tired and take a nap, and then the minute the mail came, he’d go right to his office and answer it every day. That’s how he kept going, which was wonderful. Then in the afternoon, often we’d go to the yard, to the vegetables and the flowers.
Now, there was one wonderful thing to me, about Bill—he didn’t ever view himself as a special person or a special poet. Poetry was down-to-earth and he was down-to-earth. I asked him once if he hadn’t been a writer and a teacher, what he would have been. He said, “I’d have a bicycle shop.” He loved to do that kind of thing, fix things, and make them better. When we moved here, this was just a square of grass, and he planted all the trees. Every time I’d get an idea about the yard, he would make it happen. It was great.
Derek: He has that wonderful anthem to handy folks. I think it’s called “Fixers,” where the dog barks when the engine starts. That was my feeling, that he managed to spend a lot of time out in the physical world, but at the same time, here is this guy who—well, let me share a story with you: I have a friend who sent him a book; it was a little self-published kind of venture. This was in the early 1980s and my friend sent Stafford and several other luminaries his book. Stafford was the only one who wrote back. He sent a little note that said, “Thank you for the book. I like it, and I’m still grocking on it.”
Barbara: What’s that from?
Dorothy: Oh, it’s a wonderful word.
Derek: After my friend told me this story, I began referring to Stafford as the King of Grock and Roll.
Dorothy: When I met Bill, I was so impressed because he talked so well, so magically, to me. And after that everyone else sounded prosaic. I think I’d been looking for that all my life. He just made everything . . . different.
Kim: Do you think we seemed prosaic to him?
Dorothy: Probably so. No, I don’t. He thought we were all okay, I think. I wish he were sitting here. I get restive sometimes when people make a saint of Bill, because he wasn’t. I loved him dearly and they take him away from my life when they get too precious about him. Can you understand that?
Derek: Well, one thing I remember hearing Barbara say back at the National Council of Teachers of English conference in 1997 was that he loved chopping down the trees as much as planting them.
Dorothy: I had a problem with that. He retired two years before I did and I’d come home and he’d be up in a tree. He would call it pruning, but it was scary…. He’d love to be up in trees, doing stuff like that. He was up trees ‘til the day he died.
Derek: Did he do some of that as a commanding officer?
Dorothy: He fought forest fires and worked on trails.
Kim: Physical labor. There was no shortage of that.
Dorothy: He used to say, from Falstaff, I guess, “They hate us youth.” He was so full of things we keep saying, wonderful Bill sayings that he repeated many times.
Kim: And they were always funny. If you were clamoring for a drink of water, you would find out years later he was quoting Sir Phillip Sidney with, “Thy need is greater than mine.” How do you take that? I guess he was saying go ahead and be first, even though you don’t deserve to be first.
Dorothy: We had company once and we were all sitting out on the deck and—I don’t know how this came up—but Bill said, “Sometimes I don’t really like my friends.” And everybody was thinking, “Are you talking about me?” That’s what you call reckless talk.
Kim: Where did you go from there?
Dorothy: I don’t remember that. I just remember the startling moment. Everybody felt fine. They knew how he was, but people that didn’t know Bill were sometimes offended. What he would say was true, but he didn’t always couch it in tact.
Derek: Do you think he was verbalizing his own self-awareness, a passing realization that “sometimes I don’t like my friends?”
Kim: Sometimes, you realize, you’re in a conversation where everyone knows the next thing you’re supposed to say. But he wouldn’t say it. He’d say something else. I remember one time he was giving a reading at the University of Oregon. One of my professors didn’t go to the reading, saw him later, and said, “Bill, I’m sorry I didn’t see your reading.” Daddy is supposed to say, “Well, that’s okay.” But instead he said, “Well, you can get away with that for a while, but eventually you’ll miss your chance.”
Derek: Did he have a smile on his face?
Kim: Not really. If you’re his friend, or his child, it’s just, well, Daddy told the truth that time. But if you don’t know him, I imagine that would be devastating.
Dorothy: I would be offended, yeah.
Kim: Of course, he was right.
Dorothy: So is God, but he is not always understood.
Derek: What do you think provided the greatest challenge for William Stafford? Did you ever think there was anything that Caesar couldn’t handle?
Kim: Well, I don’t know where I got this, but I feel like he personally believed he was supposed to be able to stop World War II. He was able to see so clearly how countries go wrong. People are cruel to each other. He had such a clear sense about that. I think he held himself to a very high standard for writing, teaching, or witnessing in some way that would rectify the world.
Dorothy: And he said about World War II that it was a hard one to object to. He said, “Well, once you’re in it, what can you do?” But the steps that led up to it, the increments, little by little, that made a Hitler…. In other words, we ought to start way back with whatever happened, find out the causes and situations.
I remember him talking about an ocean liner coming to the dock, and it’s headlong to get there. It’s going at such a speed that you can’t do anything about it, but you should have given it warnings, way back there. Made the chart of the course different.
Kim: On Pearl Harbor day—and I think this probably did happen—if his friends said to him, “Well, what would you do?” That’s that moment on the ocean liner when you take the wheel ten feet from the dock and going 30 knots. But the pacifist is the one who’s trained to see beyond, and before.
Derek: The one who stops and pulls the deer off the road because he’s thinking about future travelers.
Kim: In terms of his inability, I think he carried a burden that he couldn’t take care of his brother. His younger brother Bob who had a hard life, some depression.
Derek: The bomber pilot.
Kim: He was a bomber pilot in the war. In some ways, he was the brother less capable of prevailing in the world. When his brother died of alcoholism that was really hard on Daddy. And when my brother [Bret] died, it was I think another iteration of that inexplicable event in the world that he blamed himself for not averting. And he responded by withdrawing from us.
Dorothy: It was very hard for me. Our sorrow wasn’t shared.
Kim: He has that poem, right at the end: “It’s heavy to drag, this big sack of what / you should have done.” I think, like a lot of people, he carried a sense of, you could say, miracles he hadn’t performed, but things he held himself to account for, all the same. Big things.
Barbara: Well, I think, how can you have it both ways? If he was a father who wouldn’t guide us, “This is what you do,” then when life takes turns, you can’t blame yourself for not being there. I’m not expressing this very well…
Dorothy: When Bret died, Bill was in Iowa, and you [Kim] called him, and he came home the next morning. I started to talk about it, and he said, “In the night, I worked it out.” So, I didn’t talk about it after that. I couldn’t quite understand it. I could see, at that point, why parents, when they have a tragedy like that, separate because it’s so lonely for one person, or two people who can’t share. But he was a loving person.
Barbara: Well, Dad was partly a loner.
Dorothy: He said that the war set him apart.
Kim: What do you think that meant, Mother, “I worked it out?” What did he mean by that?
Dorothy: I just assumed he’d thought about Bret’s life and figured that he couldn’t have made it not happen, his death, that he’d found some kind of peace. I don’t know.
Kim: But why does that mean he couldn’t talk about it?
Dorothy: I don’t know… The hardest time of our lives.
Kim: I would think he hadn’t worked it out. I think it continued as a self-accusation.
Derek: He was writing about it up until his death.
Dorothy: Beautiful poems. Well, it was so unheard of. We’d always thought our little flock would stay together.
Derek: There is a lot of assurance in his poems: “There will be that form in the grass.” This is one of the things that appeals to me in his work because I need such reminders. Was he reminding himself? Did he need that?
Dorothy: I think he talked about his own family so much because that was the place where he didn’t have these tremendous problems, and you were surrounded by the people you loved, and were encouraged. He was a Kansas boy, and then he was far from his original home, and I think he just went back to that in his poems, over and over.
Dorothy: I never thought about that, Kim, but I think that’s right. And he would never talk about death. That was a lonely thing too because we were getting older, and he never mentioned what would happen. In our business file he had a category called “if we ever die” for the wills and things. In the big things of life, Bill was so wonderful, when we were happy. But anything that was on the dark side… I don’t know what it was.
Kim: He held himself very much to account in his daily writings. Always accusing himself, and he overstated it. He overstated a quality that was real.
Dorothy: When Bill died, three people called me up from different parts of the country and said, “Did Bill believe in God?” And I said, “I don’t know.” But I said he was certainly a spiritual person and I think believed in what other people call God. It was the spirit made a difference in living and it would go on—I had that feeling. It’s very strange to live with somebody 50 years and not know if he believes in God. Kim had an answer. He came out one morning from his nap and said, “You know what? God is dead.” He was about three.
Kim: Well, there was the report of the neighbor kid who went home and told her mom, “The Stafford kids don’t have to watch T.V. They get to go camping and stuff like that.”
Dorothy: And then the woman across the street, the neighbor whose daughter, Debbie, was Barbara’s age. Her mother was always sewing pretty dresses for her when she was little and Barb was always getting hand-me-downs. Debbie said to her mother, “Why can’t we have an attic like the Staffords?”
Barbara: Oh, and then we had wonderful rituals. We had a sacrifice meal once a week where we would have cornbread and give what part of our allowance we felt ready to contribute.
Kim: We would pool it in the center of the table.
Dorothy: Whenever things were going right, we’d say, “This is Brothers and Sisters Day.” Then we’d go out to dinner and everybody got a little present. What else did we have?
Kim: We made pizza every Sunday. And there was the anchovy part of the family, and the non-anchovy part of the family.
Barbara: Oh, and bread.
Dorothy: Yeah, we’d make bread. We took turns. He liked his best, although he didn’t say so, and I liked mine best, although I didn’t say so.
Derek: Did he ever write poetry at any other time than the morning?
Dorothy: Now and then.
Kim: I remember the scene in Washington D.C. when Portland mayor Bud Clark had commissioned him to write a poem about the great blue heron, our city’s bird.
Derek: “Spirit of Place.”
Kim: Yes. And I remember Daddy lying on the bed in the motel jotting this poem so he could hand it off to me to fly it back to Portland.
Dorothy: I remember once someone called and asked Bill, “Do you have any poems about tomatoes?” And he said, “Well, I think I could find one.” And so he wrote a poem about tomatoes. They had a magazine that was called Tomatoes.
Kim: Actually he got an old poem and put some tomatoes in it.
Derek: Well, the secret’s out. The real Stafford process.
Based on what I’ve read, it seems that he did not workshop his poems in a group or through correspondence, or often even share them with the family. Is that right?
Dorothy: Sometimes he shared them with us, but not usually. Mostly we would see the poems when they were published.
Kim: In the correspondence we have an example where he submitted a poem to Poetry Northwest and Carolyn Kizer was editing and she wrote a long list of suggestions for changes he might make—none of which he made.
Did he workshop his poems? He came home one time from the East and said, “I learned a strange custom. There are some poets who have a committee and they submit their poems to a committee and eventually the committee puts together a book for them. Then they send the book out, and the committee writes reviews about what a wonderful book this is.” He said, “I don’t understand why an artist, who has the freedom to do what they want to do, exactly the way they want to do it, would ever squander that freedom for a committee. I just don’t understand it.”
Derek: It’s my impression, too, that he traveled frequently. Given the number of poems he wrote in his life, I must surmise that he wrote many of these on the road.
Dorothy: He often wrote a poem for the place where he stayed.
Kim: I did a workshop this year at Quartz Mountain out in Oklahoma. Before I went, I stopped by the Stafford Archive and archive director Paul Merchant asked, “Well, do you want to take all the poems your father wrote when he was at Quartz Mountain in 1978?” There they were, and some of them were really good.
Derek: Somewhere he said, “To me, poems are expendable, but the process is not expendable, it is lifelong.” He also said, “I would trade everything I’ve written to write the next poem.” In this way, he takes poetry out of the reach of capitalism, of productivity, which is a beautiful place to be.
Kim: If you interrupted him in his writing time, it was no problem. There was this inexhaustible source.
Dorothy: Never once did he close his study door to the kids. But he did wistfully talk about being at Yaddo where they didn’t even have vacuum cleaners going during the writing hours.
Derek: Robert Bly said that he thinks that Stafford’s secret, abiding topic is aggression. I would also like to add relaxation. The way he focused on process over product in his writing, the way he kept his door open to the kids, and even the way he physically wrote, lying down on the couch—these approaches allowed him to relax into his life the way he would into a poem. So, in that trance-like state, the true self and the true language would emerge. And through his poems and his prose, he invited his listeners to do the same. What do you think about that?
Dorothy: I think that’s right. In fact, he was kind of a missionary with this message. It was consistent through all his readings and talking about life.
Kim: I have a chapter in my book called “It Was All Easy,” which is a line from his last poem. I ask myself, “Well, it wasn’t all easy, was it?” The relation between aggression and that kind of Zen stepping back…. If you’re like Daddy and you recognize the true dangerous aggressive habits of the world, and all your life you practice living in a non-confrontational way with those dangers, then you take a deep breath, write a poem, love your family, and you teach your students in the presence of those dangers. You conduct yourself in a very calm way. You have to.
Derek: You mentioned Zen. What do you think of the notion of William Stafford as a modern day mystic? When I read Rumi or Thoreau, I hear flashes of Stafford in the many ways they all say, “What can anyone give you greater than now?”
Kim: Well, I’m thinking about one of the poems, “Malheur before Dawn,” and in the poem he’s listening to the frogs: “I didn’t know a ditch could hold so much joy.” That’s a very domestic kind of Zen. It’s nothing precious or Oriental. It’s more Kansas, the bounty of the world.
Barbara: It defies a kind of label. Yes, without ever defining it, Dad was a mystic, but there’s nothing about him that would make you want to define it.
Dorothy: I can’t remember the name of the group, but definitely a mystic group invited him to come, and he said no. I think he kept it inside.
Kim: Well, in a way, it goes back to God. Did he believe in God? It’s sort of like when the reporter asked Carl Jung, “Dr. Jung, do you believe in God?” And Jung said, “Believe? I know.”
Dorothy: I remember a dinner party where he made everybody so mad, including me. We were talking about religion and Bill said, “Well, I’m saved. How about the rest of you?”
Derek: If he were here, what would he be saying at the dinner table in this time of the war on terrorism, in this time of generalized aggression? I understand that President Bush has something like an 80 percent approval rating for his militaristic response to September 11. Would Stafford’s stance be as unpopular today as it was when he dared to be a C.O. during WWII?
Dorothy: I’ve often wondered what he’d say.
Kim: I think in some ways his best or most direct utterance in response to those conditions appeared following the Gulf War. He had a series of questions: What does it mean to celebrate victory when we’ve conducted a war that has demonstrated the effectiveness of terrible means to our adversaries? What do you think they’ve learned from this? How will they act on what they’ve learned from this? What will be our next escalation in order to continue to prevail based on our use of force?
He would ask questions, very trenchantly Socratic questions. But he would also be mystified. I think he’d be the first to say that a pacifist is not someone who has the answers but someone who will not augment the terror with one’s own life. But as far as solving the terror, that’s the work of many.
Dorothy: He’d know that many present answers are wrong.
Barbara: And he’d say about Bush, “We didn’t elect him that much.”
Kim: He would go farther though. He would sympathize with Bush’s plight: “Eighty percent approval rating? That’s pretty coercive. He can’t easily stop doing what he’s doing. How could we help him think of another way that wouldn’t lose his support?” It’s odd to use the word “strategic,” but he would think strategically on behalf of someone in the predicament of waging war. Do you think?
I just remember in the Vietnam War one of the things he said was, “Our leaders need to know that it’s okay with us if they become less hawkish.”
Dorothy: There was a wonderful photograph. It was during the Vietnam War and Bill was by a podium downtown reading, and in the foreground is a policeman, heavy, big, with his arms folded. You know, just looking on, and here’s Bill way off, kind of little in the picture, and it’s wonderful. Not might, but right.
Derek: This interview will appear on the shelves close to the time of the 10th anniversary of his death on August 28, 1993. How does it feel nearly ten years out?
Kim: I still feel like he’s in the next room.
Dorothy: I do too, except when I go to bed and he isn’t there. He would often say, “Do you hurt anywhere, Dorothy?” I’d say, “No.” And he’d say, “Well then let’s celebrate.”
Barbara: Well, there’s so much he said with his silence. I look back over these years… someone has lived so well and given in a way that—at least as a daughter or someone who knew him fairly well and had many discussions—I find myself filling in what he might be saying, what he did say going over all those conversations. Often it was what he didn’t say.
Derek: Somewhere he wrote, “The things you do not have to say make you rich.”
Kim: And he said—I don’t remember the poem—but the Eskimos indicate time to depart by saying, “I feel rich enough.”
Dorothy: Rich is a good word to go with Bill and our life with him.
The preceding interview took place at the Stafford home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, on April 30, 2002. After reading the interview via email, Kit Stafford had some thoughts to share:
Kit Stafford: There is so much we have in common—looking back on our family culture. Things we count on in our individual lives now. The consistencies that Mother, Barb, and Kim talked about were in a pool back home. One we can draw on anytime. When we fanned out in our grown up lives we each experienced new relationships with Daddy.
In 1984 I crossed the Cascade Mountains to visit, then stayed. The folks would come over to their place at Indian Ford. I had time to walk and talk, to cover new terrain with each of them. Maybe because I was so far from the fold in Portland—out of the loop—like I am now, not being with the family for the interview—there was a tendency and an almost urgency to share close thoughts. It was out of these times that I began to coax Daddy to tell me what he really thought about things and how he felt. I asked for advice (we’d been trained not to need it), his opinions (I wanted details). We talked about Bret. I heard how it was for him. And from my mother, how it was for her. It was liberating and safe—far from the patterns they each were known by.
On the morning of the day he died the folks gave me a call—both on the line—catching up on the news and “something important.” I told a friend just after the call, “I just don’t know what it is.” At the close Daddy said, “I love you my friend, give the dogs a pat on the head and take care of the place, adios.” “Adios.”
I’m thinking just now of how Daddy made my childhood meanderings into a kind of poem. I think I was five or six years old when he’d take me with him to Tillamook on the Oregon coast to teach a night class. To keep him awake on the long drive I’d talk about how good life was going to be when I grew up:
The Way We’d Live
We’d have a old car, the kind that gets
flat tires, but inside would be wolfskin
on the seats and warm fur on the steering
wheel, and wolf fur on all the buttons. And
we’d live in a ranch house made out of
logs with a loft where you sleep, and you’d
walk a little ways and there’d be the barn
with the horses. We’d drive to town, and
we’d have flat tires, and be sort of old.
I live on an old farm now with my husband Clay (a teacher of horses) and our three dogs. Daddy would have loved this place where that poem is coming true—ten acres, an old barn, places in the grass where the deer bed down, an arrowhead once in a while.
Revisiting the interview in June 2016, Kim Stafford offered these final thoughts:
Kim: Now that William Stafford has been gone close to a quarter century—and is going strong in print—it’s good to read this conversation bristling with details about the quirky, mysterious character of my father, as writer, friend, and witness. I had forgotten how well-informed and insightful Derek’s questions were in “scaring up” (as my father would say, using a childhood hunting metaphor) stories, discoveries, enigmas about the old man.
Reading the interview again, I especially appreciate the kind of prismatic view the interview offers, with wife Dorothy, son Kim, daughter Barb—and especially the postscript by daughter Kit. Everyone saw someone a little different in this writer, peace-witness, and kind but unpredictable presence among us, who said of his own legacy, “Let me be a plain, unmarked envelope passing through the world.”
He’s gone, but did leave word, in the 22,000 poems we have in the William Stafford Archives, and in the myriad stories like those so richly gathered here.
Special thanks to Melinda Crouchley for her transcription assistance. A version of this interview originally appeared in Page to Page: Retrospectives of Writers from The Seattle Review (University of Washington Press, 2006) and is reprinted by permission of the author.
Header photo of Mt. Hood in Oregon by Josemaria Toscano, courtesy Shutterstock.