Welcome to the second in our series of interviews with makers on making. Conceptually cast as craft interviews, we offer time and space to invited poets and writers, the goal of which is manifold: to get to know the artist better by trying to understand how they make a thing, to better understand the thing itself, and hopefully, to provide a lasting utility.
Our guest is Alison Stone, a talented and creative poet who works as easily in form as free-verse. We offer our sincere thanks to Alison for her time and contributions to Forge.
TM: What were your big influences in poetry when you first started?
AS: My influences were musicians, because I wasn’t a poet, I was a fiction writer and I only took poetry writing because it was a distribution requirement for the creative writing major. At first I couldn’t get in—it was this Catch-22 because I needed a poetry workshop to graduate and you had to submit poems and I didn’t have any, so I submitted a short story and song lyrics and a note about how I don’t write poetry but I’m sure I will once I take your class—and: they didn’t accept me into the class.
TM: Where was that?
AS: That was as Brandeis. When I did a semester abroad, I was part of an exchange program called British and European Studies Group, London, and they worked out an independent study program for each of us, so I was doing art in an art school and I needed to do poetry, so I said, let me do my poetry while I’m there and they put me with Hugo Williams. He’s a fabulous British poet and also very cool, handsome and very into music. I was the only poetry student. I went to his house and he would play me records and we would talk. I said I don’t really write poetry and he said well what do you do and I said I write short stories and I write song lyrics. And he showed me that poetry could be like both those things.
He took the mystery out of poetry, because the way poetry had been taught to me, it was something where the writer writes it so that you can’t understand it. In middle school there was a poem where there was a balloon, images of flying and floating, and we were supposed to guess, and I guessed an airplane, and someone else guessed a bird, and then we all felt silly because we couldn’t figure out what the poem was about. Poetry seemed to be about trying to figure out what the poem was about and getting it wrong.
Hugo made it very accessible and musical. He read Plath to me, whom I loved, and Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno, I thought was brilliant, it was so odd and mysterious and wonderful. He read me other confessional poets as well—Sexton, Lowell. Lowell has amazing sounds in his poems.
I had taken a literature survey course freshman year and we read The Wasteland. I remember being blown away by that and not understanding it, but thinking, wow, this is really interesting. Hugo had me read a lot of British people, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Thom Gun, and at the time there was this anthology that I still love, it’s got a balloon on the cover, it’s called Contemporary British Poetry, this was a while ago, so it was contemporary then; it has the Martian poets, which was a school in London where they tried to look at things as though they were from somewhere else. Craig Rain had written a book called A Martian Sends a Postcard Home. It was really just what all poets try to do, to look at something freshly, take away the clichés, take away the assumptions. I thought that was interesting.
When I came back, I changed my major from fiction to poetry. At the time I thought it was because of Hugo that I felt so excited about poetry. Poems came so easily, I was writing three poems a week, just coming out of me while I was on my way to a concert. There was no effort. It was really spontaneous. When I got back to America I was surprised that I still had so much excitement and ease about poetry. It wasn’t about him, it was about writing poetry and I didn’t need a particular person to stimulate it.
And then I studied with Allen Grossman. He’s brilliant—very learned, and very serious. He said, I can’t believe you haven’t read any poetry, because all I had read was contemporary, so he had me reading Keats and trying to get somewhat of a background. At first I was so intimidated by him, I dreaded our meetings, but he ended up being a wonderful mentor to me. For years after I graduated, he invited me to come back and show him what I’d written. He would read my poems back to me in his deep, resonant voice, which was embarrassing, but also made me take my work more seriously.
They were my first influences. As well as the music I was listening to, the punk rock. I loved the Ramones, the Velvet Underground, Generation X, the Sex Pistols.
TM: When I first saw your opening poem in From the Fool to the World, the very first thing I thought was that you had a great sense of rhythm.
AS: Thank you. Those are later poems. In the first stuff I wrote, and much of my first book They Sing at Midnight, the connection to music was even more obvious. I’m glad you still see it in From The Fool to the World.
My latest chapbook feels kind of similar to that one—short, compressed poems. They’re all in a form Terrance Hayes invented, world scrambles—I love that because I used to play Scrabble all the time with my mom.
TM: It seems like your mind flourishes with these challenges of form.
AS: Now I love form. I didn’t at the beginning, I was writing all free-verse.
I connected with certain poets at a certain time, back then it was the British and the confessionists, and later I was studying women’s studies in graduate school and Adrianne Rich changed my life with what she was writing and yet when I read her poems now I don’t feel the same connection. She’s brilliant but they were for a time in my life. She’s gone through so many changes, her poems have gotten very political, very almost impersonal but her Diving into the Wreck and Confessions of a Daughter in Law, she was saying things about women that nobody had said. I was also reading H.D who used myths in a feminist way.
My office is a few blocks from Strand and they have books for a dollar outside and I pick up whatever poetry I can get, which is cool because I’m editing this Persephone anthology and every time I go I find at least one Persephone poem. This anthology is amazing—I’ve got two poet laureates in there, I’ve got Rita Dove, Ed Hirsch, plus icons that I grew up with, Alicia Ostriker, plus up and coming poets, and then these great British poets, Philip Gross, Alasdair Paterson—I’m so thrilled with it.
TM: Okay, so you’re into these punk rock lyrics, and you came back and?
AS: I came back to Massachusetts, I was at Brandeis, and then I did Women’s Studies graduate work at Harvard, and then I went to NYU to get a masters in poetry writing. We had to memorize poems every week and then we’d go on a retreat and recite them. We were in a competition about who could impress Galway Kinnell. If you recited something and he was impressed, he would take his glasses off. I wanted to impress Galway so first I memorized Rilke’s fourth Duino Elegy, which I adore, and then I memorized Howl, and that did get him to take his glasses off.
TM: That’s a lot to memorize. You like Howl?
AS: I do. I don’t respond to all of Ginsberg, but I love that poem. The way Galway would ask, he’d say “who has a poem by Yeats?” not who has memorized—once you’ve memorized it, you have it, it’s in your body. And so when I memorized Howl I got an appreciation for it at a whole other level. Whereas when I read it, I didn’t “get” it so deeply.
TM: Do still study other people’s poems like that?
AS: Only my students’. I read a lot of poets, but not as deeply.
I went back and I got an MFA, because at the time my NYU degree was an MA, and then they changed their program to an MFA, which is terminal and I called and I said I might want to teach, how do I get my F and they couldn’t figure out how to do it, so I just went and got an MFA at Pine Manor. It was a low-residency program, which was very different.
TM: When did the concepts of meter and form start to link up with your interest in punk rock lyrics?
AS: I don’t consciously pay attention to meter. Most of the forms I do are non-metrical. I do count syllables, though. If there ends up being meter, it’s really intuitive, I don’t scan. The first form I did was a sestina, in my first book I did a couple of them, which suits me, because I’m a little bit obsessive. I love reading a sestina and not noticing it’s a sestina until it’s almost done. Whereas, if I look at a bad sestina and the words are clunking out, like they really don’t belong organically, but were forced there. It’s funny, because again, in some ways I was a rebel, but I’m a real stickler for form. I don’t like breaking forms unless it’s for a reason. It’s fine to break a form totally open. Smash it, twist it, make it your own. But don’t follow it slavishly for 95% of the poem and then try to sneak in a change because you’re lazy, or you couldn’t find a way to use that word. The reason to change a form is because the change strengthens the work, like Rita Dove, who has an amazing book on Persephone, of sonnets. She moves the volta around and breaks the harmony.
Volta is the turn in the sonnet, it usually after 8, and that form is said to replicate the music of the spheres and the mathematical formulas for harmony. Moving it, she showing you the disruption of Persephone’s life, and that’s brilliant. But sometimes poets change things because they’re unwilling to slog it out. I’m quite willing to slog it out. I’ll move a comma back and forth for three weeks. I’m not ready to break open many forms yet—I want to learn and master them first. Except ghazals – I’ve written enough and feel comfortable enough that I’ve started making changes.
TM: I’m with you on that. One thing I like about when you do choose to write in a form is that it seems appropriate for your subject.
AS: I think because I was writing it in the form, how I addressed the subject was shaped by the form.
TM: However it happens, it seems that they’re better when you’re not trying to jam a subject into a form that just won’t work for it.
AS: Right. I’m reading an anthology of villanelles right now, by Annie Finch, and so I started writing a villanelle about spraining my ankle, and I thought, how is this going to work? But it seems to be. The thing with the sestina, one of the first sestinas I wrote was about AIDS, and there is an obsessiveness to the form and the subject. The same words repeat, just as with AIDS, the same thing repeats—test, diagnosis, illness, hope, disappointment, death. Some of the words I repeated are body, blood, you, cold. One problem with sestinas is that the repetition of the same words can feel too heavy, but with this subject, the heaviness mirrors what’s going on.
I did a few sestinas and then I was introduced to the ghazal, and I love that form too. I have a few of those in They Sing at Midnight, and I have Twat Ghazal in my second book. The Moon in From the Fool to the World is also a ghazal. It’s a great form: you can play with humor or serious subjects. For some reason it feels really natural to me, even though it comes from a culture I’m not familiar with.
TM: Your latest book, Borrowed Logic, features poems written in an invented form, and again, you seem to flourish with the idea of a form.
AS: Which surprises me, but I really do, it’s like what Robert Frost said, I don’t agree that free-verse is like playing tennis without a net, because I really like free-verse, and yet a form does bring out things, especially with the form for Borrowed Logic, where you start by picking a word, and then I would make a list of all the words with at least four letters that I could get out that word, and sometimes if I didn’t feel inspired to write a poem I would just make word-lists, and get the energy moving, and I would look at the different words and sometimes the poem would come from the juxtaposition of words that I wouldn’t have thought of putting in the same poem. And that worked really nicely, and then I started choosing my words more carefully, making sure I had at least an e or an a, or some letter combinations I could work with. Because the form dictates that it has to be an eleven line poem and I had a few great words that I wanted to write on but I couldn’t get eleven good words.
TM: Tell me your thoughts on free-verse.
AS: I love free-verse, the majority of what I write is free-verse.
TM: So how do you craft free-verse so it has a very musical feel?
AS: In my first book, I worked with a lot more rhyme and off-rhyme, and that was a way of getting the musicality into free-verse. I don’t think I’m as deliberate about that now, I go with sound, I read my poems out loud when I’m writing.
TM: At what point when you are writing a poem do you start to read it out loud?
AS: I do a lot of my writing on the train when I’m on my way to work. I always write in longhand, I know there are people who can compose on the computer; I’m not one of them. I’ll write it over a few times. When I was in London all I had was a manual typewriter and I was writing shorter poems then, so it worked. There was something about physically typing it out each time that was really useful, so I’ll copy it over a few times, and then I’ll type it, and then I’ll print it, because, even though I’m an environmentalist, every time I make a change, I print it out; I just don’t work on screens very well, then I’ll read it out loud, maybe by draft six or seven. Some poems can have forty drafts, some are done in four, and some of them are almost done from they moment they’re written—that’s rarer now—and then I’ll just do minor fiddling.
TM: When you are reading them out loud, what are things you want to hear? Do you want one word to flow into the next and for it to be easy to enunciate? What qualities are you really looking for?
AS: That’s a great question and I wish I had a clear answer. The truth is that it’s more intuitive: it sounds right, or it sounds wrong. I can hear off-notes. Sometimes I’m aware of what’s wrong—oh, that’s a little confusing, or this is taking too many words, or if it’s hard for me to say, tripping my tongue not in a deliberate way, then that’s not good.
TM: So you’re looking for a language-music when you’re reading out loud.
AS: Yes. Even though until recently I never thought of myself as much of performer, I felt my poems lived just as well on the page, but I’ve been doing readings for Dangerous Enough and I’ve gotten an amazing response; feeling a flow with the audience that I never used to get, and so I’m reading them differently. I’m claiming and playing with the performance aspect of poetry.
TM: Do you use reference books, a thesaurus?
AS: While I’m writing, I love my thesaurus—it’s very old and was my mother’s. Once I’m reading my poems out loud, I’m usually making small revisions for sound. But I do put poems away and come back to them and sometimes make more substantial revisions, and when I get a book together then I read the whole book out loud, over and over. In fact, Presa Press, who did Dangerous Enough, when they accepted it, I said, okay, let me know when you need the final revisions, the editor said this is the final version, this is what we’re publishing, this is what you sent us, and I said, no, no, no, I have to do more revisions! They said, why did you send it if it’s not ready to be published? But they let me have two additional weeks to go through it one more time.
TM: How do you start a poem?
AS: The start is the “receiving” part. To get myself ready, I read, meditate, walk in nature, pay attention. Then I feel something starting, and I listen. My usual process is that I get a line, or a couple of lines, or I get a voice; for a while I heard Persephone’s voice. It’s all passive. Then I start the willful part—shaping the poem, filling in blanks, reordering, revising. First receiving and then taking stewardship of what I’ve been given and doing the grunt work. That’s my organic process; but when I was doing From the Fool to the World, because it’s the tarot, certain cards didn’t come organically. I would say, “okay, now I’m going to write about the Emperor,” —meditate on the Emperor, read commentary about the Emperor, and then I’d start to write. In a similar way, with the Borrowed Logic form, I would start by using word-lists. I might have an idea that I want to write about, and then I pick a word, and then I’d look at the word and see if a line came.
TM: So, in general, it’s a line and then you build a poem forward and backward from there?
AS: Sometimes it’s a group of lines, sometimes it’s a voice. Sometimes it is stimulated by something, but I’m not aware that I want to write about it until the line comes, like I was reading about the Blade Runner trial, and I didn’t realize that was upsetting me until I started writing as the murdered woman, Reeva Steenkamp.
TM: Do you have any personal rules about what you will or will not include in a poem?
AS: Not at all, in fact, I find rules very funny, almost an invitation to break them. Hugo told me there were three words you couldn’t put in a poem: mirror, moon, and some word I can’t remember. So, I put moon in a sestina just to say don’t tell me I can’t, because I can.
Laure-Anne Bosselar said not to use the word but, which they also say in therapy-talk: but negates everything that came before it, so I wrote a poem about buts. So no, I don’t follow rules like that.
Any censoring I might do is about publishing, not about writing. There are a few where I’m like, ooh, I don’t know about letting people read that, or, one of my daughters said, “stop putting me in your poems.” I wrote them exactly as I felt, and then I would make changes, that’s why I have an imaginary son in some of my poems. I have imaginary daughters, too. It’s unfortunate that some people read first person poetry as memoir, when it’s about a truth that has nothing to do with autobiographical fact. I’m getting more wary about what I publish, because I know people make assumptions. But I’m not going to let my creative process be interfered with, because what I write in my notebooks doesn’t affect anyone.
I think, had I known I was going to have kids, I might have held back some of the poems in my first book, but they’re out there, and what can you do?
TM: Do you finish all of your poems?
AS: There are a few I just can’t get to a satisfactory place. I don’t have a lot I give up on. I might come back to them, or I might take a good stanza and use it in something totally different, or a few of the lines. I might find that I can go back years later and rewrite it. There are few where I say, it’s just time to call it quits, but I think it’s fewer than ten in all of the poems I’ve written. I can let them go pretty easily, because if there’s anything that I love in them, I’ll just take that and use it somewhere else.
TM: You seem really good at conveying your emotions, such as the anger in your poems, Not on the List, and Eating Worms…
AS: It’s a problem that people are afraid of anger and try to suppress it rather than learning how to use it constructively. Some spiritual paths, at least how they can be interpreted, say that anger is wrong. I certainly think that anger is often used badly, can be destructive, but it’s really just energy. I’m not afraid of anger. I’m a psychotherapist—I hope I’m not afraid of any feelings.
I wrote a poem about how hard it is to write about joy without falling into cliché; it’s easier to have an edge.
TM: It seems very hard to write something beautiful. How do you solve the problem of beauty without clichés?
AS: I wrote a poem about how hard it is, and someone read it and said, this speaker seems to have trouble feeling happy, she should go to therapy. But the point was: it is hard to write well about positive emotional states, not to feel them. I think grounding in specifics helps.
TM: You mean like an every-day scene that’s just fundamentally beautiful?
AS: Right. There are so many poems about how beautiful birds are, and they are, but what do you see in this bird in this moment? Or what do you bring of yourself to it? In Dangerous Enough there are a few poems where I tried to write about some of the ecstasy in my life, and hopefully it sounded non-trite.
There is a long tradition of wonderful ecstatic poems, also poems about sexual passion, but personally I have an easier time writing about beauty than happiness. I think one can find beauty in odd things. But happiness, love, and especially tenderness—I’ve written a few poems about how absolutely in love I am with my daughters, and some people have said, well that’s a little trite, okay, but it’s also a really important feeling, so I need to find a way to get that without it being cloying. There are so many more poems written about struggle and anger than about sweetness. I wonder if, as readers, we’re less comfortable and familiar with those experiences. There can be an embarrassment about vulnerability and tenderness. For awhile, there was an embarrassment in some poetic circles about rhyme, like if a poem rhymed it was automatically archaic and uncool.
One way to approach love and joy is to use myth. In my anthology, there are some amazing mother/daughter poems. I sometimes hide behind myth if there are things that are autobiographical that I don’t want to go into.
TM: How much of yourself are you willing to expose, and how much does the reader have to dig for?
AS: Before I had kids, I wrote whatever I was concerned with at the moment. Now I do think about it a little more. That doesn’t stop what I’m writing, I tell myself: write it, you don’t have to publish it. Myth is a good way, not only to maintain privacy, but also to avoid narcissism and self-involvement, to say, how does my story connect with the larger story?
If a poem is narrative, I think the story should be obvious. I don’t want to confuse readers. We’re supposed to be giving something to the reader, not frustrating them.
TM: What do you do to strengthen your poetry, to keep improving and growing?
AS: I read. A lot. Since I have kids I’m often tired, I don’t get to read until the end of the day, and it’s hard sometimes to push into more difficult things because I just don’t have the energy, so I have to be excited by a poem on the first reading, and then if it’s difficult, I’m willing to take the energy to go deeper.
TM: Who are you reading now?
AS: I’m reading British anthologies: I’m reading the Forward Anthologies, starting in the ‘90’s. England also has an equivalent of The Best American Poetry. In every anthology there will be at least three or four poems that really excite me, and then I get those poets’ books. I’m reading a few Americans, too—Jane Mead, Patricia Smith, and Bob Hicok. In the Brits, I’m liking Julia Copus and many of the people in Roddy Lumsden’s anthology Identity Parade. The most exciting group in America now, in my opinion, is Cave Canem—they’re putting out some exciting, fresh stuff.
TM: Who’s influencing you lately?
AS: Everything I read affects me in some way. But for core influences, Rilke. Of our living poets, Louise Gluck is what I aspire to. She has such a fierce intelligence and her lyrics are gorgeous. Also, there are these quirky people: I find Barbra Hamby emotionally honest, and has fun sounds and word-play. Stephanie Brown, Allegory of a Supermarket, is another one—it seems like she’s been in therapy and she’ll just say the things that people are thinking, but are afraid to say. I also found Joy Katz’s last book wonderful, (All You Do is Perceive). She’s got mommy-brain: she’s got this new son, and instead of fighting it, she uses it. It’s almost like the Martian School—the whole world is new now, because I’m looking at it through the eyes of this infant, and I haven’t slept in months: instead of trying to fight it and be linear, let me just go with it.
TM: How long do you hold a poem before you start to send it around?
AS: A lot of times I sit on it, unless it’s topical. There’s a wonderful journal, First of the Month, they’re a left-wing magazine of ideas. If I have anything from the news, I’ll send it to them. Other than that, why not sit on it? It can only get better.
TM: You’re also a visual artist—what do you think about the look of a poem on the page? We’re talking about free-verse, it’s an artifact, it’s supposed to be a sound in the air, but it also exists on the page, and it has a look. Are you looking at the poem as also a visual thing?
AS: No. It’s one of my pet-peeves: when I read poems that are in a shape, or poems that are all over the page in a way that doesn’t make sense to me. It just feels affected and distracting. I try to do line breaks by sound and by units of meaning. But I realize I’m a bit rigid that way, so I experimented in Dangerous Enough with not having every line start at the left margin. But when I changed that, I had to feel that there was a reason, that it would help the reader with spacing and breath.
There’s the line of the sentence, and there’s also the line of the poem. The line breaks can make lines that either are in contrast to or reinforcing the lines of the sentence. Laure-Anne Bosselar taught me this thing called a stand alone line, where you break a line in such a way that is makes a statement that is the statement of the poem, even though that’s not the whole sentence-line. Or, I like a line where you’re reading and you’re accepting something, and then there’s a line break and then the sentence makes a sharp turn, in a beautiful surprise way, not in a cheap way. Or just pause and breathe, for the reader to see how to read. That’s what a line break is to me, it’s not a physical thing on a page.
It bothers me, aesthetically, when the poem looks like it’s going to fall over on the page, so I am aware of that, but it’s a minor concern.
TM: Before we go, is there anything that you want to talk about?
AS: What’s important to me in my work is authenticity, aliveness, as well as exploring bridges between the personal and something larger. And music—this is the closest I’m going to get to being a rock star, so want to do it right and give the music its due. I want to give people the feeling, when they read my poems, that I got when listening to The Ramones, The Velvet Underground, or the Sex Pistols.
TM: It is a rock star thing, isn’t it? A good poet is a rock star.
AS: Yeah, I tell my kids that all the time.
Alison Stone is the author of Dangerous Enough (Presa Press 2014), Borrowed Logic (Dancing Girl Press 2014), From the Fool to the World (Parallel Press 2012) and They Sing at Midnight, which won the 2003 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Award and was published by Many Mountains Moving Press. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Barrow Street, Poet Lore, and a variety of other journals and anthologies. She has been awarded Poetry’s Frederick Bock Prize and New York Quarterly’s Madeline Sadin award. She is also a painter and the creator of The Stone Tarot. A licensed psychotherapist, she has private practices in NYC and Nyack. She is currently editing an anthology of poems on the Persephone/Demeter myth.