Advice to poets: get out of the ivory tower

Kim Stafford wants nothing to do with an ivory tower. He believes a successful poet must be fully immersed in the everyday world.

“It drives me crazy when I go to poetry readings and a writer holds up a poem to be viewed as an item of wonder,” Stafford said from his home in Portland, Oregon. “A beautiful, shiny object. I think poems should be transactional — emotionally transactional — one soul speaking to another.”

He tells his students at Lewis and Clark College they must write “citizen poems, not artifacts of art.”

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In addition to poetry, Stafford is photographer, filmmaker and singer-songwriter — all variations of storytelling. Years ago, he said, he was struck by a comment from his teenage son Guthrie about why this urge to communicate is so important. “We didn’t become humans when we invented tools,” his son said. “We became human when we looked at the person sitting across the fire and began to tell stories.”

Stafford describes poetry like a time machine, “going back to that primal connection with our tribe.”

Stafford is the son of esteemed poet William Stafford, who served as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1970 and wrote more than 60 books over the course of his career. Like his father, the first thing Kim Stafford does every morning is write.

“It’s a way to settle your accounts,” he said. “If you’re angry, if you regret something, put it down on a page. Sometimes it’s a poem. Sometimes it’s a consideration. But it’s a way to start your day on your own terms before you’re assaulted by email, errands or your to-do list.”

The second part of Stafford’s morning ritual is to catch up on the news. An ardent pacifist, Stafford says he is increasingly disturbed by what he reads. Poetry, he says, helps him make sense of a world that increasingly seems out of balance.

“In so many ways, I feel helpless. So many things have been destroyed. So poetry helps me talk back to that darkness.”

Stafford said he wrote “Love Money” after reading a story about the multi-billion dollar practice of immigrants sending money back to families. He found the story touching and strangely consoling since it’s typically the problems of immigration that make headlines.

“So much of the news is about strife and greed and competition. And this was news that was good news about humans.”

Listen to Stafford read his poem here, or read the text below.

Love Money

I heard it on the news: most charity
is sent by poor people to poorer people—
five, six, eight hundred billion across borders
each year: a father sweeping in London
for his family in Bangalore, a mother changing
sheets in Dubai for her children in Kathmandu,
a brother weeding lettuce in the San Joaquin
to fund the younger brother’s dream in Michoacán.

For without the younger brother’s dream
this would be too hard a life. Without
the children there, the bent back here would
hurt with no remedy. Without the broom
at Trafalgar Square restoring clean stone,
there would be no way to love at this
distance, no long-flying bird to send
a song for the little ones growing taller

with only a smudged photo
of their patron ghost with that
crooked smile.

Kim Stafford directs the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, and is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including “Having Everything Right” and “100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared.” His poetry chapbook “How to Sleep Cold” is forthcoming in fall 2016 from Limberlost Press. He has taught writing in in Scotland, Italy, and Bhutan.