Citizen Poems  

A chapter from a book in progress: Writing for Happiness: Seeker, Artist Witness

by Kim Stafford

 

Twin pleasures of the human project: Apprehending connections

and savoring differences.

 

 

The last poetry project my father did was to compose a series of “poetry road signs” at the invitation of two enterprising forest rangers in the Methow Valley of Washington’s North Cascades. They wrote him that it was fine to have a sign that said “The valley before you was sculpted by ice 10,000 years ago...,” but what if there were a poem posted, instead? What if that poem invited people to think not just about the natural world, but their place in it? What if that poem helped visitors to look, think, and feel their connections, to ponder, to muse, to linger?

         Immediately my father sent them thirty poems—some were old, and some were new, written just for the occasion, and in time, seven poems were chosen and posted along roads and trails by the river. I remember my father telling me he thought this custom should take over the country. “Little magazines are fine for poetry—but what’s wrong with a poem right out there in the world?”

         Since then, I’ve been involved in a number of such projects, where we compose and post a poem as a way that’s as permanent as we can in the landscape, the cityscape, the neighborhood. The official name for this custom is Public Art, and in Oregon the process is helped by a law that one percent of construction funds for a public building must be devoted to art that becomes a permanent part of the building. That can amount to a lot, for art, and sometimes even a humble poet like myself has been invited to take part.

         A line of mine has been sandblasted into the granite threshhold of the light-rail station at Orenco, west of Portland. A set of lines have been sandblasted into the granite facade of a building downtown. A sentence has been literally set in concrete at the DMV in the central Oregon town of Bend. At the Oregon State Library, in the Talking Books and Braille Service Division lobby, my poem is cast in bronze, and in Braille:

 

Birds Fly Upward

         Singing

 

By wings I come to you.

By song I speak to you.

Hold me, hear me—

Feathered heartbeat

         in your hand.

 

My art partner, Margot Voorhies Thompson, and I were asked to tread the north facade of a new branch library in Portland, on SE Woodstock near Reed College in Portland, and we decided to celebrate the history of writing, books, languages, and printing in the languages of the neighborhood, which included Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, French, and English. Onto the stainless steal exterior, Margot etched an illustration from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the first known printing of musical notation, an early playing card. Inside the building, she painted a canvas thirty feet long showing the history of writing—with the bull fro Lascaux, a stand of papyrus, quill pen feather of a swan, and on through scripts, books, readers. 

         My part of the project was to compose a poem to be etched in steel beside the front entrance. After dithering for some time, trying to figure this out, I was in the forest where I noticed a long strand of spider web that stretch from a twig of willow up high to the distant trunk of a pine. A light breeze caused the strand to belly and sway, and I watched a spot of iridescence sail from one end of the strand to the other. This got me thinking about how meaning travels from one mind to another, and the beautiful passage of a musical tune from one generation to another far down the line. I thought how a library, filled with treasure, is nothing until a visitor come to bring that treasure to life. So I wrote my poem, and we asked translators to help us put lines from the poem into the six languages for Margot to etch onto the north facade:

 

                            Open

                  This Door of All Doors

 

This is the mansion of many rooms, and it sleeps.

This is the grove of many precious lives, and it waits

for your hand on the door, your wish opening a book.

 

This is the place to remember what happened

before you were bone. Unfold the bud -- your lightest

touch at the lit screen. Unfurl the leaf -- an idea waking.

 

Open the flower -- this dream with helpers at every turn,

where you reading measures all: art and alphabet, fact

and photograph, number, symbol, story, tune. Our treasures.

 

Down the aisle you softly tread, where a book will beckon,

you open, and in your hand trembles all you want to be.

Remember? The small thing gives meaning to the great.

 

You have the power to open centuries that trees hold

silent in their rings. This palace of the possible needs you,

your hand on the door. Enchant this place awake.

 

 

We even have a passage in Zulu, as provided by a traveler I met in the bus station in Nashville, who needed money for his ticket back to New York, he said. I gave him money, and he translated my line into his language. Collaboration.

         Such a citizen poem does not belong in a book. It’s not the kind thought but the handshake itself. It addresses the visitor from the wall. You can put your hand on it, feel the texture of its bite, make a rubbing. The physicality of such a poem helps me, as a writer, step out of the world of books, of literature, into something older—the broadside ballad hawked by a vagabond, the story told by a griot, the song sun by a troubador, the poem recited, the shanty chanted, the psalm delivered face to face. 

         I got a call from the public art committee for Clackama County, south from Portland, for a poem the address the county office complex in Oregon City. The official name for this location was The Red Soils Campus, for the so-called jory soil that underlies much of the land there, and contributes to the success of Oregon vineyards. I liked “Red Earth” better, and as I thought about what form of citizen utterance might best fit this place, I harked back to the four-beat lines of Old English poetry I had studied in college, a steeply-compressed poetic line that delivered ideas in seed form, more thorn than ribbon, more spear than song. Some of the lines that were cut into steel there went like this:

 

red earth bears us

hidden seed eye blinks

water bead wicks damp

myriad grasses grapple light

birds hymn this swale

leaves savor dappled light

earth smoke softens dawn

wise voices settle strife

fire consumes dry wood

frost binds living waters

kind hearts forgive all....

 

I’ve visited the site several times since the installation of the poem became part of a larger artwork there, a fir cone in stainless steel six feet tall. I’ve asked the receptionists in two buildings on the campus for directions to the work, and they had no idea what I was talking about. I sat and watched people scurry past, on their way to meetings with the Water Bureau, the Planning Division, Development Services. One hasty visitor had to shield his eyes from the steel’s glare as he passed. Unnoticed, the poem gives tone to the place. Some will find it. The poem and I are in no hurry. After all, no one read the Old English poem it is based on for centuries, until it scholars rediscovered it in the nineteenth century. And the poem is planted in red earth, on geologic time. As it says in the opening lines of Beowulf, as the burning ship of the warrior sets out to sea, “God alone knows who shall receive that gift.”

 

I think my years of involvement with writing in public art—short texts on permanent display in public places—has informed my writing of citizen poems for the page. I am writing for my community now, as well as for literary readers who are my contemporaries, and unknown readers of the future. My community, my village, my people—my family, neighborhood, my friends, my city, Oregon, North America, Earth. When students would ask my father if their poems were good, he had a response with some reach: “Is it good for you? Is it good for the universe?” I want to write poems in keeping with the Dao, that will be good like rain is good for the farmer, and sun for the leaf. In this light, it seems to me, what I’m calling citizen poems will include celebrations of place, responses to news, alternatives to violence and war, and texts that could be used by those who find them to do good. I’m with Vincent Van Gogh in this regard, who saw his painting not on a parlor wall, but in the cabin of a fishing boat tossed by storms, giving comfort to frightened sailors. 

         I’m thinking of forms of writing like an open letter addressing a political conflict. An anthem for a cause. A response to an action by your country’s government that seems to require deeper thought, different questions, empathy:

 

    A Prayer by the Tigris

          19 March 2003

 

Let me be light from the morning star,

the glimmer between worlds.

I am what you cannot see—at midnight

or noon. I am the child in war

putting my candle in a paper boat

at the call to prayer. My mother says

when I die I will be a secret.

 

Little boat, you are my sister

I put light in. Go find me

a place to be. Allah is great,

you are small. Go tell them

your brother is here. My mother,

my father, we—we are a secret,

we are a boat, we are a light.

 

We are the star that sees you.

What we lost will be you,

my mother says.

 

When I was troubled by increasing polarization between urban and rural Oregonians, I composed a poem called “A Thousand Friends of Rain,” first for an event sponsored by the environmental group A Thousand Friends of Oregon, but later expanded to address workers, convicts, vagabonds cityfolk and redneck, rivers, deserts, children:

 

I want to seethe wet into the pungent heart of sage.

I want to trickle down the eagle’s neck.

I want to blur the ink on the document left outside.

I want to educate with sensation....

 

The poem got longer, became known, and was eventually used by the Nature Conservancy as a kind of lyric case statement for saving wild places, resulting in a seventy-five million dollar increase in their funding. Poetry didn’t make that happen, but it helped.

         The citizen poem, or deft prose utterance, it seems to me, brings the musical powers of language and thought to bear on challenges, not to argue solutions, but to re-frame   questions, shift perspectives, see big problems in elemental terms. Often, what starts my writing in the morning can be the yearning to understand what the news story doesn’t say—not what happened, but what made this happen?

 

    Suicide Bomber, Algiers

 

He saved his wages, went to Mecca twice.

He finished high school in prison.

Out, he tried to sell ice cream.

 

His family home had no roof.

His empty bed became his mother’s shrine.

His father remembered him as a good boy.

 

Prison was a school for losing hope.

The saddest person among us,

the uncle said, is our greatest danger.

 

How do we help that one,

for sorrow speaks in fire?

He disappeared for a year.

 

Maybe he went to the mountains.

Dawn there is the hardest time. Then

sorrow spoke in fire, explosion, death.

 

They handed the father his driver’s license:

a smudge, the charred photo of the boy.

 

The “anti-war” poetry of my youth was often marked by a kind of stridency that felt foreign to the peace we sought, and a kind of aggressive rhetoric all too similar to what we decried. In reaction to that, trying to learn from that, it seems to me our best chance is to question divisions and witness for connections. The afternoon of September 11, 2001, I had a call from at editor at the Portland Oregonian: “Our readers are hammered by the news today. Would you write something that will help people think about what is happening.” That has been my understanding of my call as a writer since: with a story, an essay, a poem, a song, help people think about what is happening.

         Recently, at Marylhurst University south of Portland, there was an event where a group of Iraqi artists traveling from Baghdad were available for questions after talking about their country. One question after another from the audience played the changes on one: “What’s it like being an artist in a theater of war?” The speakers were kind, earnest, but I could see them begin to slump, exhausted by the war, and by this question. So I asked them, instead, “What is it like to be an artist in the place where civilization began?” And they came to life, babbled, laughed, and soon we all had to go out for a meal to share stories about the life of creation:

 

    We Ask the Iraqi Artists

What It Is Like to Be Creators

    Where Civilization Began

 

The smudge of war falls from their eyes.

They become tall, grand humans.

We see each other at last.

 

We invented writing,says one.

And the wheel,says another.

We created the sewing.

 

Our rivers made paradise.

The light of the day shines 

over us, it is time to gather

 

for a meal together, we need

to ask about each other’s 

families, and how to begin

 

a new era of life together.

And soon we are all chattering

like beautiful children

 

far from our foolishness.

 

I don’t experience citizen poems as separate from all the writing I do. You begin with what you feel in response to what is happening around you, and in that confluence of self and the world, you compose an episodic peace treaty with the self, all others, and the Earth. 

 

Among the William Stafford poems written for the Methow project, but not chosen, is one I have always favored. It’s so plain spoken, humble, friendly:

 

         Emily, This Place, and You

               by William Stafford

 

She got out of the car here one day,

and it was snowing a little. She could see

little glimpses of those mountains, and away down

there by the river the curtain of snow would

shift, and those deep secret places looked

all the more mysterious. It was quiet, you know.

 

Her life seemed quiet, too. There had been troubles,

sure—everyone has some. But now, looking out there,

she felt easy, at home in the world—maybe like

a casual snowflake. And some people loved her.

She would remember that. And remember this place.

 

As you will, wherever you go after this day,

just a stop by the road, and a glimpse of someone’s life,

and your own, too, how you can look out any time,

just being part of things, getting used to being a person,

taking it easy, you know.

 

I often include this poem when I share my father’s work, for its conversational tone, quiet compassion, and commitment to both earthly and human connections.

         Twenty years after my father died, I got involved in the Poems in Place project in Alaska, a collaboration that drew together the Alaska State Parks, the Alaska Center for the Book, and other partners to install place-based poems by Alaska writers at resonant sites where wanderers might come upon them, and be “placed” by the harmonic witness of poem and land.  The project was partly inspired by the Methow River project, but thoroughly Alaskan as well. As Oregon friend to this Alaska project, I would hear news about the selection process, and the events surrounding the installation of the signs. Then came a message that electrified me: a poem by Alaska poet Emily Wall had been chosen for the Totem Bight State Historical Park… and the title of her poem was hauntingly reminiscent of my father’s poem, “Emily, This Place, and You”: “This Forest, This Beach, You.”

         I tracked down Emily, and she told me the following story: As a young writer, she had contacted William Stafford and asked if she might meet with him to talk about her writing. But when they got together, they spoke of life, seeking, struggle. He was kind to her, she said, and after he died she came across his poem about “Emily.” “Could that be about me?”

         Years passed. She became more active as a writer, more confident, and when she submitted her poem to the Poems in Place project, it was chosen. This is what you will find by the water at Totem Bight State Historical Park in Alaska:

 

         This Forest, This Beach, You

                     by Emily Wall

 

 If you were a cedar

            you would be waiting for rain to fall

or fall harder, relaxing your ten thousand needles.

 

If you were a handful of moss

            you would be waiting for the light so you could

climb further up this rich, fallen log.

 

If you were a blue mussel

            you would be waiting for the tide to rise

to open your lips, to sip. 

 

What a world this is.

            Close your eyes and inhale.  Eat a little

of this air.  Let it fill your belly.  Let the taste of this place

            always rest on your tongue.

 

I love many things about this story—an older writer helping a younger ... the writing of poetry helping the struggling life ... the homage of a living poet to one who is gone, even as she goes her own strong way ... and especially the way a poem in place can testify for our connections over time, in place, and to kindred souls. Full circle, a writer’s vocation may reach far beyond the individual life.

 

 

Prompt: What is a missing element in the discussion you hear about a strident controversy in your world? Voice that missing element, that perspective, that other way of knowing. How would a child see it? If you were your own enemy’s mother, what might you say?...