Frank Stanford’s “Tapsticks,” a Conversation with James McWilliams
At the beginning of July, I spoke on the phone with James McWilliams, a writer and professor based in Austin, TX. McWilliams is writing Frank Stanford’s first biography (Univ. of Arkansas Press). We talked about one of Stanford’s poems, “Tapsticks.” The poem appears in Stanford’s book The Singing Knives (Mill Mountain Press 1971) and in The Massachusetts Review’s autumn 1972 issue (vol. XIII, no. 4).
So, we’re looking at the poem “Tapsticks,” which is published in The Singing Knives, 1971, I believe?
Yeah, so the copyright is 1971. It really didn’t see the light of day until 1972. Frank didn’t see it until almost the summer of 1972.
Okay, I want to ask you about that. I see this poem was published in The Massachusetts Review in autumn of 1972. His bio on the contributor’s page notes that “Frank Stanford is a student at the University of Arkansas.” What do you think about that?
He dropped out twice, once in ’68, but he reenrolled to be in the poetry seminar, and again in ’71. In the summer of 1970, he hadn’t really been a student at the University of Arkansas for almost two years. By the time he wrote that bio, he was not officially a student. Even when Frank was at the University, he wasn’t a student most of the time. He almost never went to class. He signed up for classes and barely took them, or he withdrew from them. He seriously pursued his classes for about a year. That was in the academic year of 1966 and 1967. That’s one thing to keep in mind. Another thing to remember is that, even though he was not officially withdrawn from the University by ’72, he was still in the MFA mix. I believe he had identified, for a while anyway, pretty deeply with that program and the people in it. In his mind, he kind of was affiliated with the University of Arkansas at this point in time.
Interesting. He’s twenty-four then, I think?
Yes, he would have turned twenty-four in August of ’72.
So, is he still seeking out that kind of glory? He’s still working in the sort of MFA poet/publisher realm. He hasn’t gone off on his own quite yet.
Well, I think Frank was extremely savvy. He could also be manipulative. I think he knew when he was submitting to a university press journal that the credential might matter. There are plenty of other journals in which he omitted the fact that he attended the University of Arkansas. I think he crafted the bio, maybe a little bit, to meet the standards or expectations of the journals he submitted to. Because, for instance, the little magazines didn’t really care that much where you were a student. They really were just interested in raw, vibrant, novel poetry. I think it seems plausible that Frank thought, “Well, okay. This is a university press I’m submitting to. Maybe I should include the fact that I was at Arkansas or even fudge it a little and say I am at Arkansas.”
Well, you know, submitting to The Massachusetts Review is interesting and makes some sense, considering Stanford’s rich engagement with people of color in his work. The Mass Review has a venerable tradition with Black writers.
I didn’t know that.
Since it started in 1959, The Mass Review has played a unique role in emphasizing the importance of Black writers — Martin Luther King Jr., Ekwame Michael Thelwell, Lucille Clifton, Stokely Carmichael, W.E.B. Dubois, Sterling Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Angela Davis, Audre Lord, Sonia Sanchez, and also writers like Ross Gay, Geffrey Davis, and Yusef Komunyakaa. There’s a connection to Black writers at that journal.
I guess what I am asking is this — was there some kind of breaking point that Stanford hit between ’72 and ‘74? Because, for example, he gets that famous card from the Academy of American Poets saying something like “your submission is just too long” in 1974. It seems to me that, after that point, Frank throws his hands up and says, “Screw these MFA folks, their university journals, and the university route of becoming a poet. I’ll do it on my own.”
I think identifying that breaking point is a hard thing to do, but your thought is certainly a plausible one. Another time period to consider in this regard is when he actually moved up to Mount Sequoyah with Linda Mencin in 1969. I think when he moved there, he worked on The Battlefield, largely in isolation, without the input of the MFA program or the workshop. This would have been in 1970 and ’71. I think during that time he began to distance himself from the workshop and the poets in it. He was really intent on making sure that nobody thought he was being influenced by anybody in that workshop. I think he deeply guarded his sense of creating himself from nothing. He wanted to be a creative impulse who was not influenced by others. Now, 1974 when he was rejected by the Walt Whitman contest, yeah, that was a painful moment for him.
He also submitted a manuscript that was three times longer than requested; that didn’t help his cause to win the contest. You get the sense when you submit a manuscript that is three times as long as what somebody is asking for, you are already, in some sense, dropping out. You know this is not going to work and you are, in some ways, feeding your own myth as the lone poet rebel who didn’t get a fair hearing.
Do you think he was relying on poet Alan Dugan during that time to help his manuscript along?
Totally. Dugan not only sent a letter saying that “hey, this guy’s poems are worth looking at,” after the [Battlefield] manuscript was rejected, he sent a letter and used the choice phrase, “horse shit.”
That was Dugan?
Here’s what I will say about Dugan. I think he was a tremendous correspondent and supporter of Frank Stanford on a personal level. I don’t think he really was a mentor, in a professional sense, for Frank. This is something I have concluded after closely looking at the Dugan letters [located at Emory University]. His behavior towards Frank in the letters is very personal, encouraging, supportive, and validating of Frank’s talent. When it came down to really putting his neck out for Frank Stanford, though, Dugan did not follow through.
There were several points, but there was one point when Frank just reaches out. I think it is 1975 when he says, “Look, I wanna publish a book with a big press. Can you you guide me?” And, Dugan really doesn’t. He doesn’t respond to that. Dugan was beset by a number of his own personal problems. You know, he had drinking problems.
He had marital problems. He was probably depressed. I don’t think he was much of a mentor. In some ways, this is what’s so sad about Frank cutting himself from the MFA program. Who would have been a mentor, who wanted to be a mentor, and who would have ushered Frank into professional success, if Frank would have allowed it, was Jim…
Jim Whitehead, right?
Yes, Jim Whitehead.
Well, there is a lot there, but let’s get to “Tapsticks.” Stanford was trying to set himself apart from the MFA crowd, right? And can’t that be seen in the content in his poems?
We can see the content is different, and so are things like the formatting. This poem “Tapsticks,” well, I got a good sense of what they are, but I’d like to know what you think first. What are tapsticks?
In the context of the poem, I think the tapsticks are the little tree branches that the kids pull off the trees, kind of strip the bark, and use them as you might use drumsticks to bang on whatever is available to bang on and make a fun noise.
I agree with you that they make tapsticks in the openining of the poem. In my own research, I learned that “tapsticks” was a name for a boomerang-like projectile used in the 19th century rural south, places like Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi. Tapsticks were connected to Aboriginal tribes in Australia and Native tribes in North America. Tapsticks fly straight at the target. They were often used by slaves and poor people, who lived by rivers, to kill small game like squirrels and rabbits, some of the main kinds of protein they had access to. We will get into the poem shortly.
I have to say, Ata, that is so Frank Stanford to actually connect to southern history, African-American history, a kind of esoteric use of the particular term. It’s quintessential Stanford. It’s all over The Battlefield. That makes perfect sense…
The title itself sticks out of The Mass Review’s table of contents, which includes an essay by Joyce Carol Oates in the same issue. Once you see a tapstick, you can picture the “white and slick as a catfish belly” sticks in the poem and how they clearly connect to the poor river people who populate this poem. We know how much Francis and his friends love fishing in The Battlefield, but in “Tapsticks” they make a simple tool from sycamore wood to hunt rabbits.
Not just hunt rabbits but hunt rabbits in a group. I think that’s what is so fascinating. You need a lot of people doing this together, and that is very consistent with the sense of community Stanford himself very much valued when he was at the levee camps as a kid. He felt that with both the levee camp community and the community at Sherman’s in Fayetteville as he became a young adult. I think he very much valued the cohesiveness maintained by social relationships in African-American communities. In some ways, Frank very much desired, and, to an extent, successfully integrated himself into those relationships.
In light of Frank’s life, let’s turn to the poem. I want to give a general sense of how it travels. The poem starts out “in hornbeam woods” that “only jug men would see.” We are in a rural place. Climbing the sycamores, tearing off branches, stripping the bark. Then in the middle of the poem, it moves in an opposite direction [the poem’s paragraphs slightly differ between The Mass Review and The Singing Knives versions]. Now, we’re on a river, and then we are on a boat in that river, maybe using the tapsticks, like you said, to drum for fun. Then there’s the last part of the poem; how does it end? With the hunt. “‘Hello! Brother Rabbit!’ someone would yell.”
It continues. “We all let loose with the long white sticks/blood new mud and broken breath we/ran to the spot to see what we had.”
I know you’re getting to the poem’s evocative end. The last image really is kind of a disturbing, haunting image of death.
Yes, the poem travels. It starts in one place and ends up in a different place, emotionally. Thinking how a camera would move in the poem to capture it, we begin high,“sixty feet in the sycamores,” then we swoop down to the “barges,” and then we are on the ground watching the rabbit convulse, “with its lucky foot” twitching. From this local group of happy folks hunting rabbit together, out pops a reference to popular culture. We go Hollywood at the end. We juxtapose the rabbit’s dying movements with Harpo Marx in the closing image.
Let’s turn now to Stanford’s unique use of capitalization. Nowadays, it is common to capitalize “Black” when writing about African American culture, but is it possible that Stanford was ahead of his time in “Tapsticks”? We get to the fourth line and see this: “… then throw them down to the Negroes below.” Is Stanford’s capitalization of “Negroes” a way to express his respect and appreciation for the Black communities he spent time in?
I think the answer to that is yes. One of Frank’s files at the Beinecke shows many edits. Many of them, including The Singing Knives, show evidence that he was meticulously attentive to what was capitalized and what was not. In fact, when Donald Justice came to visit Arkansas, I think in 1972, Frank sought him out and gave him a copy of some poems published in Open Spaces, a journal. Frank made corrections in the text saying, “This should have been capitalized. This should not have had a period.”
Despite the fact that there’s no punctuation in The Battlefield, Frank was not lackadaisical about his attention to punctuation, capitalization, and organization on the page. He took it very seriously. Back to your other question. Was he ahead of this time? Very possible.
There are other examples of capitalization. Baby Gauge, Jimmy, Born In The Camp With Six Toes (even Brother Rabbit). The names of his Black friends. Then you turn, you get to the end of the poem with Harpo Marx. It appears that Stanford specifically capitalizes things he admires and respects.
I think you are right. And why wouldn’t he? I think there is a clear indication of respect in that capitalization. These are the people who most interested him. Frank was not somebody to just join a group. He was not somebody to admire his contemporaries, his peers. He didn’t have it in him. But, in his poetry, the people he really respects are the downtrodden, the marginalized. This often included the Black people he knew at the levee camps and the Black people he knew in Fayetteville. It’s throughout his letters.
He maintained such an admiration with the Black friends in his life. They are the only ones he ever wrote about affectionately. I think that, undeniably, what you’re saying is true. There is respect, a deep, exceptional kind of respect that he has for the African-Americans he was around. I would say that his respect comes from the fact that they have suffered and been repressed; but, at the end of the day, I think for Frank it was language. It was the way his Black friends spoke. It was the way they took commonplace phrasings and made them fascinating. When he’s out in the woods having this adventure with Baby Gauge, Born In The Camp With Six Toes, and Jimmy, his white cousin, there is a profound connection. This is a kind of friendship bound by the shared hunt and language.
There’s a kind of racial connection beautifully evident in much of Frank’s poetry. I want to highlight an example in “Tapsticks.” There’s a reference towards Jimmy that says “I turned/ Towards the sun and saw Jimmy’s gold tooth.”
Yeah, it’s a great image.
Now, what do we know about Jimmy? He was white. He was a country boy. He was poor. You can imagine him missing teeth. Now, in the first poem of The Singing Knives, which is, as you know, where “Tapsticks” is included, you may remember this reference — “There was Ray Baby,” a Black friend from the levee camps. The poem says, “There was Ray baby/ He stole the white man’s gold tooth.”
I think Ray Baby gave that tooth to Jimmy, and I think Jimmy put it in his head. I wouldn’t put it past Frank to make that kind of symbolic connection.
I have never noticed the gold tooth connection you just pointed out, though I love the idea. Marvelous. Stanford’s poems often speak to each other. Words jump; images repeat.
I think it is a testament to Frank’s honesty as a poet. I don’t think the poems could not speak to each other because they are all coming from the same place in some way.
The poem you just referenced with Ray Baby stealing the white man’s gold tooth is called “Blood Brothers,” a poem that introduces the characters in Stanford’s world, who we also see in “Tapsticks.” If you look in the second paragraph of “Tapsticks,” you see that “we’d break into deer jumps tapsticks high/Leaving our blood and wind in the buckthorn.” It seems to be a reaffirmation of the blood-brothers-connection established in “Blood Brothers.”
Yes, go on…
They’re unified; they’re one. These guys are a really tight crew. They hunt and feast together.
This is good. In The Singing Knives, the second poem is “The Singing Knives.” The narrator is Francis. Jimmy is also there. I’ll read it: “He took the knife.” This is Jimmy. “He took the knife and ran it/ Across his arm/ Then he ran it across mine/Blood came out like hot soda/He tied our arms together/ With the blue bandana/And we laid down in the cotton.” They became blood brothers right there, in the book’s second poem.
Why wouldn’t that continue with Baby Gauge and Born In The Camp With Six Toes?
By the time we get to the “Tapsticks” poem, if you want to think about this in some sort of chronological way, they’re all blood brothers. It’s perfectly conceivable.
This here is interesting. It’s becoming clearer. “Tapsticks,” like many of his poems, reflects the intense bonds with his adolescent friends and the vibrant places where they came of age.
You grew up in the south. Did you ever grow up hunting?
My buddies and I went fishing in the Little Harpeth River that ran between our houses. Fishing at sunup, each having a pocket-sized tackle box, and wading through the river was a thing. We sometimes made spears out of bamboo, went into thick woods, and impaled snakes.
Yikes. Well, if you hunt with a group of people, it is really much less about the actual hunt than it is about having social relations, bonding, and sharing experiences in nature together. Stanford’s natural world is not necessarily a safe place. We know this. Dangers, like the poisonous snakes, abound. People drown.
Those cottonmouths petrify me.
There are water moccasins. There are people who live in the backwoods who can try killing you. You know?
In The Battlefield when they tie Francis to the inside of a boat and set him off, we know it’s a dangerous place. So, these guys are in the thick of it together. It’s something kind of like Huck. The Huck Finn comparison is almost hidden in plain sight.
But, you know, I am not terribly at ease with that comparison. I know a lot of people have made it, Leon Stokesbury for one. I think Stokesbury was a great critic of Frank in many ways. I think the Huck Finn comparison misses the fact that Huck Finn and Twain himself were not southerners at the end of the day. I don’t think he ever appreciated the depth of how dangerous nature could be. Stanford does. Stanford’s natural world is both a beautiful and potentially fatal place. These kids go into it. They go into it together. Have you ever done anything dangerous with a group of people? You come out the other end feeling pretty close, you know?
Those dangerous moments in the woods or on the river happen when you’re young, especially. Just to push back a tad, Twain knew rivers, I’d say. Stanford knew rivers. When you’re young on the river having an adventure with your friends and living through those incredible moments, you come out the other side with closer connections, for sure.
Another aspect I found interesting in “Tapsticks” is Stanford’s ability to observe and catalogue. “So once out of trees and river wind/ The jugs pulling against the current/ And the earth cracking…” Those are juglines. People living off the river knew when they had caught a fish because of those homemade juglines. It’s a particular kind of ordinary but poignant image. It catalogues and records a certain time, place, and people.
These fish caught on the jugline, you understand, are catfish sometimes weighing 150 pounds.
Sure, right, right.
I think it is easy to miss. This is easy to miss if you are not familiar with a jugline. People who fish on the Mississippi River, the Tennessee River, or whichever river, when they go catfishing, they’re going for big, big fish. It’s not a leisurely pursuit by any stretch.
It’s not but, at the same time, this is every day life for these people. And juxtaposed with the tapsticks and juglines imagery, a whimsical moment occurs. While looking “for rabbits on the levee/ Butterflies lighting on our butts and on/ The sticks too…” There is a kind of cataloguing moment here, where we are pulled into the smells and sights of Delta life. It’s the flora and the fauna. The butterflies and the honeysuckle. You know that smell having grown up in Georgia, the smell of honeysuckle, right?
And we get the joe-pye and jimson weed. The beautiful catalogue of comforting images creates a powerful contrast with the perilous hunting scene that is on the way.
Yes, it is that. You have the water snakes and the attention to jimson and joe-pye. Also, keep in mind that Frank started surveying in 1970, which meant he spent lots of time in the woods. Also, there were the levee camp days. There were the Mountain Home days when he was outside all the time. While living at the levee camps and in Mountain Home, he was largely unsupervised. It was a kind of idyllic childhood in the sense that he was free to wander over the lakes, rivers, and woods at will. Then, when he started working as a surveyor, there was some organization to that wandering. That kind of rambling in the woods had a kind of professional purpose. Nonetheless, he was outside all the time. He knew how to identify jimson and joe-pye; he knew his snakes; he knew his trees. There’s a kind of literacy with regards to nature that’s very evident in his poems.
What do you think about the “shadow” images in the last paragraph? “They stood behind me as I bent over/ In their shadows…” and then there is the image of the rabbit’s breath, “it’s breath like oatmeal/ The tapsticks’ shadows rising…” You can smell it as you read it. I think there is a parrallel between the speaker “in their shadows” and the cottontail dying in the “tapsticks’ shadows.”
God, you’re right. I was very much taken by that line. I think I underappreciated the first image you mentioned — “They stood behind me as I bent over/ In their shadows.” There’s a kind of deference and a kind of humility there to those who knew how to hunt rabbits with tapsticks before him. Remember in an earlier poem, “Living,” he writes about shooting a rabbit with a gun, but now, with his Black friends, it’s killing rabbits with tapsticks. You opened up this conversation by letting us know this was a 19th century technique pioneered perhaps by slaves and ex-slaves (alongside the connection to other cultures and civilizations). As you know, Frank’s historical sensibilities were remarkable. To note that “[t]hey stood over me as I bent over/ In their shadows” seems to me to very much indicate that he’s deferring to them. He is pursuing this activity in their shadow because they’re the ones who really know how to do it.
“Smelling its breath like oatmeal” is such an incredible example of the pervasive sensuality of Frank’s poetry, whether it’s smell or sound. Or also taste. He’s so deeply and sensually attuned to the world. I think that is a very good example of that.
I agree with you. In that moment the poet adds to our perspective of the world. And, in this sort of power structure, he’s the one bending over; he’s the one in their shadows. He’s collecting the kill, you know, the quarry here. The weapons’ shadows rise and Jimmy’s got the gold. Jimmy’s the head honcho here, right?
Well, yeah. Jimmy’s six years older than Francis, assuming the speaker in “Tapsticks” is Francis. But, yes, I think you’re right.
This poem and the ending, particularly, dovetails with The Battlefield.
Well, this is a very, very important point to highlight. The more I spend time studying the way Frank worked and read his poetry, I think most of the time we are reading his stand alone verse, the shorter verse. We are reading poems like “Tapsticks.”
His lyric poems.
Yes, the lyric poems are outtakes from The Battlefield.
I think The Battlefield at one point might very well have exceeded 1,000 pages. I look at it sort of like this — very serious bread bakers have a big vat of starter that they feed with fresh flour and yeast. When bakers want to bake bread, they take a small scoop of that starter to bake their bread in an oven.
I think that is what Frank is doing. I think he’s sort of maintaining The Battlefield like it is a huge vat of constantly fermenting starter that he dips into from time to time to put out his lyric poetry. I mentioned this idea to a very well-established, Pulitzer Prize winning poet. He replied, “Absolutely. You know, I think that’s what [Frank] was doing,” and he mentioned Dylan Thomas as somebody who pursued the same technique.
That’s interesting because Dylan Thomas’s best poems, most of them, were also written in his youth.
I think there is very little question that this is in some ways mixed up with what was happening with The Battlefield as it was transitioning from St. Francis and the Wolf into The Battlefield between 1968 and 1971. At one point in some of his miscellaneous writings, he mentioned regretting it, taking stuff out of The Battlefield and publishing it in the workshop with Whitehead. I mean, he might’ve regretted it, but I certainly don’t because “Tapsticks” is a great stand-alone poem. However, anyone who’s familiar with The Battlefield can easily imagine this poem integrated into it.
Yes, yes. The Harpo Marx reference reminds me of The Battlefield. The rabbit spins around like Harpo. It’s a pretty sad moment that contradicts the comedy usually associated with Harpo Marx. That creates tension in the poem. There’s an irony to it.
I think you’re right on. Of course, we think of comedy when we think of Harpo Marx. He harbored a real kind of pathos in his style of comedy. Here we have this image, if I am reading it properly, of a cottontail jerking around like Harpo moving or dancing. Is that kind of how you see it?
Yes. I love what you said about pathos and Harpo Marx. His style was more visual. I love his face. I picture him sideways on the ground running circles in place*.
Well, it’s a horrible thing to see. Shooting the animal is one thing. In this case, I guess you’re sort of beating the animal to death. The death is not clean and the animal goes into these sorts of spastic jerks. The movements are really disturbing to watch. And, I think, Frank was a pretty sensitive guy in that respect. There’s a story his mother tells. When he was growing up, he was pretty upset about hunting deer. You wonder if bringing in Harpo Marx was kind of his way to add some levity to the situation.
That’s what I think, yes. The poem travels from hornbeam woods to the comparison of a dying animal with a Hollywood comedian. A lot of beautiful stuff is going on here, a lot of powerful images. Even “Brother Rabbit” is capitalized. They say hello to who they’re killing as in, “We’ve got to hunt you, Brother Rabbit, and we are grateful for you, we are respectful of you, because we are all nature.”
For sure. When I saw “Brother Rabbit,” I thought of Br’er Rabbit. But, yeah, astounding how much there is to learn from this one poem, “Tapsticks.”
*Bill Willett, one of Frank Stanford’s closest friends, informed me (after reading the conversation above) that the reference to Harpo Marx laying on the ground and spinning around to impersonate a dying rabbit was demonstrated by Frank Stanford. When Bill introduced Frank to his parents, Bill told them that Frank did that impression. One of Bill’s brothers asked Frank to do it and he got on the floor and did it for the Willett family. They were thoroughly impressed.
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