Kim Stafford’s archive at Lewis & Clark College isn’t about him. It’s about everyone else.
In curating the collection of his life’s work — poems, essays, stories, songs, letters and much more — Oregon’s ninth poet laureate and the founder and director of the college’s Northwest Writing Institute “tried to think of what would be useful to others,” he said during the recent opening of a new exhibit about the archive.
“Not for a scholar to study, but for another creative person to maybe find inspiration or a source or a writing practice,” Stafford said. “That’s really my goal as a teacher and as a writer and with this archive: to advance, to propose, to advocate that we can’t be a country, we can’t be a world, without every voice having its say.”
The Kim Stafford Archive — donated by Stafford, 72, and his wife, Perrin Kerns, a writer, filmmaker and educator — was inspired in part by the creation of a similar archive for Stafford’s father. William Stafford, also a former Oregon poet laureate and longtime Lewis & Clark faculty member, died in 1993 at the age of 79, leaving behind 60 boxes of papers. The Stafford family donated the William Stafford Collection to the college in 2008.
“It’s been an honor to care for his work, but it’s my job to organize my archives, and Lewis & Clark was gracious enough to say, ‘We’ll take care of it and we’ll make it available,’” Stafford said .
Stafford said the archive so far represented a fraction of his literary legacy.
“I’ve only delivered about 20%,” he said. Some of his papers by him are also collected at the University of Oregon, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The UO’s Kim Robert Stafford collection features materials from 1972 to 1989.
Lewis & Clark’s collection is housed in the college’s Watzek Library Special Collections and Archives. “We’re so eager to have this collection housed here, and I know it will help people studying poetry and engaging with the arts for years to come,” Hannah Crummé, head of special collections and college archivist, said during the exhibit opening.
“William’s archive and Kim’s archive speak to each other,” Crummé said in a prepared statement. “It’s interesting to see where father and son come together and inspire one another, and also where they diverge.”
William Stafford taught at Lewis & Clark from 1948 until his retirement in 1980 and served as Oregon’s poet laureate from 1975 to 1990. He and his wife, teacher Dorothy Stafford, raised four children, including Kim Stafford. He has been at Lewis & Clark since 1979 and served as poet laureate, a gubernatorial appointment now limited to two years, from 2018 to 2020.
Related: Oregon’s poet laureate, Kim Stafford, shares seven works inspired by the coronavirus crisis
In curating the exhibit about his archive, three Lewis & Clark students, seniors Franchesca Schrambling and Ben Warner and junior Liam Conley, focused on telling what Stafford called a story of his creative life. Conley described the exhibit as an opportunity for visitors to “not only dissect the words he’s written but also look at the development of his process over time.”
One display case, for instance, features one of the pocket notebooks that Stafford carries around in a breast pocket, to have handy whenever inspiration strikes.
“Here we have resilience,” Conley said. “The idea first emerged in this pocket notebook in 2020, 2021. And then that translates into this daily writing page, which is a staple of Kim’s work. … This is very foundational for our exhibit, his writing process for him.”
The student curators also highlighted what Conley called “visually pleasing physical artifacts”: the rucksack that Stafford carried while traveling through Europe in 1969, the mobile office that he used while teaching at Lewis & Clark so that he’d always have everything he needed at his fingertips. “He was just always there for students,” Conley said.
That accessibility is key to the significance of Stafford’s work, Schrambling said: “Kim Stafford’s work matters because it’s not just for him. He’s often writing for other people, connecting with other people or hoping to inspire other people.”
Lewis & Clark president Wim Wiewel sounded a similar theme in his remarks at the opening exhibit, commenting that if Stafford hadn’t been the director of the Northwest Writing Institute, he should have been the campus chaplain.
“You could have been our director of spiritual life, because I think that’s really what you bring to all of us,” Wiewel said.
Moments later, Stafford seemed to prove Wiewel right in offering a benediction of sorts: “May this archive and this college be a study for peacemaking, a place where we practice what every parent says to an angry or frightened child: Use your words.”
The Kim Stafford Archive exhibit will be on display during library hours through Aug. 20 at Watzek Library, 0615 SW Palatine Hill Road, Portland. Admission is free.
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