Quills & Queues: William Stafford celebration

Judging by the number of poetry celebrations in his honor, the late poet William Stafford's work and spirit is going strong. Here in Ashland, a reading celebrating Stafford will be held Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Meese Meeting Room No. 309 in Southern Oregon University's Hannon Library. The annual event marking his birthday, hosted by the Friends of the Hannon Library and Friends of William Stafford, is free and open to the public.

Stafford, who died in 1993, is Oregon's most famous poet and considered one of the most important American poets of the late 20th century. Winner of numerous awards and honors, he served as Oregon's poet laureate for 16 years. His first major collection of poetry, "Traveling Through the Dark," was published when he was 48 years old and won a National Book Award.

I hadn't read much William Stafford before I came to live in Oregon, but after attending a Stafford birthday celebration my first January in Ashland, I was hooked. It was one of the warmest and most delightful poetry events I have ever attended. Patricia Wixon, who has been organizing the Ashland event with her husband, Vince, for more than 10 years, says Stafford's appeal has endured in part because of the timelessness of his poetry. "His poems draw something from people at all different ages and stages of life. It's very easy to place yourself in his poems," Wixon said.

Stafford celebrations take place across the U.S. and abroad. According to Wixon, each year there seem to be more events in more places. In 2009, there were nearly 70 events. "Stafford's poetry speaks to the peace-loving spirit in all of us, no matter what is happening in the world, his poems somehow articulate of our deep human connections," Wixon said.

Every January, I tell my friends, wherever they are, to find and attend the nearest Stafford celebration.

The format often consists of several featured readers, followed by an open mic in which audience members are happily encouraged to share their own favorite Stafford poem. In Ashland, the featured readings are always great. This year, Oregon's current poet laureate, Lawson Inada, and local poets Gary Lark, Dave Harvey, M.E. Hope, Amy MacLennan, Charlotte Abernathy and Maria Fernandez will read a Stafford poem and share a poem of their own.

After the readings, visitors who want more can stay for a viewing of "Every War Has Two Losers," a short film by Haydn Reiss, which is based on Stafford's book of the same title. Stafford was a pacifist and conscientious objector in World War II. The film documents his lifelong commitment to daily writing and his understanding of the work of peacemaking.

If you don't have a book of Stafford poems already, it's easy enough to find one. Stafford was prolific in his lifetime, authoring 67 volumes, each one loaded with gorgeous poems. One of my favorite collections is "The Darkness Around Us Is Deep." The poems offer rich reflections on family, nature and the mysteries of our place in the world. It's one of those books I get something new out of every time I read it.

Honestly, you can't go wrong picking up any William Stafford book at random. If you've never read his work, I recommend doing just that. Go to the library, grab the first Stafford book on the shelf, and start reading. Better yet, just show up on the 21st and hear favorite poems read aloud by your neighbors, some of whom knew Stafford personally. I promise a good time. Somehow this annual observance, which sounds like it ought to be somber, is always quite festive. Stafford's work inspires that joyous spirit. His poems can celebrate a small moment, connect each one of us to it and turn a few words into a party.

For more information, contact SOU's Anna Beauchamp at 552-6823 or Kate Cleland-Sipfle at clelandK@sou.edu.

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and freelance writer Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

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