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Poet Matthew Dickman celebrates Stafford

ASHLAND — Portland poet Matthew Dickman never met William Stafford, because the former Oregon poet laureate died in 1993, just two years after Dickman began writing verse.

Nevertheless, a few years later, while an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, Dickman and his friends staged an informal birthday party for the famed poet, known for writing about nature and politics.

And on Thursday, Dickman, now himself a prominent poet, will attend his first official Stafford birthday celebration, held at Southern Oregon University.

"I grew up in Portland and started writing poems in high school — you couldn't be a poet in Oregon and not hear about Stafford and not want to know about him and read his work," he said.

Dickman, a 2010 writing fellow at Lewis & Clark College's William Stafford Archive, will read his own work and Stafford's poems, alongside Rogue Valley poets Linda Barnes, Steve Dieffenbacher, Joyce Epstein, Gary Lark, Nancy Martin and Amy Miller. Community members are also invited to bring a Stafford poem to read at the gathering.

Stafford, who taught for about 30 years at Lewis & Clark, was born on Jan. 17, 1914, and his birthday is being celebrated across the country this week.

Ashland's free annual event begins at 7 p.m. in the Meese Meeting Room 309 in SOU's Hannon Library.

At the end of the reading, organizers will show the film "Every War Has Two Losers," which is based on William Stafford's writing about being a conscientious objector in World War II.

"The two groups are people who choose and have to go to war, and people who are conscious objectors," Dickman said. "War is always just a subject of loss."

As an inaugural Stafford Archive writing fellow, Dickman had the opportunity to sift through Stafford's letters, photographs and manuscripts at Lewis & Clark. But the most interesting part of the fellowship was spending time talking with students about poetry, as Stafford used to do, Dickman said.

"I did a lot of thinking about Stafford and his life as a teacher," he said. "I would sit down and chat about the art of poetry with students."

Stafford remains one of America's most celebrated poets and poetry teachers. He was a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, a position now held by the poet laureate of the United States, and a recipient of the National Book Award in Poetry.

Probably his best-known poem is "Traveling through the Dark," about finding a pregnant deer dead on the side of a country road.

Stafford's poetry inspired Dickman to be freer with his own, he said.

"He said once that 'Poems were not monuments,' and when I read that, it really kind of blew me away," Dickman said. "I think what he was talking about is we're making art — though it's printed on a page and is its own object — it's something that's really valuable and primitively and distinctly mysterious because it's human language. When I read that it helped me not feel like I was chiseling away at a piece of stone when I wrote a poem, that it didn't have to be perfect and I could be more free."

Dickman, whose poetry has been published in The New Yorker magazine, is working on his second book, titled "Mayakovsky's Revolver," after the Russian poet who killed himself. He was also recently hired as a poetry faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, to help lead its low-residency master's of fine arts program.

His poem "Some Days" in his critically acclaimed first book, "All American Poem," evokes some of the spirit of Stafford, he said.

"It celebrates work, it celebrates life and it celebrates friendship," he said. "It's, in a way, instructional and says, 'These things will save your life,' and I think Stafford has a lot of poems like that."

Stafford's spirit is alive and well in many contemporary poets in the state, Dickman said.

"I feel like there is a spirit of Stafford in Oregon and even in a city like Portland, and we're writing with him sitting in the room," he said.

Stafford left a legacy of influence for nonpoets too, Dickman said.

"He gave so much to the world by writing his poems and his essays," he said. "Think about the countless people he taught, and whether they became poets or not, I think they were humanized by his teaching. It's important to celebrate the birthday of someone who was so committed to that kind of work.

"Also, birthday parties are fun."

For more information on Thursday's event, call SOU at 541-552-6816.

Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com