By ROBERT TRUSSELL
He lived a poet’s life and died a poet’s death.
Poets see the word in ways the rest of us do not. Within the mundane they find mystery. Within the grotesque they find beauty.
So it was with Frank Stanford, a Southern writer whose life ended abruptly in a small rental house in Fayetteville, Ark., one evening in 1978 — freezing him in time as a gifted, 29-year-old poet who lived and died on his own terms. He had cultivated the image of an outsider, an artist who never compromised, and that aura continues to this day.
Frank Stanford (photo by Ginny Stanford)
His work is highly respected, as it was in his lifetime. In the decades since Frank Stanford died by gunshot he has been the subject of poems, essays, pop songs and short stories. His out-of-print books are guarded jealously by his admirers. Some are circulated as fourth- and fifth-generation photocopies.
“We know Frank’s ghost is very strong out there,” poet Miller Williams, one of Stanford’s teachers at the University of Arkansas, said almost 20 years after Stanford’s death. “I probably get a call every six weeks about Frank.”
The interest in Stanford — his life, his death and his work — continues because his poetry, like the man himself, was unique.
“The thing that really sets him apart is his adventurousness with language,” said poet Robert Stewart, editor of New Letters, a literary journal published in Kansas City. “He really did have a gift. I don’t know how else you could explain someone writing that well and being that young.”
Stanford read voraciously, but his poetry imitated no one. He blended Southern vernacular and strong visual imagery and often he created startling similes — “the wind blows through the trees like a woman on a raft,” “the moon was a dead man floating down the river,” “death was like a man in a bowtie looking for a hubcap.”
“He creates images and leaps in his language that are almost always unanticipated,” Stewart said.
Stanford loved foreign movies and jazz and modern poets, but he remained an undiluted product of the Mississippi Delta. His poetry was vivid, romantic, sensual, mystical and organically rooted in the rivers and fields and small towns of the South. Some say his death two months shy of his 30th birthday was foretold in poems that reflected a sense of isolation, the threat of violence and a preoccupation with death.
He spoke slowly, with a deep, melodic Southern drawl. He was handsome and charismatic, but he found himself drawn to the company of rural and small-town folk, black and white, who saw the world in unique ways.
The events leading to his death were the stuff of melodrama, laced with a touch of farce. It was a tale of love and betrayal capped with a smoking .22 pistol. In the end he passed out of this world, perhaps to another realm that had always beckoned.
In his wake he left traumatized friends and lovers, the makings of a literary myth, and a body of poetry that will not be denied.
“No one else sounds like Frank,” Williams said. “I would know one of his poems if I stepped on it barefooted.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Today Frank Stanford exists as a semi-legendary character with a gift for the bold, dramatic gesture. And nothing was more dramatic than his grand exit. The story goes that Stanford shot himself three times in the heart while his wife and mistress were in the house. It is this version of events — simple and stark — that seems in keeping with Stanford’s fatalism.
But legends are meant to be, well, legendary. The underlying reality of Stanford’s life and death is not so neat. It’s messy, mysterious and complicated.
Stanford made a deep impression on virtually anyone he knew, but no two people remember him quite the same way. He presented different faces to different people. Often he exercised his gifts as a storyteller by exaggerating even the most trivial facts.
“He could tell a story and I swear to God you’d walk away and believe every word of it and none of it would be true,” said Ruth Rogers, Stanford’s younger sister.
Poet C.D. Wright, who founded the small publishing house Lost Roads with Stanford, put it another way.
“His imagination was more factual than his real life,” she said.
Ginny Stanford (stephendcrouch.com)
In a way there were many Frank Stanfords — poet, mystic and orphan; brother, husband and lover. He was shy but vain, humble but self-confident, social but reclusive.
His poetry mixed reality and fantasy so deftly that even those who knew him couldn’t be sure where one ended and the other began.
“He was purposely very mysterious about himself,” said poet Leon Stokesbury, who knew Stanford as a fellow student at the University of Arkansas and later edited a posthumous collection of his poetry. “He was kind of charismatic and I think physically attractive to women — and maybe men, too. I don’t know. But this didn’t hurt his ability to mythologize himself.”
Stanford was a seeker. And he made things happen.
Some recall a time in the early ’70s when Allen Ginsberg visited Fayetteville. At a party for the celebrated poet, Stanford decided at one point that it was time for the lightweights to leave.
“Frank had these double-barrelled Parker shotguns and he just came out into the living room and blew a hole in the ceiling,” said Bill Willett, who had remained friends with Stanford since junior high school. “The true partiers stayed and everyone else left.”
But Ginny Stanford, his second wife, never saw that hell-raising side. She remembers the first time she saw him with undiminished immediacy. It was March 3, 1973. Ginny, a self-taught visual artist, had returned from Europe to her hometown of Neosho, Mo., just a few months earlier.
She had a plane ticket to New Orleans in her purse when she dropped in to visit an old friend and met Stanford, who was staying the weekend.
“I first saw him descending the staircase,” Ginny Stanford wrote in an email response to questions. “He was dressed in a blue-and-white striped knit short-sleeved shirt, white cotton duck overalls, and lace-up boots with the laces untied. He smelled like Patchouli incense. He seemed shy and sweet and fragile. Very quiet.”
It was, Ginny said, literally love at first sight.
“It was enough to make me stop in my tracks, make me not go to New Orleans and totally do a one-eighty in the middle of the road,” she said in an interview from her home in Sebastopol, Calif. “It was more like getting hit on the head with a brick. I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before.”
Frank showed her some of his poems; she showed him slides of her paintings. They admired each other’s work and for the first time Ginny felt completely understood as an artist. She had found a soul mate.
“There was an aura of shyness and dignity and confidence about him,” Ginny Stanford recalled. “He was certainly nothing like anyone I would ever expect to run into in Neosho, Mo. Maybe in Amsterdam or New York City.”
Frank was very careful and quiet in the way he spoke to Ginny that first weekend. He would not reveal too much about himself. During their first few months together, Frank would show her only carefully selected poems.
“He could be very hyperbolic in describing things,” she said. “One of the things he told me was that his work was really dangerous. He’d have to make sure which poems were safe for me to read. And there were certain ones that he was afraid for me to read. I guess he thought I’d think he was crazy and leave him. So I passed the poetry test.”
In the weeks that followed, they grew close as lovers and as artists.
“I read his manuscripts and made drawings based on the poems,” she wrote in an essay years after his death. “He bought me notebooks and different kinds of pens to try. He said, ‘Paint an old man sitting by a coffin waving at the moon; a fat lady shelling peas and a centaur behind her; a blind Gypsy holding a conch shell. Paint a white horse breaking away from a funeral hearse; a scarecrow wearing a kimono. Paint smoke rings.’
“I’d never heard anything like it.”
A few months later they were married in a civil ceremony.
“The thing I remember about it is that . . . the judge, he was smoking a cigarette and he didn’t take the cigarette out of his mouth when he read the vows,” she said. “I thought it was very funny. It was like out of a western or something.”
After the ceremony they celebrated at Sherman’s Bar, a tavern in a predominantly black section of Fayetteville. It was one of Frank’s favorite hangouts. But Ginny remembered their first encounter in much greater detail than their wedding day.
“The date that was significant for me was the date we met,” she said.
~ ~ ~ ~
Stanford had already lived a strange life. Parts of his childhood were spent in Greenville, Miss.; Memphis, Tenn. and Mountain Home, Ark. He attended a high school run by Benedictine monks. His first marriage ended in less than a year and he had spent two weeks in the state mental hospital in Little Rock.
He was born Aug. 1, 1948, in a home for unwed mothers in Richton, Miss. When he was one day old, he was adopted by Dorothy Alter, who was single at the time. She named him Francis Gildart Alter.
Frank Stanford (photo by Ginny Stanford)
The following year, Dorothy adopted Ruth from the same home. They would be young adults before Frank and Ruth learned that they were not true siblings, that Dorothy was not their actual mother.
Ruth Rogers said Frank had striking looks, even in infancy.
“I’ve got some wonderful baby pictures of him,” she said. “He was the prettiest little old baby. He never had a problem with the ladies.”
The man they believed to be their father, Albert Franklin Stanford, formally adopted the children after marrying Dorothy in 1952 and moving them to Memphis.
Stanford, who was old enough to be the kids’ grandfather, built and maintained levees along the Mississippi River and often took the kids, especially little Frankie, with him to the levee camps. Most of the workers were African-American.
“There’s an awful lot of pictures we have of his birthday parties with all the little black kids,” Ruth Rogers recalled. “Everybody lived out there in tents . . . and we played with the colored children because that’s all there were out there, because most of the workers were black. We grew up like that. I think Frankie had more of a feeling for the black people.”
Much of Frank Stanford’s poetry directly reflected those childhood experiences. In his first book many of the characters — with names like Baby Gauge, Ray Baby, Charlie D. Lemon and BoBo Washington — were based on people he had known. Some poems were written from the point of view of black workers in the levee camps, and he maintained what appeared to be a unique rapport with some African Americans.
One of his best friends in Fayetteville was the much older Jimbo Reynolds, whom Ginny Stanford said “had the soul of a poet but who was an uneducated black man.”
Ginny and others said Frank sometimes wondered if might have been mixed race or African American himself, but he never found out who his real parents were.
In 1963 the elder Frank Stanford retired and moved the family to Mountain Home, Ark. That’s where young Frank Stanford met his friend Bill Willett. His adoptive father died not long after that and Dorothy converted to Catholicism. Frank was sent to Subiaco Academy, a college prep school run by Benedictine monks in central Arkansas.
Stanford graduated in 1966 and, according to Willett, avoided military service when he was called up by his draft board by intentionally flunking his hearing test and refusing to answer test questions.
“He had no interest in going to the Vietnam War,” Willett said.
In 1967 Frank entered the University of Arkansas. He and Willett roomed together and even then Stanford seemed more interested in dreams than day-to-day reality.
“He and I were both dreamers,” Willett said. “In our sophomore year . . . (we) essentially didn’t have any afternoon classes and we’d both take naps. And Frank would take a nap every afternoon essentially so he could dream.”
But there other times when Stanford might go for days without really sleeping.
“He would go for three or four days in a row and live on nothing but bourbon and coffee and write,” Willett said. “And I would tell him it seemed like he was drinking a lot of booze and it didn’t seem to make much difference. It took him a whole lot of booze to get drunk. He and I together one day drank a gallon-and-a-half of whiskey. We were still talking. We were talking about poetry, politics, whatever, and both of us were coherent and not too thick-tongued but by that time feeling very tired.”
Frank Stanford filming (photo by Ginny Stanford)
When Frank was 20 his mother told him he and Ruth were adopted. Why Dorothy chose to reveal the truth is unknown, but Frank seemed to take it hard. He spent hours walking along the lakeshore in Mountain Home. Ruth Rogers thought that moment changed him.
“Frankie was always very outgoing,” she said. “The girls loved him. Adults loved him. And from the time he found out he was adopted he just withdrew . . . He wasn’t the bubbly, outgoing person he had been growing up. He was more intellectual and deep in his own thoughts.”
Stanford would never earn a degree. But at the University of Arkansas, Stanford’s poetry so impressed the faculty that he was allowed to take classes alongside graduate students.
James Whitehead, a novelist and poet who helped start the university’s writing program, recalled meeting Stanford when he was a freshman or sophomore.
“He showed me some poems, a poem called ‘The Pump,’ and I said, ‘This is strange and wonderful; why don’t you take the graduate workshop?'” Whitehead recalled.
Said Williams: “Even then, as an undergraduate, he wrote with a confidence I rarely saw among the student poets.”
But Stanford, according to some who knew him, followed a pattern of dropping out and back into school, taking courses he wanted to take and skipping those that didn’t interest him. And after a certain point he kept his distance from academia.
The Singing Knives
His first book, The Singing Knives, was published in 1971 by a young publisher and film maker, Irv Broughton. They had met at a writer’s conference in Virginia. Broughton liked Stanford’s poetry and found him funny and unpretentious.
Broughton had a small press and he and Stanford quickly agreed that Broughton would publish his first book. The work was done quickly and Broughton had most of it typeset, but because Stanford had to return to Fayetteville, he dictated the long title poem full of violent imagery by telephone.
“He’s reading it to me and he’s just breaking up laughing and I am too,” Broughton recalled. The hysterical laughter reached its peak as Stanford come to a passage in which a gypsy’s knife-throwing hand floats to the surface of a lake. Broughton, meanwhile, was running out of paper because of the poem’s length.
“It’s that gothic, strange kind of humor,” Broughton said. “Now I don’t know why it’s so funny. I sort of do, but I don’t know why we laughed so much.”
Later Stanford and Broughton traveled across the country filming and interviewing famous poets, including Richard Eberhart, Richard Wilbur and John Crowe Ransom. The idea was to make a documentary but the film was never finished.
Broughton and Stanford did make a 26-minute art film about Stanford called “It Wasn’t a Dream: It Was a Flood.”In it Stanford muses on poetry and the importance of dreams. It was shown at festivals but never released, although a handful of bootleg copies on video eventually began to surface.
In a moment that later seemed weirdly portentous, the film shows a shirtless Stanford, asleep on a river bank, so still that he could be dead. On the soundtrack we hear his voice contemplating the nature of fate: “When a man shoots somebody over here, or when this man marries this woman, or when someone has an affair . . . it’s all gonna have to take its toll, from high and low.”
~ ~ ~ ~
After Frank and Ginny married they lived for a few months in a cabin on the White River. They moved several times and lived for awhile in Eureka Springs, where Frank would rent foreign movies and show them for anyone who wanted to come. He charged admission but Ginny said he usually lost money.
He screened movies by Cocteau, Bunuel, Bergman and Kurosawa and would play Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” at intermission.
“He would look at these films over and over and over again until it was time to send them back,” Ginny recalled.
Eventually Frank and Ginny moved to the family farm where she had spent her early childhood near Lamar, Mo. They gardened and put up preserves. They seemed to feed each other as artists.
She produced drawings and paintings based on his poems or inspired by his ideas. One of her paintings would later appear on the cover of The Light the Dead See, the collection edited by Stokesbury and published in 1991.
“I believed Frank and I would always be together and that time would only bring us more of what we wanted,” Ginny wrote.
The Light the Dead See
In reality, Frank had a history of maintaining relationships with more than one woman, starting in high school. “Usually one didn’t know about the other one,” Ruth Rogers recalled.
In 1974 or ’75 following a reading Stanford went to a party at James Whitehead’s house in Fayetteville. There he met Carolyn Wright, a student in the graduate writing program.
“I had already read one of his books and that night I learned that he had written a number of other books, so that the was the next thing on my mind — getting hold of those books and reading those,” Wright said.
Wright, who publishes as C.D. Wright, said it didn’t take long for a romantic relationship to develop.
“It happened pretty fast,” she said. “And you know, it was uncomfortable and it was complicated.”
Stanford, who was supporting himself as a land surveyor, began dividing his time between Ginny on the farm and Carolyn in Fayetteville. Stanford and C.D. Wright eventually moved into a rental house and founded Lost Roads Press to publish books by each of them and other young poets.
“He had a few books printed and he didn’t like the way they looked,” Wright said. “And so he started over.”
Together, Stanford and Wright got a loan, filled up the little house with printing equipment and began publishing books.
“We bought a press and we bought a camera and a plate-burner and a light table and we borrowed an old typesetting machine called a Verityper,” she said. The equipment was “in every room of the little house — in the laundry room and the study and the garage and the room behind the garage. So it was pretty much the furnishing of the house.”
When Wright finished school she decided to stay in Fayetteville.
“There were a lot of artists there in a lot of different media,” she said. “None of us were ready to go anywhere. We didn’t have jobs and we didn’t have prospects but we liked what we were doing and we were learning and so we stayed — stayed too long, most of us . . . There were quite a few of us in our 20s making a catch-as-catch-can living. I taught poetry in the schools and waited tables and sometimes I worked for Frank on the surveying line.”
Stanford apparently told Ginny and Carolyn that his relationship with the other was platonic. He divided his time between them for three years.
“He made up elaborate excuses for his absences from home, which I convinced myself to believe,” Ginny Stanford said. “He continually denied he was having an affair. He continually told me he loved me and he was loving when he was with me. So I ignored what my gut was telling me.”
One day in later winter of 1978 she had a premonition. Frank was at the farm, and as he and Ginny walked in the pasture she suddenly made him promise not to kill himself.
“He had this thing he would do,” she said. “He would always swear on his honor as a poet. It was his version of putting his hand on the bible. So I made him swear on his honor as a poet that he wouldn’t kill himself. And he did.”
~ ~ ~ ~
In May of ’78 Stanford decided to visit friends in New Orleans. The day he left, Ginny went through a file of his poems and, she said, found love letters.
“I thought I was going to puke,” she said. “I thought I was going to faint. I went downstairs and sat on this ottoman. It felt like the end of the world.”
Wright thought it was unlikely she had written any love letters since she and Frank were living together, but she and Ginny did agree that they talked by phone and that Ginny drove to Fayetteville.
“So I went down there and we proceeded to slice and dice him,” Ginny said. The more they compared notes, the more they examined the lies he had told each of them, the angrier they got.
“We talked for the next two weeks and there was a lot of driving back and forth,” Wright said.
They called Stanford in New Orleans to tell him the jig was up. Wright remembered his reaction was one of “relief, because he’d been keeping . . . these double lies going for three years, so it was quite an exhausting emotional journey for him — and everyone else.”
But Stanford didn’t seem anxious to return to Fayetteville. According to his friend, poet Ralph Adamo, Stanford kept putting off his departure. In New Orleans he spent time with Adamo and novelist Ellen Gilchrist, neither of whom remembered Stanton seeming depressed. But Stanford wrote letters in New Orleans explaining how he wanted his funeral to be handled and how he thought his literary estate should be divided.
Gilchrist remembered having lunch with Stanford before he left and how he said goodbye with an eerie finality.
“He embraced me the way a father embraces a child,” Gilchrist said. “He held me and said ‘goodbye’ two or three times.”
Stanford spent his last night in New Orleans with Adamo. One June 3, 1978, he went home.
“He borrowed my suitcase and $10 off my dresser for gas that have never been paid back, by the way,” Adamo said.
~ ~ ~ ~
C.D. Wright called Ginny Stanford and told her Frank was on his way. Ginny drove to Fayetteville.
“Part of it was I just wanted to see him,” Ginny said. “I hadn’t had a chance to talk to him at all . . . except for one or two really one-sided phone conversations where I was reading him the riot act.”
When Stanford arrived at the house had had shared with Wright, he found all his belongings packed up. It had all the signs of an eviction.
“We had this verbal showdown, the three of us, for hours,” Wright said. “We were all exhausted. I had thrown up and Ginny was crying.”
C.D. Wright (photo by Forrest Gander)
According to Wright, Frank at one point wanted to go to his surveying partner’s office. The women rode with him and both Wright and Ginny Stanford remembered Frank coming out of his partner’s office wearing a red pull-over sweatshirt with a hand-warmer pocket in front. It struck Ginny was odd because it was a warm day. Later they assumed he was hiding the gun inside the sweatshirt.
Back at the house the conversation ground on for awhile. Eventually there was a lull.
“I was in the front room,” Wright said. “Ginny was in another room. He said he wanted to lie down, went into a bedroom and that was it.”
“In the span of the longest five or six seconds I have ever lived through, Frank fired three shots into his chest,” Ginny Stanford wrote in her essay, “Death in the Cool Evening.” “Three pops, three cries . . . After the third cry I knew he was dead.”
Later Ginny Stanford recalled hearing C.D. Wright screaming to her from the bedroom: “Get in here!”
In her essay, Ginny described straddling Frank’s body, putting her hands on his chest and being “amazed at the sight of three small holes ringing his heart.”
“Death had changed his eyes from hazel to pale porcelain green . . .” she wrote. “While I waited for the police I tried to memorize every detail of his face before I never saw it again. He looked through me to a distant place, and I tried wishing myself there.”
Despite Ginny’s vivid recollection, Lt. Ken Martin of the Fayetteville Police Department, recalling the events 20 years later, said Stanford had not shot himself three times.
Martin said Stanford was shot twice with a single-action .22 pistol that had to be cocked each time it was fired. The body was sprawled on a bed when the police arrived.
Martin said the police theorized that Stanford held the muzzle against his chest and pulled the trigger with his left thumb and that the recoil somehow caused the gun to be cocked and fired a second time.
The women were sitting on the front porch when Martin and a second officer, Mary Mueller, arrived.
“In all honesty, when I got there, they were like sisters,” Martin said. “They were upset, but not hysterically so. And they were trying to comfort each other.”
Later that night, Officer Mueller typed a memo to the police chief as a sort of addendum to the incident report.
“The two females got together today and compared notes and confronted him with the fact that he wasn’t treating them right,” Mueller wrote. “There was no loud fight or anything, but at the time, Stanford became withdrawn and depressed about his fouled up love affair. He had stated to his wife in the past ‘If you ever leave me, I’ll kill myself.’ The Wright female stated to us shortly after we got to the scene that ‘we were looking at all three corners of a triangle.'”
In her short story, “The Raintree Street Bar and Washeteria,” Ellen Gilchrist describes the shock felt by a barroom full of sodden New Orleans writers when they received news that the great poet Francis Alter had killed himself.
“It was unbelievable,” she wrote. “Francis had just been in New Orleans visiting all of them, charming them to death with his beauty and his poetry . . . Then he had gone home to his meager poet’s cottage and lain down upon a bed and shot himself through the heart. He had gone into a bedroom and lain down upon a bed and blown his heart to smithereens. He had decided to put an end to all his poetry and pain and the hard work it is to be alive. Besides, he believed that if he killed himself everyone would be sorry and not be able to forget him. He was right about that.”
Ginny Stanford and Carolyn Wright planned Stanford’s funeral together. He was buried on the grounds of the Subiaco Academy in a kimono and without shoes, Ginny wrote.
For several months the two women, having bonded in a curious way, lived together in Fayetteville.
“It was a mistake,” Wright said. “Too weird. Gothic. I did think we would eventually make a peace but we didn’t. That’s not the way it worked out.”
Ginny Stanford recalled what she believed was pressure from people who knew Stanford for the women to be friends. She, too, thought living together was a mistake.
“It was very unnatural,” she said.
Eventually they both moved away. So did a lot of people.
“It was the end,” Wright said. “Of course, for me it was a very definite end. But for a lot of us it was sort of like we had done everything we could do there and everybody had ruined everybody else’s life as much as they could there and assimilated each other as much as they could. So as artists it was time for us to go to the city. So there was a diaspora.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Stanford continues to exert his personal mythology on people who read his poetry. His work is continually being discovered by writers who are swept away by his singular voice.
And although much of Stanford’s published work remains unavailable, his stature continues to grow. Young writers, when exposed to Stanford’s poetry, are immediately impressed by the unique combination of Southern vernacular and surrealistic imagery.
“It happens all the time,” Adamo said. “I don’t think I’ve ever presented Frank’s work to anybody who wasn’t struck by it and moved in some way.”
C.D. Wright said that once she introduced Stanford’s epic-length poem, “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You,” to her students at Brown University, and they immediately organized a 16-hour public reading.
“Almost everyone who contacts me about Frank – and over the years hundreds have – think they are the only ones who have ever read him or heard of him,” Wright said. “But in fact his reputation is rather large, considering that almost none of his work is in print, that he rarely left Arkansas, that he only published with teeny-tiny presses . . . You are dealing with a young poet who’s dead, whose work is not in print. Now, in our country that’s tantamount to never having existed.”
But in a way Stanford remains unknowable. Nobody really knows why he killed himself. But he talked of death often and had told more than one person he wouldn’t live to see 30.
Other than his brief stay in the state hospital, Frank apparently never sought professional counseling.
“God help the psychiatrist that took on Frank,” Whitehead said. “He was smarter than any psychiatrist would have been. Frank wasn’t crazy. He just killed himself because it was part of his destiny.”
Stanford, in the way he wrote and the way he lived, was deeply romantic, Whitehead said. Whitehead and others said Stanford had talked about killing himself many times.
“He was brooding, he was mysterious, he was glamorous, he was complicated and he was romance incarnate,” Whitehead said. “And he worked on that image, while being a very serious artist.”
The result was a prolific output and an early death, not unlike poets of the 18th and 19th centuries.
“It’s a terrible thing that he killed himself,” Whitehead said. “It was a stupid thing that he killed himself. But he was a pure, pure, bloody romantic. That’s what he thought he was supposed to do.”
Ginny Stanford thought Frank might have been manic-depressive. She said the state hospital records indicated that he’d gone through a period of heavy drinking before they met.
“He would go on a writing bender and be up for days practically without sleep, go through really high creative times and then crash,” Ginny said.
But Ginny also said Frank was very good at hiding his feelings. He was, after all, an accomplished liar.
By the time he was 29, Stanford had written several volumes of poetry, including one book-length poem of more than 500 pages, as well as fiction and essays. And he had told many, many lies.
“I think anyone who’s living a lie suffers from depression,” Wright said. “I think he was hurting. He felt very estranged. I miss Frank. He was a great love for me, but it was a dreadful ordeal almost from the beginning.”
Willett said death had been Stanford’s companion his entire life.
“Frank related to death like death was his brother . . . and it wasn’t anything you needed to fear,” Willett said. “It was just there. You accepted it. . . I think Frank was under the impression that when he killed himself that was not the end of the story.”
Stanford’s fixed idea that he wouldn’t live to be 30 was part of who he was an artist. It might be why he wrote the way he did.
“Part of what caused him to have the power he did as a poet was this mind that conceived of itself as working on a 29-year schedule,” said Stokesbury. “His familiarity with death came from the fact that he really was planning to become quite familiar with death very soon. He really did feel it. If he didn’t feel it he might not have been able to write the poems he did.”
The early poems, Stokesbury said, are about people dying. The best later poems were about trying to understand death as an idea. Stokesbury said it was as if Stanford viewed death not as an end, but as a doorway to another plane of existence, “like there was some light that the dead see that the others don’t and he wanted to find out what it was.”
Ultimately, nobody knows why Stanford pulled the trigger. What matters is his legacy — the extraordinary poetry.
“Whether you’re a writer or not, there’s something to be gained from the beauty he was able to pull out of the mud on the levees of the Mississippi River,” Willett said.
Said Stokesbury: “He was a true poet, that’s for sure. Maybe a little too true, as it turned out.”
Note: This article was researched and written in 1998. A much shorter version appeared in the Kansas City Star to mark the 20th anniversary of Frank Stanford’s death. Poet and novelist James Whitehead, who was kind enough to grant an interview, died in 2003. Poet Miller Williams passed away in 2015. Poet and editor CD Wright, who was generous with her time in more than one interview, died in 2016.