Michael Wiegers by Peter Mishler

Fable and fact—an editor’s perspective on the poetry and cult of Frank Stanford.

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Photo by Ginny Crouch Stanford.

Frank Stanford was a prolific American writer who published several collections of poetry and left behind numerous unpublished works before his death at the age of twenty-nine. His poems have received attention through various posthumous editions, but What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Standford—just released by Copper Canyon Press—serves as the most complete and thorough survey of his work, now nearly forty years after his death. What About This deftly compiles both published and unpublished work, drafts, prose, an interview, ephemera, and excerpts from his 450-page poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. In June, Third Man Books will release Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives, a companion collection of outtakes, alternates, and ephemera not included in What About This.

I first encountered Stanford’s poems as a student, through a loaned copy of an earlier, selected poems. I was struck immediately by his obsessive and recursive image-making and idiomatic style; how he used the page to exorcise his head of symbols drawn from the speech and mise-en-scène of the American South in which he lived. As I began making my own poems, Stanford was an assurance for me that I could approach poetry as a means to define and redefine my own private symbology in a language both strange and everyday. I corresponded with Michael Wiegers, executive editor at Copper Canyon Press, editor of What About This, and co-editor of Hidden Water, to discuss these new editions of Stanford’s work.

Peter Mishler How did this project come across your desk?

Michael Wiegers Nearly twenty years ago, when we first started publishing C.D. Wright’s work, a friend of mine, Bill Verner, knowing about her connection to Stanford asked, “Have you ever read The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You?” I knew nothing much about Stanford at the time. I started gathering his work slowly—C.D. sent me my first water-damaged copy of the original Mill Mountain version of the book. Like so many who already knew about his work, I was captivated by the person and by the poems. Slowly I started pestering C.D. about the possibility of doing a large retrospective. I was something of a village idiot, bumbling into the Stanford town square. From the outside, I can only imagine that there was a lot of hurt and complication felt by the individuals who were entrusted to his literary estate. With this in mind, I started writing to the various parts of the estate, and rights holders, engaging them in the hope that something might be gathered. At a certain point, I guess they just agreed that it was a good thing to do. 

PM So this book is a long time coming? What occurred that you were given such access and permission to edit Stanford’s work?

MW It’s many years in coming, particularly if you take me out of the equation. It should have happened a couple of decades ago. Even Stanford himself envisioned some version of a “selected” poems. I personally first started thinking about the book over a decade ago, but really started working on it in earnest for the last four or five years. I don’t know if anything specific happened. I was just persistent. I tried to meet with Ginny Crouch Stanford on several occasions; I talked with C.D. Wright; I sat down with file cabinets; I corresponded with Irv Broughton; and I visited the Beinecke. I guess I earned their trust, and the unification of the work was one last bit of love everyone could demonstrate for Stanford. It was just time, and I was thankfully in the position to make it happen.

PM Did you start to feel a sense of responsibility to the work as you got involved with this project?

MW Absolutely. I realize that this book is not “mine” in any way—his work can’t be colonized. He’s a poet who has been passed along by dedicated fans for decades, and I think many people feel a type of kinship with him that has to be respected and admired: They’ve kept his work alive through their love of it. There are a lot of people who are a lot smarter about it than I am, and a few who know the work much better than I do, but I recognize that I was in a position to make the book happen. I want to honor those unknown readers, I want to honor Ginny and C.D. and Bill Willett and Matt Henriksen and Irv Broughton and all the folks who have stood behind his work long before I discovered it twenty years ago. Judging from the many letters I’ve received, Stanford is personally important to some readers and I don’t want to let them down.

PM Poet Dean Young mentions in his introduction that, when he was a college student, Stanford’s work was passed around like contraband, and you’ve alluded to the fact that he’s been a kind of cult figure in American letters. In your estimation, what is it about Stanford’s work that interests multiple generations of readers?

MW I think there’s certainly an enthrallment with the backstory––the hyper-romantic notion that you could be so prolific at such a young age has to appeal to younger writers. Furthermore, to read his work and see that he could write with such swagger and seem to live as such, too. Finally, as with other greats like Plath, Berryman, Yesenin, Mishima, Brautigan, or Mayakovsky, he took his own life––it all adds up to an enthrallment. Knowing the story, seeing the influence of and then reading the work, one sees he was capable of brilliance and humor that took him far from being simply a poète maudit. When I read the work—apart from the biography—I am continually struck by his command of the line and the image. Just brilliant. Admittedly, had he died of pleurisy we may have been less interested in the work. Self-determination has a strong pull––and there’s an ingrained fascination whenever someone suicides him or herself. We look for clues to help answer why, and build myths to explain the act. Mix that impulse with writing that is by turns regional, international, direct, surreal, and rooted in fairness, and it’s easy to see why his work has been so attractive to readers.

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Photo by Ginny Crouch Stanford.

PM What is this collection going to provide for longtime readers of Stanford?

MW A first step toward gathering his legacy into a more visible light. I think they will also be surprised by the amount of unpublished work and the amount of work that directly engaged poetry in translation. He wrote many “versions” of the work of other poets in a variety of languages. Also, I think it will give a glimpse of his working process. There’s a facsimile of a poem where you can see him practicing his signature in the margins, or you’ll see crossouts, or there are variations of the same poem that were good and interesting––and I hope to show some of those in the outtakes edition we’re doing with Third Man. More than half of What About This is taken up with unpublished work, and then Hidden Water will contain another 200 or so pages of writings about Stanford, facsimile drafts, variations, as well as a significant number of poems I decided to leave out of this collection.

PM What were the biggest challenges you faced in editing Stanford’s work?

MW First off: the sheer volume, and then getting all the various moving parts working together and making the gears fit. The work was divided among several interests and scattered in several places. Once I established regular communications, made visits to homes and archives, I had to filter through what exactly we had. Then I had to cut it all down. Way down. There was much more work––in the form of drafts, excerpts, juvenilia––that could have gone into the book but did not. Organizing it also presented a challenge. Stanford liked to move things around, constantly redefining individual manuscripts. The previously published books were pretty easy to organize, but the unpublished work, which is divided between ungathered work and poems Stanford had organized into somewhat interchangeable manuscripts. 

PM What organizing principles did you use to edit the unpublished work?

MW I first chronologically ordered the books that had been previously published, and then there were the unpublished manuscripts––I tried to keep those together, trying to respect Stanford’s logic and ordering, even while I know he likely would have changed things around, and then I gathered all the poems that weren’t gathered into a manuscript. I’m still finding poems like this, even after the book has been published, while I’ve been working on Hidden Water. I knew I needed to represent Battlefield in some manner, but to include it in its entirety would be ridiculous, so I chose excerpts and scattered them through the book, sort of like section dividers. Similarly, I used archival materials/facsimiles to punctuate the book, too.

PM How do you as an editor get to know the “logic” of a poet like Stanford in terms of arranging unpublished work without the help of the writer?

MW A lot of the “logic” was provided by him. It’s right there. He seemed to always be trying out books and envisioning a type of completion. I look at the draft of the poem “Freedom, Revolt, and Love” that I featured in the book, and you can see that he’s practicing his signature. It’s like he’s trying to get it right, get the right look and feel. Similarly, there are poems and parts of poems that would appear and reappear. So there’s a lot of randomness, too. I decided to avoid including too many of such alternate takes, but there are a few in the book that I’ll let readers discover on their own. It struck me that he constantly practiced revision, and I’ll bet that that was part of his logic more than it was any self-consciousness or doubt.

PM What did you learn about Stanford and his work that you didn’t expect, after spending so much time with his material?

MW I’m curious about his days at Subiaco [Stanford attended a Roman Catholic day and boarding school in Arkansas]. I can’t say that I learned much about that time, but I’m certainly curious. I spent my high school days at an all-boys Catholic school and can identify. From his time there I think he really engaged poetry in translation and that influenced him. I hadn’t realized at first just how much he copied and riffed off of translations. And some of the priests at Subiaco seem to have helped him with translations, too. I love how he really was possessed by poetry and had to figure out what poets in other languages were up to.

I was also surprised by what I’ll call his shenanigans. Forgive me for saying so, but the guy wasn’t shy… and neither was he renowned for chopping down a cherry tree. There’s the ruse he pulled over on Seventeen magazine. He also claimed to have written a much larger poem, St. Francis & the Wolves, from which he culled The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. He supposedly started writing that when he was nine years old. While I did encounter evidence of such a book, and longer passages that ran alongside Battlefield in term of line and content and tone, I think there was a little bit of fibbing going on there. There was a selected Mill Mountain book that was pasted up and seemingly ready at one point for publication, and it carried the title St. Francis & the WolfSelected Poems 1957-1964. Looking through the poems, I’m not convinced that even his precociousness would have him writing them between ages nine and sixteen. Also, while he kept extensive notebooks, he wasn’t very good with keeping dates. And he seemed to be retroactively affixing dates. I think it was all just one big river, not one big poem. I’d love to be proven wrong. It seems like he was working on a selected poems that he titled St. Francis & the Wolf, but the single poem of that title may be yet another instance of his mythmaking.

I think I really came to love how he used his material as material. Just like a painter pushing paint around a canvas, he pushed his phrases and images and lines around the page. The moon makes so many appearances in his poems, and you can tell that he’s trying to work that out, trying to obsessively get at the moon. While I wouldn’t be surprised if I were proven wrong––I want to believe, don’t we all?—I think liberties were taken, and then reinforced with story, and thus the myths were made and reinforced.

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Front matter from St. Francis and the Wolf, a book of selected poems that was never released. Photograph courtesy of Michael Wiegers.

PM What’s this Seventeen magazine ruse?

MW He published a couple of poems in the magazine under the assumed (yet familiar to Stanford fans) name of Francis Gildart. There were two poems accepted, but so far I’ve only seen proof that one of them was published. Subsequently, it was publicized in a small town paper in Arkansas that a local girl had published in the magazine, but that a local reader could not find trace of the poet. Looking at the poem it’s clearly Frank, and it turns out that he sent it there because they paid. There will be ephemera concerning this in Hidden Water.

PM You mention Stanford’s versions or pastiches of poets writing in other languages. Do you have any insight into what the poet’s composition process was like for these poems, or about his interest in these poets?

MW Back to Subiaco––I found some correspondence wherein he asked priests to help him with the literary translations, but I think he also just plonked around on the strings and came up with what he thought it might be saying, and pursued it even if it wasn’t a translation whatsoever, but eerily, he would get at the root, he would make a poem even though he was without the original language.

PM I get the sense that Stanford saw himself as a visionary, and perhaps––as you were saying about his desire to inhabit the language and voices of other poets––interested in the spiritual, the unconscious.

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Left: one of Frank Stanford’s notebooks, which he numbered sequentially. Right: a newspaper clipping concerning Stanford’s Seventeen magazine hoax. Images courtesy of Michael Wiegers.

MW While I’ve tried to avoid making any public conjectures on his biography, I do think that his time at Subiaco had a big influence on him, and his obvious fascination with Merton indicates to me that there is a spiritual something he was after, while his bankshot surrealism tells me there’s an inner life we can only speculate upon.

Throughout, I thought there was something that he’s not saying, that he can’t say or couldn’t yet access––and perhaps some of the surrealism (I’m still trying to come up with a better, less reductive term for what he does) and the mythmaking is a part of that inaccessibility. Even in his methodology of recombination, drafting, and repeating. He tries shit out, as if probing and daring the unconscious to reveal something, anything at all.

PM Are there poems you think are more deeply Stanford’s in an autobiographical sense?

MW I see Stanford’s autobiographical references throughout the work, but he rarely sticks with them––they are just moments that inform the larger narrative. Autobiography provides an occasional stake in the ground and he ties his horse to that stake.

PM Can you conjecture then about what he is not saying in the work?

MW Stanford’s bio is obviously fascinating, but it’s also suspect. Stanford was a narrative poet. He told stories. I really doubt that the embellishment necessary for a good story stopped at the story of his own life. There are plenty of people in the literary world who want to build their own myths––perhaps, in their cases because there’s so little affirmation in writing, and so much self-doubt. I don’t have any clue whether he was motivated by these things, but I think Stanford’s mythmaking was, in fact, a way to avoid his autobiography. A poetics of avoidance. I have a few conjectures I could make, but I think that’s probably irresponsible. I should let others simply read the work and let him speak. Having said that, I should refrain, clearly there was a pain that ended in his own self-decided death. What was the source of the pain? Who knows? Probably no one thing. As an example, my understanding is that he thought of himself as coming from “Southern royalty,” and so I can imagine it was probably traumatic for him to learn later in life that he was, in fact, adopted. Which came first? The story or the revelation that he was adopted? Consider how many writers have felt neglected and unheard––it’s all too common––and they can either go through with a chip on their shoulder, or they can develop the thick skin and incredible confidence that Stanford had. The myths and stories provide the confidence and thick skin––stories and poems have always helped us plot a way through the mud. And yet, there’s a pain he couldn’t overcome that led him to take his own life. It’s all just a fucking shame. The guy was brilliant. He saw the world. I prefer to look at that vision in the work first and foremost––and want to celebrate the work.

PM Do you have any ideas about where Stanford’s work was heading before he passed?

MW Very good question, and I don’t know if I can fully answer it. Because there was so much unpublished work, and he wasn’t very good at dating things, I would try to figure out the chronology as best I could, but I couldn’t always place it in terms of his age. If I had to guess, I’d say that he was looking more and more at the process of translation––of himself inhabiting other voices from other languages as he tried to make them his own. Rather than drifting away from a Southern voice, perhaps he was looking to other voices as a way to learn how to make that Southern/Arkansas sound come through.

PM About the ephemera in What About This––the handwritten manuscripts, the poem on the back of business stationery, the fourth-prize grade-school poetry award––what did you find of interest that you weren’t able to include, but wish you could have?

MW You’ll see some of that in Hidden Water. There’s plenty I wish I could have added––but decided not to, so as to keep the book reasonable and affordable. But again, some of that will appear in the Third Man book. There are plenty of things that were heartbreaking or puzzling or immensely interesting. The strange Cocteau-esque movie that he made with Irv Broughton is great, not so much for the quality of the film as for the time and the opportunity to hear him speak. His voice was much deeper than I’d have imagined. And there were a few things I’m privileged to have seen––such as the unopened envelopes with invoices from the hospital, billing for the ambulance that carried his body away—but I don’t think that is for public consumption. There was so much pain in seeing those. And there’s no need to open all those unopened envelopes with the same overdue bill. I knew what they said. We know that the price of an ambulance is a lot more expensive these days. And to try to morbidly recreate that effect in a book would have been a failure of advocacy and stewardship. However, these artifacts helped me see that this was a real event––beyond the romanticization of myth––and that his suicide profoundly altered the lives of those around him.

PM Are there places where you felt it was more necessary to honor the myth as opposed to fact? For example, there are manuscripts in What About This that remain dated from his preteen years, though you mention that perhaps this dating could have been retroactive.

MW Definitely. I’m a gullible skeptic: I want to believe the myth, but a 40,000-line poem started when he was nine? Really? However, I’m not here to judge the myth or the man, both of which intrigue me immensely––but I am trying to represent the work faithfully.

PM At the risk of sounding too mystical, do you experience a kind of “inhabiting” of a poet like Stanford (or vice versa) when you are immersing yourself in her/his work?

MW I don’t think I really inhabit him, but his voice does get stuck in my head. And I start seeing the moon in everything. He had a lot of consistent tropes in his work, and so things start looking like the prow of a boat, or the circle of a cup becomes the moon, or a simple fence starts looking ominous and foreboding. More than anything, I think I started seeing how he grabbed an image or an idea or a narrative, and he turned it over and over, looking at it from a variety of angles. That way of seeing certainly rejiggers how one like myself looks at the stories and objects in his own life, but I’m a very different person than Stanford.

PM How did you come to poetry?

MW We all have poetry. I like W. S. Merwin’s contention that the first poem was the first time a mother screamed at the death of a child. We all need something that says something just beyond what words can say. I remember my first real poetry books: when I was a kid my mom gave me Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind and e. e. cummings’s Collected Poems (the pinkish red hardcover with black label on the spine). I had been studying poetry (at an all-boys Catholic school, much like Stanford, albeit with the Jesuits, not Benedictines) when I discovered that, in these books, there was another kind of poetry. And while I was interested in and pursued biology in college, I fell in with poetry about midway through. I was reading Sir Phillip Sidney at the same time that I was listening to John Giorno––loving them equally. I never pursued an MFA or any other postgraduate degree, but after a spell in a brewery, I started working in bookstores. That was my real education. I could take books home at night, and most people were intimidated by poetry. I was not, and became “the poetry guy.” I also became impassioned about independent publishing, which had a bit of the DIY punk ethos I aspired to in my teens and twenties. I read more than poetry––and during my stint at Coffee House Press I edited more than poetry, too––but poetry was always my first love. It is virtually noncommodifiable. It’s really not an interesting story: I’m just obsessed with poetry and immersed in it.

PM Working with Stanford must have been a real pleasure––a chance to present the oeuvre of a relative unknown. Do you have a philosophy that guides your work with poets that is evidenced in your work with Stanford?

MW Absolutely: I love publishing master poets, but I really love bringing new folks to the surface. We all tend to have some little secret we want to tell, some little “A-ha” that we want to read aloud or share somehow. I enjoy publishing in an activist manner. To paraphrase/reduce Tolstoy, I want to change minds so as to change the world. Bit by bit. Poems are my little pebbles that I throw back against death, against all that resists living fully. There’s a subversion in poetry that I love. I’m always looking to engage subversion. As far as a philosophy: although we’re not going to avoid his biography, I want to focus on the work itself and highlight it within a larger cultural landscape. Similarly, I want to make a case for every voice we publish, and encourage it to transcend the self––even while it may celebrate the individual. Value the voice and add it to the record of those who speak for us all.

Peter Mishler is a poet living in Syracuse, New York.

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