Simple language, profound grief: Film features the late Vermont poet Ruth Stone
"I see more now than then; but she who had my eyes
Closed them in happiness, and wrapped the dark
In her arms and stole my life away,
Singing in dreams of what was sure to come.
I see it perfectly, except the beast
Fumbles and falters, until the others wince.
Everything shimmers and glitters and shakes with unbearable longing,
The dancers who cannot sleep, and the sleepers who cannot dance.”Ruth Stone, an excerpt from 'Metamorphosis'
That's the voice of the late poet, author and teacher, Ruth Stone, reciting a portion of her poem, Metamorphosis, as it appears in a new feature documentary about the poet’s life. The film is called Ruth Stone's Vast Library of the Female Mind, and its television premiere is tonight on Vermont Public's Main TV channel.
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Norwich-based independent filmmaker Nora Jacobson about her feature documentary Ruth Stone's Vast Library of the Female Mind. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: What is your connection to Vermont poet laureate Ruth Stone that perhaps inspired you to create this documentary about her life and work?
Nora Jacobson: I must say, and I'm a little ashamed to admit that I didn't know who Ruth Stone was when I received a phone call from poet laureate Chard deNiord from Putney. And he said to me, "I know this poet, who lives up in Goshen, Vermont. I've been interviewing her for a book I'm writing of interviews of elder poets, and I think she would be really great on camera." So I packed up my gear and brought my sound person Kate Cone, and we drove up to Ripton, Vermont, because at that time, Ruth was living with her daughter, Marcia, in Ripton, which is over the mountain, from Goshen.
And I was just beguiled by her presence, her radiance, her clarity. She was 93 years old at the time. And by the end of the day, I said, "I think I'd like to make a documentary about Ruth, about her life. What do you think?" And they said, "Well, yeah, sure." They always had wanted Ruth to be more well-known than she was, and they thought maybe a film would help get her name out there and get her work out there.
And the film does a remarkable job of including photos and videos of Ruth Stone. You talked about her family, friends, fellow poets, and you mentioned Bianca Stone, her granddaughter. There's some art and there's some animation from Bianca Stone in this film. We really get an intimate look inside Ruth Stone’s home in Goshen, Vermont, as well. She had an orchard there, some land. It's a place that inspired a lot of her poetry. I wonder what was the effect of seeing these more intimate aspects of Ruth Stone’s life beyond the printed word? What kind of an effect did that have on you as a filmmaker?
That kind of intimacy is always what I'm after, as a filmmaker, and Ruth — because of her honesty and candor — she really revealed herself, not just by the things she said, but the way she looked, the way she interacted with her granddaughters and her daughters. There are scenes in the film between everyone where you really get a sense of the family dynamics.
Ruth's language is deceivingly simple. It's the emotion behind it that's deep. It's the experience underneath the words that is deep into time, into history, into her life. And that's why it is so resonant.Nora Jacobson
Understanding that you're not a poet yourself, I do you wonder how you would describe Ruth Stone’s poetry to someone who's never read it before. Is there a way you could sum it up for somebody to say, you really should read this poet?
I would say that Ruth's poetry uses simplicity as its guiding force. It doesn't play games with language. And I think that's why some people are alienated by poetry, because they feel like they don't understand it. Ruth's language is deceivingly simple. It's the emotion behind it that's deep. It's the experience underneath the words that is deep into time, into history, into her life. And that's why it is so resonant. And she talks about everyday things. She talks about a storm coming up from the orchard, she talks about an ermine, you know, one of these amazing white animals that has a black tail that just suddenly appeared in her kitchen and was like her dead husband. The world becomes animate for her. And I think many of us have that experience, even though we're not able or we don't think we're able to put our experiences into the simple resonant language she does.
Nora, you made reference there to Ruth Stone’s dead husband, and she does not shy away from the grief that informed the death of her husband, Walter Stone. He died by suicide when Ruth’s three daughters were quite young. And a lot of her poetry did flow from that grief. I was wondering if there's anything that you learned from your research into her life about whether that was a difficult decision for her to make — to use her poetry to reflect such a close traumatic experience?
She talks about her life with Walter as this dream, that it was this happy, wonderful dream, and that when Walter died, she woke up and was able to see more clearly. So if you look at her earlier poetry, her book, In an Iridescent Time, for example, it's a fantastic book of poetry, but it is a bit dreamlike. It doesn't have the rawness that the subsequent poems have. So I think that experience of Walter dying woke her up and made her want to face that event and reveal it to the world, reveal it to herself, and put a frame around it. That's what art does. It puts a frame around experience, experiences that we have, including suicide. Suicide is one of those things that no one wants to talk about. And a few people have actually told me after they saw the film that they were immensely grateful, because it doesn't try to disguise it or cover it up.
And I wonder if you also feel like she is something of an underrated poet outside of the Green Mountain State, that perhaps more people should discover her poetry.
I do feel that she is not well-known enough. And that's a huge part of why I wanted to make the film. I had sent a rough cut to a ninth grade English teacher in a local high school. Even though this teacher had been to Middlebury College, down the road from where Ruth lived, had never heard of Ruth Stone’s work. This teacher changed her curriculum to end the year with Ruth's poetry and watching the film, too. So that made me so happy. And I do think that young people can relate to her work, and I hope the film can sort of open up the door for them.
You can watch the PBS premiere of Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind on Vermont Public's Made Here Thursday night at 8 p.m.
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