Poet Bianca Stone explains how mundane moments can help us manage complexity.
Writer: Allison Geller
Editor: Sara Cornish
Photography: Kate Edwards
“We don’t always know what the hell’s going on, and we often start asking questions during arbitrary moments,” explains poet and visual artist Bianca Stone. “The only way to talk about complex things is by talking genuinely about the moment when you were first thinking about it.”
In Stone’s poem “Reading a Science Article on the Airplane to JFK,” the speaker considers “the emotional life of the brain” as she notices the “terrible glow” lighting up a Starbucks on the ground below. By taking on details big, small and corporeal, Stone considers a world in which we are both always on our own and always subject to forces greater than ourselves.
Stone comes out of a tradition of female poets who were not supposed to be writing about the things they were writing about. She was raised on the words of her grandmother, the late poet Ruth Stone, and later studied with Sharon Olds. While those women came of age in different generations, both wrote with threatening honesty in a time when the stuff of women’s lives was not supposed to inform poetry; when sex and the body were considered gratuitous or pornographic.
Learning from her grandmother, Stone says she was never afraid of her own voice. “For me, it’s always been obvious that you write that way. It’s something to do with your influences and how you were raised, and what you hear in your head.”
Stone wrote her first full book of poetry, “Someone Else’s Wedding Vows,” when she started dating her now-husband, poet Ben Pease. The poems are, she says, the result of examining “the self and the self up against others”—an emotional conundrum she found “both beautiful and disturbing.”
In these poems, love is “either perpetually filthy/or intermittently lewd.” It begins “I’ve never told anyone this.” It “is so meager” the speaker must hold it “like a white moth;” later love “trembles” in her “gargantuan hands.” She can “love like a farmhouse” but not “like the lane.” Love is a “helicopter following us home/landing softly outside our window/waiting for us to undress.” With its lively, nervy catalog of details both surreal and hyperreal, “Someone Else’s Wedding Vows “can be read as a corpus of love poems in which love is never defined—or wholeheartedly accepted. “I wanted to break [the love poem] open as much as I could,” says Stone.
And you want to be good. And you want to be liked. And you want to recover.
—From “Reading a Science Article on the Airplane to JFK”
“Someone Else’s Wedding Vows” is both dissociative and inclusive, a way of refusing ownership of one’s vows to another, but also of speaking to anyone who has ever made them. In “Monsieur,” a long poem in several parts, the speaker addresses a nameless male who flits in and out of a claustrophobic space while the speaker remains trapped. In “Sensitivity to Sound,” the speaker’s eyes “made the sound of a date being set;” the poem ends on the image of “barefoot women on wet concrete”—revealing the paralyzing fear of losing one’s freedom as one joins with another.
Stone’s work directly confronts the anxiety of thinking too much. In “Dishes,” a sink full of dirty plates turns into a foray into the subconscious: “When I do dishes I think too much … My mind/ walks slowly across the abyss.” The condition of looking too hard at the world is common among artists, for whom self-expression can be either a curse or a cure.
“I’m so interested in the brain and how the brain works. I think we all are,” says Stone. “For writers it’s very specific too, because writers end up usually having a lot of mental problems. I don’t know what comes first, the writing or the mental problems.” Either way, the poem serves as an imaginative space for parsing “bigger things in your little, tiny world.”
In “The Future is Here,” a poem full of memory and the past, the poet declares, “that’s valid, too: domestic eroticisms”—a line that seems to strike in the face of anyone’s limiting judgments of acceptable poetic subject matter. While we have poets like Sharon Olds and Ruth Stone to thank for clearing the path to uncensored expression, Stone notes that female poets with a “strong voice” are still punished with negative criticism. But the important thing, says Stone, is to not be “afraid to say things.”
“It’s so important to just keep doing what you do. You constantly have to fight against this feeling that you should be doing what so-and-so is doing,” she says. Influence can either inspire or give you something to write against, but it should not change your way of making art. “It’s the writer who changes the way people read. We have to remember that it’s not always going to be immediately accepted or obvious what you’re doing. You just have to keep convincing people.”
Getting to the heart of it
to the Interior
pushed a little more on the brain
the pasture suddenly catastrophic
(relative to the issues)
swallowed a blue sky
in her homely office
the ambassador said: What can you make of this way
She leaned back
the old bosom
with her pad of yellow paper
knowing she could not enter the interior
fully, she stood at the gates waving—
I’m a monster
and all our affections in life
are given tiny timeframes
teased out like a tumbleweed
her bones small
she looks young
and I take her up
in my arms—this almost-doctor
I pay with bad checks
I give my gruesome stories to
our Vulnerable Core
The computer says, “Having problems means being alive and even though we may struggle in this life being alive is something to be grateful for.”
“I don’t think you should take that Prozac,” mom says. “You need to feel like shit. We all need that. I mean, you’re probably drinking and hurting yourself so much because you’re shoving all your human feelings down with Prozac. And your subconscious is trying to express those negative emotions. Just take a Valium for Christ’s sake!”
The computer says, “Find ways to eliminate, or at least limit, this feeling, by taking responsibility for your emotions and knowing you have a choice.”
I say, “I’m going to open a bottle of wine and sit down for a while.”
It’s 5pm and the computer says, “2) When you wake up tomorrow start doing something right away.” It says: “…deflected from our vulnerable core, grief redirected and expressed instead as anger.” Then, “Focus your attention on where the feeling of anxiousness is in your body and keep your attention there until the feeling moves or dissolves.”
“But it’s everywhere,” I say.
“Try,” the computer says.
“What if my head is falling off?” I ask the computer.
“Whenever your attention wanders, bring it back to the place in your body where the physical feeling is.” The computer says. “Doing this for five or ten minutes can reduce, if not eliminate, the anxiety.”
“Five to ten minutes?” It’s been one minute and I’m already thinking about something else entirely. I’m thinking about Elizabeth Bishop drinking herself into oblivion by the sea on red wine. Rolling a joint in a hotel room. Writing poems about her mother then not publishing them.
“Do I have to start over again?” I ask the computer. The place on my body seems to spread until there isn’t any place on my body.
“Helping others is actually a way of taking action and responsibility for your own healing.” The computer adds in.
I write “Call Mom” on a piece of paper.
Mom says “I am glad you can get furious and yell with me. EVERYONE needs to vent. Anger and fighting is an essential part of HUMAN behavior and our bodies need it to survive. VENT is the key word! Anyway, below is something I am working on.
You can read it or not. I needed to put it somewhere to remember to copy it later. Akedah in Judaism refers to when Isaac is tied up to be killed by his father at god’s command. Will someone PLEASE stand up and admit that aliens are causing this global trouble and NOT humans?”