“Optional Homework” with Kim Stafford at SOU’s Hannon Library

In a reading at Southern Oregon University’s Hannon Library on April 18 Oregon’s Poet Laureate Kim Stafford played guitar and sang Oregon folk songs with the voice of an angel. It’s refreshing when he teaches the chorus to the audience and asks us to sing along with him. But what’s most unexpected is his “optional homework” assignments interspersed with poems and songs.

Photo from Lewis and Clark Graduate School of education and Counseling

Stafford, an Oregon native is author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, and editor of more. His book Having Everything Right: Essays of Place won a citation for excellence from the Western States Book Awards in 1986. and he has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Governor’s Arts Award, and the Stewart Holbrook Award from Literary Arts for his contributions to Oregon’s literary culture.

For his first optional homework assignment, he directs us to rhymezone.com to choose a word and find a handful of rhymes to play with. As example he read his poem “The Seed” a kind of anthem for the poet:

Every chance I get, any place I fit,
in a cleft of grit, in ravine or pit
by ancient wit my husk I split—
I am the seed.
. . .

For his next optional assignment, he offers a way to cope with the ongoing, overwhelming news of the day. Write a non-fiction poem in two parts: in the first part, write just the facts in the language and rhetoric you hear in the news, then write a second part in which you talk back and give your own feelings and position. In one example, his first section uses the exact words of an emergency alert, while in the second part, he playfully shifts the language to create a different kind of warning in the excerpt from “Presidential Alert.”

THIS IS A TEST
of the National Wireless
Emergency Alert System
No action is needed

This is your President speaking
Please take no action
This is only a test
Please remain calm
and silent
. . .

His second example excerpted here is based on an article in The Guardian about how birds die, “What Birds Teach Us”

  
1. How Birds Die

Get caught by a kitty cat: 2.4 billion.
Collateral damage of industry: 700 million.
Hit a window: 600 million.
Hit by car: 214 million.
Get poisoned: 72 million.
Hit a powerline: 25 million.
Get electrocuted: 5 million.
Hit a turbine: 234 thousand.
Get blinded by city lights and stray.
Search in vain for starlight’s guide.
Get out of sync with climate change:
   depart too late, arrive too early.
. . .

2. How Birds Live

Fence wire—a throne for singing and singing.
Thorns in the blackberry thicket—jewels of safety.
A vacant lot, rife with a chance mix—heaven.
Wing bars of crimson, mustard, moss—kinfolk.
A fat worm, a ripe seed, a caught beetle—enough.
Twig feet on a twig after a thousand miles—rest.
Bill tucked under a wing—spiral home.
Cast-off thread and thistledown—snug nest.
. . .

For more optional homework, try “secret publishing.” Take any poem you have written and place it in a book in the library. Or fold it and tuck it into the pocket of a jacket at your local Goodwill. It’s an unexpected find for the reader and a surprising way of making your poems public.

Among the other homework suggestions: find someone who needs a poem and write one for them, or write a poem that honors the stories in your family. Most important was Stafford’s suggestion from his own dad, the poet William Stafford: write the thing that is most alive. Good advice. I intend to take it.

If you get a chance to see Kim Stafford at one of his many appearances during National Poetry Month or throughout the next year, you’ll not only get a great reading and a sing-along concert, you will get a master class in writing poetry.

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