In 1967, after I’d been a student at Wisconsin State College in Stevens Point, and the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I decided I wanted to head West, or Southwest, to finish my Bachelors and get a graduate degree in Creative Writing. I had first been an Art major, then a Creative Writing major as an undergrad, and because I was already having some success in getting published, I figured I might receive a fellowship, or teaching assistantship as a grad student. The two universities that seemed attractive were the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and the University of Oregon in Eugene — so I flipped a coin, which came up Eugene. My wife and I moved there in the Spring of 1968, where she got a job at the local Public Library, and I was employed by the University of Oregon bookstore. I was still an undergraduate, and didn’t, however, get accepted for the undergraduate program at the University because several of the courses listed on my transcript did not match any at Oregon, and if they did accept me, graduating would take too long.
Whenever I’d hear about a poet who was scheduled to give a reading, either at the University or at a venue in town, I would see if the bookstore stocked any books by that poet. If I found one, or more, I’d buy a copy, then bring it along to the reading to get it autographed. That way I made contact with a number of respected poets from the region. I also would read current and back issues of Northwest Review—published by the University of Oregon creative writing program—and paid particular attention to the poets whose biographical notes indicated they were from the Northwest.
I mentioned in a letter to Morris Edelson, editor of Quixote magazine and press back in Madison (who had published me a number of times) that I was very impressed by how many top-notch poets there were in the Northwest. He then invited me to assemble an anthology of those poets, and he would publish it. The editor of Northwest Review allowed me access to their files, so I then had contact information for the poets whose work interested me.
My Northwest Poets anthology, which included 83 poems by 43 poets, was published in 1968. It includes Gary Snyder, Canadian poet Stanley Cooperman, Ralph Salisbury (editor of Northwest Review), Sandra McPherson, Howard McCord who later chaired the Creative Writing programs at Washington State University, and Bowling Green University in Ohio, and Joan Swift.
Among the poets was William Stafford, who I’d met when I had been invited to participate in a group reading in Portland. Bill and I became good friends, and I stayed in touch by mail after moving back to Wisconsin later that year. He was always ready to comment on any new poems I’d send him. Years later, after grad school at Cornell, I was on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati, and convinced the Creative Writing program to invite Stafford to be a featured visiting poet. I was asked to introduce him. Following my introduction, he walked to the center of the stage, and stood there for a moment. He then pulled his sweater off, and dropped it to the floor. While that seemed unusual, it was even more surprising that he had not carried any of his books or manuscripts with him. He then began to pull papers out of his pockets, unfold them, and read his beautiful poems. Here’s a Stafford poem from the anthology.
There was a town out west of
Abilene called “Terror.” Guns there
went off when you let go of the trigger.
Every Saturday night weaklings would falter,
kill people. You always prayed
strength to your enemies.
Hickok, Eisenhower, and those others
braced in their cartridge corsets
had to work long hours, in Abilene,
but in Terror even the trees had religion,
and when rain brought messages, cactus itself
felt love. That’s what a trembling kid,
a refugee, told me.
When he saw how weak my hand was
he cried out: “Terror! Terror!
My name is Billy.”
— William Stafford