Thirty Years after His Death, Arkansas Poet Frank Stanford’s Legacy Grows
Poets, Scholars and Friends Pilgrimage to Fayetteville to celebrate his work

by Matthew Henriksen
Not long after The World Trade Center went down, I sat across from fellow poet Tony Tost by the front window at the old JR’s and heard the name Frank Stanford uttered for the first time. Tost told me about Stanford’s 15,000 line epic poem, “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You,” and I remember thinking, “That is an awful title.” Despite my reservations, I immediately picked up a copy from the Dickson Street Bookshop. After a couple days, I revised my thinking about the title, Stanford, and the possibilities of poetry.
Seven years later, I continue to read “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You.” Nearly anyone who picks up the book and starts reading from any given page will likely be swept up by the intensity of the language, which confronts human sexuality at its most carnal, death it its most visceral, and human nature at its ugliest.
The central plot follows an adolescent boy joining a freedom ride, though it wanders in dream-like stream of consciousness through memories and meditations. The narrative is populated with the strangest and most comprehensive catalog of the down-trodden imaginable. You meet incoherent lunatics and visionary prophets, murders and thieves, lovers and blood brothers, scam artists and religious eccentrics, delta region folks from the first half of the last century with names like BoBo, Charlie B. Lemmon, Abednago the Gypsy, Baby Gauge, O.Z. and The Midget.
As most Stanford fans inevitably find themselves doing, I started to dig around for any bit of information I could find about Stanford’s life. I had been told that Stanford grew up in the Delta, spent some time in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, quickly left the university, and, after a prolific publishing career, on June 3, 1978 at the age of 29 shot himself three times in the heart with a .22 caliber handgun.
Even for the most stalwart and aggressive researchers, the exact circumstances of Stanford’s suicide are shrouded in uncertainty. Stanford had taken one, if not several lovers, and a confession of his infidelity to his wife, Ginny Stanford, immediately preceded his suicide. Unsubstantiated theories surfaced through the years and laid blame or suspicion on various people who supposedly pushed Stanford over the edge or, as some theories posited, killed Stanford themselves. Of course, the theories come from those who have the least first-hand knowledge of the events, and those who were there aren’t saying much.
While Stanford left a will, the intellectual property rights remain split between Stanford’s widow and the poet C.D. Wright, with whom Stanford founded Lost Roads Publishers in 1976. Though rabidly adored by poets of his and succeeding generations, his books remain almost entirely out-of-print. The seven volumes of his poetry released in his lifetime go for as high as $750 on bookseller websites. In 2008, Lost Roads, now stationed in Providence, Rhode Island, re-released three books: “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You”; Stanford’s first book, “The Signing Knives”; and the posthumously released “You.” In addition to another posthumously released book, “Crib Death,” five books and thousands of pages of uncollected and unpublished poems, letters, essays, fiction, and screenplays remain unavailable in print. The Beinecke Library at Yale has recently started to collect Stanford’s papers, but that hardly makes the work available to Stanford’s readers and the many potential fans wandering the commercial bookstore isles looking for exactly the daring and enthralling poems Stanford left us.
More than any other poet, Stanford bridges the roles of “poet’s poet” and the poet that brings new readers to poetry. Whether I’m teaching fifth graders in West Memphis, eighth graders in Harlem, or college students at the University of Arkansas, I turn to Stanford’s poems to light a fire in my classroom. He pitches bold and sometimes surreal images against a starkly Southern landscape, and his language is tied to the land and the people who work it. The characters in his poems, it turns out, are not figments of Stanford’s fancy.
In Ginny Stanford’s photo essay on the Alsop Review, you can see some of the people Stanford grew up with and fashioned his poems around: the actual Baby Gauges and Charlie B. Lemmons; workers, mostly of color, employed by Stanford’s father, A.F. Stanford, who built and maintained levees along the Mississippi.
The mysteries of Stanford’s life do not begin and end with his death, however. During Stanford’s freshman year in high school, A.F. Stanford died, and Stanford first learned he had been adopted. His mother, Dorothy Alter, sent him from Mountain Home to Subiaco Academy, where the monks, particularly Father Nicholas Fuhrman, had a profound impact on Stanford, apparent in his continual visits to Subiaco, where he and his mother are buried.
We know without a doubt that while at Subiaco, Stanford was already working on “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You” and that he had probably started composing the epic along with shorter poems by the age of 12 or 13.  Many of those poems would later find their way into some of the country’s most revered publishers of poetry, including Ironwood, kayak, Field, American Poetry Review, and The Nation.
While in Fayetteville, Stanford learned his mother had adopted him shortly after his birth. According to Stanford’s lifelong friend, Bill Willett of Mountain Home, the news shook Stanford’s foundation. He had aligned his identity with the southern aristocratic tradition, and he suddenly did not know his origins. The poetry, however, is as deeply rooted in the poor southern vernacular as in the avant-garde mannerisms of Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Cocteau.
In 2004 James Whitehead recounted his experiences with Stanford to a couple of us in MFA program and called him “our little Rimbaud.” Stanford took an undergraduate workshop with Whitehead, who immediately spotted Stanford’s talent and brought him into the graduate workshops. There, Stanford met Ralph Adamo, whom Stanford would later publish on Lost Roads, and Steve Stern, who wrote a novel based on Stanford’s last days called “The Moon and Ruben Shein,” among a host of others, including Jack Butler and Ellen Gilchrist, who made up the golden era of the creative writing program. Stanford, however, claims he felt creatively limited by the program and left the university in 1970 without earning a degree.
Around that time, Stanford’s first marriage ended after only three months, and he went to New York City, “to go to the movies,” he would famously write. Stanford then moved into the New Orleans Hotel in Eureka Springs and worked as a surveyor. In that same year he met Irving Broughton, whose Mill Mountain Press would publish seven of Stanford’s books.
Stanford traveled with Broughton and helped film interviews with Malcolm Cowley and John Crowe Ransom. Broughton filmed the legendary Stanford biopic “It Wasn’t a Dream It Was a Flood,” a 24-minute film that portrays Stanford and many of the friends who appear in his poems.
In 1974 Stanford married Ginny Crouch, a painter whose relationship with the poet included mutual creative influence. She emerged as an unnamed female in many of his poems, sometimes as narrator, while imagery from Stanford’s poems, and his visage, haunted many of her paintings.
While Stanford’s poetry found its way into a breadth of magazines and garnered praise from the likes of James Wright and Alan Dugan, the academy at large seemed unwilling to open its door. Dugan compared Stanford to Walt Whitman and said in a letter that “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You” “will one day explode,” but readers for the Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award refused to read the manuscript because of its enormous size. They didn’t know that the epic had been cut down from an original manuscript at least twice its length titled “Saint Francis and the Wolf.”
Nor did anyone know that Stanford would put an end to his life before he turned 30 and that his work would disappear from all but the best stocked used bookstore shelves. I doubt even Dugan could have foreseen that 30 years after Stanford’s death his poems, no matter how hard they have been to get a hold of, would gain an intense following among America’s new generation of poets.
Moreover, I had no idea when Tost suggested to me last year that we have a “Frank Stanford Festival” in Fayetteville that we’d end up with anything more than a dozen or so buddies in my living room drinking beer and reading Stanford poems.
As soon as I mentioned the plans, however, I got barraged with hundreds of emails. One of my favorite younger poets, Philip Jenks of Chicago, wrote gleefully and forcefully of how Stanford had been his favorite poet since high school, along with Emily Dickinson, and that he’d always felt alone in this, until now.
Indeed, one of the commonalities I’ve found among the poets I publish in my two magazines, “Typ”o and “Cannibal,” and those I’ve met at readings and festivals across the country, is a love for Stanford’s work.
Although he wrote with universal emotional resonance of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits and lived the tragic and falsely romantic lifestyle of Gram Parsons, inevitably I compare him to Daniel Johnston, with that innate charm and overwhelming influence on other artists.
Like Daniel Johnston, Stanford’s reputation continues to grow, not from any commercial promotion or critical acclaim, but by the numerous chance meetings readers have with his work.  Once you get into his poems, he doesn’t let you go.
Despite the mystery and conflict Stanford left behind, it’s not any sort of romanticizing of his death that has ensured his legacy. Rather, like John Keats who died at 25, Stanford left an enormous and convincing body of work. He would have turned 60 this year, and that’s about the age when Whitman started to gain a wider audience. Those of us who have been reading Stanford for years are willing to be swept up in the tide of new readers who are surly coming.

Thoughts behind the festival
By Matthew Henriksen
Initially, we hoped the festival would bring a few of our poetry friends together, show off the Ozarks, and give us a chance read a few Stanford poems aloud. However, once we realized how many people wanted to attend, my co-organizers, Adam Clay and Tony Tost, and I, turned to Susan Scarlata, the editor at Lost Roads Publishers. Susan agreed to support us and help organize, and the festival took on a new definition.
For years, Stanford’s readers have called for an expanded edition of selected poems.  Hearing the poems read aloud at The Frank Stanford Reading will attest to the diversity in Stanford’s work and should convince those new to his writing that he’s worth spending more time with. For those of us who already love Stanford’s poems, hearing them aloud will be a great pleasure.
We hope the three panels will help turn the attention away from Stanford’s mystique and toward his poetry and lay a foundation for future scholarship, which has been conspicuously lacking. The film screening of “It Wasn’t a Dream It Was a Flood,” will testify to the undiscovered resources in Stanford’s life and creative works.
The marathon reading of “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You” is our pinnacle event. Reading a 15,000 line poem uninterrupted is daunting in the way that climbing a mountain is daunting, with the same rewards for those who see it through. No speaking in the reading room will be allowed, and we will read the poem continuously, without introduction or announcements, to the very end. For those who can’t sit through the night, listening for even half an hour will give an idea of the magnitude and intensity of the poem.
The festival will begin and end with readings by poets from Fayetteville and afar who have been inspired by Stanford’s work and publish in the small press tradition, which fostered, and in a sense, protected Stanford’s work during his life and afterwards.

Frank Stanford Literary Festival
October 17-19

Friday, October 17
7 p.m.
Small Press reading and party
Ozark Smokehouse Garden Room
215 West Dickson St.
Readings by Ralph Adamo, Maureen Alsop, Anne Boyer, Joseph Bradshaw, Lily Brown, Adam Clay, Julia Cohen, Graham Foust, Jane Gregory, Carolyn Guinzio, Philip Jenks, Shannon Jonas, Susan Scarlata, Abraham Smith, Mathias Svalina, Bronwen Tate, Tony Tost and Timothy Van Dyke. Music by Greg Brownderville

Saturday, October 18
Fayetteville Public Library
401 Mountain Street
Noon to 2:30 p.m.
“I am the Nijinsky of Dreams”: Possibilities for scholarship and criticism on Frank Stanford. Panelists: Lucas Farrell, Shannon Jonas, Michael Hoerman, J. Peter Moore, Murray Shugars and Sandra Simonds.

“The Moon Throws Knives”: Frank Stanford’ Influence on Experimental Poets. Panelists: Graham Foust, Philip Jenks, Prageeta Sharma, Tony Tost and Joshua Marie Wilkinson

“When You Take the Lost Road”: Frank Stanford as poet and friend. Panelists: Ralph Adamo, Irving Broughton, Bill Willett and others.

2:30 to 3 p.m.
“It Wasn’t a Dream It Was A Flood”. Screening of Irving Broughton’s Stanford biopic. Introduced by the director.

3 to 5 p.m.
Readings from Frank Stanford’s books

7 p.m. Saturday, October 18 to 7 a.m. Sunday, October 19
Reading “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You”
Metro District Meeting Room
$5-10 suggested donation

Sunday, October 19
Noon to 4 p.m.
Brunch readings at Smiling Jack’s
262 S. School St.
Readings by Samuel Amadon, Stephanie Anderson, Dot Devota, Tim Earley, Christopher Eaton, Lucas Farrell, Farrah Field, Michael Heffernan, Kevin Holden, Scott Pierce, Brandon Shimoda and Jared White.

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