You have to wonder, when considering Frank Stanford, if poetry isn’t a little like science in that individuals matter only in so far as they resemble other individuals. Stanford’s exclusion from anthologies, his obscurity even to other poets, and the sense that, as one reviewer confessed, “it was difficult to explain where [his] orphic power came from,” all contribute to the myth that Stanford, who killed himself in 1978 (aged 29), eluded recognition because he rose de novo from the same Arkansas red soil into which he fell. The additional fact that, as a physical specimen, Stanford was a latter-day Adonis only enhances the myth of his exceptional nature. “His eyes,” wrote a friend, “were soft to the point of bovine.” His wife, Ginny, an artist, recalled that when she first saw Frank “it was like getting hit on the head with a brick.”
There’s truth in the romanticized Stanford: He was undoubtedly a rare and beautiful creature. Some critics classify him as a “swamp rat Rimbaud.” But that’s more cool than accurate. He didn’t really know swamps. He knew levee camps, the dark wooded expanse of rural Arkansas, and the gutted mobile homes of the downtrodden. While the id-leakage and surrealist tinge of his work—all of it available in one volume, What About This—hint at Rimbaud, such qualities evoke more a caricature of Rimbaud than the itinerant absinthe addict seeking literary companionship in the metropolis. That kind of quest was one that Stanford, who would have rotted internally at a New York literary gathering, wasn’t eager to undertake. “I don’t give a shit about a lot of the literary goings on I hear about,” he wrote to the poet Alan Dugan, one of his few reliable correspondents. He brushed aside his better-connected contemporaries as overeducated aesthetes “who school up on theories and shit like minnows.”
Others trying to assign Stanford an influence often suggest Walt Whitman. But what poet with any affection for the hurly-burly of everyday life isn’t classified as Whitmanesque? And Whitman, for all his admirable range and tolerance, would have blanched at the slow countrified violence that marked Stanford’s experience (so different than the hot Civil War gore that Whitman confronted) and informed his early works such as The Singing Knives (1972) and Field Talk (1974). Stanford took a class with Miller Williams, but the only thing I find him saying about Williams (father of Lucinda) is, perhaps affectionately, “that SOB Williams.”
And so it seems fair to suggest that the anxiety of influence—a creative necessity for so many poets—may have failed to penetrate the mobile-homed hamlets where Stanford roamed, rambled, mused, and wrote with prolific intensity.
Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives (2015) offers a lot to support the thesis. It suggests that Stanford’s primary poetic wellspring was a radically regionalized and isolated Stanford. This febrile volume, which is essentially a controlled chaos of letters, lists, drawings, scraps, photos, and poems (published and unpublished), highlights the kaleidoscopic flow of Stanford’s all-too-brief poetic existence, an existence ultimately marked by innocence that was, as one friend put it, “smuggled out of childhood.”
As the title indicates, water runs strong throughout Stanford’s poems. But what roils beneath it, what seems to never leave the page, is the steamy subculture of country life, the kind of subculture that, if you’ve never known it directly, can be vaguely imagined by driving though L.A. (Lower Alabama), central Mississippi, or Stanford’s rural Arkansas, and peering beyond the tree walls into weed-choked pockets and piles of poverty and decay.
Stanford worked as a land surveyor. He knew this terrain as well as anyone, and it was into that scrambled wilderness that he went when it was time to encounter (to quote Patti Smith on Sam Shepard) “lonely fodder for future work.” Stanford’s friend Steve Stern noted as much, saying that “to see Frank in the streets of Fayetteville, where I knew him, was like meeting Marco Polo back from Cathay.”
Stanford, a southern poet by temperament and geography, surveyed himself into a literary landscape far away from the conventional southern tradition. “I don’t like Tate and Ransom and that crew,” he wrote to Dugan in 1971, referring to two founding members of the Fugitives, a group who would later, as newly fashioned “southern Agrarians,” publish a bombastic literary defense of the south called I’ll Take My Stand (1930).
In another letter to Dugan, probably written while intoxicated (“I was drunk when I wrote that letter,” he once admitted), Stanford ratcheted up the critique. “I say piss on the neo-fugitives…piss on the Southern Review.” These “scalawags” were nothing more than “exploiters of the truth, the black man, the white. There. I know all this but none of it enters my mind when I write my poems. I have no stand when I write. I write about what I know; what is the truth. I know this other stuff is counterfeit, but they will always have the power. Fuck.”
Stanford’s anti-Fugitive rant follows a much longer passage dealing with race. Stanford wrote, “You probably think I am fucked up with my ‘association’ with BLACKS. This is the way I’ve always been. Most of my life was not spent with white people. My experience, I took for granted. I was actually in high school before it dawned on me I was probably only one of the only white boys in the world who had done what I’d done. This was in 63, when my father died. He told me this.”
Only after making the connection between his upbringing and his deep affiliation with black people does Stanford (before pleading with Dugan “please don’t laugh at what I’m saying”), declare with ineffable tenderness: “I knew I was a poet.”
Other letters, photos, and poems confirm that Stanford’s engagement with African-American culture intensified during adulthood and shaped his view of the world. When he wrote about “what I know; what is the truth,” it was knowledge obviously absorbed through daily interactions with people such as Claude, a black man with whom he’d often share a meal of “whiskey and pigs feet” and spend hours, sometimes days, engaged in discussions.
Some of these discussions were more eventful than others. On Jan. 13, 1972, he wrote to Dugan, “Claude and I were talking about when he used to be in jail down in Louisiana [when] someone started shooting. All his children hit the floor. Claude said, ‘sorry about that Frank, some crazy fool’s been shooting that pistol all week.’” The party went on, though. “For the next few weeks we drink, shoot the shit, play dominoes together. We get drunk and talk about years gone by…in our midnight talks, while listening to old music sessions we talk about how close we have (and others near and far) come to death. It is getting to be a big joke: all the stories of pistols and knives.”
Stanford, born in a home for unwed mothers, was immediately put up for adoption. He never knew his biological father and, as perhaps his affection for Mr. Jimbo Reynolds, an older black man for whom he wrote the poem “Blue Yodel of Mr. Jimbo Reynolds,” had long entertained the idea—or fantasy—that he had black parentage.
The connection between Stanford and African-American culture—an inventory of 119 records in Stanford’ collection, thoroughly jazz and old country blues, includes only two white musicians (Stan Getz and Stéphane Grappelli)—in addition to his outright rejection of the Agrarian legacy and his stern poetic solipsism, suggests a reconsideration of the entire idea of a southern literary renaissance. Michael Kreyling, in his classic study Inventing Southern Literature, writes how “Although I’ll Take My Stand has, since its publication, been taken as a kind of sacred text, and its message a kind of revelation, in fact it serves as a script for inventing southern identity through anxiety.” Stanford embraced a southern identity. But he rejected the many-sided anxiety the Agrarians brought to it. (Stern actually hypothesized that “anxiety was wasted on Frank.”)
In this disposition, I would argue, Frank Stanford was not alone. The “southern renaissance” happened, but it started with the Mississippi flood of 1927 (the hidden water of southern literary history), Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, and Skip James more than Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and I’ll Take My Stand.
My favorite photograph in Hidden Water is one of Stanford sitting on the porch with a paperback on his lap (Federico García Lorca). His legs are propped on the railing and his face looks slightly annoyed at being interrupted. Three pairs of shoes surround him, two resting on the railing, one on the porch floor. It’s tempting to see those shoes as a metaphor—the very items that Stanford, in his mysterious “orphic power,” will never fill. But perhaps there’s something else going on in that photo. Perhaps those shoes contain giants who, for far too long, have gone unseen.
I’ve been feeling isolated lately. In the mornings (if I’m being good), I work on my new book, and, once I’ve been sufficiently humbled by the limits of my own skill and talent, I take my dog for a walk. On these jaunts, I wave hello to the neighbors and the gardeners, the local barbers and the auto mechanics. Maybe I’ll stop by the nearby coffee shop, and get something to go. On every walk, I’m likely to see a raised sprinkler–that little metal head–protruding from the edge of a lawn. When I see one of these heads, I do like I’ve always done: I tap it down with my foot and I make a wish.
It feels pathetic to admit this, but, lately, most of my wishes are about my writing, and my career. Lately, to make sure the Gods are listening, I’m as specific as possible with my wishes; I don’t want a higher power ignoring me because of an ambiguity issue. The other day, I caught myself wishing on a sprinkler head with a renewed fervency, my whispered prayer very long, and very specific. I thought: Edan Lepucki, you need to get a grip.
And then I thought: Does anyone outside of Los Angeles wish on sprinkler heads?
It’s like this: My sister Lauren and I grew up thinking that a snowflake was the size of an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper. I mean–that’s how you make a snowflake in school, right?
It’s also like this: After 3 pm on a weekday, I don’t expect to hear from anyone in New York. It’s dinner time there.
When I go to my aforementioned local coffee shop, I often see other writers working diligently. But then I see that they’re writing screenplays, not prose. Most of these writers are men, most of them beleaguered (unless they look like Grade-A assholes), and I often feel sorry for them. Why? Because Hollywood is such a difficult industry to break into, where talent rarely has any bearing on success (or so it seems to me). I actually find myself feeling superior for writing fiction, which is probably a Grade-A asshole thing to feel.
But also: I feel lonely. It’s true, I do.
In January I went to New York, where I ventured into a few different coffee shops. In these fine establishments, I saw people writing not screenplays, but prose. Maybe some of them were working on philosophical dissertations or letters to their senators–but, in my mind, I imagined they were all writing novel manuscripts. It was exciting to witness this kind of widespread devotion to prose! It was also a little scary. In L.A., I feel a little lonely, but kind of special. In New York, I’d probably never write in public, for fear of turning into a cliche. It’s a trade-off, I guess: you get a robust community in exchange for being a dime-a-dozen.
It’s like this: In graduate school, I loved being around writers–it was one of the most valuable aspects of my time there. I also found it exhausting, and I’m sure my peers did too. At a Workshop party, if a non-writer showed up–oh man. A geologist could get laid every night of the week by a different poet.
It’s also like this: When I was a teenager, whenever my dad and I saw a group of people my age, he’d point to them and say, “Your people.” It was an observation, a joke, an insult.
Not that Los Angeles doesn’t have a lovely community of writers. It does, it’s just smaller and more spread-out. We meet a few times a year at a random bar to trade war stories and talk about books. Maybe we make fun of the east coast, or trade impressions of Michael Silverblatt. Sometimes Janet Fitch stops by. Last time, Meghan Daum was there, and I had to pretend not to be starstruck. We’ve got the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which basically kicks ass, as do our local independent bookstores. The ALOUD series at the downtown public library showcases Steve Martin, Rebecca Skloot, and Colson Whitehead, among other luminaries. And this week, The Los Angeles Review of Books launches with an impressive array of essays and reviews. Its mission statement alone has me all hot and bothered:
Since the 19th century writers have bridled at New York’s seeming monopoly over publication. Bret Harte in The Overland Monthly, Hamlin Garland in Crumbing Idols, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren in I’ll Take My Stand, and writers and readers in a thousand other places—including even New York—have called for a more representative literary world. The internet has started to bring this to fruition, and Los Angeles, the largest book market in the country, is taking its rightful place as the new center.
Hurray, I say! But is this claim really true? I’m not sure I want Los Angeles to be the new center of literary activity. Do writers in Omaha want that moniker? How about in Amherst? I doubt it. After all, the distance any of us non-New York writers have from New York is frustrating, but also valuable. There’s an option to retreat from the noise–or, okay, the music–that I don’t think a writer in, say, Brooklyn has. This distance has benefited me for the last four years, as I write and write, without looking up, or around, me.
But it’s also this distance, this sense of being an outsider, an underdog, that makes me territorial about where I live and write. I am barely tolerant of non-L.A. writers poaching Los Angeles for fictional fodder. For instance, Charles Baxter’s unoriginal take on L.A.’s billboard-celebrity Angelyne in his novel The Soul Thief had me rolling my eyes. And don’t get me started on Jonathan Lethem’s novel You Don’t Love Me Yet! I refuse to read the damn thing, which supposedly depicts the lives of hipsters in Silver Lake. A friend on Goodreads said the book gave her an “overall feeling that the author had spent a grand total of a weekend in Los Angeles before writing this book, and threw in random details from looking at a GoogleMap.” For me, it’s not so much the name-dropping of locations that would bother me, but that they’d come from the same writer who penned The Fortress of Solitude, a novel that’s so sensitive to the issues and complications of gentrification. Maybe now that Lethem’s moved to the Southland, he will render my homeland with more depth.
Why limit my rage to books? In recent years, Noah Baumbach’s film Greenberg ruffled my feathers, too. Anyone who knows Los Angeles geography was up in arms about how place worked–or didn’t work–in the film. Take one example: Ben Stiller’s character is staying in an Orthodox Jewish community, but then walks to the nearby hills to hike? Uh, no. Go back to tennis playing in Brooklyn, Baumbach!
My other problem with his film Greenberg, and with Baxter’s Soul Thief, is the sense that these artists are coming to my city to wrest profundity from it. There’s an implicit suggestion that we need an outsider to find the profound for us, to make order out of chaos. It makes me feel like I’m part of a rain forest tribe, being observed by pasty white men in wool suits. The problem is, these artists’ observations feel like 4AM stoner revelations. At the end of Greenberg, for instance, the camera pauses on one of those wind sock men often seen at auto body shops. It’s supposed to feel meaningful, but it just made me laugh. Pass the doobie, bro.
I don’t want to suggest that an artist should never venture into the unknown. My motto isn’t “Write what you know,” but, rather, “Write what you want to know.” I fear my territorial attitude has not only made me a harsh reader, but that it’s also placed a too-tight harness around me as writer. My imagination should feel free to venture to foreign lands, shouldn’t it?
I asked my friend Emma Straub, a native New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn, about this very issue, since she has written a novel called Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, forthcoming from Riverhead Books. Her book is a historical novel about an actress in Los Angeles. I’m so excited to read it, and also a bit nervous. What if the geography’s wrong? Will it feel like Los Angeles? But Emma’s response put me right back into giddy-mode:
As a native New Yorker, I find it hard to write about my own city. The streets are crowded with novelists, and it seems nearly impossible to stake out a piece of sidewalk for myself. The novel I’m writing takes place in Los Angeles, and whenever anyone mentions “Hollywood,” the main character can’t figure out whether they’re talking about the neighborhood or the place as an idea, like heaven. That’s how I think of Los Angeles: as existing on two planes at all times, the real and the fantastic. Would I feel differently if I lived there? I don’t know. I’m sure some people write about New York as a way to sort it out in their heads. I suppose that’s what I’m doing, too.
This is wise. We write to sort things out in our heads, and to escape from the world right in front of us. We write because we want to discover. That’s why we read, too, isn’t it? If an artist can help me discover something new about my hometown, that’s wonderful. I’d welcome it. Emma, I cannot wait to read your novel.
There’s also this: Before I began writing this essay, I asked poet and prose writer Sarah Manguso, a recent New York transplant, how it feels to be a writer in L.A., far from the center of the publishing world. She wrote back to say, “In New York, writers don’t use the phrase ‘the center of the publishing world’ and they don’t visit the Statue of Liberty.”
She also said, “In Los Angeles a writer is expected to learn to drive. Believe me, that’s a big difference.”
Now that is profound.
Image: Pexels/Viviana Rishe.