This week the wonderful poet Nickole Brown was asking folks on social media for short, creative nonfiction pieces about sound for a class she is teaching on defamiliarization. I admit, I missed the acronym, CNF and was, as usual, thinking of poetry.
My mind went straight to a poem by William Stafford and my hands immediately reached for a favorite old paperback on my shelf. This tattered and stained copy of An Oregon Message has traveled with me from a bookstore in Indiana since, I think, about 1989. It was published in 87, and while I don’t know all the poems by heart, I do remember each by title, and I reread them from time to time.
I still vividly recall watching a video in Dr. Mary Brown’s class of Stafford reading his poem “Ask Me,” a piece I do know by heart and have recorded many times (look for the latest, upcoming soon). His poetry helped open my mind to what lines on a page can do, what vistas can be opened with minor alterations to diction and syntax.
For instance, in the poem “Ask Me” which begins with the iconic line, “Some time when the river is ice,” the poet says, “Ask me / mistakes I have made.” Not, “Ask me about,” or “ask me what mistakes,” but “Ask me / mistakes.”
That makes a reader stop, not because it’s incomprehensible, but because it varies a bit from the way we would expect the line to go. It slows us down and makes it difficult for our minds to remain on auto-pilot, slightly jostling our presuppositions about where the author is going with this statement.
That tendency of Stafford’s to place everyday language just off-center enough to make the line more vivid, the image fresh and new, was immediately more interesting to me than the deconstruction works I was reading for the first time then.
Rather than shatter the walnut of language into unnumbered pieces, sending meat and shell fragments alike skittering under furniture and into cracks in the floor, as it seemed the postmodernists were apt to do, Stafford chose to just crack the nut a little bit—and not always along the seam. This encouraged and tempted me to pry the rest open for myself. It was a revelation in what just a little non-conventionality in line endings, diction, and syntax could do. It was also a demonstration in the art of “less is more.”
So, while it’s not what Nickole was looking for, she was gracious and sent me a “thank you.” Perhaps there is something there she can use. I was happy to be reminded of the poem, in any case.
It’s been a few months since I’ve uploaded any readings to YouTube or SoundCloud, so reading this again inspired me to sit down and record a few favorites, starting with this one.