In 1999 I was a new member of the Friends of William Stafford board and, by that time, I’d already hosted two very successful January William Stafford Birthday Celebrations at West Linn Library in 1998 and 1999. So I proposed two events for January of 2000: one at the West Linn Library, another at Heritage House in Lake Oswego. They were both SRO. Some people who came to the Lake Oswego event left early because they couldn’t get close enough to glimpse the people reading poems—those hopefuls were actually standing outside in the cold, trying to catch a glimpse through the windows!
Dismayed at the idea of people being turned away, I decided to organize more events, to make room for as many people as were willing to come. Over the last 13 years, that’s turned out to be thousands and thousands. There were 11 events in 2001, 36 in 2004, and 52 in 2007. This year there are 62 Stafford Celebrations. 48 of those are in Oregon! Albany, Ashland, Beaverton, Bend, Burns, Corvallis, Enterprise, Estacada, Eugene, Hermiston, Hillsboro, Hood River, Klamath Falls, Lake Oswego, Lincoln City, Milwaukie, Molalla, Newberg, Newport, Ontario, Oregon City, Portland, Salem, Silverton, Sisters, Sunriver, Tigard, Welches, Waldport, West Linn: this January Oregonians all over Oregon are celebrating the work and vision of William Stafford!
In the last 13 years, 19 states have hosted January William Stafford Celebrations. From Oregon to Ohio. From Kentucky to Kansas. From Alaska to New York. From New Jersey to Texas. In 2008, the Stafford Celebrations went international. In these past five years, Stafford friends have hosted events in Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Scotland and Sweden.
What is it about William Stafford’s work that inspires such an outpouring of respect and admiration?
Each of Bill’s poems is an invitation, an invitation so hospitable and inclusive it seems to turn the schoolish world of reading and writing poetry upside down. Here is a voice that invites us to do our own adventuring in literature. Here is a voice that invites us into “…rooms in a life, apart from others, rich/ with whatever happens….” This is a voice of accessibility, telling us that poems can be as near as the very center of our lives. Poetry isn’t the domain of the select, the elect. Poetry is, as William Stafford assures us, the domain of anyone willing to listen, anyone willing to watch for all that the wide world sends swirling our way.
William Stafford’s work is both a pledge of allegiance and a request for allegiance–allegiance to “…a weather/ of things that happen too faint for headlines,/ but tremendous, like willows touching the river.” William Stafford asks us to give allegiance to what’s deeper than headlines, to pay attention to a deeper world. As we read his poems, we recognize this attention. As we accept his invitation to write our own poems, we begin to recognize the blessing that learning to attend can give.
For all his life, Bill acted on his belief in the non-violent resolution of conflict—in the time he served in the Civilian Public Service camps as a conscientious objector, a “CO,” during WWII; in what he wrote daily; in his bearing witness—moment to moment—as a husband, a father, a teacher, a spokesman.. He bore witness to that belief with every move, with every word, in each of the thousands of poems he wrote. He bore witness, in his very presence, to human equality—as he expressed it, the necessity “to meet each person as a separate, luminous being.”
Paulann Petersen, Oregon Poet Laureate, funded since 2006, by the Oregon Cultural Trust.
For information about the 2012 Stafford Birthday Celebrations, please visit www.williamstafford.org and click on “Events.”