Kim Stafford: A Poet Explores the Tragic Loss of his Brother

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Burgin Streetman by sameLast summer I interviewed for a job at Trinity University Press. A portion of the interview involved reading and assessing a memoir forthcoming from the press titled “100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared,” by Kim Stafford. I’d heard of Kim’s father, Poet Laureate William Stafford, but I wasn’t familiar with Kim or his work. After freelance writing and blogging for six years, I wasn’t sure I was ready to return to work full-time, but three pages into 100 Tricks I knew I had to get the job.

"100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How I Lost My Brother," by Kim Stafford. Published by Trinity University Press.

“100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared,” by Kim Stafford. Published by Trinity University Press.

You realize right away in “100 Tricks that Kim lost his brother to suicide. The death isn’t the climax, but it serves as a compass for the other things that occur in the boys’ lives. Kim’s story of growing up in the Pacific Northwest and forging a bond with his older brother was universal, and as a reader I felt his loss reflected in my own life.

I knew if I missed the chance to work with someone this willing to share his love and pain, I’d never forgive myself. Nearly a year later, it has been my privilege to work with Kim to get his story out into the world. His memoir is a story of love, loss, and childhood—one we are all connected to by the simple fact of being alive.

BURGIN: Memoirs are my favorite type of books. There is something so wonderful about being able to sneak full tilt into another person’s experience. In 100 Tricks, at first it seems as if you are writing to solve your brother’s life, yet somehow you end up finding the center of yourself. After holding this story inside yourself for so many decades, what made you decide to sit down and share?

KIM: Yes, at first I was going to explain my brother’s suicide twenty-five years ago, but by writing I realized this was not to be. I could ponder that tragedy, but there would never be definitive answers. What I could do was try to understand my own chance as a survivor—someone learning from the past but trying to act effectively into the future. I saw our son start to enter the troubling waters of adolescence, where one’s gifts can be injured and one’s confidence can falter. I realized this had happened for my brother in his own passage toward adulthood, and I had better figure out his story in order to be a sustaining parent to our son. The time was now.

BURGIN: My favorite passage in the book:

There is something inside a boy, not yet a man, that has almost no chance. To show this thing would be taken wrong, surely, cause pain, steel your resolve for utter reticence. This wordless treasure could not come forth as it is felt within. When I looked down naked on our town, when I walked the midnight rails, when I climbed the vine, and finally tried to play my heart, I was apart from the trails to come— sex, money, resume, family, and all the rest. By some language of pure light, I and the moon could send the best of the boy in safety beyond the man.”

As the mother of a son, I totally get this. That statement is so powerful, and it illustrates how you use this book to sift through what remains of your childhood—memory, dreams, artifacts, the real archaeology of the soul—for the meaning of it all. How have your brother’s death and life affected the way you relate to the world as a parent?

KIM: “Being a good boy” killed my brother. Obedience to real and perceived—and invented—codes of behavior diminished him more than physical punishment might have, it seems to me. Well, maybe not exactly, I guess, but his severe self-restraint crushed some life principle in him and left him fragile when times got tough—leaving an identity-forming job, moving far from family and friends. And let’s face it, times do get tough for each of us, now and then. That’s part of the gig for a parent, and for a child. The trick, it seems to me, is to learn to be kind to yourself, to not punish yourself, to let yourself go forth and try things and accept both exhilaration and failure as part of your story. A boy—a girl, a mother, a father—we each need to do some rambling if we want to smuggle the treasure of identity into a world that will try to trim us down to size.

BURGIN: You’ve often written to me about the responses you’ve gotten from people who’ve heard you speak or read the book. Do you find it gratifying that so many people are connecting to your story in a very personal way?

Kim Stafford at the Lewis and Clark College. Photo by Hanna Neuschwander.

Kim Stafford at the Lewis and Clark College. Photo by Hanna Neuschwander.

KIM: I am often overwhelmed, and grateful, for the personal stories people share with me after reading 100 Tricks. A neighbor bought copies for each of his brothers. A friend needed ten copies for his extended family. People write from far away to tell me they have been enabled by this book to begin a conversation with family members about a long-secret tragedy. When I finished writing this book, I thought reading it might be a burden. “I had to write the book,” I told my editor, “but does anyone have to read it?” She replied, wisely, that many people have suffered in similar ways, and many have kept their suffering secret, as I had, and might well benefit from this book’s witness. And readers have proven her right.

BURGIN: Knowing all you’ve learned through the processing of your brother’s death, if you could go back and recognize the signs you didn’t see before, how would you change your relationship with both your father and your brother? What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone, as a sibling or a spouse or a friend, about making a connection with the people you love in the now?

KIM: The now is all we have. Now to remember, to talk, to face things. Toward the end of the book, in the chapter “Talking Recklessly,” I ponder how my father advocated wild exploratory talk in many ways but was not capable of talking about the tragedy of my brother’s death. The one thing I say to those I love is we must share the story of what is happening to us, and we must listen, ask for more, ask for deeper dimension—the kind of “vertical conversation” delving ever deeper that is the stuff of poetry, and of true friendship. I say things in this book that my father, for all his skill with words, could not have said. But he set me on the path that led to my saying them. In a way 100 Tricks is coauthored by what my brother suffered, what my father could not say, and what I had to learn by writing this book.

Kim Stafford has taught since 1979 at Lewis and Clark College, where he is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute and co-director of the documentary studies program. He also serves as the literary executor for the estate of William Stafford. Stafford has published a dozen books of poetry and prose, and lives in Portland, Oregon.

Burgin Streetman is the marketing manager for Trinity University Press. She is also a writer and the author of the children’s lit blog Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves

Kim Stafford will discuss 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do with Naomi Shihab Nye at the Texas Book Festival – San Antonio Edition on Saturday, April 13, at noon in the Central Library Auditorium.

 

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