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  • Bethany Lee

A story, an invitation, and a poem

Updated: Feb 19, 2019

The Story: Last summer, thanks to my generous family and a strong inner nudge, I spent a week at Lewis and Clark taking a writing class from Kim Stafford, who is the current Oregon Poet Laureate. I've admired his work (and that of William Stafford, his dad) for so many years and had heard that Kim is amazing at creating space for other writers to do their best work.


I certainly found that to be true and loved the community he helped create among our little group of students. It felt like summer camp for grownups and we definitely got the best cabin!

Late in the week, I happened to have my harp in the car for an after-class rehearsal. Somehow, I was convinced to bring it into class and play for one of our writing sessions as an auditory prompt.

Deep stillness fell over the room as my new friends bent their heads and poured their hearts out on the page. We were all astounded at the way the same moments prompted such variety in response yet how each piece somehow felt linked to the next, as if drawn from the same well.


Last week, I ran across the poem Kim wrote from that time. He'd been gracious enough to share it with us then and gave me permission to share it more publicly here. And since he and I enjoyed collaborating together so much in class, we're giving it another shot.

The Invitation: February 15 from 7-8:30pm, as part of the Silverton Poetry Festival, you're invited to come to the Gordon House at the Oregon Garden for an evening of poetry and harp playing. Kim and friends will be reading his works in both English and Spanish and I'll be playing the harp.

(Local friends, If you can't make it out that far, there's another, nearer possibility in the works for April. I'll keep you updated!)

We're planning to do a collaborative version of this piece from Kim, written during that session last summer. Harp and poetry—you won't want to miss it!


The Poem:


Writing Class, with Harp


Yes, we could settle for instruction— I could explain the structure of "the essay" or the rigors of writing great poems—but what's wrong with simple ravishing instead? Our pens were moving, just tuning up the mind, when Bethany embraced her harp, Shenandoah shimmered from her golden strings, and we were helpless, scribing truth long knotted in darkness, now deserving all our light, for the harp has no mercy with the soul.


I'm a scholar with a Ph.D. and I have a lesson plan, a packet of readings for our edification and guidance, and this is graduate school, after all—but Bethany has told us she plays her harp in hospice when all has been subtracted from a life but music and a long look, so we write under the spell of Scarborough Faire as if our lives depended on it, as they do, for the harp has no mercy with the soul.


In the catalog online, this was described as a class "for writers interested in pushing their practice in multiple directions"—but here we dwell inside the mystic architecture of the old Shaker song, The Gift to Be Simple and it's all simpler than the plan, and deeper, there's more at stake than excellence, and so we scribble in gentle fury, more giving and forgiving, more patient and sure, for the harp has no mercy with the soul.


All around us, craziness abounds. Our leaders lead us into cruel unnecessary drama of division without vision, of fear as the coin of the realm, in a long economy of attrition. There is no other name than failure for what fills the news—and yet when Bethany plays The Water is Wide, in our boat to carry two we scroll through all our long-hid kinship clues as we row with our pens across the page for the harp has no mercy with the soul.


~Kim Stafford ©2018

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© 2019 Bethany Lee