Bianca Stone is one of the most exciting poets, visual artists, and advocates for poetry today. Her writing is essential to the Vermont poetry scene and the compassion she brings to it creates many opportunities for other poets. The Mobius Strip Club of Grief (Tin House 2018), Bianca’s most recent collection, became an instant classic in its reimagining of the afterlife and a new take on modern feminism. Bianca and her husband, Ben Pease, have been heading a project to restore the old Ruth Stone House in commemoration of her late grandmother. The House will offer a wide variety of resources and opportunity for poets. At Green Mountains Review, we honor her incredible poetry and her own celebration of poetry which as at once both generous and deeply personal.
A key moment in any project is discovering the empty space that your work will fill. Will you tell us about the community you are building with the Ruth Stone House?
Coming from Vermont, I had such strong connections with my family’s literary interests and the people that they brought in, but didn’t feel like it was my own. Once at NYU, I developed a strong poetry community who were dedicated to one another and everyone; all my friends were poets and all we did were poetry things—readings, starting small presses, doing book fairs–but I wanted to see what else I could do. We had been working on the Ruth Stone House for a couple years, and I knew it couldn’t grow any more with me in NYC, so I came back to see what was happening.
There’s always a big space for poetry to fill. There’s always a need for someone who cares about it and tries to find other people who want to share what they’ve written. We got a writing group together in Brandon that has grown and grown and feels like such a family of writers. We’re also connecting with people in the Burlington area with a new reading series in Winooski. This is all paving the way for the bigger vision of having everything happen at the Ruth Stone House in Goshen. It feels good to finally be doing it.
When you were looking for what was already going on in Vermont, what did you find?
There are some really wonderful reading series—particularly the Lit Club at the Light Club that Meg Reynolds runs in Burlington. They have a group of people who return every week to read at the open mic, plus new people who come from out of town to read [as feature poets]. There’s also an open mic reading series that happens in Brandon at the Book & Leaf Bookstore. In the Middlebury/Brandon area there writing groups, like the Otter Creek Poets’ Group, which has been meeting for years at the Ilsley Library. Almost every town has a bookstore and things happening in them—there is so much room for growth and connecting with those people as well.
So many people find poetry to be this elusive art of genius and spend much of their lives trying to understand it. How were your ideas of poetry formed growing up with so much of it around you?
From a very early age, I thought poetry was intuitive and that everybody did it. I knew it was about emotion and metaphor and humor and I liked to imitate the adults that I heard read and try it out on my own. I never felt afraid of it and I think that was key. Children aren’t afraid of poetry right away; it’s only later in life that we become afraid of it because of what it’s supposed to mean and how—in school, we are taught to uncover meaning in these cloaked metaphors and conceits—but it can be really scary to feel like you’re going to give a wrong answer. Poetry is about your own personal response to what you’re reading; though there are themes that each poet is dealing with that they want you to get to. I felt really connected to the voice of poetry and the way it worked and thought that I knew everything about it until I went away to college where I found there was a lot I didn’t know.
When did the visual art become a part of it?
Drawing and painting has been a big part of my creativity.. As I went on to graduate school for creative writing, I didn’t think there was any place for my artwork in that institutional setting until I studied with Anne Carson. She encouraged people to practice multi-disciplinary and hybrid work so that we could find different ways to collaborate with one another. This was something I already did naturally. Carson is very interested in the process of creation outside of sitting alone in a room, and writing a poem. That began the era of bringing my visual art to poetry and either collaborating with other poets or using it for my own. I always loved to make little books growing up, as a teenager, so I got a chance to do that again.
Was it a spark moment when you started to see the symbiotic nature between your poems and the drawings and they were becoming one thing?
Definitely. I had never thought of deliberately putting my poems with my comics until the poet, Matthew Rohrer, told me about “poetry comics.” I’ve always been excited by comics and immediately ran away with it. If any poet reads “Understanding Comics” by Scott McClous, they will immediately see the stark parallels between how comics work and how poetry works. “Understanding Comics” is a deep dive into what’s happening in your brain when you read a comic, and it’s clear that some of the mechanisms that make comics work is actually what makes poetry work too, in terms of white space between panels, fragmented narrative, the reader filling in the blanks, and connections to what’s happening off screen. There’s a certain poetry in comics in the way the words are placed by themselves in a bubble. In prose, it’s so rare to have a piece of a sentence speaking for itself like that.
The Mobius Strip Club of Grief is so rich in character and scene that I return to it as I do to favorite films. It’s so rendered and cinematic. How far into the process did the vision of the strip club come in?
It started off as just one poem and then another poem and another. I was a little disturbed by the whole idea and didn’t want to let it go; I wanted to try to figure out what I was getting at. It started to lead me down different pathways–which is one of the greatest feelings as an artist, getting to feel like an investigator looking for the big unknown. I was in a grieving process that seemed to go on and on and I felt that I needed to put it somewhere. It always felt like I was constructing these Mardi-Gras, burlesque, masked people in my head in order to celebrate this person I lost, while also mocking my obsession with the dead. The idea of having poems written in to limbo, like Dante, has always intrigued me. The book still remains to me mysterious and problematic in its conceit and I like that. I like that I don’t know exactly why or what, but that grief can feel messy and outside of yourself and at the same time so personal and in your head. It’s like another universe inside you. There was a catharsis in it all, for sure. Everything I knew about that person and everything I grew up with was was coming together and partying. I think we all try and figure out where people go after. We think we know what we’re going to feel like when we lose somebody we really love, but it’s different when we actually do. To see the body and know the body and love the body but the person is not there. These bizarre feelings of what the body is started to come up in my mind and I think that led me to some ideas of the burlesque and the exhibition of the self.
In the second part of the book, you’ve moved out of that limbo—you created a place for it and then write yourself away while making sure that it stays safely there. In backing away from that place, becomes more personal and raw, like it is back in your own body. Was that a conscious decision? How were those poems a reaction to the ones in the beginning of the collection?
Ultimately, the book is about family and I wanted to explore that directly. When people die, they leave people behind who still have to deal with the stark reality of life. Maybe they were a reaction to that—the raw lives that are left behind and the grief that one feels for those people as well as the dead, who are almost in a better place–a place where they have control and are the owners of the underworld–while we’re still toiling away up here. That was a big part of the book and I wanted to honor all of the people in the family touched by grief. There’s a lot about women in this book too—about how they’re seen by men and marginalized. I had found this old book written in the 1800s by a woman who catalogued the women of the French saloons. They were these 17th century hostesses who threw parties for the male literary minds to come together. The book is about how these women were never appreciated as catalysts of the men’s creativity. I felt that Ruth, in her lifetime, was never fully appreciated and her era certainly was a “good old boys” club. A lot of men were helping each other out, patting each other on the back,making sure that they got jobs, and that they would be published. She was a single woman who was difficult and had a big personality. She was very sure of who she was and who she wanted to be, but was looked over until the very end. The women in [MSCoG] came naturally—Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, the hostesses of the French salons, and the women we’ll never know in our own times. There’s a lot about my mother in this book too and what she missed out on.
Does it feel like you address those topics and that thread thoroughly?
No. My new book seems to be about something similar. I can’t help it–it keeps coming up. I feel like human beings, in general, always feel unseen or not heard correctly. It’s not just about being a woman, it’s about being human. We always seem to be messing up the way we see one another and the way we speak to one another. Our compassion is broken, in some ways, on a micro scale and a massive scale. Our world, our country, our politics, how we treat the earth. We’re off-track from one another. I’m trying to figure out how to see other people and how other people can see me. It definitely gets back to how I hear men talking about women and how that has skewed the way I think about myself; these things that we’ve learned our entire lives—that we’ve grown up with, that have been taught to us in schools and by parents and peers—about how we see everything. We feel like something is wrong with us all of the time. I don’t know how to fix it but it has something to do with compassion and empathy and allowing yourself to see and be seen. Poetry is one of the places where we can explore frankly abstract concepts like that that are hard to articulate and need to be talked about.
“Artichokes” is the first time I’ve seen that question, “what is it to be seen?” asked so directly in a poem. It’s a question that is with us all and I think talking about it and asking the question is where a lot of compassion is.
That’s exactly it. It’s not an accusation, it’s not “I’m the victim and you’re the perpetrator,” it’s more, “this is happening and how do we go forward from here?” You see in students, right now, so many poems are full of anguish and despair and I want them to find a way out. I’m trying to ask how we can honor our trauma and transmute it into something great that can touch other people and let other people know that we are working on this together.
Is the new book you’re working on all that and more?
It is all that—really, it is. It’s such an infant right now that I don’t want to wreck it, but I definitely feel that it’s all about that. I am concerned with the natural world and humanity and am asking a lot of questions in the new book. The two words I feel are the most important in this book are “human” and “nature.” I don’t see an order–human and nature, nature and human, the human nature, or humans in nature—it’s all of it. The clock is ticking and I want to get these questions out so we can start to investigate them. Having a child now, my concerns are so different and my attitude about the world has shifted so organically.
It seems appropriate for the new book to be an investigative shift and to be asking questions, asking for help.
I’m excited to move on from [MSCoG] and just keep moving onward and upward. It’s great to be here in Vermont. I feel so good here and there are a lot of exciting things happening. I can feel it in my bones that more writers are moving here!
Bianca Stone is a poet and visual artist. She is the author of Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House & Octopus Books 2014), Poetry Comics From the Book of Hours, (Pleiades, 2016), The Mobius Strip Club of Grief (Tin House, 2018), and she collaborated with Anne Carson on Antigonick, a book pairing Carson’s translation of Antigone with Stone’s illustration and comics (New Directions, 2012). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, jubilat and Poetry Magazine. She is Director of Programs at the Ruth Stone Foundation in Goshen, VT. Her newest book is a children’s book of a Gertrude Stein poem, “A Little Called Pauline” (Penny Candy Books, 2020).