Portland's Latest Prize-Winning Poet Remembers William Stafford

National Book Award winner Mary Szybist reflects on Oregon's verse icon.

By Jonathan Frochtzwajg February 3, 2014 Published in the February 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

William Stafford

For it is important that awake people be awake
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep. 

Portland poet Mary Szybist thinks often about these lines, from Po’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” “I love his willingness to linger in ambiguity without rushing to resolve it,” she says, “and to acknowledge that sometimes it cannot be resolved.”

Twenty years after his death—and, this month, 100 years after his birth—Stafford remains Oregon’s preeminent poet. Now, the 43-year-old Szybist finds herself carrying his torch: not only does she teach at Lewis & Clark College, as Stafford did, but in November she became the first Oregon poet to win the National Book Award since Stafford received the honor 50 years ago. (He went on to become “consultant in poetry” at the Library of Congress—a position now called poet laureate.) For Szybist, a lingering influence of Stafford’s work is its comfort in exploring the no-man’s-land between question and answer.

“I have felt myself to be both in Stafford’s shadow and his light,” she says. “And I have been grateful for both.”

Literary Arts’ William Stafford Centennial Celebration (featuring Mary Szybist, among others) takes place Friday, February 7, at the Newmark Theatre.

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