Kim Stafford grew up in a very pro-writing environment. His father, William Stafford, was a poet who would typically publish one or two books a year, and between them, his parents would often write down the things that Kim and his siblings would say. They compiled their quotes into a book, titled Lost Words, and each child received a copy when they went to school.
Outside of his home, Kim was showered with support in high school. He had a teacher who was often reciting her favorite quotes for her students, and she encouraged them to journal regularly as part of their classwork. "This idea," Stafford says, "furthered the idea my parents bestowed on us: Our ideas are important."
That idea followed Kim throughout his adult life as he pursued his creative passion, an effort that resulted in a dozen books, the most recent being Singer Come From Afar.
We asked Kim to explain the theme of each chapter in the book. Here’s what he had to say.
Chapter One: In Spite of War - “One theme I find myself coming to a lot is war and peace, and the perspective that I take when writing about such things is that of a pacifist. This chapter is an accumulation of poems that I felt fit this theme.”
Chapter Two: Pandemic Poems - “I started writing poems about the pandemic once it started. I had to cancel 25 events I had scheduled as Oregon Poet Laureate, and so decided to put poems and writing prompts online.”
Chapter Three: Revising Genesis - “I have a prevailing habit for writing about and for the Earth, and this is a cluster of poems on that theme.”
Chapter Four: The Cup No One Can See - “The title for this section came from a poem called Two Rivers that resulted from a visit I took to a prison in Oregon. This section is about connecting with people from all walks of life.”
Chapter Five: And All My Love - “This section is about family, friendship and kinship.”
We chose some of our favorite poems from each section of Singer Come From Afar and asked Kim to walk us through the story behind the vision of these poems. Here’s what he had to say.
“I was the ninth poet laureate of Oregon. The eighth was a writer called Elizabeth Woody who is of Navajo descent, and she said something during her last reading as laureate. “The more I do poetry, the less it’s about what the poem is and more about who the poem serves.” I was really struck by the idea that a poem serves someone, and that stuck with me as I came to write Dear Mr. President.
I have a friend who was undocumented at the time I wrote this poem but has since become documented. This friend is a very positive and skilled man, the kind of person you would want to have in your country, and with him in mind, I wrote a poem addressed to our President about this friend of mine. When it was done, I had it translated to Spanish and I gave it to the friend that it was about, and when he read it he cried. At the time I thought, ‘Does it get better than that?’”
“This is a non-fiction poem, in a way. My daughter was living in a basement apartment and when lockdown started, we realized we couldn’t see each other. Another piece of background to this poem is I attended a guided meditation a while ago and the instructor challenged us to visualize our greatest dream, something that we would be overjoyed if it came true, and what I saw was my daughter, grown up, walking away from me without looking back. At that moment, I realized my greatest dream was seeing my daughter become independent.
This poem, while it starts off with me wishing I could see her, is ultimately about my joy that she is experiencing independence, which is what I’ve always wanted for her.”
“In graduate school, I studied medieval literature. One genre of Old English poetry is riddles, a genre that tends to be looked down on by scholars, but I was fascinated by them. Riddles are typically about a creature speaking and you’re supposed to guess who it is. So, the idea of a being in the natural world, speaking in human words, describing what it’s like to be another creature - a tree, a raindrop, a bee, the wind - has led me to write a series of persona poems. This poem goes through the life cycle of an aging tree that ends in death - and return to duff - and questions what we can learn from that cycle.
I turned this poem into a film, which can be watched here - Lessons from a Tree”
“I was invited to visit the Oregon Correctional Institution, which is east of Salem, and talk about poetry. I had a friend teaching a poetry class there and she asked me to send some poems ahead of my visit that the inmates could read so that we could discuss them. It was an amazing session. They might have been the most attentive class I ever taught. There was one man who shared he’d been thinking about the same single line in one of the poems for several nights and he just needed to talk more about it. I was so moved by my time with them that I wrote this poem and sent it to them.”
“Aunt Mar was my father’s, brother’s wife who lived in Kansas. She and my uncle had nine kids, and when my uncle ultimately died from alcoholism, she was left with nine young children. All my life she was this quiet hero. She was strong, kind, generous, and I would go back to Kansas just to visit her. I was in the midst of a workshop in New Jersey when I was informed she had died and I just wept. The next day I wrote this poem to remember and honor her.”
We asked Kim if there were any other particular favorites he had that he wanted to talk about. Here’s what he had to say.
“I visited the Columbia River Correctional Institution with a friend, Johnny Stallings, who had visited this prison once a week for eight years to have dialogue with inmates. We were seated in a circle with his usual group, but there was one person he didn’t recognize. Johnny asked him, “I wonder if you can tell us the nature of love that is the foundation of your entire existence.” It was quiet for a moment, and then he basically said what I wrote in the poem. He talked about going to the sun dance and God seeing into his soul. I was so struck by that. The next morning when I sat down to write, I asked myself if I had anything to write that was better than what he’d said, and I didn’t, so I cited him.”
“I think this poem illustrates the way writing happens for me quite often. There was one day in July a couple summers ago, I was so discouraged about everything--country, climate change, anger, strife, division--I had to go pick some blueberries. I was immediately put in a better mood because everyone around me was in a good mood. I could hear lots of different languages. There were kids running around eating the blueberries. There was just a sense of buoyancy.
While I was there, I realized that I’m getting older because I couldn’t bend down as far to pick the berries, and that made me think, “I’m here for the easy pickings.” So, the way writing often happens for me, I got out my notebook and I wrote down “easy pickings” because I liked that thought and I liked that phrase, and when I sat down the next morning to write, and I started describing what I saw, heard, and tasted at the at the blueberry field. Then the poem entered a different dimension, talking about world peace. The poem didn't start with the big idea. It started small, with the blueberries, and grew from there.