Legendary poet and Mountain Home native Frank Stanford left behind a personal biography nearly as a surreal as his creative work.
Born in 1948 on the Mississippi side of the Delta and soon adopted, Stanford never knew his biological parents. He learned of his adoption in his teenage years, following the death of his adoptive father. Between the ages of 22 and 29, he published seven books of poetry, including a 400-page epic, to enthusiastic acclaim among his fellow poets. Then in 1978, after admitting his infidelity to his wife, he took his own life with three shots from a .22 caliber handgun to his heart.
Two more books of poetry, “Crib Death” and “You,” were released posthumously in 1978 and 1979. A collection of his short fiction, “Conditions Uncertain and Likely to Pass Away,” appeared in 1990. A slim volume of his selected poems, “The Light the Dead See,” emerged from the University of Arkansas Press in 1991. Since then, his work has remained, for the most part, consigned to rare-book rooms and special-collections libraries.
Stanford published prolifically in prominent literary journals and was acknowledged as one of the most talented and uniquely inventive poets of his emerging generation. After his death, however, with his literary estate split, a rift between Stanford’s widow, the painter Ginny Stanford, and the poet C.D. Wright left the majority of Stanford’s work inaccessible to all but adequately determined seekers.
Despite years of obscurity, the number of Stanford’s determined readers has increased. Forrest Gander, Adele Kellenberg Seaver professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literature at Brown University and husband to Wright, attributes the continued readership to Stanford’s place in poetry’s long tradition of idiosyncratic visionaries. Likening Stanford to French Symbolist Arthur Rimbaud and English Romantic John Keats, Gander claims, “Stanford came on with an energy like Rimbaud’s. He knew early how, like Rimbaud, like Keats, not to try to write like anyone else.” Their impassioned, individualistic mentalities left both poets with enduring legacies, despite their careers as poets ending, as Stanford’s did, before they were well into their 30s.
The title poem of Stanford’s first poetry collection, “The Singing Knives,” demonstrates the wild and fluid frenzy of his expression. The poem presents the voice of an adolescent whose knife-throwing friend has snuck him out at night to use as a target:
The mosquitoes drew blood
I looked on the ground
I saw the shadows coming like gars
Swimming under me at night
I saw the red moon too
I wished I was running a trot line
I wished I was in a fight
I wished I was fanning myself in church
But there was a heart on the fan
with a switchblade through it
Seeing the knives’ shadows as gars embodies Stanford’s adherence to immediacy of experience. The boy’s perspective dominates the scene and allows the reader access into the boy’s physical and emotional circumstances.
Stanford’s champions point out the humanity underlying the violence and intensity of his poetry. Dean Young, William Livingston chair of poetry at the University of Texas, says, “Stanford’s work has a directness that doesn’t rob it of strangeness nor poetic power.”
Nearly 37 years after Stanford’s death, Copper Canyon Press, the largest poetry-only publisher in the United States, has slated the release of “What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford” for April 21 of this year.
The book spans nearly 800 pages, including all the works published in his lifetime (with only one book, his epic, “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You,” represented in excerpts), the two posthumously published books and an extensive selection of unpublished manuscripts, uncollected poems, drafts and fragments from Wright’s collection of his papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
The collection not only brings Stanford’s difficult-to-find and cost-prohibitive books together into one volume, Copper Canyon’s visibility and distribution affords Stanford’s poetry an audience vaster than the readerships he enjoyed during his career.
Poets familiar with Stanford’s work have long pined for the emergence of such a collection. “I’m hoping that ‘What About This’ will confirm what many poets of my generation have known,” says Young, who wrote the introduction, “that Stanford was an amazing power, fiercely prolific and assured in his personal mythology and craft.”
The book’s editor, Michael Wiegers, who also serves as executive editor at Copper Canyon, emphasizes Stanford’s “sheer volume of writing” as setting Stanford apart from most other poets. “It’s remarkable to see how much he wrote and how he tried things out,” says Wiegers. “There’s a fearlessness to his writing that is uncommon nowadays.”
In “Lullaby to a Child Who They Say Will Not Live through the Night,” Stanford employs a style liberated of conventional poetics to empathize almost viscerally with a dying child:
I take a bath in a grave with no soap
and keep the secret of the fingernails and vortices of dirt
a pelt is taken by the sound of a lantern going out
and I tremble with the channel cat black as soot
I pass out on funeral jazz and slow water rag
I betroth myself to the tension of the raccoon’s approach
flexing my eyes with the dark
and I swear on my life
I will prowl this black island until I can return
your dirty kiss lightning’s flesh and thunder’s hurt
The poem, from his long out-of-print collection “Field Talk,” is among the hundreds of pages of poetry in “What About This” that have until now been available only in hard-to-find early editions fetching hundreds of dollars each.
Bill Willett of Mountain Home, a lifelong friend of Stanford’s and one of the most ardent promoters of his poetry today, claims that Stanford would have been “quite satisfied” with the book’s presentation of his writing. “The collection of his works together shows the magnitude of the writing Frank did in a short amount of time.”
“What About This” also includes several hundred pages of previously uncollected and unpublished poetry. Though he died before the age of 30, Stanford left behind so much enticing material that a second volume from his unpublished papers is emerging later this year. Musician and producer Jack White, of White Stripes fame, will release “Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives” later this year on Third Man Books, the publishing arm of his record label.
So after remaining mostly out of print for over 30 years, Stanford suddenly has two massive collections appearing on major presses in one year. Chet Weise of Third Man Books justifies the second book as a testament to Stanford’s vast output, as well as his unique process as an artist. Weise explains, “Seeing the drafts and Stanford’s editorial moves, what he added, or left out, even how he types [often every inch of a page is filled with type] really illuminates Stanford as a poet and as a human.”
Stanford is rumored to have started writing sophisticated poetry at a very young age, but for certain he was writing poetry while in high school at Subiaco Academy, in part under the tutelage of his English teacher, Father Nicholas Fuhrmann. However, like Rimbaud and Keats before him, Stanford followed his own voracious path of reading, writing and experiencing the sensory world.
His passion was matched by an intense focus and dedication, claims Willett, who roomed with Stanford in college and later worked with him on surveying jobs. Willett describes Stanford’s work habits, whether writing or surveying, as “diligent, systematic, efficient and fast without leaving anything behind.”
Writing poetry, however, claimed an astonishing amount of his energy. “When he started writing poetry he was on a roll,” Willett explains. “Three or four days with maybe a catnap, just enough time for the coffee or bourbon to wear off, and then he’d go right back to it.”
Stanford’s passion and dedication met with his prodigious talent, which other writers, even those further along in their careers, found magnetic. While studying at the University of Arkansas, Stanford took a creative writing workshop with James Whitehead, the poet and legendary teacher who co-founded the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas. Stunned by Stanford’s skill, Whitehead moved Stanford into the graduate workshops, where he left a significant mark on his older peers. Stanford, however, soon left school entirely, writing and publishing in a steady stream and supporting himself as an unlicensed surveyor.
Well before entering the University of Arkansas, Stanford began composing his stream-of-consciousness epic “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You.” The poem follows his alter ego, Francis Gildart, a boy in the last throes of his adolescence, carousing with a variety of characters, mostly African-American, hanging among the levee camps on the outskirts of Memphis. As surreal as the characters seem, with names like Charlie B. Lemon and Baby Gauge, Stanford drew most of his settings and characters from his actual experiences. His adoptive father, a civil engineer who operated the levees, took an apparently progressive attitude toward race relations for the time.
The book, layered with north Delta dialect and superstition, departs again and again on dream-like thought sequences in which unpredictable imagery continually startles the imagination and overwhelms it with visceral beauty.
The natural landscape and the voices of the people seem to physically rise out of the book. “He enjoyed the rural people,” Willett says of Stanford’s affinity to his childhood surroundings. “They were real. They inspired him. The poetry he wrote came from what he felt about them. He transmitted that feeling through his poetry, which was enhanced by the people and the land.”
He also engaged passionately in social concerns. The epic largely follows Francis Gildart joining a group of Freedom Riders in the midst of the civil rights era. At one point, he catches a hand grenade thrown into the bus and dispatches it back into a crowd of angry bigots without looking back.
Though his imagery is often unabashedly violent, crude and sexual, connecting with human beings in their individual forms of beauty extends throughout all of Stanford’s writing. For Stanford, social engagement did not end with an aesthetic philosophy. Reading through Stanford’s published and unpublished work showed Wiegers “the fierce and deep moral conviction he brought to confronting racism and injustice on an intimate, personal and daily scale.”
In his posthumously released “Crib Death,” Stanford’s poem “Terrorism” fuses his personal intensity with a vision of righteousness:
Mother, when you beat out my quilt tomorrow,
Remember the down in the sunlight,
Because I did not sleep there.
Remember, come evening, the last hatch of mayflies,
Because I won’t.
They are evil, Mother, and I am
Going to take it all out, in one motion,
The way you taught me to clean a fish,
Until all that is left is the memory of their voice,
And I will work that dark loose
From the backbone with my thumb.
Mother, the sad dance on fire.
For Wiegers, the humanity of Stanford’s vision coupled with his inventive artistry establishes him not merely as a poet’s poet but as a writer who might interest anyone: “For people new to the work, I’m hoping to show what an authentic American voice might sound like.”
Gander says that the release of “What About This” is well timed: “James Laughlin, the famous editor of New Directions Publishers, always claimed that great work was 30 to 40 years ahead of its audience. That’s the case with Stanford.”
Citing the many isolating and exclusive movements in poetry over the last 30 years, Gander asserts that readers “might be ready for something raw, visionary and scratched up by the briary world” of Stanford’s intensely felt rural Arkansas.
Like other writers immersed in the language, landscapes and people of their immediate surroundings, such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and William Faulkner, Stanford taps into universal sentiments that make him accessible to readers with little knowledge of the state.
To perceive Stanford merely as a gifted detailer of his surroundings and transcriber of the vernacular, however, is an oversight.
Willett explains that “What About This” “shows the breadth of Frank’s knowledge and grasp of the grassroots Delta and also of everything from Renaissance art to Bergman and Fellini.”
After paging through the collection of poetry, which Willett knows intimately, he points out that “Frank’s boyhood friend, Bobo, catching catfish in the bayou in one poem and an Ingmar Bergman film on the screen in another shows his scope.”
As roommates at several locations in their college days and beyond, Stanford and Willett, each time they moved, would build bookshelves for Stanford’s immense collection of books, containing everything from William Faulkner to Bertrand Russell, from Medieval mystery plays to Andre Breton. He also immersed himself in European art house cinema and had an extensive record collection, ranging from classical and opera to traditional blues and free jazz.
As a longtime editor, Wiegers sees the rare synthesis of an extensive knowledge of literature and a deep connection to locality in Stanford’s poetry. “Among other things he brings poetry from other languages into a Southern tradition,” Wiegers says. “I note that because he is melding a love of language with a love of place and love of tradition. For all his wildness and abandon he was clearly aware and reverential of the tradition — but he makes it new.”
Forrest Gander notes the same synthesis and the resulting inspiration, and perhaps sense of responsibility, that Stanford found there: “He took the landscape that he knew — rural Mississippi and Arkansas — and his experience — as a land surveyor and as an exhaustive reader of international literature in translation — and he turned both faucets on full blast and refused to sleep.”
The poetry is indeed written exhaustively, and has an unrelenting energy that might, most importantly, catch the attention of younger readers and help them potentially seek their own voices as writers.
Gander explains, “His work appeals most, perhaps, to readers in their 20s who identify with the explosive urgency, the humor and the dreaminess of his poems.”
Dara Wier, professor of poetry at the University of Massachusetts, describes the instructive encounters her students have had with Stanford’s poetry over the years.
“Every year there are two or three poets who discover Frank Stanford’s poems for themselves for the first time. Their work pauses while they take in his powerful registers and his passionate visions. Then their work starts up again, more urgent, more full of brave announcements and address, less fearful and less tentatively distancing.”
The poems teach young poets how to invite humanity into their own poetry. “I love how his poems get under their skin,” she says, “and give them ideas about what it is that makes poetry so essential to us in our critical conditions and longing.”
Stanford’s ability to describe raw experience with a voice that strikes so many with its honesty and intimacy may also appeal to those living outside of literature entirely.
Describing his late friend’s miraculous creative process, Willett finds a metaphor that is aptly simple and revealing: “He takes something that’s essentially a handful of dirt and turns it into a sculpture.”
Recently Willett visited his son, who is incarcerated in the Arkansas Department of Correction in Calico Rock. Responding to a sample of Stanford’s poetry Willett had given him, his son replied, “Frank Stanford doesn’t write poetry. He paints it.”
One of Willett’s hopes for the re-emergence of Stanford’s poetry is that it might “show young people there is beauty in almost anything.” Willett continues, “He could take crude elements and make them beautiful.”