Vermont Poet Laureate Bianca Stone Isn’t Afraid of Going Deep | Poetry | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Poet Laureate Bianca Stone Isn’t Afraid of Going Deep

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Published June 12, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Bianca Stone - COURTESY OF JOEL GARDNER
  • Courtesy Of Joel Gardner
  • Bianca Stone

The first entry in Bianca Stone's journal describes a dream she had last fall. In the dream, she was going to a restaurant called O of the Flesh. To make a reservation, she needed to log in to a website with the password "fastoftheinnocents." "Implied is a hidden word within this, something with two Ds?" Bianca wrote in her journal.

Bianca, who became Vermont's 10th poet laureate last month, has made an art of spelunking into the grottoes of the psyche and emerging, grimy but triumphant, with a weird, glittering object. Her poems are esoteric and blunt, brimming with ancient confusion and ecstasy (o, of the flesh!) and the pains of modern existence (websites). In one line of poetry, she's pondering the sacrament of communion; in the next, she's in Walmart. "A Suckling Pig's Prayer," from her third and latest collection of poems, What Is Otherwise Infinite, published in 2022, demonstrates her gift for verse that hits with concussive force:

I have put aside all the blank meaningless words

and decided to go totally naked

into the always luscious Elysian dump

of the hereafter. Say nothing at all.

The poet laureate position, a four-year appointment bestowed by the Vermont Arts Council, doesn't involve any formal duties. Bianca wants to use the post to make poetry more accessible in a way that is neither didactic nor twee. "I'm not talking about 'bringing poetry to the masses.' I don't know what that means," she said. "But I see poetry as important for working out the most complicated parts of being alive — dealing with your own darkness, dealing with unthinkable thoughts."

Bianca grew up in Middlebury in a family of artists and writers. Her twin brother, Walter, is a musician; her older sister, Hillery, is a poet and essayist. Their mother, Abigail, is a novelist, and their grandmother was the celebrated poet Ruth Stone, who served as Vermont's poet laureate from 2007 until her death in 2011, at the age of 96. Bianca spent much of her early life with Ruth in her drafty old farmhouse in Goshen, running barefoot in the forest and communing with language.

Before Bianca could properly spell, she was composing her own verse in little notebooks. She keeps these close at hand to this day, the first dispatches in the ever-lengthening paper trail of her inner life. Even as a child, she wrestled with the nature of being, as evidenced by one of her early works, "Sad":

a sad

Boy is

nice

a Happy

Boy is

Bad so

if I like

you are

you sad? are

you Happy?

At 40, Bianca is still obsessed with these kinds of ontological questions. "What is memory? What is self? What does it mean to have this mind that feels infinitely alone?" she mused in a recent interview at her home in Brandon. She sees the act of writing poetry as an attempt to reach another human being across a great emptiness.

"God is dead," she said. "So we speak into the silence as if God could overhear. In that moment of connection between people, some intimation of eternity happens."

Bianca lives with her husband, Ben Pease, and their 7-year-old daughter, Odette, at the end of a cul-de-sac lined with modest midcentury homes. Against this backdrop of middle Americana, Bianca seems a bit out of place, like a Goth at a Memorial Day parade. She has dark, deep-set eyes and speaks in a low, almost mumbling voice. Her arms are tattooed with arcane symbols and illustrations from the Rosarium Philosophorum, a 16th-century text on alchemy. On her right bicep is a beaker of dark liquid with a white bird hovering just above it, poised to dive in.

"The dark water is the unconscious, where we put the stuff we don't want to look at," Bianca said. "I want to be brave, always, to go into that dark place."

In 2016, when Bianca was pregnant with Odette, she and Pease moved from New York City to Vermont to be closer to her grandmother's house. Ruth had requested in her will that her property be used for poetic and literary purposes, and Bianca and Pease were beginning to renovate the house, which had surpassed Grey Gardens levels of entropy. Bianca was ambivalent about returning to the scene of her youth, which was not a particularly happy one. "I wanted to do this in the spirit of what I loved about my grandma, and also I wanted nothing to do with it, because it was too painful and full of chaos — the opposite of creativity," Bianca said.

Like Ruth before her, Bianca's mother was a single parent of three children. Ruth's husband died by suicide when their children were young, leaving Ruth to raise them through bewildering grief.

"It's sort of a miracle, how she survived," said former Vermont poet laureate Chard deNiord, who coproduced the 2021 documentary Ruth Stone's Vast Library of the Female Mind. "She was this itinerant poet who drove millions of miles from one college to another to teach, in this old car that was always breaking down. Bianca grew up with that intimately." In the documentary, Bianca describes a feral mother cat that lived under her grandmother's porch and hung on to life, year after year, "like a weird parallel to Grandma."

What Is Otherwise Infinite - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • What Is Otherwise Infinite

By blood or osmosis, Bianca seems to have inherited this instinct for survival — a function, in part, of her irrepressible creativity. A gifted artist, Bianca has illustrated several books, including Anne Carson's Antigonick, a translation of Sophocles' Antigone. Recently, Bianca decided she was done with visual art. "Being asked to make art for other people was really ruinous for me," she said.

To earn money, Bianca has stitched together various teaching gigs, most recently at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She's now the creative director of Ruth Stone House, the nonprofit she runs with her husband and twin brother to fund the preservation of her grandmother's Goshen property. Bianca has led poetry and letterpress workshops at the house; once the place is fully restored, she plans to launch a low-residency writing program there. She also hosts a podcast, called "Ode & Psyche," about the relationship between poetry and consciousness.

None of her interests exactly lends itself to stable employment. "Much to my in-laws' chagrin, I've never been good at finding a full-time, real job," she said. "I'm just hobbling along in avoiding that, like my foremothers."

Bianca prefers not to say much about her childhood, except that it was "tumultuous." As a teenager, she sculpted elaborately grotesque nude forms out of clay and played guitar in a feminist punk band called Speed Smear. She worked as a dishwasher and prep cook at Fire & Ice and Mister Up's restaurants in Middlebury and toyed with the idea of not going to college. Then, during her shift at Fire & Ice one day, she had a sudden rush of clarity.

"Pretty much everyone who worked there was older than me," she said. "No disrespect, but I did not want to work in kitchens for the rest of my life. I wanted to travel. I wanted to explore myself. I wanted to make art."

Bianca ended up at Antioch College in Ohio. There, she decided to pursue poetry as a vocation, a choice that felt both radical and preordained. She'd been so steeped in poetry growing up, she said, that she didn't think she had anything to learn from a class. But at Antioch, she found an unexpected freedom. "It showed me what being a poet outside of my family was," she said. "And it totally changed the trajectory of my life."

After graduation, she got her MFA at New York University. She studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sharon Olds, who had been a close friend of her grandmother's, and later became Olds' assistant. "Her imagination is astonishing," Olds wrote in an email. "There is really no one like her: her energy and intelligence and wisdom and wit."

In New York, Bianca said, she experienced a kind of culture shock. She'd grown up on the work of her grandmother, Olds, Sylvia Plath, William Butler Yeats — poets who wrote searchingly, even desperately, about what it means to be human. Her peers in New York wrote in a more aloof, ironic register — "anti-sentimental, very monotone," as Bianca put it. She started experimenting with her own style. "I discovered I could be weirder, funnier," she said. "The music of my voice was changing."

What didn't change was her desire to write about unfathomable things — consciousness, God and nature.

Poet and part-time Vermonter Major Jackson, who met Bianca in New York, described her as "an old soul." "She's shaped by the big questions," Jackson said. "I think many of her peers define themselves in relation to each other, and she's looking at herself in relation to a larger tradition. You could say she's tormented, as I think all the best poets are."

After Bianca and her husband moved back to Vermont, she fell into an existential funk. As a corrective to "the neurotic matriarchy of chaos I knew best," she said, she listened to podcasts about paleo dieting, CrossFit and Marcus Aurelius, hoping to cure her malaise with a life of bro-coded self-flagellation. (How could this program not succeed?) Then she turned to the writings of the Christian mystics, who described the possibility of unconditional love through an intimate relationship with God. That didn't take, either.

"Everything in me just died," Bianca said. "I didn't care about reading, didn't care about doing anything. I'd come to this place where I didn't have another path before me. I hate the word 'trauma,' but a lot of the disruption that's happened in my life was just overwhelming. I was trying so hard to deal with it on my own, and I needed help from another person." Through psychoanalysis, she discovered a language to articulate the workings of the unconscious, which opened up new realms of poetic territory.

For Bianca, writing is an extension of this interminable, occasionally miserable process of self-examination. "You have to be willing to do the work of looking at what you don't want to look at, willing to write the poems that you want to write, even if you don't think you're good enough, even if you think you're just writing crap," she said.

Meanwhile, she's also raising a kid, doing laundry and trying to keep her grandmother's house intact. "If I could just go stare at the lilacs for as long as it takes for a poem to come, I'd be set," she said. "I want that. Let that be my summer." Which could also be her first unofficial exhortation to the public as poet laureate: Go stare at a tree. The void will still be there tomorrow.

The original print version of this article was headlined "No Stone Unturned | Vermont's new poet laureate isn't afraid of going deep"

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