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Bianca Stone

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The Ambidextrous Head: New Meaning through Poetry & Pictures: An Interview with Bianca Stone

Published in jubilat, issue 34, fall 2018

“Come on in, the ladies are XXX!” beckon the dead of The Möbius Strip Club of Grief, the most recent collection by poet and visual artist Bianca Stone. The departed dancers hold the living—“so obliterated, they can barely see”—in a captive lull, “twerking and jiggling” into bleak eternity. The book makes of the reader a client, as in the eponymous poem, wherein we are reminded that the dead are “all out there in the dark, working it. / Pissing in your belly button. Punching you in the jaw. / Forever.” With a consistent voice that charts through every register of mourning, from its intimacies to its obscenities, Stone gives language to unspeakable loss with humor, cunning, pith, and rue.

Bianca Stone has been honing these dynamics over two collections of poetry—The Möbius Strip Club of Grief (Tin House, 2018) and Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014)—and a host of Poetry Comics, many of which are collected in Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours (Pleiades Press, 2016). Much of her work, including a collaboration with the poet and scholar Anne Carson on the latter’s translation of Antigone, entitled Antigonick (New Directions, 2012), occurs at the intersection of language and visual art. In fall 2018, jubilat’s David Richardson corresponded with Stone via email about images, about text, and about works of words and pictures.


David Richardson: What is the relationship between drawing and writing, between image-making and text-making, in your practice? Is the hand that draws the same one that writes? Are the processes always separate? Or do you sometimes write into image and vice versa?


Bianca Stone: The relationship is ancient and complex. In our current era, in the structures of higher education, the relationship between text and image hasn’t been explored nearly enough, and perhaps is taken for granted, given that it is the first thing we learn (i.e., children’s books), and so thought of as juvenile or pedestrian. We get very stuck in our genre, and forget to appreciate what others can offer us, and what we can offer them. It’s also such an interesting way to think about meaning in creativity. In the digital age, we’re constantly now interacting with words and pictures instantaneously, so I think that’s why there’s been a resurgence of interest in it.

In practice, I can talk about the process in several ways. There are different muscles in the hand at work, engaging with those two mediums. When drawing I’m using a pen/nib/ink/paintbrush in my right hand. I’m staying steady, trying to make something appear on the page in a shape, into a thing. In writing poetry, most often, it’s a movement of the hands on the keyboard: a different dance entirely. More a crouch of the fingers. I love this thinking! Our hands make us human, and here are two very distinctly human acts. For drawing there is so much more emphasis on the right hand. Using the keyboard I can be ambidextrous. I write in my journal a lot and that’s where doodles and lettering get a lot of practice, and words and pictures can happen together. Of course I know what you are getting at. The conceit is apt: writing poems and making drawings are two different acts with the same hand. They are two different things with the same core. To say they are the same would be grossly overlooking the subtleties of expression in art. We can do certain things with each, in different ways, just as with music or dance or photography or essay, etc. For me the separation is cunning and beautiful. But that separation is also what I find electric in bringing them together for Poetry Comics. For me I want the abilities of each form to bleed into one another. I want them to share ranks. But that is a specific genre for me — it is not my poetry, and not my drawings necessarily. It is a third thing.


David Richardson: Elsewhere, you have described the process of combining image and text as “dangerous”: an image can close down a reader’s interaction with the text, and language can close down a viewer’s interpretation of an image. The Poetry Comics are so successful in this way: they multiply meaning instead of reducing it. How do you achieve this dynamic in your work? How do you avoid either medium’s prescriptive power?


Bianca Stone: Perhaps thinking of Poetry Comics as totally different than a graphic novel helps. Fundamentally, the graphic novel or traditional comic is dealing with prose, and there is a narrative being driven forward. Poetry works very differently than that. Not that they don’t share elements, but this is important to keep in mind.

It’s an intuitive thing in making art, deciding how much to give and hold back from the reader. You need to be more delicate about it than simply saying: ok, I’m going to illustrate this text. As a poet, you are aware of one word’s ability to either reduce or enhance the capacity of another word. The same with lines, line breaks, stanza breaks, titles and endings, etc. Everything in the poem, in that small space, affects what is around it. It is the same if you are incorporating images with text. You feel out the power between the image and what text is illuminating it.

I like students to try different combinations and see if their mind changes when you look at them. It is like trying on different outfits almost. For some reason one looks better than another. Why? The subtleties of sound, color, space, meaning, personal flare. Sometimes they are not about logic, but something more mysterious. Often for me it is about the tone of a line of writing and from that place, I create a drawing. Sometimes people see it as “random” or slapdash, but it is far from that. It is more about complicating our perceptions. More about challenging our expectations of meaning. I am not interested only in making it easier for the reader to understand text. I am interested in seeing meaning without control. I mean, we’re sharing this reality and an artist expresses something about that in a way that touches another, hopefully. But I think it does take a certain amount of surrender on the part of the reader, as well as the writer/artist. You have to give up what you think you know about everything and quiet that little monkey part of your brain that’s saying “no, no, no, this doesn’t make sense!” You allow for a certain amount of coldness to take you over, and to experience both image and text without overreacting. Does that make sense? Maybe it’s not coldness but an intuitiveness, a spontaneity of blank feeling. I’m getting quite metaphysical, quite into the realm of self-inquiry. But I think that’s what exploring these things inspires.


David Richardson: You have noted that you find yourself turning to drawing when you are “blank and need to stay blank.” Why might drawing better facilitate blankness? Has drawing’s facilitation of blankness been instructive for your writing practice? Are there any forms of language or text practice, like, say, automatic writing, that you think are affordant of blankness?


Bianca Stone: There’s definitely a certain amount of mental clarity I need when I’m writing poetry, where words come in and out, thoughts are provoked, and chased after, turned around and examined. Writing is an act of language. For that reason it makes a certain demand on the mind that is exhausting. It’s not blank for me exactly. Well, not all the time. When some artists talk about making some of their greatest works, it is not uncommon to say they don’t even remember doing it. That it was almost like they were in a trance state (even if it was a nonchalant trance, nothing dramatic). Pure flow in creativity is that rare gift all artists are waiting around for. And that is a kind of blank-out. But no, I’m talking about that I can draw and not demand anything of my mind when I’m doing it. Doodling is a great example of this. I can’t write a poem while I’m talking on the phone to someone about my health insurance, but, man, can I draw.

Good example on the automatic writing. A lot of crazy shit can come out from that, and probably a lot usable. Sometimes with my students I have them quickly make captions to a stream of random postcards, and I encourage them to not overthink it, to be as blank as possible. It can help with relaxing that part of your brain that is keeping you stuck in one kind of writing, or overthinking everything, stopping you from taking action. The rawness of your mind is what I hope to tap into with my teaching, and it’s perfect for incorporating with drawing because for a lot of people drawing is something they’re convinced they can’t do. But the liberty of moving your pen around and making shapes and expressing without the confines of language is exhilarating. It can take a blank state to get people out of their own heads, away from that inner critic that’s so endless and pervasive. And it’s not just about creating art, but even looking at art (like poetry comics); to allow yourself a non judgmental mind in approaching it.


David Richardson: I am curious about that space in the institution where words and images can meet. Was there a teacher or mentor who first articulated that third space for you? Who encouraged works like the Poetry Comics, where words and pictures are used together? Also, are there mentors from your early life that encouraged this work? I wonder if your grandmother, the poet Ruth Stone, had a visual practice.


Bianca Stone: My mother, grandmother, and aunt were my first mentors, respectively. They each loved to write and draw. My mom and grandmother both constantly encouraged my drawing and writing, so it felt very nurtured and natural to me. But in college I was taking my poetry more seriously, more intensely, and I had not had the challenge of an institutional setting before that, so for me they remained very separate. It wasn’t until graduate school at NYU’s MFA program that Anne Carson and Robert Curry expected us to collaborate with one another on projects that went off the page entirely. It allowed me a chance to bring my visual art into the classroom and it was amazing. I freaked over the chance. At that time too Matthew Rohrer was my professor and he was telling me about this term “poetry comics” which was like my two favorite things, what a dream. I did an independent study with him on it, and it became a personal passion of mine.


David Richardson: Could you talk about your work with the Ruth Stone Foundation? I understand that the foundation may facilitate residencies. Will these be primarily for poets and writers? Or will the foundation also seek out visual artists?


Bianca Stone: The foundation is based in poetry, and poetry is our groundwork. But we plan to include all genres in various residencies/projects/readings/ lectures, etc. This even extends into things like the sciences, humanities, health and environmental awareness, pursuits in spirituality, philosophy; of course music, visual art, and dance. It sounds like a lot, but I’m talking about even one-on-one interactions, a musician coming and working with a poet, or having a small group writing residency that focuses also on health and meditation, panels with local artists and craftsmen, fluidity and conversation between scientists and the arts, things of that nature. (I wish the Senate had this mentality!) So, the foundation is interested in having different thinkers from society communicate, even if that’s on a very small scale. Really it’s not about capacity (since the house and property are relatively small, compared to, say, Yaddo) but about the quality of the thinkers and creators we can get there. And poetry is our nucleus.

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David Richardson: Though the collection does not include images, vision is a recurring theme of your most recent collection The Möbius Strip Club of Grief, which mourns the death of your grandmother. At the Möbius Strip Club, we watch the dead shake, and maybe pay them for a “Lap Dance.” They solicit,

… You never came much
when I was alive, says one with red hair, lying
on her side, a Botticelli on the stage;
and now you want a piece? $20 for five minutes;
I’ll hold your hand in my own.
I’ll tell you you were good to me.

Is there something about grief that makes one a spectator, perhaps a passive one? In grief, these poems suggest, we become the dead’s supplicant.

The book begins with an invocation of Odin plucking “out his eye in exchange for a drink from Mimir’s well of wisdom,” a transaction for which he pays dearly: “the weight of wisdom made his face sour. Seeing everything blown to shit.” He spends the balance of his days drinking at the Möbius Strip Club of Grief. Could you speak to this notion, that grief seems to confer a devastating clarity to the one looking?


Bianca Stone: As the story goes in Norse myth, after he received the wisdom of the knowing, his “normally cheerful face” turned bitter thereafter, and he’d drink only mead as sustenance. This was because the universe became clear to him, and basically he was traumatized by it and so self-medicated. He is grieving life, which he sees is finite. But also when certain delusions about how our life will stay shatter, it forces a clarity. One eye is shut and another is more open than ever. So it is throughout our lives, and if we are lucky enough to take that bittersweet wisdom and convert it to clarity that isn’t destructive, well, then we’ve lived.

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David Richardson: In “Letter to a Letter to the Editors,” this kind of seeing becomes an obligation:

When one has seen horrors in the midst of everyone’s enjoyment, to pretend to see reindeer and elves is to ignore a more powerful perception, covering it with a sheet, as over a wound that will fester.

There seems to be both an acknowledgment of the pain of seeing, really seeing, beyond the scrim held up by the “automation of living,” and also an imperative to see, and so to experience this pain. This sense resounds through many of the poems, including the timely and timeless “Ones Who Got Away With It” and, very powerfully, in the final poem of the collection, “The Dark Ages, Revisited,” in which the social reality of women in America exceeds grief, and maybe the poem, and maybe poetry writ large. When we turn to the MSCOG, “The club is closed for the week, ran out of solace.” What, then, to do? The poem commands,

invent! […] Invent with your hands! or forever hold your peace!

Do you feel it is a time of witnessing and inventing?


Bianca Stone: It is hard not to come naturally to these ideas of witness coming forth. This idea of speaking for who has been unable to speak for so long. Our world now, with its ability to communicate, is in an instance of pain on display, when what grief has been so long embedded in our culture is given language and space to be articulated. Does that make sense? There is a sense of exhibitionism in our social media that is painful on so many levels, but it is also a great catharsis, a great happening of what so long thrived in shadows to be exposed. It’s messy and brutal, but I think there is beauty in it too. The beauty comes a lot from the moment of invention, the moment we are in to finally create and speak and sing how we have not been able to before. So this call to arms of my poem “invent!” was very much the speaker of the book—the sort of unseen person witnessing everything in the book—breaking through the stasis of grief and bitterness, that has been passed down and carried so long. I don’t want to stay mired in a place of resentment about the “social destiny” of women, when to believe its power is to perpetuate it. I want to make things. I want to see other people make things. I want solutions. I want utopia. And I am so glad that I came to that by the end of the book. I wanted that. I wanted to acknowledge the horror of our country, (I wrote this poem right after the 2016 election) how it is a backwardness, rather than an evolution of our species. But it is up to the creative thinkers to go all-in now and force evolution and some sort of mental enlightenment. I mean, if there’s time before global warming ends us.

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David Richardson: Finally, the poem “Because You Love You Come Apart” from your first collection Someone Else’s Wedding Vows later made an appearance in the Poetry Comics. Do you have any plans to use any of the poems from The Möbius Strip Club of Grief in visual works? If not, are there any image-text projects you are currently working on? What’s next?


Bianca Stone: I’m including this Möbius strip image I did. I have done a few little things visually with this collection, and on one hand it is ripe for imagery. But because of that, I also like to let the reader do the work of imagining. We’ll see. Could be a great play. But for now I want to move on from that world a bit, and look more towards the living world around me. I am concerned a lot with nature at the moment, and that is where my creativity is exploring. My image-text project I’m working on right now is actually animation for a documentary that Nora Jacobson is making about Ruth Stone. We’ve been collaborating on parts of it for years, but I’ve just started doing animation which is so challenging, but I’m having a fun time playing with it. Video and sound add a lot to the process, and give such dimension and depth to a poetry comic, which is what I am really essentially doing, making a poetry comic video. I am also putting everything into the Ruth Stone Foundation, which is also partnering this year with Juniper to offer a full scholarship to a student to take my class Words & Pictures, Images & Text, Poetry & Prose. Mostly my life is balancing raising my daughter, Odette, with my work. It’s fun to figure it all out, if not a bit exhausting.

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