Two local poets joined Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford in reading their work to an audience of about 55 students and community members at the Central Oregon Community College campus in Madras on April 10.
The event was the first in a series sponsored by COCC's Barber Library to mark National Poetry Month. All three poets read poems that reflected the theme of this year's celebration, which is "Honoring Family and Place."
Librarian Cat Finney and Native American Program Coordinator Michelle Cary hosted the poetry reading, introducing the poets in turn.
Finney started off the event by remarking on her pleasant surprise at the size of the crowd. "Poetry events are like dog years," she joked. "Four people at a poetry event are like 16 at other kinds of events."
The strong turnout might be attributable to the fact that the featured poets are some of Oregon's most illustrious writers.
Headliner Kim Stafford was named by Gov. Kate Brown to a two-year term as Oregon poet laureate starting in May. Stafford is the director of Lewis & Clark College's Northwest Writing Institute and has written numerous books of poetry and prose. He has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and honors such as the Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award and a Governor's Arts Award for contributions to Oregon literature.
Stafford's father, William Stafford, was Oregon poet laureate for 15 years from 1975 to 1990.
Ramsey leads off readings
The first poet of the evening to read was Agency Plains native Jarold Ramsey, who graduated from Madras High School and went on to have a long career teaching literature and writing at the University of Rochester in New York. Ramsey and his wife, Dorothy, moved back to Madras in 2000, and both have been active in the community ever since.
Ramsey is the author of six books of poetry, as well as numerous books of prose stories and essays and was the 2017 recipient of the C.E.S. Wood Distinguished Writer Award bestowed by Portland nonprofit Literary Arts.
"This is a great day for poetry in Madras," declared Ramsey as he took the stage, surveyed the large audience, and prepared to read.
Ramsey's first reading was a poem by his recently deceased friend and fellow poet W.S. Merwin, aptly titled "For the Anniversary of My Death."
A friend of both Kim Stafford and William Stafford, Ramsey then told a story about a weekend spent with the Staffords at his family ranch near Madras, when Kim was a junior in high school.
Ramsey said he did not yet know Stafford well and the young man made an impression on him by choosing to take his sleeping bag and spend the night on the hillside under the stars. The story was a segue to Ramsey's reading of the poem he wrote about the occasion, entitled "Sleeping on Hillsides for Kim Stafford."
In keeping with the theme of the evening, Ramsey also read poems he wrote about his granddaughters, his brother and his wife, as well as one about a place near Mount Adams called Indian Heaven.
Woody also visual artist
Next up was Elizabeth Woody, who was Kim Stafford's predecessor as Oregon poet laureate, serving from 2016-2018. Woody is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, attended Madras schools, and taught creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Woody is also a visual artist and was recently named the new director of the Museum at Warm Springs.
Woody has published three books of poetry. Her prose short stories and essays have been featured in numerous anthologies. Woody's honors include an American Book Award for "Hand Into Stone" (Contact II Press, 1988), a William Stafford Memorial Award for Poetry, and numerous fellowships.
Like Ramsey, Woody referenced the late W.S. Merwin, telling two stories about her encounters with him at poetry festivals and also talked about "palling around with" the late William Stafford.
The first poem Woody read was about a place — a long bridge you must cross when you lose a loved one. Next, she read one entitled "Sisters?" about her mother and her mother's boyfriend, followed by one similarly titled "Sisters" about Woody and her sister.
Woody described her poem entitled "Twanat" as her signature poem. It is about a band of Nez Perce who were chased up into Canada by U.S. soldiers. She concluded with a poem called "Perfect Pitch" that she wrote to persuade a friend to teach her to sing.
Stafford takes stage
When Stafford took the stage, he began his presentation with an excerpt from a letter Woody had written him "back in the era of letters" in 1993. The passage was about acquiring knowledge. "I am learning myself, all the time, and am grateful, even though I feel my limits nagging at me," she wrote.
As part of his duty as an Oregon poet laureate, Stafford is charged with doing at least six poetry readings per year and also with teaching the public about the value of literature. In talking to the audience about poetry, Stafford explained the difference between great poems and important poems.
"Great poems are generally written by people who are dead. They're in anthologies and high school students are forced to analyze them. An important poem is something you find or something you write, and you give it to someone, and it helps them," Stafford said.
After reading a poem called "All My Relations," Stafford quoted something else that Woody had told him a year ago. "The more I do this, the less it's about who the poem is and the more it's about who the poem serves."
"So, the poem is something you make in the hopes that it may serve," Stafford continued.
Stafford's next reading, "Prairie Prescription," told the story of his grandmother, whose doctor prescribed an hour of beauty a day to ensure that she would survive her third pregnancy. Stafford also read poems about his sister, two about his wife, and one about the soothing nature of blueberry picking. He finished with what he described as his anthem to the creative process, entitled "I am the Seed."
After Stafford's reading, the poets fielded questions from the audience about what poetry they like to read and how they feel about libraries, plus one from a retired Madras High School teacher who asked, "Elizabeth, have you ever forgiven me for flunking you in English?"
Woody responded with a story about her high school experience. "I wouldn't be a poet if you had passed me," she said. In her senior year, she had submitted a poem in application to the Oregon High School Writers Workshop at Lewis & Clark College and was accepted. The same week she was expelled from Madras High School for truancy, the principal received a letter commending them for producing such a fine writer.
When the question-and-answer period wrapped up, the writers were available to meet audience members and sign books. About 20 people stayed another 20 or 30 minutes to chat among themselves and with the poets.
Asked what he thought of the event, first-year COCC student William Poviz said, "It was very interesting hearing three poets expressing their ideas about family and friends."
Writer and photographer Bing Bingham commented, "For me, the highlight was Kim Stafford talking about a poem in service for someone who needs it. That was important for me. That's what I needed to hear."
In addition to the Madras poetry reading, COCC has organized a full schedule of events related to National Poetry Month throughout Central Oregon, including writing workshops, a poetry jam, and a screening of Bright Star, a film about 19th century poet John Keats. For more information, see cocc.edu/library or call 541-383-7560.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.