8. Kim Stafford
Cascade Head, Oregon // July, 2018
Kim Stafford is a poet, essayist, songwriter, and educator based in Portland, Oregon. He was recently named that state’s Poet Laureate, which, he explained to me with characteristic modesty, allegedly just means that “if you go to the state’s website, there’s now a button you can press that will bring me to your local school.” Kim is the second Stafford to hold the position, in fact: his father, William Stafford, was Oregon’s Poet Laureate from 1975-1990.
I first met Kim a few years ago, when we briefly overlapped as artists-in-residence at the outrageously beautiful Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the coast of Oregon. The Sitka Center runs a wide array of nature-and-art-related workshops all summer but then devotes the off-seasons to hosting writers, artists, and musicians for residencies that can range from a couple of weeks to several months; my residency in 2015 comprised a few of the most rewarding months of my life. I made lasting and important friendships with many of my fellow residents, and Kim proved to be a generous source of local knowledge, career advice, and company. This past summer, we overlapped at the Sitka Center again, this time because we were both on campus to teach workshops at the same time. We were able to carve out time for this interview in the narrow window between the conclusion of his class and the hour at which he had promised his family he’d go kayaking with them.
The vast majority of Kim’s work has been deeply concerned with questions of place, ecology, home, earth, and belonging. He’s deeply and inextricably of the Pacific Northwest — he talks a bit in here about how hard he found it to try and live anywhere else — and seems to derive endless joy and inspiration from his ongoing exploration of Oregon’s wild landscape. His poems and essays thoughtfully and directly consider what it means to live on the earth and in a community, and I was excited to talk with him about that here. You can peruse some of Kim’s work at his website, and more about him is here.
It was fun to talk with him — we may have gone a little off the rails at some points, but I was grateful to sit down with someone with whom I could rant and ramble so extensively about these subjects, and it was nice to catch up with an old pal.
Kim Stafford: …and yeah, you do move around! I really enjoy your emails. I looked at your website, but couldn’t see if — will you be performing in Portland anytime soon? On this trip?
Ben Cosgrove: No, not this time, unfortunately, just because of how the schedule worked out. I did just play here in Lincoln City on the… the 5th. And then last night I was down in Cottage Grove—
KS: Oh! [laughs]
BC: Ha! Yep. Exactly. It wasn’t exactly a resounding success. But it was an interesting spot. It’s where they filmed that Buster Keaton movie—
KS: Oh, that’s right. The General, right?
BC: Yeah, and apparently, because of where special effects technology was at the time, filming it required the actual destruction of an actual freight train, which then just sat in a ravine outside of Cottage Grove for years after production ended. And then they finally hauled it out for scrap metal during WWII.
KS: [laughs] That’s fantastic. Yeah, yeah! Interesting.
BC: Definitely. Hang on, let me just adjust this… [sounds of scuffling]
KS: So these interviews – do you have set questions, or do we just improvise?
BC: Eh, I’ve got notes here on this sheet, but in general they’re very freeform, so please feel free to go off on tangents or change the subject and ask me questions, that kind of thing. Those types of things have turned out to provide the best moments. But the idea—
KS: The general idea is landscape, art, place, that kind of thing?
BC: Yeah, in general, the elevator pitch is that I talk to people – and they have largely tended to be, you know, creative people – about the ways in which their geographic experience has influenced their life and work. But it’s not strictly biographical; I’m interested in just gathering a bunch of personal perspectives on place and landscape from people that I think will have thoughtful and interesting ones. So there have been a lot of writers, musicians, artists, that kind of thing – maybe because that’s just who I come into contact with – although I’m now starting to consciously try to expand the pool a little bit.
KS: That’s fantastic. I loved the ones I read. And it’s people from all different regions? All walks of life?
BC: Mmm, to an extent, but I’m still working on that. I’m not really imagining that I’d be able to get a representative sample of, you know, America — that’s not really the idea — but yeah, I think I am looking for impressions from different walks of life, and in particular for a wide variety of geographic settings and of individual perspectives on those different places. I guess that was the original impetus for doing this: as I was driving around, I was talking to people about where they lived and what that was like, and so I finally decided I should start recording a handful of those conversations. So here we are. Mostly they’re a thinly-veiled excuse for me to sit down with people with whom I know it would be fun to discuss things like how they think about place.
KS: Uh-huh, got it. Well, I’m excited to do it! What about – have you done one of these with Frank Boyden?
BC: Ha – it’s crazy you should say that. Frank was actually the very first one of these that I recorded! I haven’t transcribed it yet, because it’s—
KS: Several hours long?
BC: [laughs] Yeah, just about that. Exactly. And I think he was sort of excitedly running around showing me various visual things that don’t come through on the tape. But I need to dive in and type it out soon, because I do remember it being lots of fun. But man, I’m pretty sure it… barely qualifies as an interview.
KS: And yet it’s essential. It sounds perfect, actually. Frank has a lot to say!
BC: He sure does. Really, really amazing guy. But! Speaking of interviews…
KS: Ah, yes.
BC: …who are you?
KS: I’m Kim Stafford. I was born in Oregon, but the family moved every year until I was eight. Iowa-Oregon-Indiana-California-Oregon-Alaska-Oregon… we kept yo-yo-ing back to Oregon.
BC: Always to the same part?
KS: Well… yeah, pretty much. Portland area. But I’ve lived around Oregon, too – I made my living in my twenties as a wandering poetry teacher to little schools. I sort of specialized in small towns out in the eastern side of the state, out in Oregon’s big sky country. Places like Imnaha, Joseph, North Powder, Burns, Silver Lake… all those little places.
BC: Yeah – I’ve almost run out of gas multiple times near a few of those towns. [laughs]
KS: Oh, yeah! [laughs] It’s a danger.
BC: But how did you come to have that role? Did you arrange those teaching jobs yourself? It’s a very satisfying traveling-salesman image you’ve put in my head.
KS: Ha! No, no, there was a program, back in those old days, called the Poetry in the Schools Program, organized by the Oregon Arts Foundation. It sent poets, for a week to a month, mostly to more remote schools, to work with teachers and work in classrooms. And I felt that was really some of my most important training, not only as a teacher but as a writer. To be in kindergarten, talking about poetry and place – the assignment was generally to take as our subject matter the place itself – and then the next period to be in fifth grade, and then in second grade, and then in twelfth grade… the continuity was really the creative process. You know – how do you think about what you write? How do you think about what you are writing? How do you change what you’ve written? Just the organic process of creation.
I would essentially try and interview the class: tell me stories about this place. What do you guys do for fun? Where do you like to go? Tell me about this, this… I heard about a bridge that was stolen. How did that happen? You know, then the kids would rise up to tell me those stories.
BC: You mentioned that your lessons were oriented around place. Did you find there was consistency across the age groups in terms of how they imagined where they were?
KS: Ah, yeah! Good question. Well, for the younger kids it was often a more intimate, sensory, immediate apprehension of place. “There’s this one creek we go to!” you know, and there would follow this resonant, detailed description of this one place.
BC: Resonant and detailed but sort of… decontextualized?
KS: Exactly. Less concern for where it was than for what it was like. But with the bigger kids, many of whom had cars, it was more wide-ranging. And it would start to be more… abstract, too, which of course caused me pain as their poetry teacher – I longed for the sensory immediacy of the younger kids. So I guess I learned to push the older students to acquire the strengths of the younger ones, and vice-versa. But it was essentially a school that was a school… for me. They may have been the ones going to class but I was on a learning path there myself.
BC: Hm, you know, we should – so, obviously, eastern Oregon is very different from western Oregon, and in ways with which some people who read this may not be familiar. Not to derail you, but would you mind quickly describing how the landscape changes as it moves east from where we are?
KS: Ah, yes, and we should say that we’re here on the beautiful Oregon coast, on the side of Cascade Head.
BC: Right! And here it’s very lush and damp and verdant and mountainous, which I think is generally how a lot of easterners – I’m an easterner – picture Oregon. But if you go east over a couple of mountain ranges, it becomes quite different.
KS: But eastern Oregon, on the other side of the Cascades – it really accounts for well over than half of the state’s area – that landscape is high desert, high and dry. It’s at over 2,000 feet, so it’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer; a lot of those schools I was teaching in were very cold. There’s lot of open country, a lot of ranching, a lot of sagebrush, flatlands, juniper trees, a lot of hawks. I thought as a kid, growing up, when we went to the desert, that there’s less to see, but you see everything.
BC: That’s interesting.
KS: You know? There are no thickets, there’s no ravines clogged with blackberries – so you just see bones, you see arrowheads, you see animal prints, you see the work of geology. So it was a revelatory landscape for me.
BC: Had you spent much time in that part of the state prior to your time teaching poetry out there?
KS: Yeah, as a kid – well, my dad was from Kansas, and so the family, whenever we could go on vacation, would go out to eastern Oregon because that was a lot more like Kansas.
KS: My dad used to say – well, people would ask him, you know, “Hey, you grew up in Kansas; how do you like Oregon?” And he’d say, “Oh, it’s okay—except the mountains and the trees get in the way of the scenery.”
BC: That’s brilliant.
KS: It’s interesting, too! Because for him, it really was that way – the scenery for him was the horizon, the long look, the sky, the storms building up. So we would go camp in eastern Oregon, in a place called Cove Palisades State Park.
BC: Oh yeah, near Madras, Highway 26, all that?
KS: Yes, indeed. It was a canyon on the Crooked River, now buried behind a dam.
BC: Hm, yes. I’m sorry to hear that. Although that’s also somewhat, uh, representatively western…
KS: Oh, yeah! It really is. And you know, in – in teaching writing, often I’ll go to a student’s mythic place of origin that is gone. So today, in the class I’m teaching here, we were talking about Edens: what is your Eden, your place of abundance?
BC: That’s interesting. Like, “what is the place you’re unconsciously looking for in all the new landscapes you come upon?”
KS: Yes! Yes. And we’re back to the younger grades, too – I’m calling on these students to remember their childhood, when, you know, we’re all physically closer to the earth. You know, you’re shorter. Your head is closer to the ground. And so you see little things, you see insects, leaves, you see little nuances in the dirt, and those are the things to which your attention runs. And with that comes that sensory immediacy we were talking about.
BC: Well yeah! And also a certain blissful lack of awareness of how the rest of the world thinks of whatever place you’re inhabiting, or revering, or of how it compares to other places. When you’re a little kid, you have no choice but to accept something on its own terms.
KS: Absolutely. And I think they’re related – a big part of that comes from keeping one’s attention to the ground itself, noticing these tiny things, cultivating that sense of attentiveness to what is here in front of you right now.
BC: Huh. It’s not just a lack of geographic experience; it’s a small kid’s preexisting inclination to focus first on what’s right in front of him or her instead of on a more abstract understanding of what a place is about.
KS: Exactly. See those things that are in front of you and see them through the eyes of… of, well, cherishing.
BC: You mentioned the workshop that you’re teaching this week; would you mind explain what that is all about? We’re here at the Sitka Center…
KS: Yep, we’re here at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the Oregon coast. Although this is a workshop that I first taught at Haystack, in Maine.
BC: Oh yeah, on Deer Isle!
KS: On Deer Isle, exactly! I just called the workshop “Earth Verse,” and it really begins with old English poetry. When I was in college I got seduced by things like the old English riddles; the gnomic verses – the Wanderer, the Seafarer; these evocations in poetry of struggle and learning in the landscape. Like the old English riddles – we were talking about this in class today – they often involve creatures speaking in the first person. You know, the Swan. The Bookworm. The Wind. And when that happens, the interrelation of human and natural systems is so effectively evoked. You know? When you say “I am silent when I tread the earth / But as I rise over the houses of heroes,” well, are you the whistling swan? Or are you a human yearning for the experience of flight, of song? I think that Old English poetry was really foundational for me as a writer, particularly in those evocations of the natural world.
BC: Has your work always been concerned with these things? With place and the natural world?
KS: I think so! Honestly, it’s because… well, it’s based on a liability of mine as a child, Ben, which is that I was just so shy. I would spend a lot of time in the woods – every day, I would get home from school and put on my play clothes and head for the woods. We had a canyon near our house, and there were creeks and crawdads and pileated woodpeckers and salamanders and frogs. And opossums and raccoons and cedar trees and caves! We could dig in the dirt, you know, all that. And that was really my learning place as a kid. At school I would just kind of hunker down and get through the day, but that was because I knew, on some level, that waiting for me at the end of it was my real learning opportunity, off in the woods. So, when I started writing, that was what I had to draw from; that was my library of – of experience.
BC: And when was that, when you started writing? Were you still very young, or did you come at it from a different direction?
KS: Well…. yeah, I wrote things in school – you know, everyone writes things in school – but it wasn’t really until college that I began to take it seriously. I had a teacher, a lowly graduate student who taught composition, who assigned an essay and I turned in a poem. And first of all, he loved it, but second of all, he asked me a really important question, which was, “what are you going to do with that?” And I said, you know, “what do you mean, do with it, I turned it in.” And he said, “no, I’m not talking about that poem, I’m talking about you, your writing. What are you going to do with that?” And I asked him what I should do with it, and he told me to send it somewhere, send it to a magazine.
That was a revelation to me. To think that this thing that I had made might have a place in the world! Not just in school, not just to disappear into a teacher’s stack of papers, but to go forth and be a witness for the things I love. So yeah! It was really when I was in college.
BC: Huh! And sorry, where was college, again?
KS: University of Oregon. I went there for twelve years.
BC: [laughs] I mean, that’s the way to do it, man.
KS: I just kept going! [laughs]
BC: Because you found you kept getting better at it, or…?
KS: Yeah, they kept me on for a PhD. I was just so… I opened the catalog and I just thought, “I want to take all of this stuff!” I wanted to take folk dance, geology, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Old English, camp cookery, architecture… you know? It was a playground of learning.
BC: Yeah! I mean… yes, I can certainly identify with that thinking. I often wish I were still in college. Twelve years wasn’t a bad idea.
BC: And when did you… I mean, you mentioned that you kind of—
BC: Hm, no – I mean to say that even as you were ping-ponging around you would sort of prodigally return to Oregon again and again.
KS: Ah, yes.
BC: Was there ever any question in your mind about the notion that the place for you is the Pacific Northwest?
KS: Well, no! I got as far as Idaho – I taught in Pocatello, Idaho for a year and they offered me a job.
BC: Jeez, yeah, which is more or less precisely the bleeding edge of the Northwest.
KS: Yeah – it’s one hell of a drive from here. But I got homesick. So I came back for a couple of years, and got a job at UC Davis and taught there for a year. And then there again, I was homesick. And I sort of lectured myself – come on, grow up, get a job – and then I thought, why should I spend energy being homesick? That emotional energy could be so much better spent on other things. So I came home.
And I love to travel – you know, I’ve taught in Scotland, Italy, Bhutan, all over – but I keep coming back. Having that groundedness means a lot to me.
BC: Yeah. Yeah! And happily, you seem to have really built your career straight out of that groundedness. You’re now the state’s Poet Laureate, for one thing — congratulations again, by the way!
KS: Ah, thank you! Thank you.
BC: And – well, actually, would you please talk a little bit about the Northwest Writing Institute? It seems relevant.
KS: Ah yeah! The Northwest Writing Institute. So, you know, the original apprenticeship was seven years, and after I got my PhD at the University of Oregon, I came to Lewis & Clark College in Portland and became the person who would teach anything to anyone at any time. Which came out of my broad interests in college, like we were talking about. So I would teach elder hostel, I would teach folklore, photography, linguistics, literature, teacher education… so I taught all these courses, but I didn’t have an office, I had a box slung over my shoulder, with my coffee cup, my stapler, my highlighter, my handouts, and I would sort of run around campus, teaching. And then in 1986, the director of continuing education said “hey, let’s take all this stuff you’re teaching and give it a name.” And we were going to call it the Lewis & Clark Writing Institute – but then, no, no, the Oregon Writing Institute – no, no, the Northwest Writing Institute. We just sort of went for the biggest, broadest name. And it was just me! [laughs] So it was definitely… you know, fake it until you make it.
BC: Ha! Yeah, that’s pretty good.
KS: So, yeah, I was trying to run this program, and teach all these courses, and to my amazement – that was 1986 – it’s still going. And it’s swelled, at points, to nine faculty, and we had a newsletter and an office and a staff and all that, and diminished, at other points, down to just me again. That’s where it’s at right now, in fact.
BC: But hey, you’re the… glowing ember!
KS: [laughs] Ha, yes, exactly, the glowing ember! That’s me.
BC: Do you think of yourself as – well, you work in a lot of different genres and media. In addition to being a poet, you’re—
KS: Songwriter, filmmaker, essayist…
BC: Yes, exactly. And I wondered, in light of that, how do you describe yourself to yourself? As a poet who also does these other things, or as a writer, or as an artist-at-large…?
KS: I am a seeker. A seeker.
BC: A seeker?
BC: And you just pour stuff out into whatever form is most appropriate for the subject matter?
KS: Yeah! I’d say that. I’m… addicted to learning, experiencing, being surprised. And to discovery and exploration. And I think of poetry as… well, poetry is certainly the main thing I do, but I’ve thought recently – maybe this is an odd distinction – but I’ve been thinking about art poetry versus transactional poetry. I feel like what I’d call art poetry is when, you know, a famous poet is giving a reading and it’s as if they’re holding up a golden artifact before us, this marvelous poem that can be admired and analyzed and taught. And to me, I want to stand before people and give them something immediate, for this moment and this time and this purpose, without any delusions about timelessness or universality. You know, this is a human transaction. So the poem is not an end in itself, it’s an instrument for moving music from one soul to another.
BC: Huh, that’s interesting. I was going to say, you sound like – well, this is a very common musician conversation!
KS: Interesting, yeah! It’s like a friend of mine who studied musicology – after he graduated, it took him years to rediscover the meaning of the verb “to play” music.
BC: Ha, yeah — as opposed to what, to render; to execute?
KS: [laughs] Exactly.
BC: Yeah, you almost sound like a folk musician; I like that idea of songs living in this space where they’re expected to grow and change and divide or fuse together as they move through time and space.
KS: Interesting. You’re not like most pianists, I’d imagine, in that regard.
BC: I don’t know, but it definitely does seem relevant that most of my friends and colleagues are folk musicians. I guess I think of myself as one, more so than as a composer or pianist or anything like that… but I always have trouble explaining that to managers at some of the stodgier folk clubs out there when I’m trying to get booked. [laughs]
KS: No, no, that characterization makes sense though. Because you’re a bit of a storyteller onstage, too, aren’t you?
KS: Anyway, to get back to your question: I have a writing practice in which I just rely on new stuff appearing every day, regardless of what form it takes. The blank page always seems friendly to me, and inviting, and eager. I like to imagine that the page is as curious as I am.
KS: So, process. I think it’s more about process than result.
BC: You know, another question that I meant to ask you earlier but didn’t – this is a tough one, but I feel like you’ll be very qualified to answer it –
KS: Give it a shot!
BC: Well, how would you describe, or define, the concept of place? What does that mean to you, and why is it something with which you’ve so consistently sought to engage in your work?
KS: You know, there are probably various ways to come at it, but one is… well, Gary Snyder was giving a talk one time, in which he made a distinction between endemic plants, native plants, naturalized plants, and invasive species. So in this taxonomy, an endemic plant is something that can only live in this place. It just can’t get along anywhere else, so it’s completely bonded, literally rooted to this place. A native plant is here, it’s established, self-seeding, it’s been here for a long time. A naturalized plant is something that comes from somewhere else and fits into the existing ecology without significantly disrupting it – it fits into the web of life in a place in a non-intrusive way. And an invasive species, of course, is one which does harm to the natural system of the place.
This is a long way of saying that to me, place is this network of myriad dimensions of existence: the plant life, the weather patterns, the geologic substrate, the history of things that have happened there, the stories people tell – it’s the phenomenon by which these cultural and natural systems have grown up together in such a way as to create a… a matrix of belonging.
KS: And so… a sense of place is first to honor that, to study that, and to recognize that, and then to contribute to that. Another way to come at it – maybe equally oblique…
BC: No, no, I get where you’re coming from! This is really well-put and very interesting.
KS: Well, I read about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid – and again in Rwanda after the genocide – and it identified four types of truth, which I find graft well onto knowledge of place. And the first is the forensic truth: what are the facts? So in terms of a place, what is here? What are the geologic realities? What are the stream patterns, and what are the watersheds, and what are the relationships between different species? The next level is personal truth, which is, you know, in this place, what happens to me? What is my story in this place, in the presence of these facts? The third is community truth – after the facts are acknowledged and the personal stories are told, what is our story in a place? And then, the fourth level of truth is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called healing truth – you know, out of that collection of stories that arise from a place, what is a story that sustains the place? Something that becomes so much a part of the place that the place wouldn’t be the same without that story?
BC: Like broadly, mythology, national narrative…? Or do you mean, like, jazz in New Orleans and Appalachian folk music, that kind of thing?
KS: Well to me, that fourth dimension is literature. Or art. Something that is distilled from myriad experiential sources to become the myth of the place. Which reflects the place, sustains the place, honors the place.
BC: Huh. Which then becomes a self-reinforcing thing, I suppose.
BC: Which… I suppose that highlights the importance of ensuring that that mythology has arisen from as broad a base of experiences and impressions as possible, to protect against building, you know, this big, growing snowball that leaves some people out of it?
KS: Which certainly happens, obviously, but that’s why it’s important for that literature, that mythology, to be dynamic – to grow and change with the place itself. That literature has to move and grow and interact with the place, and not just try to define it from the outside.
BC: Huh. Huh! That’s interesting.
KS: One of the things we talked about in class today was this idea that the British writer Robert Macfarlane has, which is that a place which has not been “evocatively described” becomes easier to destroy… to develop… to change. So a place that has not been actively seen is just raw land, or a vacant lot, or undeveloped, instead of, you know, being recognized as a mythic place with unusual species and special stories. As the home of something important that we need to honor.
BC: That’s fantastic. I– hang on, I want to write that down. Evocatively described?
KS: “A place which has not been evocatively described becomes easier to destroy.”
BC: Yeah. That’s brilliant. I think about that a lot, actually – I think it gets talked about a lot in conservation. The idea that it’s important to build, or identify, a narrative around a particular swath of land to compel people to care about it and stop them from doing the natural thing, which is to regard it as someplace in-between, someplace discardable. It has to be framed somehow.
I wonder sometimes – I guess this is getting a little off-track – but it sometimes seems to me that a danger of being able to move so fast, so suddenly, is that our culture is left with more space in between the nodes that we broadly recognize as places. If you had to walk from San Francisco to Portland, you’d identify a lot more chapters or subsections along the route than if you drove, and certainly than if you flew. That’s a large example, but I think the phenomenon scales: I notice more about the changes in the landscape between Grass Mountain and here when I walk than I would if I only drove.
KS: Huh, I see what you’re saying. I think that’s true.
BC: It’s a thing I think about also, as an easterner when I’m out west. Communities in, say, Massachusetts, are much closer together than they are out here, and that’s often cited as evidence of, you know, the crowded northeast. But I have a more charitable view on it, which is to dwell on the idea that the land is laid out that way because those places were settled by people who had to walk between them; they literally had to move across that land more slowly. And as a lingering consequence of that spatial arrangement, I feel that it’s easier to notice more granular detail in the terrain between one place and another. To me, having grown up there, it’s almost like the pixels are smaller and the resolution is greater. You can access more places as a human-sized person and therefore know it better, in a way that is harder in western Kansas or, you know, eastern Wyoming. It makes for a more intimate, closely-known landscape.
KS: Ha! That’s interesting. Yeah, I do think that intimate, first-hand knowledge is an important element in the construction of place, or in cultivating connection with place. One little story I cherish, Ben, is of this group of conservationists in eastern Oregon who went to the Forest Service office in their district and asked where the old-growth forest was in that area. And the Forest Service said they didn’t know, but the conservationists offered to map it. So they mapped it! And in the process of mapping it, they started calling it “our old growth.” And just introducing that pronoun – that pronoun – cultivated this sense of stewardship. Owning the story, being responsible for the story, then advanced the likelihood that that dimension of the landscape would be honored and preserved.
BC: How much old-growth forest is there left in Oregon? It’s a very small amount, isn’t it?
KS: Oh jeez, yeah, like 1-2%. It’s very tiny and intensely precious.
BC: There’s a spot in northern Minnesota called the Lost Forty – it’s Forest Service land that contains the only forty acres of old-growth forest in the state, and it only survived because of a cartographical error: someone accidentally described it as a pond when they were conducting the earliest survey up there.
BC: Yeah! And then that survey was just assumed to be correct for years and years, and by the time they figured it out, there was – fortunately – by that point a general understanding that this was something that should be intentionally protected and preserved.
KS: So is it like... white pine? Or what’s in there?
BC: White pine and red pine, I’m pretty sure. Part of it burned in a fire some years ago, so there’s now some other stuff going on in there too.
KS: Ha! Wow. So I’ve heard that the technical term for that is a gore – a surveying error.
BC: Huh. Yeah, we have a lot of those in my neck of the woods, but I’ve never heard that refer to something like this – in my experience, they’re like, triangular chunks of land, created by surveying mistakes, as you say, so they’re often in or near mountains, and they can often be, you know, municipalities. Can it refer to just any surveying mistake?
KS: Yeah, little triangular things where the sight line or the lay line went awry. I have a little essay called Scattered Eden, and it talks about a gore, a forgotten place. But then it goes to Hawaii, and it describes a kipuka, which is a high place – often it’s a hill – which the lava flows around but doesn’t cover. So after the flow is over, there will be the original place, with the same birds, insects, and plants—
BC: Like an on-land island.
KS: Exactly! Surrounded by a desert of basalt.
KS: And then it – the essay – goes to the third iteration, which is a place in the city that doesn’t really belong to anyone. Like between two streets that are too close together for anyone to build. And that becomes a little Eden – it self-seeds, it has its own rules, it has its own creatures. And the last part of the essay is to recognize that there’s that place within ourselves, which has not been colonized by modern life. And that’s the source for the writer.
BC: Ha, that’s interesting, yeah. An enclave of… self.
KS: Yeah, exactly!
BC: I am comfortable with the idea that the most genuine parts of me are the results of a surveying error.
KS: But yeah, that can be your childhood, it can be your devotion to a place, it can be your own take on the way things work, your inner teacher, your muse… it must be preserved.
BC: Huh, it’s hard to identify that, though… like I wonder if… I don’t know.
KS: Like if I were to ask you—
BC: I mean, I think I would struggle in your class! [laughs]
KS: Ha! I doubt it. But if I were to ask you, for instance, Ben, where does your music… come from?
BC: Huh, well, that’s just it… well, it’s inspired by landscape, right, so nominally it’s about things that are external to me, although I think that the more accurate way to talk about it would be to say that it gives me an opportunity to obliquely look inside myself by examining my reactions to things outside of myself. I can come to know myself better by observing how I respond to different ideas, settings, and situations. So it’s kind of a backwards means of self-expression if it is one at all.
KS: You’re not drawing from a particular well, deep within you, every time you compose something?
BC: Hm. I don’t know about that, but I’d say… [pause] Well, what you said at the beginning resonated with me, because I do feel that there is a particular… well, there’s a type of landscape that feels – obviously subjectively – to me like, you know, the default. Much the way your dad felt comfortable in eastern Oregon because it was more like Kansas. And I’m definitely… well… forged of the landscape of north-central New England – interior Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, maybe Maine – it’s the type of place where I learned how to explore, and so it’s wound up being the landscape by which I measure all others. Not that it’s, you know, superior necessarily; it’s just the particular, idiosyncratic yardstick that I come equipped with. How high are the hills? How far can you see? And obviously I have this, you know, almost overwhelmingly joyful response to, like, forested lakes and pine needles and rocky ground.
BC: But yeah, anything that is, for instance, broader and flatter than central New England seems broad and flat to me. And anything that is more mountainous than that seems mountainous to me. It’s nice to recognize that I have this particular type of environment of which I’m sort of made, and to which I’ve calibrated myself, but it also makes it hard for me to write music about it.
KS: Ahhhh, yeah. It’s your ground zero.
BC: Yeah! But yeah, when you talk about Edens… it’s not necessarily that it’s an ideal – well, it’s sort of an ideal – but it’s an established baseline from which I am able to read everything else. In a weird way, it helps give me language to express my appreciation of other places, other landscapes.
KS: Right, that’s right. That’s very interesting. You’ve probably read this idea, of Robert Michael Pyle’s, about the extinction of experience?
BC: No, I don’t think so?
KS: That when one of your sacred places is destroyed, it’s not only the place that’s destroyed, your experience that resides in that place is destroyed with it. So it’s not only a destruction of a place, or of a species, it’s a destruction of your access to parts of yourself that became true and resonant in the presence of that landscape.
BC: That’s interesting… that seems to… well, not that I don’t agree. But it’s also not the case that you can return to a place and expect that you’ll be able to access an earlier version of yourself, or access the things in you that it brought out. In fact, I would almost say that for that kind of thing, places can live better in your mind: if you’re looking to preserve or examine a particular phenomenon, maybe it’s better not to dilute its memory with the added information of additional experience.
KS: Ha! Say more about that.
BC: I just often find I have to push back against a desire to think of places as if they’re rooms in a museum, that I can come in and out of at will. Well, take here, for instance – I’ve come back here to Sitka for years now, and it’s felt different every time. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m tapping into a version of myself that only exists here; on the contrary I feel like my knowledge of it and relationship with it deepens and changes the more often I come back. But it’ll never feel like the first time I was here, and maybe it shouldn’t. It’s like a friendship, or a relationship, maybe. You want the to grow and change with the place, and not expect it to stay the same for you. Maybe I’ve lost the track here though—
KS: No, no, that’s very interesting! I think that’s right. It’s a moving target.
BC: Well, yeah! I think everything is. And for me at least, the hardest thing to do in grappling with the identity of a place – or really, with anything – is to acknowledge that, that everything is changing and shifting all the time. That a place’s rhythms are maybe more important and essential than its circumstances at any given moment.
KS: Well, welcome to the forest! Welcome to the river.
BC: Yeah! [laughs]
KS: You know, I came to this line, a long time ago, that I still haven’t done anything with, but it’s: The river is not a place; it is a way of happening.
BC: Wow, that’s great.
KS: Thanks, yeah, it just came to me at some point – I was watching the river and thinking, “wait, I was here yesterday and this gravel bar wasn’t there.” It’s less a place than it is a process. And to fight against that – to long for certainty, in a philosophic sense, or for stability, in the physical landscape – is to set yourself up for heartbreak; it is to not be of the earth.
BC: Ha! I mean – wow, it’s funny you say that. I literally wrote an entire album about exactly – exactly – this idea. Actually [rummages] here, you can have this one! This is for you.
KS: Oh, wonderful! Thank you. Salt. I’ve seen you advertising this but I haven’t listened. It’s about shifting landscapes?
BC: Ha, yeah, I’ll spare anyone listening the trouble of having to endure another instance of me rambling about this, but I’ll tell you all about it afterwards. Just quickly, it’s about liminal landscapes, and places where the relationships between land and water, ground and not-ground, are difficult or impossible to know, and about finding ballast and stability amid the flow of that constant flux. It was my way of writing a breakup album, to write about estuaries. [laughs]
KS: Ahhh, yes, yes. That makes sense. I’m sorry though. How’s that going?
BC: Oh, it’s great! It’s great. I mean, I made the album as an attempt to kind of put it to bed. And anyway, it was a long time ago. Anyway, this is to say, all the stuff you just said about the river and longing for stability would have made for better liner notes than everything I put in there.
KS: Ha! Well, thank you. That’s interesting, though – how in your music you use the metaphor of landscape to explore human emotions and experience. I think it’s such a beautiful idea.
BC: Thanks very much! I have found it to be a really gratifying way to get through the world, for sure. And the praise means a lot coming from you. Actually, jeez, you’d probably be a good person to ask for advice about – well, the current challenge I’ve been dealt is that I’m the artist-in-residence for a hiking trail, the New England National Scenic Trail—
KS: Oh yeah! Mm-hm.
BC: Yeah, it’s great! But although I’ve written about lots of places and lots of different landscapes, I’ve never been compelled to write about a place that’s, you know, two hundred miles long and five feet wide.
KS: Ah, yes, I see…
BC: And it’s made me think a lot more about how we consider or experience pathways, or roads, or trails. Do we experience them as one long, changing place? Or as a linear archipelago of places, all strung together, with blurry boundaries between them? I tend to think it’s some combination of the two, but I’ve been struggling with the question of how to write music that honestly reflects that.
KS: So – I don’t have answers, but somewhere in Gary Snyder’s writing, there’s an essay that says, “off the trail, on the path; off the path, into the wild.” That sort of gradation of the trail as a known passageway through a mysterious landscape may be an obstacle to… well, it gets you from place to place, but it may do so at the expense of episodic experience. Much like what you were talking about earlier, with the in-between places!
BC: Right. Right! Hm. Well, what I think I’ve ultimately decided to do is to write a series of linked pieces that share certain musical elements – so it would honor the idea that these places are all distinct, but also that a through-hiker would recognize their shared elements and commonalities – that they’re all, on some level, built from the same stuff. And in addition, I hope to write one or two standalone pieces that are more just about, you know, trail-ness. Which hopefully might address what you’re talking about.
KS: Ha… I like that. A non-verbal essay collection!
BC: Yeah! They’d be, you know, cases where I’d try and use the same material to illustrate different things.
KS: I like that a lot.
KS: So I have an idea, from a writer’s point of view: incremental variation in a refrain.
BC: Huh! Interesting. Can you say more about that?
KS: So this is from Old English, the idea of incremental variation – you have a refrain, but it changes a bit each time. So you can recognize the continuity, but also address the slow change. So maybe those episodic pieces – within them, you could include some recognizable gesture that changes just a little bit from piece to piece.
BC: Wow, that’s a great idea. I like that, too – in the examples you’re talking about, is the final refrain, you know, completely different from the first one?
KS: You don’t know until you get there. [laughs] But yeah! It seems to be one way to honor both the variety – the changing – and the continuity of moving along a path. Actually, there’s a story I can share with you called “Snapshots of my Daughter Turning,” by Don Berry. His son lives right up here. In the story, it’s a series of episodes spread out over time, and in each one, at some point she turns – she turns in pain, or in anger, or in love – and he uses that moment as a refrain, a way to beautifully weave these different episodes together along a common thread.
BC: Man, that’s great. The “snapshot” is such a perfect concept for that too, because it sort of implies this… well, the artificial stopping of time. Or even the longing for a way to do that.
KS: Exactly! Man. You know what, I’m going to email this to you right now.
BC: Thank you! Yes, it sounds very up my alley.
KS: So the piece you’re doing about the trail though, it’s writing, not music?
BC: No, it’s music, but there may be some writing attached for context. Which is sort of the recipe I’ve landed on in general for… well, you know, here’s what I know how to do. [laughs]
KS: Have I told you about the work I’ve been doing with Hunter Noack?
BC: Yeah! You did.
KS: It was a similar thing, where, you know – he’d play a selection, and I’d read a poem. And he’d play a selection. And I’d read a poem.
BC: I like that a lot. Because in his case as well, it’s instrumental music, right?
KS: Yep, piano.
BC: Yeah, ha, I – I can’t remember if you’ve seen one of my shows, but there’s a lot of yammering. Like I was going on about earlier, even though I’m not really a folk singer, I think of myself that way, so a lot of my concerts are as much about telling stories as they are about the songs themselves.
KS: Yeah, yeah! I have to imagine it serves not only to provide context for the music but to clear the listeners’ palettes between one piece or another. And it’s all stuff that, you know, they can’t get from the CD or the radio or Spotify or what have you.
BC: I’m noticing the time and we should probably wrap up, so we can get you off to the boats with your family…
KS: Oh! Yeah, I suppose so. Wow, that flew by.
BC: I agree! But are there any final things that you wanted to be sure to talk about before we close?
KS: Hm… [pause]
BC: It is great to see you, by the way!
KS: Yes! It’s great to see you, Ben. Great to see you here especially – our time here as residents was important to me; it really has informed much of what I’ve been doing since.
BC: Yeah? Huh! I mean, I guess we should say this, for the record – the reason we know each other is that we were both residents here at Sitka a few years ago. But you were only here very briefly that time—
KS: Yes! Just two weeks, but the time was very strong. A tremendous group, too. You, and Anna Glynn and Peter were here…
BC: Yeah, Nick and Sarah hadn’t shown up yet, had they?
KS: Ah, right at the end.
BC: That’s right! I first met them in your living room when you were in Morley House. They’re doing well, by the way; they’re in Idaho and they’ve got an outrageously cute baby and everything.
KS: Oh, that’s great – please give them my best wishes when you see them.
BC: Will do.
KS: As for final thoughts, there’s just too much to say… but I guess I’ll close with this. We’re destroying the earth. We’re destroying the earth! We’re destroying our mother. And we’re killing the best parts of ourselves when we shatter our relationship with the earth. Frank, the other day – we were talking earlier about our mutual friend Frank Boyden – he went on a beautiful tirade one time, in which he said “the most fundamental thing we should be able to do is to leave the beauty of the earth to our children.” That should be the baseline. And we’re losing our ability to do that.
BC: We’re even messing that basic thing up.
KS: Yeah! Forget about making things, or creating, or adding anything. Just the preservation of the things that formed us, enriched us, and shaped us. It seems like it should be so easy.
BC: So in your mind, what’s to be done about that?
KS: I… well, you know, I beat myself up for many years, thinking, “oh, I’m just a poet; what can poems do?” But then I came to this idea, that poetry is a way to attempt to think clearly about the work we need to do, so that the action that follows is well-directed. Poetry, and the arts generally, are like the research and development division of the human project. To act, in the face of disastrous policies, is too often reactive rather than proactive. So to slow down, and think, and create, and make poems, and make art is a way that our actions will be more effective in the long term. So you’re part of the transformation team, to love and save the earth, but you can’t save it alone.
BC: But you can contribute to a culture of engagement and awareness – of understanding and celebrating the world.
KS: Right. Thoughtful action, rather than… capricious action.
BC: Well, Kim, thanks so much for your thoughts and your time. This was really fun.
KS: It was. Thank you! Thank you for all you do.
BC: Same to you, of course! Let’s get you back to your family before they come after me.
KS: Ha, okay.
[END OF TAPE]