New Books Network

Becca J.R. Lachman

A Ritual to Read Together

Poems in Conversation with William Stafford

Woodley Press 2013

New Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in PoetryNew Books Network October 14, 2014 Eric LeMay

About twenty years ago, I heard William Stafford read his poetry for about twenty minutes. For a young aspiring writer like I was then,...

About twenty years ago, I heard William Stafford read his poetry for about twenty minutes. For a young aspiring writer like I was then, he was mesmerizing, a mix of poetic energy and grandfatherly wisdom, with a high-spirited charm. I think it was the first poetry reading that I attended in which I realized that poetry didn’t have to be solemn and ponderous to be profound.  All of us in the audience laughed a lot. And we were moved. It was only after the reading, after I’d said how enjoyable I found Stafford, that some bitter professor-type said something like, “You know, that’s just his shtick. He’s a much darker poet.” I was troubled, and the remark sent me into Stafford’s work to see if it was true. I was happy to discover the same joy in Stafford’s poetry as I’d experienced in hearing him read, but there was more to it. His was a complex vision, and, to this day, I can recall lines of his that I read over two decades ago.

I’m not alone in this experience of feeling as though Stafford’s presence and poems haunt me. Readers sent letters to Stafford by the thousands, and his fellow poets responded to him in life and in verse, though not always with praise. In honor of what would have been Stafford’s hundredth birthday in 2014, editor Becca J.R. Lachman has gathered together a collection of these poems. A Ritual to Read Together (Woodley Press, 2014) offers us an intimate portrait of Stafford’s legacy, from his abiding sense of place to his promotion of nonviolence to his work as a mentor and teacher. The collection takes its title from one of Stafford’s poems about the importance of listening to one another, of telling our stories. It opens:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

I sat down with Becca to chat about her experience of assembling an anthology under the star of Stafford.