Zoe Harris

Bianca Stone has lived in and written poetry in both Vermont and New York City for years at a time, and it shows. Standing in four inches of Vermont snow, she suddenly grabbed my arm—her young, fiery warmth punctuated with amused shock—”how are you wearing sneakers right now?! Get in the car immediately, take those things off. Blast the heater” She laughed at all Middlebury students who don’t wear boots in the winter, either—hers laced tightly against the snow she trudges through—but she was wearing loose red jeans and silver earrings, spoke to me of the Brooklyn bars in which she drank beer with her poet friends. She writes, in one poem, “Making Apple Sauce With My Dead Grandmother,” about the cinnamon and dust and wicker chairs in an old Vermont house with her grandmother, Ruth Stone. In another, “I Saw the Devil With His Needlework,” she writes of curbs, streetlights, trains. She says she loved the years she spent in New York: “They helped me grow into the person I am today. But I knew I had to go back to Vermont.” Bianca Stone wears—all over her body, all over her poetry—New York City’s landscape intermingled with Vermont’s. She weaves the landscape of her own mind and memory, her lives in both places, into her creative, provocative, entirely unfathomable poems as well.

This switching-of-landscape is not uncommon, she says. “There’s a huge crossover between New York and Vermont, people moving from one to the other.” Many poets move between the two places, seeking inspiration, seeking change, seeking the vastly different writing communities each landscape offers. “The poetry scene in New York is so thriving, and so rich, and so… entrenched. It’s really a shock coming to Vermont,” Bianca says. At the same time, though, she and her husband, Ben Pease (also a published poet) were wanting a change from the redundancy of the that entrenched New York scene—of going to multiple poetry readings a week, seeing their poet friends read again and again, and “drinking a lot of beer.” She moved away from Vermont when she was 18, and is now back, and 34 years old. The way she speaks about her connection to the space suggests that she, with her family, is going to stay. Like so many writers continue to do, Ben and Bianca sought a new community in Vermont to foster their own creative work.

Bianca’s grandmother, famous poet and 2007 Vermont poet laureate Ruth Stone, died in 2011, leaving her literary and physical estate to be dedicated to the arts. This was when Bianca and Ben returned to Vermont after growing up here—for this change of pace, for this new landscape in which to write, but also to carry out Ruth Stone’s wish. They began patching up the house themselves—hammers and screwdrivers hang on the walls, pizza takeout propped up against the sink, a box of Huggies diapers for their one-year-old daughter—mending the house’s crumbling walls with months of construction and fundraising. Soon, the walls and floors will be pristine, the house heated, the rooms habitable for poets who seek housing, editing, and workshops.

In Ruth Stone’s old house, in the rural, isolated town of Goshen, Bianca and Ben are starting a poet’s retreat.

Because of the topography of the space—the winding, abandoned roads, the miles of trees, its certain peaceful solitude—the writing scene in Vermont is different, Bianca says. “You have to work a little harder at seeking out other writers.” The age groups of Vermont writers vary far more — Bianca says that she is constantly meeting both younger writers and far older writers. “We’re all coming at it from different times in our lives, different genres, different interests.” She continued, “I think that, coming together, a lot of exciting things can happen.” This seems to be a driving thesis behind the Foundation.

There are two categories of Vermont poets, it seems: those who have grown up here, discovering their writing craft as they exist in this landscape. These poets often seem to leave and then return, enter into an area more concentrated with people for school, for work. And there are also those born elsewhere, who seek these trees out, come to this space as a sort of refuge. These poets sometimes move here on their own. Sometimes they come to residencies and retreats, designed to house them for a measured number of days or weeks. These programs often feature a bed and arranged meal schedule that ensure the poet’s only worry is the work they will produce, the creative community that will help produce it. In a way, all these poets are both held together by Vermont and pushed together by Vermont.

The Vermont Studio Center in Johnson offers residencies for artists and writers. It features single rooms, 24-hour access to private studios, and three communal meals a day. Put simply, it is a haven for creative minds to exist in a community within Vermont’s solitary, natural landscape. The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Campus in Ripton, offers ten days of residence, workshops in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, meetings with visiting editors, agents, and publishers, and a full community living together in a space. These residential, workshop-based programs both serve as a place of refuge for writers to leave the space they inhabit and instead exist, for a time, within the trees and silence of Vermont. They could be taken, perhaps, as more traditional versions of what Bianca Stone has in mind for her grandmother’s old house.

With one glance at Ruth Stone’s house—with its stripped-wood walls, construction tools hung on boards, bathtub in the hallway filled with disintegrating chunks of foam wall insulation, the single gas stove for heat—we know that this house is not yet habitable for poets. Bianca displayed their repurposed letterpress, with which they will print poet’s chapbooks and small zines. Old flyers advertising Ruth Stone’s poetry readings are all tacked on the walls, as are small pencil sketches on the exposed concrete that Ruth Stone’s other family members have drawn. There will be room for five to ten poets to sleep there, in addition to Bianca and Ben, who, before moving to a different house in Brandon to await the end of the construction period, were in a trailer in the backyard of Ruth’s house. In that trailer, they would also house poets—often their friends—as part of the beginnings of the Foundation and the soon-to-come retreat.

So, although the house is littered with piles of Ruth’s books and manuscripts, floorboards stacked on the deck and in the bathtub, Bianca and Ben are already using the property for the arts. The entire notion of the space is built upon sharing it; “it is human nature to want to return to the woods, to nature,” Bianca says. She and Ben, now living with their daughter, do not simply perch within the trees and small creeks on their property in Goshen, Vermont, keeping to themselves and their own written work— they share it with other poets and writers in need of a space to create. As I pace the jagged wooden floors of the upstairs of Ruth Stone’s house, I find pencil sketches on the exposed concrete walls. “My aunt did those,” Bianca said flippantly as she walked past. There were small scribbled poems tacked up on the back of the door that could have been written by Bianca, Ruth, or another poet in the family; there are plenty. Also tacked up were posters that advertised Ruth Stone poetry readings in 2001. The house is held together by a collection of people—not just Ruth, not just Bianca. I would expect, knowing the attitude of Bianca and Ben, had I given them a small piece of paper with a sketch of a frog and “thank you for letting me film you,” that they’d tape it on the wall of the house.

The intent is to celebrate poets, to celebrate the arts. A large act of celebration of something created is to boost it onto a pedestal, make it read, make it heard; to publish it, to print it in some way. Bianca and Ben will tack up visiting poets’ work on the walls, they will use their repurposed letterpress to create small chapbooks and zines of poets’ work, they will use the small press they started, Monk Books, to publish work they respect from people they find themselves close to. Poets in Vermont make up a small demographic, and for them to be successful and heard, they must lift each others’ work up.

“So much is written about the city, people forget about the birds,” says Karla van Vliet, an eighth generation Vermonter and author of two poetry books. She was in the humanities building of Middlebury, sitting by a snowy window with her manuscript on her lap, typing at her computer, when I perched across from her—neither of us had prepared for the interaction, as I was sent to her by a professor downstairs (“Zoe, there’s a poet upstairs — go now”). Karla, with her large beaded jewelry, spoke softly, leaning forward, her computer completely closed and put aside. She rattled off names of Vermont writers, MFA programs, literary festivals. Trying to find the words to describe how she uses space to inform her writing, she stumbled a little, and then looked at me with a sort of sneaky smile — “Well, do you want to just see what I’m working on, now?” She pulled open her laptop and pointed to a section of a Word document, and then explained it. In the piece, she creates definitions of words that don’t exist, but should. She uses what she has at her fingertipsthe landscape—to describe the thing, uses landscape to describe a feeling. The landscape she lives in, she says, “is what we know, what we’re surrounded by.” We write what we know; “people in New York City would have used a different thing to describe the feeling,” a different way to define it, simply because of where they are sitting as they write.

Bianca wants to bring what they learned in New York—starting reading series, starting small magazines, small presses, sharing each other’s work, publishing each other’s work—to Vermont, to the Ruth Stone Foundation. The way young, up-and-coming poets are often successful is by helping each other and listening to each other’s work, editing and workshopping constantly. Vermont poets know this, and, thus, because they do not have the density and constant creative stimulation New York did for Bianca, they seek it out. “I’m learning about how it’s done here,” she says, “people getting together in small groups, doing workshops. Sometimes, poets travel for a while to do a reading in a small bookshop. I’m meeting writers in Vermont that I’d never heard of before.”

Karla van Vliet is part of a writing group exactly like the ones Bianca describes: she paints and writes in a studio near her home in Bristol, and the group of artists who work there have created a small creative community amongst themselves. They have a writing group, so that, Karla says, “we can hold ourselves accountable.” They do writing prompts, workshop each others’ work. In 1995, she started the “Spring Street Poets,” a group that gets together to workshop and read each other’s work. The group still meets consistently. Karla was born here, and moved away for ten years. She lived in Boston for a time, and says that she felt more alone there than here. In Bristol, there’s “so much going on,” collections of classes, galleries, studios, all contained in one block. She moved back to Bristol to inspire some writing about home and place, and never left.

Karin Gottshall, a poet and creative writing professor at Middlebury College, is a sort of ally of Karla’s. A Facebook event from April 17 last year advertises “Local Poets Karin Gottshall and Karla van Vliet Read,” with small pictures of their faces next to each other as the event’s cover photo. One of Karla’s books of poetry, “From the Book of Remembrance,” has a list of “endorsements” beneath the web page on which one can purchase it. Karin Gottshall is listed as the first endorsement, with a beautiful paragraph praising the collection, beginning with: “Intrepid and possessed, “From the Book of Remembrance” is the gorgeous, penetrating music of a wild and battered heart, mended and reassembled into a lush spell of paradise reclaimed.” These two women poets of Vermont lift each other up, and that is how they create their work successfully, beautifully.

I asked them each to think of the exact place they sit when they write in Vermont. Both write in their homes, and both somewhat bashfully admitted that they often write in their beds. They are always alone. Karla described sitting at her kitchen table, looking outside. Karin described her sofa, and said, “I always have to see outside to be able to write.”

Karin spoke of a good friend in Burlington with whom she regularly meets to share her work and workshop it. She also has a group of five women who meet once a month to talk about poetry, and, again, to workshop (the editing and re-writing process of poetry requires new eyes, constant reinterpretations—poets in less populated areas need to seek these eyes out; the distance between Karin and her trusted friend in Burlington is a 50 minute drive). “If I hear of a friend who is doing a reading, I go,” she says. Many of these local readings—which often have regulars in the audience or on the stage, like Karin—occur at Phoenix Books, in Burlington, or Bear Pond Books. “Social media has actually helped me find out about readings,” she adds. And often the communities of poets she finds herself in are the ones at these readings with her; if she’s invited to read with one other poet, she’ll befriend them. She’ll see regular members of her audience at all her readings, and eventually develop a certain kinship with them.

These bookstores serve as a new literary landscape within the natural Vermont one; poets gather here, and, it seems, at a small local reading, they might be more likely to form groups and start regular meetings amongst themselves than an individual poet might at a reading at a Brooklyn bar or larger, more established bookstore that would inevitably be more crowded and more intimidating. Bianca would often go to readings “with her friends, drinking a lot of beer,” perhaps sitting in a small booth with those friends, watching another friend read their poem, clapping at the end, leaving with the same people she entered with. It is very likely that this was not Bianca’s experience; I believe, however, that it might have been mine had I lived that life. She says it became redundant before she moved back to Vermont, and perhaps this is why: Poets are less likely to form bonds if there is a crowded room of them. They do not believe they need each other in the way Vermont poets might.

So, what does solitude mean? A poet sitting at her kitchen table, watching the birds, preparing for her poetry reading with an old friend, reading in front of an audience of friends who will workshop a new poem with her the following week? Or a poet in New York City, who sits in a booth and leaves with her friends, who does not invite strangers into her home, who does not say “hello” to people in her neighborhood—with a young, fiery warmth, as if she has known them for years.