William Stafford: a legacy with benefits

Written by | October 4, 2012

Oregon author’s 100th birthday inspires writing contest

“I embrace emerging experience, I participate in discovery. I am a butterfly. I am not a butterfly collector. I want the experience of the butterfly.”

William Stafford’s words reverberate across college campuses, penetrating even the most cynical halls of learning. As a teacher and poet laureate, Stafford understood the tumultuous struggle of growth and self-definition that many students encounter.

On the eve of Stafford’s 100th birthday, Ooligan Press and PSU’s publishing program will celebrate his centennial with a writing contest. The William Stafford Project is calling all Oregon middle and high school students to submit their poems and essays inspired by, or in response to, Stafford’s works. The best entries from seventh– through 12th-grade students will be collected in a book, to be published in 2014.

Ooligan’s Laura Larrabee and Rachel Pass created the contest after receiving a letter from Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen, which motivated them to get students involved.

“Poetry doesn’t tend to be a subject that kids get real excited about,” Larrabee said. “The goal was to provide something that they could connect to and feel excited about.”

The contest officially launches Oct. 6 at the Oregon Council of Teachers of English Conference at Wilsonville High School. Submissions are to be created around and in reaction to Stafford’s works in the lesson plans.

Larrabee hopes that readers will benefit from the perspective of writers still in the transformative stages of self-discovery.

“They’re more connected with their visceral emotions at that age,” Larrabee said. “You can get some really amazing, honest, in-touch things from children that you wouldn’t necessarily get from adults.”

It is a testament to the potency of Stafford’s words that they could inspire young writers when Stafford himself did not publish his first substantial collection of poems, Traveling Through the Dark, until he was 48 years old.

Born in Hutchinson, Kan., in 1914, Stafford grew up working odd jobs to support his family during the Great Depression. After attending the University of Kansas, he declared himself a conscientious objector during World War II.

In 1948, Stafford moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College. He became known for rising early every day to write deceptively simple poems, often inspired by local nature. In 1970 he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—the early equivalent of the U.S. Poet Laureate, before the distinction was created. Oregon claimed Stafford as its own poet laureate five years later.

William Stafford passed away in 1993. Since then, the Stafford family has donated a great amount of his work to Special Collections at Lewis and Clark.

Erin Ocón, a teacher at Brown Middle School in Hillsboro, created her own lesson plans in 2010 for another event celebrating Stafford’s birthday. Ocón’s plans focus heavily on revision.

“You can actually look over all of [Stafford’s] daily writing and see the changes he’s made, and how he decides to keep and what to change,” Ocón said. “I think that’s really important for students because for me, as a student, revision was the hardest process to learn. You want to write it, turn it in and be done with it.”

Other participating educators will be free to adhere as closely or loosely to the lesson plans as they wish. However, each teacher is only allowed 10 entries. It will be up to the educator to select those 10 entries for submission to Ooligan Press.

“With the number of students that this would potentially involve, we had to put a limit somewhere,” Larrabee said. “We would be inundated.”

Larrabee noted that if a student in a nonparticipating school wishes to submit an entry, he or she may do so by filing the proper permissions and paperwork, which will be available on Ooligan Press’ website after the Oct. 6 conference.

Abbey Gaterud, Ooligan Press’ assistant publisher and a PSU adjunct faculty member, outlined a few of the things Ooligan will be looking for in submissions.

“We’re looking for new voices, and we’re looking for people who obviously understand what William Stafford was about and what Oregon is about,” Gaterud said. “But then we also want them to find a way to express their own writing style and their own beliefs and their own views.”

While PSU students cannot enter the contest, Larrabee wants to encourage everyone to get the word out. A mailing list has been made available on the Ooligan website for anyone who wishes to receive updates on the project.

Stafford once said that the young “learn to dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.”

Today’s teenagers can certainly identify music, but if Ooligan Press is right, they might be able to hear songs that we can’t.

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