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Carrying on a Literary Legacy at Ruth Stone Foundation

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Bianca Stone at her studio in Brandon - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Bianca Stone at her studio in Brandon

Bianca Stone comes from a family of Vermont writers. The 33-year-old artist and poet is the granddaughter of acclaimed poet Ruth Stone, the daughter of novelist Abigail Stone, the niece of artist and writer Phoebe Stone, and sister to poet Hillery Stone. Now, the longtime New York resident and Middlebury native is getting back to her roots. Stone returned to her hometown last September with her husband, fellow poet Ben Pease, to run the foundation they established in her late grandmother's name. Also involved are Vermont poet laureate Chard deNiord and milliner Nora Swan Croll, Bianca's cousin.

Ruth Stone lived and worked in a small cottage in Goshen, where she raised her three children between stints teaching at universities across the country. Acclaim didn't come to her until later in life, when she was recognized as a prominent voice and won numerous awards.

When Ruth died in 2011, she entrusted her estate, including the Goshen house, to Bianca. The only stipulation: It had to be dedicated to poetry and the arts. With no occupant for several years, the cottage had fallen into disrepair by the time Bianca and Pease arrived on the scene. While beginning the long process of fixing it up, they organized a couple of readings and donation-funded poetry residencies. The first poet in residence, New York-based Jennifer Tamayo, stayed at the Brandon Motor Lodge for a week last summer.The couple spent that summer at the Goshen house, tearing up floors and shoring up the crumbling foundation. "We initially weren't going to stay," says Bianca, "[but] we'd done so much work, and we realized ... [we] could just keep going."

So the writers left their day jobs in the city — Pease's gig at a two-year school in Brooklyn, Bianca's position assisting poet Sharon Olds — to execute the mission of the foundation.

The impending birth of their first child was another factor in bringing the pair back to the Green Mountain State, Bianca tells Seven Days over coffee in Burlington. Her 6-week-old daughter, Odette, snoozes in a car seat under the table.

Since last fall, they've made progress toward safeguarding Ruth's legacy, including establishing the foundation as a nonprofit and the house as a national historic site. For now, the couple is living in Middlebury. But down a dirt road in the Goshen woods, Ruth's old house awaits. Eventually, they might move in.

"I've always wanted to start a writers' retreat up there," Bianca says.

Running the foundation dovetails with the couple's private ventures, as well. In 2009, Bianca established a small publishing operation called Monk Books. Now she and Pease are developing the Ruth Stone House Reader, an annual compilation that will feature chapbook-length collections by four poets. Each of the contributing writers will be offered a residency.

CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna

"We kept the cost of publishing the [first one] as low as possible by doing much of the work in-house — Bianca drew/painted the cover, I laid everything out, and the two of us worked on editing along with the authors," explains Pease.

They have also engaged poets in less formal ways. A group from the University of Michigan's New England Literature Program visited in 2015. They stayed at a nearby campground, Pease says, "and came up every day for a week; they helped us do some work around the house, read and discussed Ruth's work with us, and even wrote their own poems."

This kind of come-and-go-as-you-please approach typifies the couple's attitude toward the venture. "We essentially have an open call for anyone who would like to soak up the magical environment in Goshen, do some writing and help us fix the house," Pease says.

To understand the significance of Ruth's home — and the foundation's mission — it helps to know something about her history. The writer bought the Goshen house shortly after the publication of her first volume of poetry, In an Iridescent Time, in 1959. That same year, her husband, poet Walter Stone, committed suicide. Ruth was left to support her children on her own. Between teaching gigs, she would return to the cottage, which became a destination for poets, students and Ruth's family.

In the 1996 book The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone, edited by Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert, contributor Jan Freeman paints a compelling picture of the abode. "The walls are covered with books," the poet writes. "Surfaces, stacked with notebooks ... record jackets and old grocery lists, covered with poems ... everywhere, something connected to poetry."

Bianca and Pease hope to preserve this sense of poetic immersion in the house. "Whenever people would come visit up in Goshen," Bianca recalls, "or work with Ruth in her classes, it was really infectious. There was no preamble — it was just, Make sure you're writing; make sure you're engaging creatively, constantly. And not denying your muse, no matter what's going on in your life."

Getting Stone's old house up to snuff remains a work in progress. Last year, Bianca and Pease received a contractor's estimate of $100,000 for needed structural repairs. Now, with the nonprofit status, they're in a better position to raise money. They hope, too, that the house's historic site designation will help them get grants to speed up the construction.

State architectural historian Devin Colman worked closely with the couple on the application. "This was a new type of nomination that was really exciting to work on," he tells Seven Days in a phone interview. Most properties get on the National Register of Historic Places, Colman explains, because they are examples of beautiful architecture, sites of a significant event or both. "This is the first [site we've nominated] solely for the significance of the person who lived in the building," he says.

Pease says one plan for this year is to organize an event celebrating the house's historic designation. He and Bianca also aim to scrape together readings around Vermont and to offer a residency on-site in Goshen by the end of the summer.

Now more than ever, Bianca says, she feels obligated to carry on her grandmother's work. "We just feel so strongly," she says, "and the poetry community is so worried — especially with things like the [National Endowment for the Arts] maybe getting cut. There's just so much more resolve to make a safe haven for artists, and women in particular."


Learn more at ruthstonefoundation.org or follow the nonprofit on Instagram. Bianca's newest volume of poetry, The Möbius Strip Club of Grief, will be published next year by Tin House Books.* Pease's latest, Chateau Wichman, is forthcoming this month from Big Lucks Books.

*Correction, February 7, 2017: An earlier version of this story misstated the publication date of Stone's upcoming poetry book.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Lit Legacy: Third-Generation Writer Prepares Ruth Stone Foundation for the Future"

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