Frank Stanford deserves to be read: A Q&A with Matthew Henriksen

Have you heard of Frank Stanford? Unlike the majority of modern poets, he was (and is) speaking directly to you, with your words, about people you know, and places you’ve been. At times in his life, he lived and worked, and wrote, in Fayetteville, Rogers, and Eureka Springs. Other than a short poetry collection, The Light the Dead See: Selected Poems of Frank Stanford (published by
the University of Arkansas Press), Frank Stanford’s work is out of print, or hard to find, and rarely mentioned outside of poetry classrooms.

Stanford’s poetry is stark, and vivid, it deserves to be read. His language is unique because it is ordinary, and never forced or confusing. His characters are not caricatures, and are not there to entertain you, instead they pull up a chair and engage you in real conversation.

Hopefully soon, we will get to read Frank Stanford’s work in a proper, and complete collection, to remedy the question “Where do I start?”

Right now, you can start by reading Matthew Henriksen’s excellent piece on Frank Stanford (which includes poems, stories, correspondence with Bill Willett, and a brief biography) in Fulcrum #7.

Matthew Henriksen, and Bill Willett, will be reading Frank Stanford this Saturday, July 16 at Nightbird Books, starting at 8 p.m. Copies of Fulcrum #7, The Light the Dead See, and Matthew Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun will be available. This will be a new insight for fans, and/or a great introduction to Frank Stanford.

I asked Matthew some questions so here goes…

Roger Barrett: Rolling Stone told me about Bob Dylan who told me about Arthur Rimbaud, and while talking about Rimbaud, someone (I forget who) told me about Frank Stanford. When did you first hear about Frank Stanford?

Matthew Henriksen: I was in my first semester as an MFA in Poetry, sitting at what folks called “The Rockstar Table” at the old JR’s, when Tony Tost told me about The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, a title I thought silly at the time. Thankfully, I will read any poetry, especially the obscure. I found a copy at The Dickson Street Bookshop and also a copy of his first book, The Singing Knives. Of course, those books immediately opened up my thinking.

RB: Do you remember what you first read and your response?
MH: The Battlefield stunned me but also made me a little crazy at first. I had been trying to read Blake’s epics, and I was pretty fragile psychologically, in the process of trying to transform myself as a writer. I turned to The Singing Knives, which impressed me in how it held together a narrative through the book, or more or less a narrative of episodes tied to a particular landscape and set of characters. The book’s second poem “The Singing Knives,” astonished me with its catalog of dream-images, which tell the story of a boy sneaking out at night with his friend, a knife-thrower. The last poem in the book, “The Snake Doctors,” with an instinct tied to landscape, a real landscape, full of the poet’s pain and full with beauty too, impacted me so strongly that I reformulated my thinking about poetry.

I had studied Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot heavily and had thought of poetry as words in space, but for me Stanford revealed poetry as words tied to specific places and perhaps more importantly to people.

Stevens and Eliot had that, too, but Stanford more directly engaged in it and thereby allowed me to discover it. Years later, Bill Willett would explain to me the importance of people in Stanford’s life.

Stanford had invested himself in what surrounded him. His affection contained a well-spring for creativity. Up until that time, I thought in terms of what poetry should not do, but since then I think about what poetry can do and has not done yet.

RB: How would you describe Frank Stanford’s poetry to someone who doesn’t read poetry? Where would you tell someone to start?
MH: I tell students to start with The Singing Knives and people in their thirties or older to start with his final book, You. Constant Stranger, the other posthumously published book, would be another good place to start, but it’s out of print. The Singing Knives has the same wildness that attracted Allen Ginsberg to Stanford, is more manageable to read than The Battlefield, and also has that stark visionary element Stanford got in part from Rimbaud (also Lautreamont, Vallejo, and Cocteau, among others—Stanford seemingly read everything). The poems in You are sharply polished, driven by narrative dramas, and present startling moments of awareness. For anyone, though, I recommend starting with “Freedom, Revolt, and Love,” which you can find on the Academy of American Poets website. You can also find a well-written article on Stanford a strong selection of his poems on the Poetry Foundation website.

RB: You recently edited a piece for Fulcrum about Frank Stanford’s unpublished works, can you explain this process? How did his life, and death, influence the editing?
MH: Folks certainly have played up his death and I wanted to play it down. He shot himself. That’s the end of that story for those of us who were not his friends and family. How about the story of his work?

Many of his books remain out of print. When I bring his poems into my classes, not even my poetry classes but my composition classes, many students respond with amazement. I don’t give them his biography, just like I don’t tell them T.S. Eliot was a banker. When I introduce Stanford’s work to other poets, they go bonkers. That range of appeal is not normal, especially for a poet so few people know. The Fulcrum feature is about the tragedy of neglect for his work, which may offer an antidote for some people in their apathy for poetry. People who read the Fulcrum feature should keep in mind that C.D. Wright published much of the best unpublished work on the Poetry Foundation website and in the Oxford American and No: a journal of the arts.

Beyond that, his books published in his lifetime (along with the two posthumous books) represent the very best of his work. If you like what is in the Fulcrum feature, campaign for a Collected Poems.

That’s a necessary artifact for a poet’s work to live on, and I believe many people, especially young would-be poets and fans of poetry, eagerly await exposure to poetry with the intensity Stanford’s work offers.

RB: The Fulcrum piece includes previously unpublished correspondence, did any of this new information change the way you think and feel about Frank’s poetry?
MH: Bill Willett’s piece about the postcards Stanford sent from New York (a time not well-documented) revealed much about Stanford as a friend to Bill and as a young person trying to sort out the mess that the dangerous combination of youth and talent bring. Reading the postcards, I sympathized with Stanford, especially in the moments where I could see him causing problems for himself personally. We have all visited dark times, but finding out he was an orphan probably
damaged him in ways that made his immense talents dangerous for him.

Additionally, women were very attracted to him, and so there was probably an attempt to fill an emptiness left by the absence of a biological familial identity. Of course, you cannot replace the stability of family lineage with a revolving romantic drama. More importantly, he probably sought an identity through his emerging reputation as a writer.

Although widely published in his time, he also faced dismissal from the more conservative literary establishments. I can see this as a blessing. He sought entry into an echelon whose principals he reviled and whose limitations he sorely exposed. It reminds me of Baudelaire’s emotional desire for something he detested intellectually. I’ve always wondered about Stanford’s creative process, as I have wondered similarly with Gram Parsons’ song writing and rendering, if the brilliance tied itself to self-destruction. The letters I think show a detachment at a certain point between artistic creation and self-destruction. The postcards, written to his closest friend (as opposed to his letters I have seen, written to poets) reveal a person separate from the personality in his creative work, which I believe, after all and maybe hopefully so, provided a refuge from personal strife.

RB: Death and isolation are recurring themes in Frank’s writing, do you think his suicide has made it impossible to truly interpret his work?
MH: The suicide has gotten badly in the way of the work. Misguided fans (and also an assortment of freaks) obsess over it, and intellectually or morally limited readers sometimes dismiss him because of it. No one does that to Paul Celan, who suffered the trauma of working and losing his parents in Nazi concentration camps. Stanford also suffered intense traumas, though personal ones. He learned of his adoption by A.F. Stanford, the man he called father, only after his death, and sometime later found that his mother had adopted him from a home for unwed mothers. This unhinged him, according to both Bill Willett and Stanford’s younger sister, Ruth, who was also adopted.

The destruction of Stanford’s identity must have caused intense suffering—not like that of the Holocaust, of course, but a far greater suffering than most people can imagine. Some people treat Stanford’s suicide like a creative or performative act, but it was mere self-destruction on a personal level, with consequences for those in his personal life. If people cannot see past that and see the work on the page for what it is, the limitation is their own.

RB: Do you think Frank Stanford will always be a cult poet? Do you think his cult status is a result of his subject matter, and working class characters?
MH: He is a far better poet than his cult readers are capable of acknowledging. The working class element of his work maybe clashes with the old ideas about poetry, of Yeats and Eliot and their predecessors, but contemporary poetry is infused with the vernacular, just like fiction, cinema and music. The difference with Stanford’s work is the astute rendering of it, his immersion in dialect that one could not fabricate (he talked the talk) synthesized with his immense lexicon fed by classical, romance, and contemporary literature. Dickinson and Blake no longer have cult followings. I’m not saying Stanford is Dickinson or Blake, but great neglected poets, like Lorine Niedecker, Joseph Ceravolo and Jack Spicer, inevitably suffer such reductions before they are rediscovered and embraced, which cult followings often inhibit, unfortunately.

RB: How has Frank Stanford affected you, and your poetry?
MH: Before Ordinary Sun came out, I feared comparisons to Stanford. I can easily name a dozen poets I feel have more greatly influenced my poems (Alice Notley, Fanny Howe, Graham Foust, and Andrea Baker at the forefront). However, after a few reviews came out, the Poetry Foundation and Publisher’s Weekly mentioned him as a significant influence, and I was happy about that. His poems changed the way I look at landscape, at natural imagery and voice necessarily tied to place. Also, his lines, which owe their structure neither to Walt Whitman, Charles Olson, nor Allen Ginsberg, embody a tendency toward common speech falling into intensified rhythmical movements.

Stanford, after all, studied formal verse with James Whitehead, one of my primary mentors. His poems reflect an ear both attuned to formal measures and determined to defy their unnatural restrictions. Because of him, along with Blake, Dickinson, and Stevens, I try to hone each line to its utmost intensity, to create a universe with the miniature auricular landscape of each line.

RB: Besides the Fulcrum article, what have you been writing lately?
MH: I spent most of the spring giving readings in support of Ordinary Sun, and all that contact with poets pushed me back into my own work. I had about half of a new manuscript complete when Ordinary Sun came out, and since then I’ve added significantly to it. The new poems are more socially engaged. To get a poem started, it helps to get angry about something out in the world or in my general vicinity (an easy motivation to find these days considering insular American politics in the face of a plummeting economy and a changing global schema). Teaching nearly a double course load and minding a rampant toddler limits my time, though. I’ve also been secretly writing and hording reviews of recent books of poetry, which I will begin to publish when I have a significant stockpile.

RB: What are you reading right now?
MH: I’m reading more fiction this summer than I normally do. I have been working through Knut Hamsun’s novels, just finished Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and just started Heinrich Boll’s The Clown. I’m reading Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories (purchased at Nightbird Books) from cover to cover with slow and deliberate relish. I have been pecking at H.D. all summer and at Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book. As always, I’m reading lots of contemporary poetry from young writers on small presses: Laura Solomon’s The Hermit and Joseph Bradshaw’s In the Common Dream of George Oppen have most impressed me among a long list of others. The best book I have read recently, one of the best books I have ever read, is Alice Notley’s Culture of One, a book-length poem sequence that also reads like a novel, a memoir, and social commentary. She is an absolute genius and everyone should try reading her very difficult but infinitely rewarding books. I feel about her as I do about David Lynch and Bob Dylan: we’re lucky to be alive at the same time as them.


» Fulcrum Stanford Feature
» Poetry Foundation on the Stanford Feature
» Freedom, Revolt, and Love (by Frank Stanford)
» Frank Stanford’s Poetry Foundation Webpage
» Matthew Henriksen on Frank Stanford and Gram Parsons
» Ordinary Sun (by Matthew Henriksen)