by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Kim Stafford contributed poems “Our Boy’s Bread” and “Primitive Intelligence” to Whole Terrain’s Breaking Bread volume. Recently named Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Stafford’s poetry flows melodically, forming beauty through the sound of the words as well as the pictures painted in the imagination of the reader. Western landscapes and ecology appear frequently in Stafford’s writing, alongside themes of family, community, and personal growth.
In “Our Boy’s Bread,” Stafford sketches the story and poignancy of a boy coming of age as he plants, raises, harvests, and enjoys a small wheat crop outside the kitchen window. What could simply be a pastoral image of breaking bread after the personal work of raising wheat deepens in meaning through the backdrop of war, the rumbles of governmental uncertainty, and the poet’s knowledge that his son will soon be leaving home. Stafford artfully draws together an intimate and familial story with national and international events so the breaking of bread takes on multiple layers of meaning.
“Primitive Intelligence” evokes the memory of fresh-baked bread: the smell, the sounds, the sights associated with it from his childhood. He reminds readers “we are animals first”: connected to our senses in deep and powerful ways, “so the recipe for happiness begins / with memory of songs and flavors / that fed the young you.” Breaking bread makes us human — human animals connected to our families, and our food, and our rituals of hearth and home.
We asked Stafford to share with us about his work in connection to the environment, the writing process, and what he is working on now.
Whole Terrain: Tell us a little bit about your work as it pertains to Whole Terrain’s tagline, “reflective environmental practice.”
Kim Stafford: I consider myself an Earth citizen. I consider “We the people…” to include the people with wings and paws, flippers and fins. I consider the effort “to form a more perfect union” an ever-expanding agenda, ever more inclusive and far-seeing. In practice, for me, this means that in my daily writing time and in my teaching and witness in the world, I seek to compose, share, and live by an Earth context surrounding and beckoning beyond my individual identity, and my role as an Oregonian, an American, and a human being.
WT: What drew you to the theme of “breaking bread”?
KS: All my life I’ve experienced sitting down to eat with others as the great antidote to presumed differences, polarities, insider-outsider dynamics, and other forms of myopic exclusion. Isn’t this the oldest and most sturdy of human customs — to gather bounty and then to share with one another?
Some years ago, our son said to me, “Dad, we didn’t become human when we invented tools — because when you use a tool, you just look at the tool! We became human when we looked across the fire into each other’s eyes, and told stories.”
In my daily life, when we break bread together we set aside the troubles of the world, our frenzy of individual obligations, and everything else that might put up a screen blocking our visceral sense of interdependence and affection.
WT: What inspired the particular poems you submitted, “Our Boy’s Bread” and “Primitive Intelligence”?
KS: “Our Boy’s Bread” was one of those poems the days wrote first, and then I took dictation on the sequence of images and sensations I watched pass before me. Our son simply announced one morning in spring, “We’re planting wheat.” He had seen the jar of wheat berries in the pantry, and had this vision of the action-parade that would carry us from seed to bread. Who was I to question that?
So we went through the ritual as if we were Mesopotamia all over again, discovering the quest of spirit in body that is made actual by tilling the earth, making a groove, setting seed, covering seed, watering seed, guarding the rising grain with a scarecrow made of crumpled tarpaper and a few stray feathers, then cutting, threshing between our palms, winnowing, grinding, mixing, raising, baking. That is a long journey, with episodes of labor (digging clay soil in early spring), exhilaration (first green shoots), triumph (seed heads form), grief (rust appears), invention (winnowing), labor (grinding flour), finesse (yeast and water into life), patience (baking time), and fellowship (the gathering of friends to consume one summer’s loaf).
As for “Primitive Intelligence,” that was more my memoir in a few lines. Part of being an Earth citizen, for me, requires the constant recognition that I am animal, that my senses are the elixir of thought, that my role as a human being resides in an animal body, and that wisdom requires escape from intellection uninformed by physical intelligence.
WT: When you think of the twin directions of our breaking bread theme — reconciliation or interdependence around a meal, and the broken food system — in what ways does your work address one or both of these themes?
KS: One way to reconsider our broken food system is to think in terms of containers. At one end of the spectrum, you carry a basket to your own garden to gather food. At the other end, there is a labyrinthine system of planes, ships, trucks, warehouses, plastic wrapping, stores, and the whole money economy surrounding and controlling the supply chain. Many of us live with some combination of those two containers.
But for an artist, there is a third way to think of conveying nourishment from the Earth to the citizen, by using the container of a story, a poem, or a song as a means of nourishing fellow Earth citizens — with new paradigms, frames of reference, landmarks for guiding new ways to practice daily life and seventh-generation thinking.
A day in my life contains myriad demands coming at me from all directions — inbox, voicemail, a dozen messages a day saying in essence, “I thought of something you can do for me.” Headlines in the news assault me, and my own to-do list is my taskmaster. But as one of my students reminded me, if you have a writing practice — or some other practice such as meditation, or conversation with friends while breaking bread, walking, working together — then you also have news stories coming to you from within. The headline from without might be: “Fifty Die in Syria,” while the headline from within might be: “Our Boy’s Bread.” Without the inner news, the inner nourishment, there is too much un-remedied attrition from the world.
WT: I’d like to also hear more about your work at Lewis & Clark College. You direct the Northwest Writing Institute. In what ways does your teaching and other work at Lewis & Clark relate to the environment and sustainability, and is there collaboration between disciplines such as ecopsychology, the environmental studies department, and the writing institute?
KS: My first prose book was called Having Everything Right: Essays of Place, and my teaching of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction is informed by my visceral apprehension that a sense of place is foundational to writing of all kinds. In fiction, setting is a character; in memoir, origin of identity is close kin to places encountered; in poetry, the voice speaks from an Earth context, a circumference of sensation without which the words and lines and ideas feel orphaned to me.
When I start a class, without fail I like to go around the circle and ask each writer to tell us, “Who you are, where you are from, and what you hope for in this class. What do you seek? What have you been wondering? What have you been carrying?” That second element, in my experience, will be talking to the third element throughout the class: Where I’m from becomes the lens for how I see.
We created the Northwest Writing Institute in 1986, and as you mentioned, the college has an interest in ecopsychology, a program in environmental studies, and a commitment to sustainability. For a time I taught a class for students in ecopsychology called “Field Notes,” where we explored how the written word can report on and deepen our relations with the Earth, and I’ve visited environmental studies classes and events sponsored by the school’s sustainability council.
In such settings, I see the act of writing as an essential way to make Earth-commitments grow like a vine from one’s own practice out into the world. As the writer Robert McFarlane has pointed out, a place that has not been evocatively described becomes easier to destroy. Nameless, forgotten places are resources for extraction; named, remembered places are resources for protection, and affection. So the writer has crucial work to do.
WT: What writing project or environmental practice are you working on now?
KS: My next book of poetry, Wild Honey, Tough Salt (Red Hen Press, 2019) includes a section of poems for the Earth — blessings, rants, manifestos, and songs seeking connections that sustain.
In the past year I’ve produced a series of self-published chapbooks of poetry, starting with one that came into being shortly after the election of 2016: The Flavor of Unity: Post-Election Poems. And later in this series, I made a little book called Earth Verse, which begins with a consideration of the nature writings of Lao Tzu, of old Anonymous in the earliest English poetry, and my own search for healing Earth words to talk back to the often toxic language of technology and bureaucracy — words like honey, tree, and river over deadline, quiz, and strategic plan.
I’ve also been producing a series of Earth-emphasis films as a form of blessing and inquiry. Several in the series are:
The Water of Light
A celebration of water moving through light.
A poem for my students about the lucky humiliations of the creative life.
After an artist told me, “Every stick is a fallen soul.”
A poem from The Flavor of Unity made into a film.
I am at work on a book for writers called Writing for Happiness: Seeker, Artist, Witness, which will be an exploration of how one can seek health and connection, creative satisfaction and engaged testimony by writing as an Earth citizen.
What sustains all this is my custom of writing each day before dawn, to see what I might find, grow, and send forth, poems like this from earlier this year:
Dew & Honey
Sip by sip in thimble cup
the meadow bees will drink it up
then ferry home to bounty’s hive
by flowers’ flavor hum and thrive
to show us how through word and song,
by gesture small and patience long,
in spite of our old foolish ways
we may fashion better days.
So, my friend, come sip and savor
syllables as crumbs of pleasure.
By sunrise, in our conversation,
we begin a better nation.
31 January 2018
Bio: Kim Stafford is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, where he has taught writing since 1979, and is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft and A Thousand Friends of Rain: New & Selected Poems. His most recent books are 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared, and Wind on the Waves: Stories from the Oregon Coast. The 30th anniversary edition of his essay collection, Having Everything Right, appeared in 2016 from Pharos Editions. He teaches regularly at the Sitka Center for Art & Ecology and the Fishtrap Writers Gathering, and he has taught writing workshops in Italy, Scotland, and Bhutan, as well as a host of colleges and community centers in America. He was named Oregon Poet Laureate in 2018.