Reviving Local Stories

William Stafford

Last night at my library I attended a great book discussion about Kansas Poems by William Stafford, edited by Denise Low.  Denise was Poet Laureate of Kansas from 2007-09, and she was our discussion leader last night!

Denise talked to us about William Stafford, a Quaker poet from Hutchinson, KS, who published his first collection of poems when he was almost fifty, in 1962.  That collection, Traveling Through the Dark, went on to win the National Book Award, and he was named U.S. Poet Laureate just a few years later.  His Kansas poems are written in plain language and reflect on death, loss, and rural poverty, but with a deep sense of acceptance and even twinkle-in-your-eye humor.  He was also a noted pacifist; in 2007, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a National Poetry Month feature on him called “A Pacifist’s Plainspoken Poetry.”

And yet!  Most of us in the audience had never even heard of Stafford prior to the book group.  But how could that be ~ a U.S. Poet Laureate and National Book Award winner, from our very own state?  And a KU grad, no less?? In fact, several years ago, the University of Kansas actually declined an offer to purchase a collection of Stafford’s original manuscripts because they were “more interested in curating a National collection.”  So the manuscripts went to Pittsburg State, instead.

Now, I’m the first person to advocate for popular collections in pubic libraries.  Bring on the Stieg Larsson and the Twilight!  Yet this collective forgetfulness about William Stafford struck me as particularly sad.  I don’t believe in libraries being prescriptive, but I do think we’re a natural choice for collecting, recording, and sharing our local stories.  Who’ll record our cultural history if we don’t?  Although this mission might best be suited to academic libraries or historical societies, I think public libraries can participate, too, in a way that’s relevant, fun, and community building.  One of my goals this year is to create a “Literary Landmarks of Lawrence” tour about Langston Hughes, William S. Bourroughs, and other Lawrence literary figures.  What other ideas do you have for bringing local literary history back to life?

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