My last post on poet Frank Stanford (I just typed in “Frank Suicide,” which shows you where my head is) was overly long for a blog entry, so I cut myself off before I finished exploring his life. I’ll finish today and hopefully will put him and his dark charms behind me because this guy has a grip on me. No wonder he’s a cult figure. Not only is his poetry arresting and fresh even 33 years after his death, his life is just waiting for a movie script.
I can’t say that I would have liked him—a guy whose idea of party fun is to point at each person in a circle saying, “I like you,” and “I don’t like you,” is someone I would avoid. But I feel the pull. The restless energy behind his good looks comes through in the few available photographs of him. Stanford was “handsome as the sun,” poet C.D. Wright said of him. Poet (and Stanford mentor) Miller Williams said he looked like a young Charlton Heston. And Stanford’s friend novelist Ellen Gilchrist has said that to know him was to understand how Jesus got his followers.
(Confession: I’ve spent much more time digging into his life than reading his poems. As I keep saying, I’m not an academic, I just dress like one.)
Actually, the lives surrounding Stanford fascinate me as much as his own, and those are the lives I’m going to write about today.
Stanford’s suicide was precipitated by a confrontation with his wife, painter Ginny Stanford (Crouch) and his lover, poet C.D. Wright. He lived with Wright even as he visited his wife every week, promising they’d get back together. After an argument with Crouch and possibly with Wright (she was in the house but it’s unclear to me whether she was part of the fight), Stanford walked back into his bedroom, closed the door, unbuttoned his shirt and shot himself three times in the heart.
Shooting oneself three times in the heart when just one would do speaks of an outsized passion and ambition. That passion and ambition extended to his love life. Stanford was more than a mere two-timing husband. At the time of his death he was juggling at least six women. One of them, I’ve discovered, was the great singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams. (My husband has long been a huge fan of Lucinda Williams. I’m just getting to know her and have found that her life and talent seem as big and colorful as Stanford’s.)
Williams’ relationship with Stanford was just a fling, she said in an interview I read. She seemed ashamed of it, ashamed of being taken in by his charm. She wrote a beautiful song, “Pineola,” about hearing the news of Stanford’s suicide from her father Miller Williams. (Miller Williams, by the way, delivered the poem at Clinton’s second inauguration.) A sampling of the lyrics (listen to the song here) gives an idea of the numbness that follows such news:
I could not speak a single word
No tears streamed down my face
I just sat there on the living room couch
Starin’ off into space
and later at the cemetery:
Some of us, we stood in silence
Some bowed their heads and prayed
I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust
And let it fall over his grave
Stanford’s philandering is not to his credit, but the type of women he pursued is. Unlike another notorious womanizer, Tiger Williams, he seems to have liked the company of equals, artists and creative types. His wife Ginny Crouch, an Arkansas native as was he, is a painter of note. She painted the official portrait of another one-time Arkansas resident, Hillary Clinton, and several of one of my favorite writers, M.F.K. Fisher. Clinton’s portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and Fisher’s in the Smithsonian.
Crouch has also illustrated book covers for writer Ellen Gilchrist, a close friend of Frank Stanford’s and someone he mentored. Gilchrist has written extensively about a character who strongly resembles Stanford.
His lover of the last three years of his life, C.D. Wright, yet another Arkansian, is a poet in her own right. She and Stanford started Lost Roads Publishing, and she continued to direct it after his death. I like her poetry more and more. Here’s an excerpt from Wright’s “Our Dust,” a poem that gives a strong sense of the place all these Arkansas characters come from:
I was the poet
of shadow work and towns with quarter-inch
phone books, of failed
roadside zoos. The poet of yard eggs and
jobs at the weapons plant and the Maybelline
factory on the penitentiary road.
Lucinda Williams, Ginny Stanford, C.D. Wright, Ellen Gilchrist—these women’s careers have outlasted Stanford’s, and dare I say outshined it. At least for the moment. A biography, a re-issue of his books, more work printed in anthologies, and hopefully a movie someday will give him the cultural presence he deserves. Meanwhile he waits in relative obscurity to be resurrected as the women in his life continue creating.