Kim Stafford: Alaska Poems in Place

Totem Bight State Park
A year
before my father, the poet William Stafford, died in 1993, two enterprising
Forest Rangers from the North Cascades in Washington State wrote and asked if
he would furnish some poems for a wild idea they had: Poetry Road Signs. “When
you pull off a mountain road,” one said, “it’s fine if a sign there says ‘The
valley before you was sculpted by ice ten thousand years ago.’ But what if,
instead, there was a poem that deepened the way you looked at the landscape? We
want you to write some for us, and we’ll find a way to get them

My father told me then he thought this
idea should take over the world. “There should be poems everywhere!” In the
end, he sent in thirty poems, and seven were chosen and have been mounted along
the North Cascades Highway, and down through the Methow Valley. At one spot I
remember, a natural history sign tells about the riparian zone, the work of
beaver, how they survive when the river freezes…while a companion sign has
William Stafford’s poem “Ask Me”:


            Sometime when the river is ice ask me

            mistakes I have made. Ask me whether

            what I have done is my life….


A book is
a great place to read a poem—but what about out there, where the river speaks, and the evening chill flavors the
poem’s truth?    

Among the William Stafford poems not used
in the Methow project is one I have always loved. It’s so plain spoken, humble,


        Emily, This Place, and You

               by William Stafford


got out of the car here one day,

it was snowing a little. She could see

glimpses of those mountains, and away down

by the river the curtain of snow would

and those deep secret places looked

the more mysterious. It was quiet, you know.


life seemed quiet, too. There had been troubles,

has some. But now, looking out there,

felt easy, at home in the world—maybe like

casual snowflake. And some people loved her.

would remember that. And remember this place.


you will, wherever you go after this day,

a stop by the road, and a glimpse of someone’s life,

your own, too, how you can look out any time,

being part of things, getting used to being a person,

it easy, you know.


I often
include this poem when I share my father’s work, for its conversational tone,
quiet compassion, and commitment to both earthly and human connections.

Many years after my father died, I got
involved in the Poems in Place project in Alaska, a collaboration that drew
together the Alaska State Parks, the Alaska Center for the Book, and other
partners to install place-based poems by Alaska writers at resonant sites where
wanderers might come upon them, and be “placed” by the harmonic witness of poem
and land.  The project was partly
inspired by the Methow River project, but thoroughly Alaskan as well. As Oregon
friend to this Alaska project, I would hear news intermittently about the
selection process, and the events surrounding the installation of the signs.
Then came a message that electrified me: a poem by Alaska poet Emily Wall had
been chosen for the Totem Bight State Historical Park… and the title of her
poem was hauntingly reminiscent of my father’s poem, “Emily, This Place, and
You”: “This Forest, This Beach, You.”

I tracked down Emily, and she told me the
following story: As a young writer, she had contacted William Stafford and
asked if she might meet with him to talk about her writing. But when they got
together, they spoke of life, seeking, struggle. He was kind to her, she said,
and after he died she came across his poem about “Emily.” “Could that be about

Years passed. She became more active as a
writer, more confident, and when she submitted her poem to the Poems in Place
project, it was chosen. This is what you will find by the water at Totem Bight
State Historical Park:


        This Forest, This Beach, You

                     by Emily Wall


you were a cedar

            you would be waiting for rain to

fall harder, relaxing your ten thousand needles.


you were a handful of moss

            you would be waiting for the light
so you could

further up this rich, fallen log.


you were a blue mussel

            you would be waiting for the tide to

open your lips, to sip.


a world this is.

            Close your eyes and inhale.  Eat a little

this air.  Let it fill your belly.  Let the taste of this place


            always rest on your tongue.


I love so
many things about this story—an older writer helping a younger… the writing or
poetry helping the struggling life… the homage of a living poet to one who is
gone, even as she goes her own strong way… and especially the way a poem in
place can testify for our connections over time, in place, and to kindred
souls. Full circle, a writer’s vocation may reach far beyond the individual

From now until
April 1, 2015 the Poems in Place project is seeking poems for Fort Abercrombie
State Historical Park, Kodiak, and for Caines Head State Recreation Area,
For more information, to see
current poems in place, or to access rules and entry forms for this year’s Poem
in Place invitation, please see:

1 thought on “Kim Stafford: Alaska Poems in Place”

  1. Dear Kim, I just finished reading your father’s book, Even in Quiet Places, a beautiful book written by a beautiful man. When I read “Emily, This Place, and You,” I wanted to
    know who Emily was, so I looked for an answer, and I stumbled upon this article. I was
    blown away, and so moved by this story. How connected we are as a people. Thank you
    for this. A fellow poet.

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