Arts and Entertainment

Stafford poetry event extols holding diverse viewpoints

William Stafford was profound in a number of ways. Among the fervor of World War II, he listened to what was true for him and became a conscientious objector. He was 48 before his first major collection was published, then began a prolific career, outpouring volumes of work – nearly 22,000 poems – which were a testament, of sorts, to finding the extraordinary in the mundane world.

After Stafford’s death in 1993, Bainbridge resident Neil Baker realized how influential Stafford had been to him.

“You couldn’t separate his poetry from how he lived his life. He showed us how to pay attention,” Baker said.

He invited residents to watch a video of Stafford and poet Robert Bly in conversation. About 30 people crowded into his living room. From there he contacted Stafford’s family and the Friends of William Stafford, who authorized him to organize events on Bainbridge, which is now one of 56 national events.

The gathering has evolved with the typical ebbs and flows of such groups. But the past two years has seen a philosophical shift in the gathering.

“We realized that William Stafford’s lesson was about speaking your authentic voice in the world,” Baker said.

The new format opens the floor for many voices to be heard. Poets Baker, Jennifer Hager, Helen Merrill and David Stallings each read one Stafford poem. No small feat considering the sheer numbers from which to choose. Each reading is followed by 20 minutes of discussion.

“Any reaction helps deepen our understanding,” Baker said. “We learn from holding the diversity of viewpoints.”

Stafford, Baker thinks, extended a “great invitation” for participation and the Bainbridge event extends that to the community.

Bainbridge poet Hager thinks anyone, even those who have never heard of Stafford, could have a wonderful experience.

“A group holding diverse viewpoints can be magical,” Baker said. “It’s a counterpoint to polarization.”

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