An Interview With Ruth Stone Essay, Research Paper
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
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
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
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
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
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
MW: Your poem about names made me wonder why you took Walter’s
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?
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.
MA: Tell me what woman writer do you most identify with?
RS: Easy! Alicia Ostriker, I simply love her. She is one of the
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
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
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
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