An Interview with Ruth Stone
Robert Bradley | October/November 1990
Ruth Stone is the author of six books of poetry: In an Iridescent Time, 1960; Topography and Other Poems, 1971; Unknown Messages, 1973;C heap, 1975; American Milk, 1986; Second-Hand Coat: Poems New and Selected, 1987; The Solution, 1989; Who is the Widow's Muse? forthcoming; and The Yasha Poems, also forthcoming. She teaches at the State University of New York, Binghamton.
Bradley: You remarked that we write our own poems because we need to write them, but we love other people's poems in a different way.
Stone: You know, the illuminations of others hit you much more strongly. As a matter of fact, you're swept away by them because you didn't make them; you didn't have them. We constantly thirst, we live to suck in everything.
So the work of others is beautiful. It's a great gift. Maybe the work has more meaning for us. and certainly we ire able to enjoy the great pleasure of it-knowing the work of another's mind; You not only know that we are not alone in our feelings, but you learn previously unconsidered ramifications of those feelings. Empathy. Sadness for the other. Joy for the other, which enlarges us, so that we are not this isolated sack of blood and so forth walking around; so that, in some way or other, we experience how the fluid that we all live in connects us.
When we're doing our own writing, of course, we're taking it out of our own reservoirs. It comes from what's already entered in, and we bring it out. We need to. It's very important to bring it out of ourselves.
Bradley: Why do you think that is so?
Stone: Because it's in the dark in there. Your mind, as it works, is constantly reviewing things. Language goes on electrically, or whatever it does in there; it's a dark process, a kind of auxiliary involuntary nervous system. When you write, bring out language and experience, you're bringing out consolidated moments. In a way, they represent a great span of time even when they're only referring to a single moment; they're the condensation of a great deal of time and have accumulated all of the overtones and significance of other dramas and added meanings. We bring it out and momentarily we are amused and amazed at the new complexity that occurs, at the significance and the...
Stone: Well, I don't know if it's achievement; you present a new connection when an incident or experience is made into language. It acquires a deeper significance. As we act, moment by moment, we're spontaneous and right at the edge of time-"right now." Although it feels substantial and real, present experience is thin compared to when you speak of it later, after it goes into the mind and comes out again with all of its connections to memory, to the rhythms of the body, and to the history of language and the rhythms of speech. Once an experience is remembered and written, it becomes much more complex.
When we talk about living in the moment, the moment is just this moment when your mouth is opening, or when you're sitting on this couch. But you live totally in your past. What is this living in the present? It seems like your past drags behind you like a great huge snake or a worm, and there it is. And you do live in it. You can't help but live in your past.
Bradley: Couldn't that snake be more like "trailing clouds of glory?"
Stone: (Laughter) I say trailing coils of snakes behind you. If you consider that moment by moment, as we're going through time, we're moving forward. And then you look linearly backward, it is like you have been making a tunnel, a tunnel through time with yourself.
And you're always at the front here, right at the front, which is this moment now, but, of course, your total self is the totality of what you have lived. We can't just live in the present or we would be mindless. We live with the past.
Bradley: Well, it's a contradiction, I guess. Even though I'm very much obsessed by my "past," I've also been intrigued by religious practices whose meditations are designed to halt the stream of the past and of personal history and focus the individual being in the experience of the moment-the present.
Stone: And there's a great intensity there. An orgasm, for instance, is a very intense thing because it occupies all your mind and your body electrically, so that it focuses you. It's a tremendous focus in the moment. But of course, it doesn't go on all that long.
Bradley: Well, at least we can look forward to more of them. Do you think we write poems about the loss of that focus? Is there something about loss that makes us count so much on language to make poems?
Stone: Oh, I expect loss and the fear of loss are always a part of what makes life hauntingly beautiful. Death is a great enrichment of your consciousness because of the constant possibility of loss. Which enhances the exquisiteness of the moment, of what you have.
Bradley: In your poems, I find a similar tension between corporeal loss and pleasure-the drama of how temporary our lives are. In your poem "Nuns on the Bus," the characters seem almost unworldly by virtue of their "habits," so to speak, their clothes. Yet underneath, it's just matter going about its business in the "temporal body," the "vessel of love," as you put it in the poem. Have you always been taken by that kind of contradiction between...
Stone: Between what? Our concept of what we think of life and what we actually are? Well, I think there is almost no separation. To ourselves, we seem to be within looking out, and the "out" comes in. We bring it in. The exterior world comes in through our eyes, in our ears, and... really, we live in a medium, and we are that medium's pulse, its heart. Yet we're separate, and the central thing we have to take care of is this creature. It's our obligation, then.
That's the wonders thing about other works of art. They help us love the other, and we need to love the other for practical reasons and ultimately, it seems to me, for meaning. We make patterns because that's how we're made. We are patterns. I think we are a universe ourselves, that our brains are universes, that our body is a universe, that we are made up of so many individual things that are living together in a great composite, and we call it "I."
Bradley: And sometimes "I" doesn't like where it is.
Stone: "I" doesn't like it and sometimes "I" takes off and does what "I" wants to. (Laughter) If you are a person with a love for language, your culture and your language are the center of the mystery for you. I mean, it is how you work through the endless mystery. Which, of course, you never can work through.
Bradley: You talked about writing poems for as long as you can remember.
Stone: Yes, I didn't find out for some years that my mother read poetry aloud when she was nursing me, and then taught me all those poems by heart so that by the time I was two I knew many poems. What she built into me was both a cadence of the language and a music of poetry and patterns. Later on, when I was able, I wrote all these patterns of English poetry.
Bradley: How did you figure out what the patterns were?
Stone: They came out of me instinctively because obviously my mother had put them into me, but I didn't remember that. When I started writing I was six and making poems and from then on they were patterned. And many times I used to think I was inventing things.
Stone: Yes. Oh, definitely. In grade school I won a citywide poetry contest, and the prize was a book of modern poetry and I think a book of-it must have been Untermeyer's little book-First Forms I used to just spend days, years of my young life, you know- it was a great game to me to play and write all those kinds of forms, and it was so easy. It was just a total joy all the time. New poems were making themselves up in my head all the time. I didn't write down most of them. And then I would feel a poem coming from way off, like a train coming; I would feel it physically; and I would rush to the house to get paper and pencil to write it down; and, as I said before, it would come sometimes like it had already made itself up in my head. Apparently my mind, for some reason or another, was like some sort of machine. It would just make me up poems all the time. Very funny.
Bradley: You've certainly served an unusual apprenticeship in forms, a subject of some controversy these days.
Stone: You know, my father being a musician and playing the drums all the time, I really was taught an awful lot of rhythms just through my ear. I found form fun. It was a fun game and I slowly, slowly achieved control over what was so spontaneous. I figure it remained spontaneous in that the voice comes through you. When you hear the poem coming, it comes through you. It starts speaking to you spontaneously. But there are so many complicated things that go into the creation of a poem. I don't know at what point I became more in control over what was an uncontrollable process.
Bradley: So that was when you began to be able to shape the making of your poems?
Stone: I don't know. What is the natural singing mind? You know, it's just primitive-the primitive mind at work. But, at any rate, the funny thing is that from childhood on this writerly section of myself which went parallel to my living life always was there. And I never thought of it not being there. One time I remember it went away for three months when I was in high school and I suddenly woke up to the fact that it was gone. I was devastated. And then it came back without my noticing it and it went on. But, you know, it was just a parallel part of my life. It didn't lap over much into my life or interfere with it. It was as though I lived a double life. And being a Gemini, that's okay, I am a double.
Bradley: You've seen some changes in the way that women can approach poetry and what they do with art.
Stone: It seems to me that poetry and the arts have been backed up forever in women-these outrageous restrictions both by nature and by culture-all of a sudden there's this explosion. It's been a long time coming. And, you know, here again we're talking about a moment at the front and the past, because here at the front are all the new mayflies, male and female, and yet the males are getting really blamed for all the past, you see. See what's happening? Because the past is still here, and there it is coming along-
Stone: The inheritance, and more verbal inventions to pass it on with, along with every kind of distorted history. Then we also have all of our memories and... the situation certainly isn't simplifying itself, is it?
Bradley: How might these complexities affect young writers?
Stone: Lord, I can't speak for other poets. You see, I am unable to give up that other side of myself, the creative side that goes parallel with me. It goes. There it is. And yet, this side is my life. As I say, it's my doppelganger.
I can speak for my own life. I have, of course, struggled along as a widow. Earlier on, though, I didn't know what kind of life I could have made for myself as a single woman.
I got married. And I had children. And, of course, I noticed that I was often at the fringe, at the edge, no matter what the group would be. Always during the time when I was young faculty wife, there was this primitive separation between the men and women. And also the ponderousness of male opinion and so forth. The women would play bridge, you know, the faculty wives... it was silly. It was silly because it wasn't true to life. But everyone pretended it was.
Bradley: Did it irritate you, were you upset that you weren't able to interact more freely?
Stone: Oh no, not a bit. I lived in my own time. I always had this other life of my own. I received a Kenyon Fellowship. People were respectful about what I did. But I think what happened to women then was they were treated as though they were bright children. Bradley: You had to watch what you said...
Stone: I was very careful. Men were always "brighter" than women; no woman was as bright and as capable as a man. I thought that, in order for me to be what I wanted to be, I had to be better than anyone in the world, which made me know I had to work very hard.
Bradley: And you did. How did you work?
Stone: I concentrated and took in as much as I could. I started reading when I was three, and I've read in all directions all my life. Women who love to write poetry are the hagfish of the world. We eat everything. We eat the language. We eat experience. We eat other people's poem.
Well, that's the way it was for me. I couldn't let books alone. I read all night. Mother would get up and turn off the light. She'd go back to bed, and I'd turn the light on and read all night and then get up and go to school.
Bradley: And then as an adult, you returned to school again as a teacher. You've taught in a great many universities and have seen the rise of writing programs. What's your feeling about them?
Stone: You know, I think it's wonderful that the universities have taken in creative writing. Of course, since they did, poetry did become more commercial and more business-like. There's more evaluation and more ambition. But overall it's wonderful because our culture was in danger of forgetting about poetry, and I think universities helped to save it from neglect.
Bradley: You said you felt a deep obligation as a teacher.
Stone: If you're going to assume responsibility for a group of writers-even though you know each makes his or her own work-there is an enormous responsibility. The responsibility is not to thwart the work or its inspiration. That's number one. Number two is to nurture each individually-each writer and each writer's work.
I believe in the individual artist. A teacher must, somehow or another, focus on this person and this person's work. It takes an enormous amount of energy.
You certainly must disconnect yourself from your own work. Never bring your work to their work, never. That's what I believe in, if you're going to take that responsibility. Then, I think, there are wonderful ways in which you can bring in fresh stimulation, fresh adrenalin; and they can bring it, too; you encourage them to and therefore it becomes the whole. The group then can work together. Then the group can act also as an audience to hear the other and so forth. And the writers themselves can ask questions about what they need to know about the responses and what people think and so forth. You know, there are many ways, but the autocratic way, no. Everything, it seems to me, works for the good of art-if you let it.
Bradley: The model of the young writer looking to the older writer is an ancient model based on a mentor-apprentice relationship.
Stone: Well, there's nothing wrong with learning. There is everything to be gained by what has been done by others.
You know, I have learned that whether a person is a good or a bad person can often have nothing to do with whether they are a good or bad artist. Isn't that wonderful? I think that's how you can explain why there are some people who have been given teaching jobs because they may be very good writers themselves, who actually just can't bring themselves to be that interested in another person's work. You might say, they probably shouldn't be teaching, but they have the job because they are very good in their art. And so maybe just by being there and by being themselves they have a good effect anyway.
Bradley: Well, to me that's a strange way to teach. It assumes an hypocritical stance. I mean, they take on the role; or, at least, they take the paycheck.
Stone: You're saying they're doing something dishonest then. Well, I have my own morality about it. Teaching poetry or creative writing embodies what I know and what I need. I learn enormous amounts from students, and I have a chance to focus on my obsession, which is writing poetry.
I obviously have had an obsession with writing all my life. When I think that I have done it all my life and that I wouldn't, couldn't consider living without it, then I have to say that's one of the mainstreams- an obsession of my life. Teaching writing is just an extension of that obsession.
Human beings are born with the ability for language and metaphors and connections and symbols; everything is natural, as well as all visual arts and music and everything else. We were born to be what we call artists, no matter what degree we have.
Bradley: Some of your poems take liberties with traditional forms, like one of your villanelles that has extraordinarily long lines-the poem "As I Remember." What gave you the idea to play with forms one finds in textbooks and make them more "elastic," so to speak?
Stone: I think it might have been my liking Gerard Manley Hopkins and his ideas about stretching the line. Also, I think it was a kind of unwillingness for me to say that form was as restricting as everyone says it was. I do think that form is probably very difficult for many writers who tend to think in prose lines, and who also feel that form forces them to give up a certain way of saying things. They don't feel free. I quite agree that that's legitimate. On the other hand, I seem to have a very strong, rhythmic way of thinking and writing; so for me form isn't a real problem.
Bradley: You mention that you have a rhythmic tendency in your work. A rhythm in language means that a recognizable pattern has been established. If a discernable rhythm is present, you have a pattern; it's not just meter.
Stone: But I think people who do not write in strict form also have rhythmic patterns. Image-making, too, is an issue that poets rally around or against. I love images and couldn't write without them. Some purists or minimalists want to throw out even metaphor and so forth. I think when you pare everything down to flat statement, if you're a powerful enough writer, you can distill the essence of the poem. But to me it's also a way that you can write if you're not so gifted.
Bradley: How so?
Stone: Well, because there are not many restrictions. You do not need to have a leaping metaphorical mind, or even lean in that direction. You do not even need to have a great imagination. You don't need a sensitivity to rhythm and rhetoric. You can simply state baldly and flatly what you see and what happened and so forth. This is why I feel that writers are being pushed to say stronger and stronger things for shock-value; shock-value is taking the place of the emotional responses to metaphor and rhythm. So that now you have to have the bloody scene, where the guts are cut open and tumbling out.
Bradley: You mentioned the issue of doing away with metaphor.
Stone: Metaphor, like rhythm, is almost a given. I think we naturally have metaphorical minds, and we naturally have patterning minds, but sometimes we seem to be unable to use them.
Bradley: I think metaphor is the only way we understand anything.
Stone: Of course. "This is like this"-we see everything as comparison. Light and dark, everything we see, our minds are comparing mechanisms. So many people think in cliches, and I do feel that the tendency in our time is to speak more and more in a shorthand cliche to one another.
Bradley: And a cliche is a dead metaphor.
Stone: Yes, in a way, poetry is in-as we are in-a time of over-exposure for everything. And when that happens, language gets tired. People, writers, and readers become tired of this and this, and so forth. And I think poets are pushed more and more toward unusual, grotesque, and awful things.
Bradley: But, isn't that a reflection in a way of the kind of world we live in?
Stone: Of course. Poetry always comes out of its own time. You can't escape seeing that violence is more and more the subject of everything.
Bradley: That makes me think about the "new" narrative poetry and telling a story in very flat language, distrusting lyric pitch. Can you tell me what is your sense of a lyric poem? How would you distinguish between what might be considered a narrative poem and a lyric poem?
Stone: Most poems are narrative, no matter what you say. I don't think you can name a poem that doesn't have drama at its center.
Bradley: That's what's really curious about all this; even a haiku is a narrative poem.
Stone: Yes, that's right, and it has drama at its center.
Bradley: What about the nature of elegy in your poems? You use a very personal' history as your springboard; but before the poem is over, you scarcely even identify the object you're addressing. You use the second person pronoun a lot, and the drama is based on autobiography, but these elegies become much more than just autobiographical. How do you move from the personal to the universal-for example in "That Day"?
Stone: Oh, that one goes clear out of the solar system. Well, that's just the way I am. I correct. Probably because parallel to my literary development was my interest in the natural sciences. When I was a kid, I used to lie on the grass m the summer and look up at the stars. And then I'd read. I'd get books from the library about the stars. I remember when I saw my first photograph of a galaxy. I still can see it in front of my eyes. It was astounding and beautiful. I completely accepted the whole thing. And then a little later on I read The Theory of the Expanding Universe (Fred Hoyle) in its original publication (Phi Beta Kappa); I never lost that hunger, that need to know more and more and more. I accept the universe. I don't fight against it. I know people who won't look at the stars because they don't want to. They are frightened and they don't want to know.
Bradley: Why do you think they would be frightened by that?
Stone: Well, because it's so huge and also it doesn't seem to have any connection with us. But for some reason or another... it makes them fear their own death, their own brevity, their own smallness. It's just overwhelming. But you know for some strange reason, I don't know why, I never saw it as anything except a longing to know more and more and more. And an acceptance of being "among the all" of whatever it is, but I never wanted to be dominant over it. I never thought we were dominant over it.
The first time I knew about death, I was going to grade school in Indianapolis. The children I was walking to school with knew something I didn't know. And they asked me if I would go up and knock on a door-just go ahead and do it. We'll wait for you here.
I knocked and a man opened the door. And he said, "I'm so glad you came. Come in." And he took me into the parlor and there in that parlor was a casket with this little girl laid out in it, absolutely snow white, in a snow white dress. And this was her father. And he said, "You're one of her little friends." He was in tears because no one had come to see her.
I didn't know what to say. It was my very first inkling of death. I hadn't seen anything dead-not even an animal-up till then.
And then I went out and those children had run on laughing, you know. What struck me was the feeling of this mysterious thing-of course I was terrified- this dead child. And the father was so pathetic. The mother must have been prostrate upstairs somewhere and the father was all alone there with that little girl.
Those children-they had known her-I hadn't- and they giggled and laughed and sent me in. Isn't that strange?
But you see that was their fear; they were afraid of it too. Looking deeply into the starry sky, or being afraid of the universe-it might be, in a way, like looking at your first death.
Poems by Ruth Stone
Since then we've gone around the sun fifty times.
The sun itself has rushed on.
All the cells of my skin that you loved to touch,
have flaked away and been renewed.
I am an epidermal stranger.
Even enormous factories. So much.
Even the railway station-
Now the dead may be pelletized,
disgorged as wafers in space.
Some may be sent to the sun in casks,
as if to Osiris.
Where is that day in Chicago
when we stood on a cement platform,
and I held your hand against my face,
waiting for a train in the warm light?
That given moment by moment light,
which, in a matter of hours from then,
had already traveled out of the solar system.
I sit with my cup
to catch the crazy falling alphabet.
It crashes, it gravels down,
a fault in the hemispheres.
High-rise L's, without windows-
buckling in slow motion;
Subway G's, Y's twisted,
screams of passengers
buried in the terrible phonemes,
arms and legs paralyzed.
And no one, no one at all,
is sifting through the rubble.
Flat against the sky
they are lice sucking.
The tree is infested with them.
Drought bleaches the needles.
The tree is an old bum.
It's gone so long without water,
it's really repelled by water.
Its roots crawl after an osmotic fix with the sewer.
are hard brown rib cages;
barrel chested tiny proto-Homo-sapiens
exhumed from Olduvai Gorge;
between animal and vegetable.
Upended pine cones
Inside each one,
with much ceremony,
honorable seeds consider
Where I Came From
My father put me in my mother
but he didn't pick me out.
I am my o m quick woman.
What drew him to my mother?
Beating his drumsticks
he thought-why not?
And he gave her an umbrella.
Their marriage was like that.
She hid ironically in her apron.
Sometimes she cried into the biscuit dough.
When she wanted to make a point
she would sing a hymn or an old song.
He was loose-footed. He couldn't be counted on
until his pockets were empty.
When he was home the kettle drums,
the snare drum, the celeste,
the triangle throbbed.
While he changed their heads,
the drum skins soaked in the bathtub.
Collapsed and wrinkled, they floated
like huge used condoms.
"That Day" appears in The Solution, published by Haw River Books. "Poetry," "Pine Cones," and "Where I Came From" are from Second-Hand Coat, published by David R. Godine. Used by Permission. Â©1989 & 1987 by Ruth Stone.
Robert Bradley teaches at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He is the editor for Haw River Books.