Booze, Guns, and Poetry: Frank Stanford Gets His Due

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Ginny Stanford

For the small literary community of Fayetteville, Arkansas, it was the big event of 1969: Allen Ginsberg, the great bard himself, would read at the University of Arkansas. For two and a half hours, the poet held court, reading the whole of his epic Howl and donning finger cymbals as he led the swaying crowd in the Hare Krishna chant. Later, at a party in the hills above town, Ginsberg was surrounded by adoring fans, who presented him with love beads and cajoled him to sketch little pictures of sunflowers.

The party's host, a poet himself, regarded all this with cool disdain. Frank Stanford was just 20, a handsome country boy, soft-spoken and aloof. The scene in his living room, he decided, could not stand. And so Stanford pulled out a Parker Brothers shotgun, cocked the hammer, and shot a hole in the ceiling. What had set him off? Bill Willett, a friend who was at the event, recalls that Stanford felt that "there were a few lightweights at the party." After the gunfire, Willett reports, "all the lightweights left." Ginsberg stayed, and the party continued into the night.

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The young poet, in other words, was editing. He was cutting to the bone, and he was good at that. Nearly four decades after he took his own life in 1978, Stanford's poems continue to sing out with spare clarity. Consider this gem called "The Minnow": "If I press / on its head, / the eyes / will come out / like stars."

Most of Stanford's books have been out of print for years, but his work has maintained a cultlike following that includes artists such as Jack White, Tom Waits, and Lucinda Williams. Now this "swamprat Rimbaud," as a fellow poet described him, will get a wider audience, with Copper Canyon Press' publication of What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, a 768-page volume that collects nearly all the poems Stanford published in his brief, incandescent life — including excerpts from his 15,283-line epic, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You — along with a trove of previously unpublished work.

In certain corners of the literary world, this is cause for celebration. "Frank Stanford is a missing voice in American poetry," says the Canadian novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. "His poetry is probably the most overlooked writing I know." It's also unusually accessible to those who never bother with poetry. In the collection's introduction, the poet Dean Young gets at Stanford's unique appeal. "Many of these poems seem as if they were written with a burnt stick," Young writes. "With blood in river mud."

Stanford was an outsider from the outset, a mystery even to himself. In 1949, he was adopted by an unmarried Mississippi society woman named Dorothy Alter. She told little Frankie that she was his birth mother and spent long, sour days at the kitchen table, playing solitaire, nursing a tumbler of whisky, and bitching out her black maid and black chauffeur. "She was a woman God never wanted to have children," says Stanford's sister, Ruth Rogers, who was also adopted. "We were little glass figurines to her."

In 1952, Alter married Albert Franklin Stanford, a courtly gentleman 27 years her senior, ushering her children into a new world. Frank Sr. was an engineer who built levees on the Mississippi and St. Francis rivers, and also something of a maverick in that he exclusively hired black laborers. Summers, Frankie and Ruth lived in the work camps as Dorothy fixed meals in the mess tent. On the levees, Stanford acquired the street cool that compelled him to pronounce in one interview, "I'd rather be Muhammad Ali than T. S. Eliot any fuckin' day."

Dorothy Stanford didn't tell her son about his adoption until he was a 20-year-old student in the creative writing program at the University of Arkansas. "The news was devastating," Willett says. "He'd grown up thinking he was Southern white aristocracy. Now he realized that he was probably part black. You're 20 years old, and all of a sudden your mother's not your mother. The weight of the news washes away everything you ever had."


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Stanford dropped out of school, became a land surveyor, and poured his anguish into his writing while engaging in a series of impassioned, often adulterous relationships. In 1971, he published his first book of poems, The Singing Knives, which he wrote with a bottle of whisky at his side and a hunting knife dangling from the ceiling near his desk. Over the next seven years, he published eight more books, blending the wisteria-shrouded doom of William Faulkner with the dreamy surrealism of French New Wave cinema, conjuring his native land with bone-breaking lines such as: "Jimmy ran down the road / With the knife in his mouth / He was naked / And the moon / Was a dead man floating down the river."

"Frank wrote in episodes of intense focus, where he hardly ate or slept," says Stanford's widow, Ginny Stanford, a celebrated painter whose work hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. "After a year or so of abstinence, he started drinking. He handled it OK for a while. But at one point in 1975 or 1976, he went out of control, into a state I would now characterize as manic, and then crashed into remorse and despair."

Off the page, in public, Stanford rarely let his dark streak show. He was too much the genteel southerner, and most people remember him as charming. "He had this sexy thing, and he had a brilliant mind," says Lucinda Williams, who at age 24 had a brief flirtation with Stanford, unaware that he was married. "He was sweet."

In 1975, Stanford struck up an affair with C.D. Wright, a poet in Fayetteville. They co-founded Lost Roads Publishers, a poetry press, and moved into a house in town. Stanford lived there during the week, telling Wright that his marriage to Ginny was merely spiritual, a sexless union of two mystic artists. On weekends, he drove home to his wife, who lived on a farm 70 miles away, in southern Missouri. He told her that his relationship with Wright was platonic and entirely professional and that he needed to live in Fayetteville to get surveying gigs. "He was a chronic liar," Wright says. "He lied about everything."

Over time, however, Stanford's double life began to unravel. In one late poem he writes: "The only way a man can love two women / Is if the two women are in love with one another / And if they are not / Then the man falls in love with his death."

In May 1978, Stanford traveled alone to New Orleans, where he stayed with the novelist Ellen Gilchrist and her husband. By now, both Wright and Ginny knew about his cheating, and he knew they knew. Still, he managed to hide his anxiety. "He was kind with everyone," Gilchrist remembers. "He wanted to do everything. There was a parade honoring Martin Luther King, and he rallied all the poets to go. My kids loved him. My maid loved him. Everybody worshipped him."

"But," Gilchrist adds, "he knew what he was going home to."

Distraught over his philandering, Wright had been calling him every day. Ginny, meanwhile, filed for divorce. When he got home, the two women were waiting for him together. The three of them sat in the backyard, drinking beer, and the scene was calm. "We told him what he'd done to us," Wright later told the police. "We didn't quarrel or fight."

Nonetheless, after some time Stanford went inside alone. He went first into his land-surveying office and then into the bedroom. He closed the door, unbuttoned his white dress shirt, took out a .22 double- action revolver, and shot himself in the heart — once, twice, three times — before silence fell over the house.

Yes, three shots to the heart, as confirmed by the coroner. It was an extraordinary performance, a crisp gesture, cogent and clear. It was Stanford's last poem, written in blood.

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