Norwich filmmaker premieres documentary on Vermont poet laureate Ruth Stone
Ruth Stone authored 13 books of poetry, all while raising three children, largely alone. She won the National Book Award, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and was named Vermont Poet Laureate in 2007. Now a Norwich-based filmmaker has completed a documentary about Stone that’s been more than a decade in the making.
VPR’s Mikaela Lefrak spoke with filmmaker Nora Jacobson to discuss her documentary Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind. It screens at Montpelier’s Savoy Theater starting Thursday, Jan. 20, with additional screenings planned throughout the state. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mikaela Lefrak: For those who have not heard the name Ruth Stone before, tell us, who was she? What was her life and career like?
Ruth was a poet who had been living very happily with her poet husband, who is also a professor, and then in 1959, he mysteriously — for reasons that no one knows, apparently — committed suicide. And she was flung out into the world with three young kids to support.
She began traveling the country, being a wandering itinerant professor of poetry and creative writing. And she would always come back to her summer home in Vermont, which eventually, ended up being her permanent home. And that's why eventually she was named Poet Laureate of Vermont.
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What was her poetry like? How would you describe it for someone who has not read the work of Ruth Stone before?
I would say that it's very vivid, but not terribly abstract. It's concrete. It’s not a kind of puzzle, which a lot of poetry is in, and poetry has the reputation of being difficult to read and to understand. Her poetry is not, because it's grounded in real life and in the world around her, and the people she sees.
And actually the title of the film, Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind, comes from a poem she wrote when she was sitting in a diner, watching these three men sitting at the counter and talking. And she observes them and what they're like, and it all goes into what she calls the “vast, confused library of the female mind.”
I could relate to that. I feel like my mind does often feeling vast and confused.
Now, in the late 1950s, as you mentioned, when Stone was in her 40s, her husband died by suicide. And she was left to raise their three daughters on her own. How do you see this tragedy as shaping her and her poetry?
The tragedy affected her in profound ways. Not only, of course, just in terms of her livelihood. I mean, she hadn't gone to college, she didn't have a way to support herself, except through writing. But, also, emotionally. I mean, she adored him. She and her husband were very much in love. And so, the fact that he killed himself, and didn't tell them why — he left no note — was this mystery that haunted her for the rest of her life.
She wrote about it, not necessarily in concrete terms, but often metaphorically. For example, in one poem, she wrote, “when you come back to me, it will be crow-flying time.” You know, she talks about him, in a way of him always being present. One poem that I adore called “Then,” she says, “That winter, an ermine moved into the house.” She talks about him coming to her in these unexpected ways.
And it's not that she just wrote about him her whole life. No, there are poems about nature and science and many other things. And there are funny poems. It's not a morose kind of poetry. But she did — always, until the day she died, until the day she stopped writing — always wrote about him as well.
"She was flung out into the world with three young kids to support. She began traveling the country, being a wandering itinerant professor of poetry and creative writing. And she would always come back to her summer home in Vermont, which eventually, ended up being her permanent home."Filmmaker Nora Jacobson
Even though she was born during World War I, her poetry didn't really receive major recognition until later in her life, in the 1990s, the 2000s. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999, the National Book Award in 2002. She got a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2009, just a couple years before her death.
So, I'm curious, do you have any thoughts on why her work didn't receive this type of recognition until so late in her life?
Part of the reason she didn't receive recognition has to do with being a widow. That she was a woman. And, after all, then, there was still a lot of sexism in the literary world. Some might say it still exists today, although it's not as bad as it had been.
We talk about it in the film quite a bit. When her husband was still alive, she published her first book, and he actually helped her get it published. He had written a letter to the editor of Norton, I believe, and said, “You have to publish this woman's poetry,” and they said no. And he wrote another letter saying, “No, but you have to, it's really great!”
And they did! And that was her first book, but it was him promoting her that made that happen. Afterwards, when she didn't have Walter to help her, and when she was on her own, raising her kids, it was much more difficult. She basically didn't have time for self-promotion. She was just working constantly, and traveling constantly. And every artist knows that you do have to do a certain amount of that to get your work out.
Speaking of being an artist, and self-promotion, I would love to hear a little bit more about your process of making this film. When you first learned about Ruth Stone and started reading her poetry, what made you say “I need to make a film about this”?
Well, I met her!
I was hired by [documentary executive producer] Chard DeNiord to shoot a little interview with her back in 2009. And I actually didn't know who she was, even though I'm the daughter of two poets. We didn't know the name Ruth Stone. And Chard said, “I want you to meet this amazing poet, Ruth Stone, and bring your camera, we’re gonna videotape her.”
And I did, I went in 2009 and I met her, and I immediately fell in love with her. There was something about her presence, her gaze, the way she spoke, and the way she recited her poetry by heart, I said then to Chard, “Oh, I don't want to just do one interview, I actually want to make a whole film about her.” And finally, finally, it's done.
Ruth Stone became Vermont's Poet Laureate in 2007. What does your film say about those years of her life, and the role she played in this state?
Poet laureates, at least in Vermont, do different things. Mary Ruefle, who I think is now poet laureate, what she does is, she opens a phonebook and sends poems by mail to people.
But Ruth, she was very elderly at the time, she was just about blind, and she was living with her daughter, and so she couldn't get around. And so, her role of poet laureate, I believe, was to be this presence in Vermont that people occasionally would come and visit and talk to. But she was not mobile, she couldn't go around the state.
So, I think for her, it was a honorary position, to have that recognition. I do know that she was able to go to the ceremony with, I think, her granddaughters. They helped her on to the dais and helped her read a poem. But she was very immobile, at that point.
We've talked about some of the dark and the difficult times that Ruth Stone and her family endured. And I want to play a clip now of something beautiful that emerges in your film: Ruth Stone gathered with her daughters and granddaughters, trying to remember a poem that she had written.
Now I am old, all I want to do is try;
But when I was young, if it wasn’t easy I let it lie,
Learning through my pores instead,
And it did neither of us any good.
For now she is gone who slept away my life,
And I am ignorant who inherited,
Though the head has grown so lively that I laugh,
“Come look, come stomp, come listen to the drum.”
- an excerpt from Ruth Stone’s poem “Metamorphosis”
I love that moment. It gives me goosebumps. And after getting help getting the poem started, Ruth goes on to finish reciting the poem alone.
So, what does your film say about the daughters and granddaughters that Ruth Stone was surrounded with, throughout her life?
They listened to her read, they listened to her recite poetry, all their lives. They grew up listening to poetry. And it wasn't just Ruth's poetry, but Ruth encouraged them all to write, and to be artists.
So, she was surrounded by many women, young women, older women. She did have a couple of grandsons as well, but it was a very female-oriented household. And so that particular day, when I filmed that, yes, I mean, it gave me goosebumps too. I immediately knew that that was such a precious moment to capture. There's a couple of other scenes in the film where she is surrounded by her granddaughters, and reciting poetry.
Your film includes newer footage, archival footage, interviews with Stone’s friends and family. And it also includes animations, which aren't something you see in every documentary. So, why did you make that stylistic choice?
Well, I was faced with a challenge when I decided I wanted to make a film about her. How do you make a film about a poet whose medium is words? Poetry is something that’s such an internal process. And I didn't want to illustrate, visually, her poems, because I wanted I want every reader to imagine their own images when they read her poems.
So, I thought, well, how can I make this this film visual? And I knew that Bianca Stone — one of Ruth's granddaughters — is a visual artist, as well as a poet herself. And she had written a book called Poetry Comics. And I thought, well, I wonder if she knows animation.
She didn't know animation, really. She had played around with it as a young as a child. But I asked her, would you be willing to do some animations for the movie? And she said, “Well, all right.” And she took a class at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, and then started doing these very handmade animations, stop animations in some cases. She would send them to me, and we would go back and forth, and then I was able to incorporate quite a few of them in the film.
"Her life was about her poetry. But now, her life and her home are being used to give birth to new poets and new poetry."Filmmaker Nora Jacobson
One thing I noticed about the film is that Ruth's longtime home in Goshen, Vermont is featured prominently. In some ways, it's another character in the documentary. So, tell us about that choice, and how the home is used today.
The reason I wanted to use Ruth's house as part of the film is that it played such an important role in her life. It was a place of refuge that she came back to during her travels, and that ended up being her home.
And I thought it was really fitting, when I found out that Bianca Stone, her granddaughter, and Bianca's husband, Ben, were renovating it to be a writer's retreat. I thought that was such a fitting way, possibly, to end the film. That the house is being renovated to now engender a new generation of poets.
And I thought that Ruth would be really happy to know that her house was being used that way, because her life was about her poetry. But now, her life and her home are being used to give birth to new poets and new poetry.
Broadcast on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022 at noon.