Us and Not Us: An Interview with Bianca Stone

Bianca Stone is a Brooklyn-based poet and visual artist. As soon as we got in her new book, we knew we needed to chat! We sat down with Stone recently to talk about her new poetry collection, The Mobius Strip Club of Grief (Tin House, Feb 2018), purgatory, death, family trauma, and stripping.

Brazos Bookstore: The Möbius Strip Club of Grief is populated by a variety of characters, from Odin to Emily Dickinson to grandmas and House Moms. What drew you to include those characters in the MSCOG, and what sort of dynamic is created by having all of these people in the same place?

Bianca Stone: What started off as elegiac poems to one person, (the grandmother figure) moved outward, intellectually. I think when I began to envision this landscape—this purgatorial strip club, or this corporeal manifestation of inherited grief or whatever it is—I began to naturally fill with people. It spoke to the universal condition of grief. I wanted there to be other figures besides the giant YOU behind the book, which is my grandmother. In my elegies I’d been writing since her death, I felt some dissatisfaction with expressing my grief just for myself. The poems began to be about the flawed consciousness of the both the intimate (family) and of the greater culture.

There is something about poetry where, like, poems can seem characterless. “Characters” as we come to know them in learning about making a story, are a vastly different thing than in a poem. Poems have a slightly different physiology. But nonetheless, we say “speaker” when we discuss a voice in a poem, because we know that there is the self, and the self of the poem. It is not you anymore, just as a child is not the mother, but she is from the mother. Sensational, but very true. It’s us but not us. Caricatures, characters, narrators, and actors and ghosts, all come into poems, and in a way they’re all us and not us. I wanted to explore that further in this book. I’ve been sort of afraid of it, bringing in “characters,” but as I said, they’ve always been there, it was just more deliberate. It was liberating actually, to be able to meet people in my poems. To meet Emily Dickinson and honor her, and to confront chauvinists on my own turf... In any case, I think these characters might function in at least two ways: 1.) to give these women a voice where they perhaps did not have one before. 2.) to tackle human grief from different angles.

I should also add that the grandmother appears as multiple people. For example, she is actually the House Mom as well. There is a shared sensibility, or brain, between the women in this book.

BB: Throughout the collection the poems have a very lyrical, free, and loose feel to them. How do you capture that energy and momentum in the writing process?

BS: I think there’s different reasons for this element of my poetry. I’ve come to revere a certain rawness.

I like to talk about the editing process because I think it’s important. Often a loose, free energy comes when I come back to a poem for editing. When I hate a poem I’ve worked so hard on, and want so badly to work, I’ll approach it a little time later and let it expand, open, go outward until it is a new thing all together. Sometimes all that remains of that first version is just a single line. And that’s enough to retain what I wanted originally. I don’t want things to feel forced or wooden or controlling. I like the momentum, especially when I’m talking about difficult things. I want to keep it moving, but also jar to pauses.

So much went into this book. I’d read a hyper academic book on feminism, or 17th century French salons or whatever for hours, and then come away with one word that fit into a poem’s theme. So, what I’m saying is, in this book there was actual research. But I let myself respond to that information naturally.

BB: In the MSCOG everyone is watching or being watched; I noticed myself thinking about the idea of performance a lot, especially in the first third of the book. What relation do you see between the performance of grief and grief itself?

BS: This dynamic of stripper/performer and audience/punter—I became fascinated with the underlying implications of that interaction. It paralleled the exhibitionism of death for me. The display of the body, the literal nakedness of a body, and the weirdness of a body in general, that you realize when you see someone you love die. It just becomes a body lying there. And in that moment I realized how much I loved that body. In that way, we’re all performers in life, watching and being watched.

Family traumas can become legend, passed down through generations. To me, there’s almost something voyeuristic in it: a grief families hold onto. It can become a kind of continuous act (not to undermine the realness of the pain at all) but there is a sort of hedonism there. It becomes a trap, a loop; it becomes a place. And it’s not just grief for the dead, but for our own lives, or own mistakes, missed opportunities, for our sex or race. In our families we take on certain roles, and we expect others to stay in their roles. We pass these grief’s down in our family philosophies, but also in our bones, our DNA.

Ironically, sorrow is totally personal. It is happening in your own head, unique to your own experiences. But since grief touches everything living, there is comfort in its universality.

BB: I found the structure of the book to be very interesting: the first half really sketches out the MSCOG in its environs and those who populate it, but then the Club largely disappears in Part II in favor of poems that delve more directly into family dynamics around grief and what grief looks like/feels like. Was this a conscious decision on your part when arranging the collection?

BS: I didn’t want this to be an entire book of MSCOG poems. I didn’t want to beat it to death and become contrived. Because, really, that landscape was utterly tied to family, and those other poems honor that literal landscape more directly. One lives in two realities, in a way. The sort of tangible world, and then the psychological one. So does this book.

BB: I think that, especially given the book’s concept and its grappling with grief, the tendency toward irony for its own sake would be an easy trap to fall into in these poems. While the poems often gesture toward irony, it never feels like they go overboard. What role do you see irony playing in today’s poetic landscape, and do you think there’s any danger in irony?

BS: Irony is a wonderful tool in making a wry point, especially in certain contemporary poetry, which is often riding the line between irony and sincerity. But irony is a tool like anything else, not a rule of form. When a poem relies heavily on irony, I feel that, while the poems can be fun (especially at a reading), it lacks a certain, crucial element of what makes poetry great—I don’t have a term for that...something like a the genuine, or even an element of magic. Because to me, I see too much irony as someone wanting too hard to be liked. And even more to the point: someone afraid. Which, I think, is the greatest downfall of a poem. When fear stops you from writing the real poem that is lurking behind what you’ve presented, that is when it rings false. And frankly, we all suffer from this to one extent or another. But some thrive there.

I almost didn’t write this book. I thought it was completely insane when I wrote the first poem. I was joking around, having fun with a phrase that popped into my head. And for whatever reason, it wouldn’t let me go! I knew I wanted to put a book of elegies together, but I was so deeply dissatisfied with my approach of the elegy; the poems felt maudlin and too private, and a little like “so what?”. What the MSCOG concept allowed for was a dark humor to counteract that. It gave me a way in. And it was one of those things that led me to all these different places, and opened so many doors. And I had no idea if it was going to work. The entire time. But that is the most exciting, inspiring place to be.

BB: What are you reading/enjoying now? What are you working on?

BS: Right now I’m reading two new poetry books: Dorothea Lasky’s MILK, and Matthew Dickman’s Wonderland, both fabulous. I’m also on book 13 of long, nerdy fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, (I feel a fantasy/poetry exploration in my future?). My focuses now are my daughter, Odette (1 year old), The Ruth Stone Foundation, here in Vermont where I live, and where I am building a writer’s retreat/school/letterpress studio, and self-teaching myself animation for a collaboration I’m doing. And of course, writing poems during Odette’s nap time.

The Mobius Strip Club of Grief Cover Image
ISBN: 9781941040850
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Tin House Books - February 27th, 2018

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