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An Interview with Ruth Stone by Mary Ann Wehler

Wehler’s Interview with Ruth Stone will be published in the Paterson Literary Review, Vol. 30, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Editor, Poetry Center, Passaic County Community College, One Paterson, NJ 07505-1179

MW: I was first drawn to your poetry because it was written in HER story, more about women. How do you stay funny, not angry, and still subtle with your jabs.

RS: My anger is in all my poems. But here’s the thing, in this world you can’t just get up and bash them on the head. (men and academia). You have to be a little careful.

MW: In The House Made From Poetry 1996, Jan Freeman quotes you as saying, "Is this really good? Am I good?" I often wonder the same thing.

RS: Well you know, we shouldn’t ask ourselves is this good. Our writing comes out of the totality of what we are. Writing is the only interaction I have with the universe.

MW: I remember you said, "Don’t pay any attention to the critics."

RS: Jack Sweeney from Harvard told me, "Someday you’ll get published, don’t pay any attention to them (critics). I think it’s true, you just have to write and not worry about what the critics are going to say.

MW: You have often said that poems come to you through your ear. My poems seem to come from my gut.

RS: That sounds really good to me, poems do come from the gut. Of course they do, all the best ones come from the gut., but my best poems I hear with my ear. I’m extremely critical of the poem after it’s been written but I also pay strong attention to it when it’s coming. For example, one summer up in Goshen, Vermont, that’s where my home is, I was hanging laundry out and I saw all these ants crawling along the clothes line. Well, I just dropped whatever I was hanging and ran upstairs in the house to get a book and write it down. If I don’t write the poem down right away, I’ll loose it. So, don’t you see the poem came quickly, but that doesn’t mean the idea was new. My head is full of ideas just filled to the brim, however I can’t name the mechanism that turns that idea into a poem. Never keep a poem waiting, it might be a really good one and if you don’t get it down it’s lost.

MW: I love your poem, "Names", the female self signification that’s involved in it.  I have the same experience in my life, I know nothing of my grandmothers or great grandmothers.

RS: Yes, yes, the wiping out of the lineage of women. It’s an ongoing thing and we must fight it don’t you agree? We need to reclaim a maternal legacy. There’s a backlash that’s going on right now, I’m very interested in science and I notice there are no articles in the science magazines written by women these days they are all written by men. They finally gave that woman an award for genetic corn but they waited so long to do it. She’s really old and doesn’t have any idea what the award was for. Remember there’s that scientist that stole the whole idea of Fractals from a woman and published it as if it was his own. Men do it all the time, it’s terrible. It makes me angry, they just sweep it all under the rug. There’s the whole idea of keeping girl children childlike, treating women as if they were bright children. That makes me angry, just to think about it.

MW: I remember when I divorced my first husband, my father said, "I never should have sent you to college."

RS: Exactly, men are threatened and hostile toward women. It may be genetic. (laughter) Look at the chimpanzees in the wild. They bat the young females around to make them subservient. I’m afraid nature made a big mistake. (inventing men)

MW: Diane Wakoski says the humor in your poetry is more personal than political.

RS: She’s a nice person isn’t she? But I am very political. I am deeply, inherently political. All my life I have been political. It is in every line of my poetry.

MW: I’ve read most of your books. I always felt your poems were political, especially, in Cheap Coat, Simplicity and Ordinary Words.

RS: I’ve got over a hundred new poems already. I just keep writing more and more.

MW: When you first wrote your poetry was in form and it rhymed. Could you talk about when that changed and why?

RS: When I was younger that was a kind of singing in my poetry, but after Walter died, the younger singing was subdued and not harsh enough. Of course, I still have a lot of inner rhyme. But I needed to find a different way to write my poems as time went by.

MW: May I read the my thesis statement to you and see if you agree? "In The House is Made of Poetry, Kevin Clark's thesis is that 'Stone's feminist work employs humor to render the lives of people pushed to the margins of society by economics and gender bias.' I maintain Stone does more than portray 'squalid, unsheltered lives'; she couches her anger of societal errors with humor so that her poems shriek at the reader to attend. Often her characters live on the edge but her finger is pointed directly at society and its lack of humanism. I will focus on poems that portray men's repression of women, the experience of characters that live outside of middle class life, and the treatment of the elderly."

RS: Well, I think you’re right on, that’s exactly right, that’s me. You know it’s exactly right, I want my readers to listen up. We live in a terrible time, we’re going berserk, the whole world is going berserk and that’s what I’m saying, "You better listen up."

MW: Are you on Spring break or back at teaching? What’s been going on?

RS: I have to go to New York this week to read. There’s a big award, I won’t win it, but Paris Press will get some recognition. You know my press is a small press.

MW: I s Jan Freeman, your editor, coming?

RS: Oh yes, this is a big deal. It’s the National Book Critic Circle Award. Do you know it? They have an award for five categories, fiction, nonfiction, poetry,…I won’t win.

MW: Whose been nominated?

RS: Well, Rita Dove for one, she’s famous and she’ll get it, and then there are three others besides me. There’s no money involved.

MW: Well I’m going to be rooting for you, good luck.

RS: Maybe they’ll give it to me because I’m old. (laughter) No, Rita Dove will win but I have to go and read.

MW: Can I ask you a few more questions?

RS: Sure—go ahead.

MW: You talk about your father being a drummer and your Mother reading Tennyson, and the fact that you read at three. Were you home schooled?

RS: No, No, I went to regular grade school, high school, college, all of that.

MW: Your poem about names made me wonder why you took Walter’s last name?

RS: Oh, That’s a good question! My Dad’s name was Perkins. I didn’t like that name. You know I was writing about feminist ideas but I wasn’t marching down the street or carrying a flag nothing like that. If I chose a name today, it would be Daughter of Ruth, that’s what I’d want to be know as. More women are doing that taking their mother’s name, or giving themselves a new name. We live in such a Patriarchal society women have found little in the way of defining themselves.

MA: In the introduction to The House is Made of Poetry, Sandra Gilbert lines you up with Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Muriel Rukeyser, and Adrienne Rich. Who do you identify with? Who do you feel is on the same wave length as you?

RS: I love Elizabeth Bishop’s work, she’s lyrical and interested in form but no not really who else?

MA: Rukeyser

RS: Oh Muriel, well of course I love Muriel ----big pause.

MA: How about Adrienne Rich?

RS: Hmmm. I like Adrienne as a human being, and I know she likes me too. But, we are very far apart in our writing.

MA: Emily Dickinson

RS: She was before my time, very gifted.

MA: I really haven’t learned to love Emily Dickinson.

RS: That’s all right. You don’t have to. What is it you don’t like about her?

MA: All those bees and flowers.

RS: Well tell me some poets you like.

MA: Tony Hoagland, Phillip Levine, Marie Howe, Sharon Olds, Gerald Stern, Dean Young. I write narrative poems.

RS: Of course, you’re like me, you like to write about people. I’ve read with Phil many times and I’ve know Sharon Olds since she was a baby. But you know, Emily Dickinson was way ahead of her time. She used inventive language. She used language others didn’t use, so condensed. It takes the form from a pattern in her mind I think. She said a great deal in a very formal time. She didn’t write like the people of her time. She was out  of the time bracket. She leaped ahead. She was aligned to the natural world. She had a religious belief that really connect with the natural world. Have you read what Martha Smith has to say about her? That could help, but you don’t have to like Emily Dickinson, that’s alright. All this work, if I was your advisor, I wouldn’t make you do all this work. Writing topic sentences, it’s old fashioned. You know it’s something the Patriarchal society dreamed up, the professors at the universities. You know why they do it? It’s a smokescreen, they like to complicate things so that people can’t understand what they’re talking about. They want the reader to feel stupid that way they’ll feel smarter.

MA: Well, everyone has to do it the MFA programs.

RS: Nonsense

MA: Tell me what woman writer do you most identify with?

RS: Easy! Alicia Ostriker, I simply love her. She is one of the pioneering women.

MA: You know I worked with her in October. She reassured me that it was ok to keep on obsessing about my mother. She obsessed about the bible for ten years. She said, "Follow your obsessions."

RS: That’s right, follow your obsessions, that’s where the energy is.

MA: Where did your anger with men come from? How old were you?

RS: I was older, when Walter died, I finally woke up to what was going on. I was in Illinois teaching and a bunch of us bought out a magazine and put women’s writing into it. I must have been 44, I was 42 when he died.

MA: What triggered your strong feminist streak – was it the fact that you had to raise your kids alone?

RS: How old are you?

MA: Sixty-six, I raised five kids alone for several years.

RS: You sound so young. My grandmother was a feminist and my mother really was too without knowing it. I just didn’t see it til after Walter died. Do you have a nice man now.

MA: Yes, very nice. The first man I was married to was no good.

RS: I know what you mean. My first marriage wasn’t any good.

MA: Did you ever meet a man after Walter?

RS: (laughter) Other men just didn’t measure up. Walter thought we were twins.

MA: Cosmic twins!

RS: Yes, something like that. You know I like your writing, it’s good and it’s honest.

MA: Thank you, I’m working on getting better.

RS: Putting it out there for everyone to see, publishing forces us to be better writers doesn’t it.

MA: Yes, and a lot of my energy first came from anger. I need to find other forms of energy. Where did your anger come from?

RS: My anger came from everyday injustice. Men are respected and women are put down, even today. There’s not enough change. And, I never told anyone, but when I was five my cousin took advantage of me under the bed. I don’t remember exactly what he did to me. That’s what men do, they overpower women. I was afraid of my father. He was critical and nervous. He was better than most fathers but just the same I was afraid of him. You know he didn’t make much money as a musician so he set linotype. He worked nights. He would find my poems around the house and set them up on the linotype and leave them for me in the morning. When do you go to Vermont for school? I want you to come to my place. We’d have a good time. It’s just a couple hours away.

MA: Oh, my gosh.

RS: Well, it’s not much. Maybe you wouldn’t want to, maybe you wouldn’t like it. Lots of people come up and visit me. Sharon Olds, Toi Derricott…

MA: Oh I know Toi, I heard her sing this wonderful poem about birth.

RS: Guess what! I taught Toi how to sing her poems.

Wehler’s Interview with Ruth Stone will be published in the Paterson Literary Review, Vol. 30, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Editor, Poetry Center, Passaic County Community College, One Paterson, NJ 07505-1179

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