Sunday, November 2, 2008

Frank Stanford

Frank Stanford shot himself in the heart three times with a .22 caliber hand gun. It was June 3rd, 1978 and he was only 29 years old. I learned of Stanford a couple weeks ago on a trip to Fayetteville, Ar. There was a weekend long festival to be held in his honor and I read about it, and him for the first time in the local paper.

Why a festival for him you ask ? Because the man was a wordsmith and he wrote with a mighty pen. Poetry mostly. Not your typical poems of rhymes and stanzas. His best known work is a one line poem that is 549 pages long. It is believed he started this poem when he was a teenager in the 60’s, working on it til completion in 1975. He wrote the entire piece by hand and it was originally 1000 pages long. THE BATTLEFIELD WHERE THE MOON SAYS I LOVE YOU is the title.

I read the newspaper article about the festival, about the man, and I was very interested. Frank Stanford, and his poem, The Battlefield where the Moon says I Love You, sounded right up my alley. I ordered the book and upon receiving it I knew I was gonna enjoy it, for many years to come. One of the first things that struck me was the way he use the dialect, the voice of the African Americans who worked for his father on the levees in Mississippi and Arkansas. Some writers are very good at getting the voice of the characters of a book just right, Stanford nailed it with this poem. The poem is told in the voice of a 12 year old kid. It’s obvious Stanford is the kid and that as a kid he spent a lot of time with the crew that worked for his Dad. It’s a fascinating read and full of imagery that is easy to grasp. I wish I could have stayed for the week and checked out the festival.

I have read a lot about Stanford and the Battlefield poem since learning of him. Everything I have read seems evident when you start reading the poem. It’s all true, you can pick the book up, open it to any page and just “get it” right away. It also seems, as I read somewhere, that the poem was in line with the civil rights movement of the time. It goes on and on about what he witnessed as a young man and what he knows to be right and wrong about all he witnessed. And the dialect, the beautiful way he captured the voice of the down and out, of the old black ladies that took care of him when he was a small child, the angry black man and his attitude towards the white man who was trying to hold him back. I’m sure some of it was fiction, but I know a lot was first hand knowledge. The names of the people in the poem are the names of the men he grew up with. There is a short film about Stanford, it’s called IT WASN’T A DREAM, IT WAS A FLOOD. In the film you meet some of these men, same names as in the poem. Baby Gauge, O.Z., Charlie B. Lemon, they all worked for Stanford’s dad and had a huge impact on the young Stanford’s writing.

I feel like I really discovered something here. A real jewel if you will. The south has plenty of great writers, but it’s not often you come across something like this. Something that’s there for the taking, a nice neat package of a mans life and his work, ready to be consumed by anyone interested.

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