For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give-yes or no, or maybe-
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
-William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”
Robert Bly writes, “Of all the American poets of the last 30 years, I think William Stafford broods most about community-the ‘mutual life’ we share.” How appropriate, then, that Stafford’s life and works are celebrated each year by as many as 50 communities around the world. Although Stafford, a pacifist and one of the most eminent and popular late-20th-century poets, is primarily associated with the Pacific Northwest (where he lived, wrote, and taught for most of his adult life), the Stafford celebration held in Santa Barbara holds special meaning, given Stafford’s ties to the area.
This is the second year a community poetry reading in honor of Stafford has been held just off Paradise Road at the First Crossing Day Use Area in the Los Padres National Forest, the site of Stafford’s incarceration as a conscientious objector in the Los Prietos Civilian Public Service Camp during World War II. Stafford’s experiences at the camp were important for the rest of his career. It was in the camp that he began writing in the morning on a daily basis-a habit that the extremely prolific writer would keep for the rest of his life. He also met his wife there, and he cherished his experience of the landscapes in which he was required to work. His memoir about his time in the camp formed his master’s thesis and his first book, Down in My Heart, which was published in 1947. Stafford went on to win a National Book Award for one of his 57 volumes of poetry, Traveling Through the Dark. He also served as Poet Laureate of the United States and of Oregon.
If the weather is good, the reading will be held outside, on the site of the foundations of the old camp, a place rich with the natural beauty that Stafford often celebrated in his poems. Last year the reading was held in the nearby Los Prietos Ranger Station due to rain. Despite limited visibility on the San Marcos Pass, a sizeable and varied crowd gathered to celebrate and learn about Stafford. The group included poets, Forest Service people, college students, families with children, and people who had just heard about the event and wanted to know more about Stafford. Part of the program each year is a reading by two guest poets from the region-this year it will be David Starkey, director of the Creative Writing Program at SBCC, and Glenna Luschei, publisher of Solo Press. During the rest of the event, members of the community are invited to share their own favorite Stafford poems.
Paul Willis, an area poet and professor of English at Westmont College, has organized the reading, which is sponsored by The Friends of William Stafford, Westmont College, and Santa Barbara City College. Willis also credits the Forest Service for their interest in Stafford and for making the event possible. “I was overwhelmed with how cooperative the Forest Service was,” Willis said. “Their archeologist, Diana Dyste, has created a permanent exhibit on Stafford in the visitor’s center.” For Willis, Stafford has personal appeal: “He was a very generous presence, a great encourager of poets. I think part of Stafford’s generosity was in his conviction that the writing of poetry is a life-giving pursuit, no matter what one’s level of talent might be. I know he helped me get started, and he’s been important to many, many people. I want to honor that generous presence and perpetuate it.”
Remembering William Stafford: A Community Reading will be held at the First Crossing Day Use Area on Paradise Road, across the road from the Los Prietos Boys Camp at 3900 Paradise Road, on Saturday, January 26, at 2 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. In case of rain, the reading will be moved indoors to the Los Prietos Ranger Station at 3505 Paradise Road. For more information, please contact Westmont professor Paul Willis at 565-7174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.