The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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MAY 2014 Issue
Books In Conversation

BIANCA STONE with Matt Bell

Bianca Stone
Someone Else’s Wedding Vows
(Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014)

Bianca Stone is the author of Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), several poetry and poetry­–comic chapbooks, and is also the illustrator of Antigonick, a collaboration with Anne Carson (New Directions, 2012). Her poems have appeared in magazines such as American Poetry Review, Tin House, and Crazyhorse. She graduated from N.Y.U.’s Creative Writing Program, and lives in Brooklyn. The last poem in Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, “Practicing Vigilance,” opens with the lines: “Every day try and write down one terrible thing. / One terrible thing—I’m filled with them, / carry each one / like an organ locked in a Coleman cooler.” Without making the mistake of conflating any particular speaker with the poet, if Bianca Stone is at all filled with terrible things, she’s just as full of things surprising and tender, witty and surreal, innovative and accomplished. Poem after poem, Stone’s impressive debut offers new entry points into imagination, all the while keeping us grounded in an emotional reality all her own, creating a moving experience that lingers long past the book’s last page.

Matt Bell (Rail): One of the elements I admire most in your work is the way that you use everyday language to accumulate strangeness, often building from the ordinary to the surreal through a series of declarative sentences. For instance, in “Because You Love You Come Apart,” the opening line is “Your hair is wonderful today,” which is the kind of thing anyone might say to someone they like or love. But then the speaker continues, in the same tone, to reveal that “This is a microscopic caress at a party,” that “This is the dead fathoming. / This is coming home / with your gorilla heart all disordered.” And for me it’s that first everyday statement that makes the stranger assertions that follow land successfully. There’s a passage through the surreal as the poem continues, then a return to the real in the last sentences, after the speaker tells us, “This is your friends making a massive cake / filled with blackbirds and figs.” “This is the leaving a dark bar with them,” the speaker says. “In the cab home you lay in each other’s arms.” It seems like there’s a lot of power in this book-ending of the real, a lot of friction and rub between the real and the surreal spheres of the poem. Are you conscious of trying to create this movement, or is it more of an instinctive feel for what the balance might be in any particular poem? Is it possible for a poem to be too surreal to succeed, or too grounded?

Bianca Stone: I’m an advocate for tone and strong voice. Partly my poems are like this because I grew up listening to my grandmother Ruth Stone’s poetry, which is direct and narrative, but also very mystical. That’s what our lives are like; these concrete, everyday instances coming up against the individual’s brain—which is anything but concrete. We ignore the mystical and the surreal so much because we want to make sense of our lives. What happens around us is too complicated to ignore in poetry.

There are a billion poems I find too surreal. Then there are a billion more I find too easy and flat. (So what if you walked your golden retriever in the woods and found a crocus?) But someone like Gertrude Stein or John Ashbery fills me with possibility and feeling, even if the strange patchwork methods seem disorienting for some. That same thrill happens when I read Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, or Elizabeth Bishop. I love the specific instances in those poems, which are still wrought with strangeness and surreal power. We pit the two worlds against each other needlessly. Poetry takes all that has come before it with it. As poets, we carry more than two methods inside us.

I never want my readers to feel left out of the poem. I like to be raw and wild, and then rein in with clear, direct moments. Those are the moments in other people’s poems that I savor, that I remember. And what I find is that those are the moments that are most plain. With something simple—like seeing one of your girlfriends at the bar eating French fries in the corner, while internally you’re freaking about some ancient painful thing—that moment, of seeing her there—you appreciate those moments of respite. Like, you’re trying to work out grief, and it’s too devastating to talk about, so you smash it together with ordinary, but strangely joyful moments—and in the end it gets you there. It gets you closer and clearer to understanding grief.

Rail: I love your recognition of the plain moments that make the surreal more powerful, more memorable. More and more I’m interested in grounding the non-realist as powerfully as I can in the concrete, which creates an interesting tension between the most surreal or fabulist elements and the ground of the narrative. I’m wondering if a similar urge to the one you mentioned—letting yourself “be raw and wild,” then reining in the reader “with clear, direct moments”—also applies to selecting and ordering the poems in the collection, or if there is some other scheme in play. What was your strategy in ordering the book? Was there a particular arc you hoped a reader might experience, if they read straight through the book instead of jumping around?

Stone: Ordering can really discombobulate me, which sounds so ironic: order confuses me? I had become so wedded to my certain order but I hated it. I had to have the poet Emily Pettit come to the rescue. She laid it all out on the floor of her hallway and worked some of her magic. It was amazing. I saw the poems so much more clearly once they were moved around, laid down flat, arranged by someone who knew my poems, and cared enough to have an opinion. Every poet has a friend or two they trust with that sort of thing. It’s sacred.

I realized (while doing the final ordering) that some poems had to go. Isn’t that kind of amazing? That the order of your book could make some poems irrelevant?

I started with “A Bewilderment,” which is kind of an abstract poem; the language is direct, but its sense of place is mysterious. I followed that one with “The Future is Here,” which has a concrete place. For me, the beginning was the most important.

My book is not one you have to read from beginning to end. I believe in being able to jump around. I’ve always written that way. For me, the individual poem is very important. Even in the series-poems, each piece can stand alone.

Rail: I first came to your work through your gorgeous overlay drawings for Anne Carson’s Antigonick, then through your poetry comics, so I was perhaps more surprised than I should have been that Someone Else’s Wedding Vows doesn’t contain any of your art, except for the stunning cover. I can’t really think of another contemporary poet where working with just text feels like it might be a constraint, but I wonder if it is for you: Does the process of writing a poem like the ones in Someone Else’s Wedding Vows begin from a different place than your poetry comics, or is the choice to include or exclude art part of the drafting process? In other words, do you always know in advance what kind of work you’re creating?

Stone: It was one of the greatest things ever to work with Anne, and I’m so proud of that book. But because humans approach images first, words second, I knew that it would take away from my poetry to have images in my first book of poetry. I’ve always been very sensitive to images and poetry together. Images can be manipulative, so I take them very seriously. We look to the image for guidance—which is what children do when they are learning to read: they look at the pictures to figure out the meaning of the words. I want readers to experience the poem in S.E.W.V. as a book of poetry, and to use their imagination, and to do that work of creating the poems with me. I wanted it to be about the poetry.

My poetry comics and visual art lay in a specific, nebulous genre, outside of my poems. That said, when I started to make these things I call poetry comics, I knew I wanted the images to work in tandem with the poem, so that neither takes away from the other—so that they can complicate and inform one another, just like enjambment or white space would. It’s not fair of me, I suppose, to then turn around and say that my poems will be wounded by having images. But that’s the truth. I wrote those poems to be poems, not poetry comics. I’m a poet first and foremost, so I’d never think of not having images as a constraint. Poetry, in its pure form, is everything to me.

Rail: I’m not surprised to hear you say that poetry “in its pure form” is what matters most to you, but I had been thinking about the different spheres you work in as I was reading Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, in part because I know that once a reader knows you for one kind of work, it’s sometimes hard for that reader to transition with you to another form or style. Do you feel like the different modes you work in speak to different kinds of readings, in a sort of Venn diagram of audiences? Does your expectation of what a reader or viewer might be expected to bring to the work change as you move between forms?

Stone: The more I try to define, the less I know about what any of it is. All I know is that I love making poetry and making art. It’s important that the two come from the same place in me. The art is very similar to my poems—in its sense of movement and tone. Even its subjects.

I don’t want my readers to think about it. I just want them to enjoy it without needing to know what it is. Poetry or poetry comic. Or fiction or non-fiction. Bottom line is that my poems don’t need my artwork, and I don’t want people to wonder why it’s not in my book of poems. That’s antithetical to my credo.

Rail: I read in an interview at Tin House that you compose your poems on a typewriter, “so the poem’s raw.” You said, “I can’t edit as I go. It helps me relax and not over-think things.” That makes a lot of sense to me, especially because writing on the computer allows for a lot of immediate fussing with the line or the sentence, which means that there’s no need to commit to an idea you might have, which might be so easily scrubbed as soon as its written, or immediately thrown into revision before its allowed to have any kind of life. But I am wondering how much revision a poem goes through between this first typed draft and the final work: Do you stay on the typewriter for revisions, typing out whole drafts, or do you move the poem into the computer and work forward from there, with all the cutting and pasting and quicker pace of change the computer allows? Or is it a different process altogether?

Stone: I grew up listening to my mom writing novels on an electric typewriter. And she would hire a typist back then too; someone who would then type your novel to send copies out to places. And in school we used to have to write first drafts on yellow paper in pencil, and final drafts on white lined paper in pens. I’m only 30 years old! So for me, the typewriter has always been around. I use it now for all the reasons you spoke of, and also write poems in my notebook when I’m on the subway, or laying in bed. I edit and complete and do most of my work on the computer. Someday my kids will say, “Mom was always on her goddamn laptop.”

Today I was reading a poem on my computer that I’d typed up from my notebook. I’d written it at the bar while I was having oysters. At home, later, I’d ended up editing it into something that felt forced. I realized the first version was better, and I only knew that because I happened to have it in my notebook. What sucks about the computer is you don’t have your very first draft, even while you write it you end up editing it as you go. Those raw, imperfect impulses that come when using the typewriter or pen are really essential to the muse.

Rail: There’s a mix of short and long poems in the book, with “Monsieur,” the longest poem, stretching over twenty pages. “Monsieur” is one of my favorites in the book, and after hearing about your drafting process I’m curious if there was anything different about composing a longer poem like this: Was it composed all at once, or did it emerge in fragments, each worked out individually? I’m curious about whether it’s really one poem or else a series of small poems, as perhaps the page breaks inside the poem suggest. I often wonder how a poet senses the turn to the end coming—while reading they often seemed signaled, but I know how what appears inevitable in the final draft often is the result of many different iterations and attempts. Is writing a long poem a matter of refusing possible endings along the way, making a different kind of turn instead? And what does it ask of the reader that a single-page poem might not?

Stone: At the time I was reading Christian Hawkey’s poem-series “Book of Funnels.”I loved how those poems worked as a group. They trail off and feel unfinished. They speak to one another, but stand alone. “Monsieur”was originally called “Monsieur Fragments,” for that very reason. Similarly to Hawkey, who addresses the lover as Fraulein, I wanted to give the speaker a kind of character. It distanced me just enough to be able to talk about certain things. This is an old theme, actually. Like, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets always struck me in the same way. They were always my favorite. I loved that mysterious address; she was such a powerful but shrouded figure in the poems. And they felt undone and emotionally complicated. My poem is meditating on love—getting to know someone intimately, but it’s also about feeling very isolated. I suppose the poem reflects that in form. It needs all that blank space on the page. Usually I write long poems that are messy, sprawling whirlwinds, but this was a quiet, clean poem that I carved and pruned for almost two years. It’s my longest poem, full of my shortest poems.

Rail: Publishing a collection has always struck me as a time for a writer to take stock of where she’s been, to confront the obsessions of the past few years, and also perhaps as a chance to plan her next moves, either in opposition to what’s been done or in recognition of further opportunity within those forms or ideas. Was there anything about collecting Someone Else’s Wedding Vows that surprised you, any stylistic or material obsessions you hadn’t recognized until the work was pulled together? Is there a sense yet of where you might be steering your poetry next?

Stone: My book evolved, shrunk, expanded, and seemed to make itself in the end. Having good editors is essential, as is allowing yourself to revisit poems you thought were done. Things become clearer the higher the stakes. You don’t notice how many times you use a word until some editor is like, “you’ve said the word ‘tiny’ twelve times...” You’re basically getting a catalogue of your word obsessions. We have things we cling to in our work, and often, once that book is done, we can move on. For that reason, I think a lot of writers experience a period of silence in their writing after the first book comes out. You need to stop and absorb for a while.

Meanwhile, I’ve been careening into a kind of weird half-prose-poem Bianca-era, which comes from my deep interest in essay. My fiancé, the poet Ben Pease, is working on his second epic poem (like, seriously, the new one is over 200 pages and counting). It’s inspiring to see how much work goes into the arc of the story and characters. He’s like Anne Carson meets James Joyce. He reads me the new sections as he goes. It’s like watching an epic television series; I have to wait excitedly to see what happens next. He’s my live Game of Thrones.

S.E.W.V. helped me hone my love of the long, fragmented poem, but also my resolve for my traditional form. I love a long single column with uneven lines that follows the music rather than the consistency of line break. Since grandma died I’ve been exploring elegy, combining all these methods. My work is often autobiographical, so as I begin to write my elegy-essay-poem-hybrid, it could also be construed as a disembodied memoir.

Of course, I’m also working on my poetry comics. My dream is to make a giant full-color book of them!

It feels so good to have the first book out, and with presses that care. It’s been glorious, a little scary, and totally fun. It makes you want to make more books. Like Jay-Z says: “On to the next one / On to the next one / Hold up freeze / Somebody bring me back some money please.”


Matt Bell

MATT BELL is the author of the novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award. His next novel, Scrapper, will be published in Fall 2015.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

All Issues