In one of her answers to my questions below, poet Alison Stone talks about poems having “two images or stories that play off each other and add up to more than the sum of the parts.” In a funny way, our lives have been like that.
I met Alison when we were both students at Brandeis University, at a time in our lives when we couldn’t have been more different. Alison was the cool punk-rock chick with a bleached-blonde mohawk. She had been playing one of the characters in Rocky Horror in late-night downtown Boston since she was a teenager and was a fan of the Ramones. I was a hippie chick with long hair and patched jeans who sang folk songs at coffee houses and played an acoustic Guild guitar. I hung “No Nukes” and “Save the Whales” posters on my college dorm wall and went to Grateful Dead concerts.
Alison and I didn’t get to know each other in college (not surprisingly, I guess), but Brandeis was the start of a strange parallel journey that caused our paths to cross — or criss-cross — time and again. We both spent our junior years in London at the same British and European Studies program. While Alison grew up in a suburb of Boston and I was born in New York City, I ended up in Boston as an adult and Alison landed in New York. Then she moved to Nyack in suburban Rockland County, the very same town where my parents had a home and where I’d lived for six years in my thirties. Alison’s daughter trained in karate at a school where I had trained when I lived there.
Alison and I saw each other for the first time in years when, by another strange coincidence, we both attended the low-residency Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing in Newton, Massachusetts.
By then, Alison was a married mother of two, and the mohawk was long gone. So was Jerry Garcia. When Alison asked if I might help her with a prose nonfiction piece, we struck up a correspondence that has enriched my life and lasted to this day.
Alison often sends me early drafts of her poems, and I feel inspired by the opportunity to have a front-row seat to her creative process. Her work is searingly honest, wildly imaginative, and bold to the point where I’ve sometimes remarked that I don’t know how she has the guts to go to some of the places where she goes in her writing.
Alison Stone has published six full-length collections, Caught in the Myth (NYQ Books, 2019), Dazzle (Jacar Press, 2017), Masterplan, a book of collaborative poems with Eric Greinke (Presa Press, 2018), Ordinary Magic (NYQ Books, 2016), Dangerous Enough (Presa Press 2014), and They Sing at Midnight, which won the 2003 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Award; as well as three chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Barrow Street, Poet Lore, and many other journals and anthologies. She has been awarded Poetry’s Frederick Bock Prize and New York Quarterly’s Madeline Sadin Award. She was recently Writer in Residence at LitSpace St. Pete. She is also a painter and the creator of The Stone Tarot. A licensed psychotherapist, Alison has private practices in New York City and Nyack, NY.
FRD: You are both a writer and a painter. Tell us how you settled on poetry as your creative focus (if you did).
AS: I did both pretty equally until my first daughter was born. I set aside painting time a few days each week where I would go to my studio (once we moved, it was the garage). But I work in oil, which is toxic, so I couldn’t have a baby with me, and there was no point setting everything up to be interrupted in a few minutes. I didn’t write much the first couple of years either, but I could jot down lines or images. A few years ago I started painting again, but then a pipe leaked in the house and lots of stuff needed to be stored in the garage. So, no more studio. I recently got a small space back and have done a couple of small paintings, all intended to be used for the covers of my books.
FRD: You have not one, but two books coming out. How would you describe each one?
AS: Caught in the Myth is coming out this fall. It’s an ekphrastic book — poems based on ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and myths interspersed with contemporary icons. I have a poem about Erysichthon’s daughter (he was cursed with insatiable hunger and pimped her out to get more food) next to one about Ivanka Trump. A statue of a Greek athlete next to a poem about Brock Turner, etc.
My other book, Zombies at the Disco, will be out in 2020. It’s a whole book of traditional ghazals.
FRD: Were you writing the poems in both books at the same time, or do you collect poems from different stages in your writing life and transform them into book manuscripts?
AS: I was asked to collaborate with a photographer who was photographing sculptures in the Boston Museum. The plan was to have the poems and photos on opposite pages. I spent a year researching obscure Roman emperors and their wives and sisters, looking for something in each that would inspire me.
Mostly what’s recorded is which wars they fought and what they built (for the men) and their marriages (for the women). I only wrote those poems (and poems based on sculptures of mythological figures, which was much easier for me) for the year.
Then I found out the photographer hadn’t gotten permission to use the images, so I decided to make my own book and add contemporary poems. During that time I wrote some ghazals as well. It was really easy to separate them into the two books.
FRD: Did you publish most of the poems in literary journals before including them in book-length manuscripts? Is this important when it comes to seeking acceptance of a poetry manuscript?
AS: I published many of them. I think publishers probably want that for a new author, but I’m lucky to be working with two great presses that know me and my work, so it’s less crucial.
FRD: I have always been fascinated by the creative leaps in your work — unexpected images from daily life, myth, past, present and your imagination (I assume) all show up, sometimes in the same work. Do these “leaps” come to you as you draft, or do you keep notes of ideas and/or have specific images in mind before you begin a poem?
AS: Both. I do keep notebooks of lines and images, but I rarely go back to them. So most poems leap along as I’m writing them. The exception is PoMo (National Poetry Month), which I’ve done three out of the last five years. Having to write a poem a day can leave me feeling empty at times, so I would go through the notebooks and sometimes start with an image, or two.
My very first teacher, Hugo Williams, told me that a poem should have two threads in it, two images or stories that play off each other and add up to more than the sum of the parts. So I’ve practiced going from one thing to another, and the ghazals have freed me up to make even more leaps.
FRD: Would you call your poetry autobiographical?
AS: My kids’ art teacher assigns a self-portrait which is a silhouette of a head and shoulders. Inside the head are images and symbols of things that are important to the artist and give a sense of who they are. My poems are autobiographical like that — not necessarily the facts and stories of my life but a chronicle of my inner life — what’s moving or interesting me at a given time.
As a reader, I’m curious, too, even though I know it doesn’t matter to the work if someone really had an affair or a crazy boss or something. If anyone cares, Merlin, who appears in both books, is my actual cat.
FRD: Well, a cat is always a good subject to land on in an interview. Thank you, Alison. I am looking forward to both of your new books.