Dr. Paul Willis, a professor for Westmont’s English department, organized the 14th annual reading event to commemorate the life and writings of William Stafford last Saturday. Gathering in the Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara residents, Westmont students, and boys from the Los Prietos Boys Camp shared poetry and thoughts on the late poet’s life.
William Stafford declared himself a conscientious objector (CO) during World War II, setting himself in opposition with the national majority. Instead of fighting, Stafford joined other Quakers, Mennonites, and brethren by working to upkeep national forests across the United States, writing poems each day before work. One of these forests is 30 minutes away from Westmont in the Los Padres National Forest.
Following Stafford’s death in 1993, the Friends of William Stafford organized to preserve the late poet’s memory, asking Willis in 2007 to conduct these gatherings to honor Stafford’s life. Stafford was an “encouraging presence, nationally,” as Willis shared in a recent interview. Not only inspiring others with his courage and conviction, the poet also actively encouraged people to write, arguing that “anyone should write poetry.”
The event kicked off with a performance by Emily Sommermann, playing music from “Schindler’s List” on her violin. Afterwards, Willis gave a moving introduction, conveying that although Srafford “would think this gathering a little bit ridiculous,” by coming together we “honor some of the better impulses in ourselves.” These better impulses that Satfford’s poetry validates include: the instinct that we have something valuable to say, the urge to “stand out even for a losing cause,” and the desire to stand by the neglected persons.
After the introduction, Dan Thomas — a local poet and former fundraiser for Westmont — shared a selection of poems. Praising Stafford’s “amazing sense of fortitude,” Thomas focused his reading around the theme of “becoming,” exploring the ways in which we can develop into a strongly convicted person like Stafford. Stafford lived in “highly charged times,” explained Thomas after the event, “but he continued believing what his faith told him.”
The remainder of the event was dedicated to readings by volunteers. Among these volunteers was one of the boys from Los Prietos Boys Camp, James Rapoza. Rapoza found solidarity in Stafford’s poems, explaining that he chose to share “In Camp,” because, like Stafford in WWII, “we’re also in camp.” For Rapoza, reading was a “chance to do something different.” Los Prietos Boys Camp has been a foundational presence in the gathering, and, in former years, boys from the camp have even shared poems they wrote in English class.
Held in the “unique atmosphere” of a natural amphitheatre, Dr. Paul Willis describes the gathering as the “quirkiest thing,” bringing in a “wide variety of people that continue to be attracted to his work.” In coming to honor Stafford, Willis hoped that people will not only receive encouragement in writing poetry, but also in resisting “narrow choices.” “I think there has to be a way of honoring those who serve and those who are a CO,” explained Willis. Thomas echoed these sentiments by reminding us that, like Stafford, we also live in “highly charged times” that push people in certain directions. By celebrating William Stafford’s work, the community celebrated Stafford’s “generous and encouraging spirit,” and his conviction to stand for what he believed in.