The work of poet Frank Stanford, whose turbulent life ended in suicide, is experiencing a well-deserved renaissance. Port Townsend publisher Copper Canyon Press has released “What About This: The Poems of Frank Stanford.”
Think of all the poems ever written — scratched on clay tablets, inscribed on paper, transformed into pixels. A few poems achieve immortality, but most poets and their poems are interred in what writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón calls “the cemetery of forgotten books.”
And then there’s Frank Stanford, an Arkansas poet who wrote gritty, lyrical, moonstruck poetry with death as a main character. Stanford died in 1978, age 29, when he shot himself. For decades his work was read by a very few.
By the odds, Stanford should have been forgotten, but the work of this rebellious, talented and troubled man is experiencing a renaissance.
‘An Evening of Frank Stanford Poems & Stoires’
Several poets and publishers will participate in an evening celebrating the publication of “What About This” and a companion volume, “Hidden Water,” including Michael Wiegers, C.D. Wright, Chet Weise and Ed Skoog. 7 p.m. Thursday, June 11, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle. Free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
This spring, Port Townsend publisher Copper Canyon Press released “What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford” (Copper Canyon, 750 pp., $40). It’s been the subject of stories in Men’s Journal, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times — Times critic Dwight Garner called Stanford’s poetry “sensitive, death-haunted, surreal, carnal, dirt-flecked and deeply Southern.” Editor Michael Wiegers, who pulled the collection together, says the first 5,000-volume run sold out within weeks. He expects the next printing of 5,000 to sell out, too.
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Is it the poetry or Stanford’s life story? Probably both one and the other, because they are tightly intertwined.
Stanford’s life reads like a Southern Gothic novel. He was taken out of a Mississippi orphanage and raised by a wealthy Memphis family (he learned he was not his parents’ biological child at age 20).
His upbringing was privileged, but he spent summers in labor camps run by his engineer father. Stanford worked side by side with African Americans building levees on the Mississippi River, absorbing his co-workers’ vivid storytelling, their music and their fatalistic point of view. Asked once what he had learned from his co-workers, he said simply: “how shitty white people were to them.”
Stanford went to Subiaco Academy, a Benedictine monastery and boarding school in western Arkansas (he’s buried there). Already recognized as a genius, he entered the University of Arkansas and fell in with a talented group of writers and artists, for whom Fayetteville was a refuge of sorts from the hidebound morals of their native state. He wrote volumes of matchless poetry, including a 15,283-line epic called “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You.”
Stanford’s death was pretty gothic, too.
In 1978, Stanford, a legendary ladies’ man, walked away from an argument with his wife (an artist) and his lover (a poet) in a house in Fayetteville — the two women had caught him in his lies. He went into the bedroom, lay down, and shot himself three times in the chest with a 22-caliber pistol. Miller Williams, Arkansas poet and the father of singer Lucinda Williams, was summoned by C.D. Wright, the poet, to help with the disaster.
Williams had supported Stanford’s work, and his daughter Lucinda was in love with Stanford too, according to a 2000 New Yorker profile of Williams (Williams’ song “Pineola” is about Stanford). “I felt she was just going to disappear from the pain of it all,” her father told the New Yorker.
C.D. Wright, who would go on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for her Arkansas-based epic poem “One With Others,” kept many of Stanford’s papers, but it took a long time for some very painful wounds to heal, or at least scar over.
Wiegers, who edits Wright’s work at Copper Canyon, kept bringing up the subject, and eventually, as Wiegers helped Wright sort through some of her papers, “She plopped me down in the office one day and said, there’s the file cabinet” with Stanford’s work. “I went through everything, from notebooks to draft manuscripts.” Stanford’s wife, the artist Ginny Crouch Stanford, eventually signed on.
“What About This” contains short poems and long, including excerpts from “Battlefield.” The volume is illustrated with ephemera — scraps of writing from Stanford’s typewriter, poems written in longhand, a rejection notice and a poetry prize Stanford, age 9, won in 1958.
Why has Stanford’s work endured?
Part of it is his life story, of an incandescent talent who dowsed his own light. And the poetry itself — Wiegers says that “ I love his command of line and image…. . Even when he’s failing, there are jaw-dropping moments of exquisite beauty and strangeness.”
And he’s a voice from a turbulent time. “He is a profoundly Southern poet in that he’s capturing in speech, the on-the-ground circumstances of race, particularly in the 1960s and the 1970s,” Wiegers said. “For me it’s a book about race … here was this white kid growing up, entirely surrounded by African Americans telling great stories. I think that his poems are deeply concerned with issues of justice, not from a soapbox but from inhabiting these lives from a very Southern tradition, not too far from Eudora Welty and Faulkner.”
The Copper Canyon staff struggled a bit with Stanford’s use of language — it’s the language of the labor camps, and racial and other commonly used slurs lace the poetry (one younger editor took exception to the use of the word “panties” for women’s underwear).
But “that was par for the course,” Wiegers said. “To strip that out retroactively would be false, or to remove those poems would be false. The way in which he uses the language … that archaic usage shouldn’t cloud the justice and fairness he’s trying to bring forth in the poems,” Wiegers said.