Eric Fisher Stone is a third year MFA candidate at Iowa State University. He belongs to Fort Worth, Texas where he completed his undergraduate degree at Texas Christian University. He has had poems published in various literary journals, print and online. His first full length poetry collection, The Providence of Grass, has recently been published by Chatter House Press.
The Providence of Grass is a collection of poems that utterly moved, transformed, delighted and haunted me. In this collection, Eric Fisher Stone gives voice to those who have been erased or lost to our imaginations by history, human callousness, language, and geography. He writes with immense tenderness about the lives and homes of his subjects as they go through incredible metamorphoses. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Eric about his work, craft, influences, and philosophy.
Kartika: I want to start by saying that this is the most exquisite book I read in 2018. It is layered, complex, stark, lush, and beautiful. Thank you for writing it.
Eric: You’re welcome!
K: Did you always know you wanted to write poetry?
E: No, my original focus was fiction. I wrote poetry on the side, but I really wanted to be a novelist. Then, I took a class with B.H. Fairchild, whose blurb appears on the back of my book. In the first lecture, he talked about how our core, visceral emotions are embodied in the poem, in the power of words. I was almost immediately converted to poetry.
K: You masterfully embody so many different characters in your work: human as well as nonhuman. When was the first time you did that?
E In the same class, Dr. Fairchild read us an Elizabeth Bishop poem in which she powerfully embodied a fish. After that, I was inspired to write about whales because what creature prowls deeper than a whale? So the first poem I wrote in his class was about a sperm whale diving to the very depths of the sea to catch a giant squid. Both creatures are sublime and alien-like, which was especially evocative to me. We crafted mid-term portfolios for that class, and I had a confession.
“Dr. Fairchild,” I said. “Unfortunately, all the poems I’ve written this semester are about whales.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “You can write the Great Whale Epic.”
K: Did you?
E: Yeah. There were a few poems about other things, but mostly whale poems.
K: I would happily read the Great Whale Epic!
Let’s talk about this book, The Providence of Grass. Did you know you were writing this particular book from the very beginning?
E: I didn’t intend to write a specific type of book, but after a certain point I saw a theme emerge, which guided me. Once I had a theme, and had written what seemed like a respectable number of poems, I needed have a title for the collection. This line, ‘providence of grass’, lifted from the book’s first poem, “Moth Song”, encapsulated and represented the running theme of metamorphosis.
K: You have dedications to characters, as well as persona poems that embody different characters. We meet Elizabeth Cotten, a drowned fisherman, Laika the Soviet dog in space, and so on. You write them so beautifully and you love them so well. What is the process and drive behind this?
E: It’s different for every character. Sometimes, I want to take a new historical perspective of the world. This was the case with Elizabeth Cotten. I really like her blues and folk music; she is a true, authentic American original. She was born in the very late 19th century and became world famous for her song “Freight Train”. This is a song she claims she wrote when she was eleven and sang until she died in the late ‘90s. One of the lyrics goes, ‘When I die, oh bury me deep/ Down at the end of old Chestnut Street/So I can hear old Number Nine’ which has some of the themes in my book: metamorphosis, transformation, longing for an otherness, or death as a metaphor.
K: I’m also curious about the poem “Ulrikke”; the child-speaker falls in love with a balloon, and he names the beloved Ulrikke. Can you tell me more about this gorgeous poem?
E: There is a short story by the same name called “Ulrikke” by Jorge Luis Borges. The protagonist falls in love with a young woman called Ulrikke. It’s a simple love story, but so haunting. I read it over and over again. The woman in the story has bright red hair, and the balloon of my memory is bright red.
K: ‘Haunting’ is a word that describes some of your poems perfectly. Can you talk a little bit about the poem “Anne Frank’s Mouse”? It is devastating and beautiful.
Carry my final breath,
she cooed to her mouse in Bergen-Belsen
awake in the barracks
before roll call. He scratched his prickling feet
through her sleeve’s heavy hoop
too big for her arms
melting like candles
in the starving dawn.
E: I was probably mulling over Anne Frank’s famous words, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
She was in the most desperate situation that she would ever be in, and I wanted her to make a friend, so I wrote a pet mouse. This poem is also consistent with the theme of the collection: Life will continue, earth turns and sustains, and there is resilience in every living thing.
K: Could you also talk about the lovely poem about Laika, the Russian dog who was sent into space and died on her journey there?
People sent me to the forever
where no flowers open smells,
only glittering specks of blossom
and sleeping I dream of dogs
running over glaciers, chewing antelope,
chasing shaggy brown beasts, their tusks
like sharpened moons–I carry
my kind’s history to the end of ends.
E: I learned from the research for this poem that Laika didn’t belong to anyone; she was a street dog in the Soviet Union. In space, she didn’t die of starvation, but she was alone when she died of cardiac arrest soon after being launched, probably because she was scared. This poem has a cosmic theme, but also the tender theme of dogs, who are beloved to us; Her journey was relevant to my collection.
K: Not only do we meet many different characters in this book, but we go to different geographical locations such as Georgia, Nayarit, Rio, just to name a few. Can you speak to the inclusion of places?
E: Yes. I include places because I love the Western Hemisphere. I think of my long poem “Grass: A Cosmography” in the same tradition as Neruda’s Canto General, an epic of the Western Hemisphere. I wanted to write the unappreciated, unnamed voices that created this hemisphere, or the New World as it’s sometimes called. I wanted to follow the tradition of Whitman and Neruda that fulfils a good vision of the Western Hemisphere, not the imperialism, the genocide, and the slavery. I wanted to write the other song; the other and unsung strain.
K: And you do this beautifully. Your writing is so musical, rhythmic, melodious. Do you have musical influences? Do you read your work aloud to your self?
E: My mom’s side of the family is very musical–except for me. I only make music in poetry. I love the true, authentic, American musical traditions of Blues and Folk as well as the Whitmanesque art tradition. I read my work aloud to myself especially if I will be performing; the sonic element of poetry is important to me. I’d like people to be able to enjoy my poems on the page and also in performance.
K: Not only do I enjoy hearing your work, but I also marvel at the visual arrangement on the page. I’m also thinking about the different forms you used in this book–Ballads, Sestinas, a Villanelle, to name some. Can you talk a little about a couple of them?
E: The first section of “Songs of Animals” is a terza rima sonnet, like Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”. The second section is the same form, but I broke it up to disguise it.
E: I didn’t want to anthropomorphize the rhythm of a talking pig. Pentameter is like human natural speech, but this is a pig talking so they would have a different rhythm.
K: That is fantastic. What about the villanelle?
E: “Van Gogh’s Wheat Fields” is a villanelle. A villanelle has lots of repeating lines and repeating phrases. This mirrors the way anxiety or manic depression can make someone repeat themselves desperately, over and over again, so I used this form to write Van Gogh wrestling with his own insanity.
K: So deeply considered and intentional. You mentioned Shelley. Can we talk briefly about your poetic influences?
E: I first grew into poetry through the English Romantics like Shelley, Keats, Coleridge. I loved Whitman. In terms of contemporary poets, I am influenced by Mary Oliver’s naturalist perspective. I learned a lot from Albert Goldbarth, a phenomenal poet. Hart Crane’s visionary jazz age poetry and improvisation are dear to me; when you compose drafts and revise there are improvisations; the notes of jazz. Dylan Thomas is one of the strongest influences on my writing, because of his idiom, his rhetorical tone. He was biblical, judeo-christian and pantheistic–simultaneously and without contradictions. James Dickey, the Post-World War II poet, had a strong southern drawl, and was very profound. The “Sheep Child” is a fine example of embodiment. James Dickey imagines himself in a half-sheep, half-human child who has been pickled.
K: Pickled Sheep-Child! Cool!
The writers you talk about: I can see their best qualities in your work. I especially see Whitman’s tenderness and joy. The body is always sung electric and sublime in your poems.
E: I do consider physical reality to be paramount. I’m not a cerebral poet or an intellectual person. I am a sensualist.
K: Your poems are incredibly smart. You draw from so many different places, and you have a vast wellspring of knowledge, which comes through in your work. Yes, like you said, your work is rooted in physical reality. But though your work, I learn a lot about the natural world, about history, about the non-human animals that we share our world with, about culture, society, and the land.
E: There’s this Theodore Roethke line in his villanelle “The Waking”, ‘We think by feeling. What is there to know?’
K: Yes! Eric, do you have any advice for poets and writers?
E: Fall in love with language. Hone your craft. Don’t buy into the cliche of drunken or angry poets. If you really want to, you can be debaucherous, but you don’t have to. It’s not a requirement for a poet. Just focus on wonder of language and words, focus on what kind of poet and person you want to be. Don’t feel like you have to be like the stereotypes of a poet.
K: That’s wonderful advice, and it’s so true of your work as well. Even when your poetry is at its most haunting and sad, it is buoyant with hope. Reading your poetry completely debunks the myth that poets must suffer, or be filled with dread, or vices, or die young.
Speaking of death, there are many moments where you marry love and death. Can you talk about the draw of bringing them together, sometimes in the same poem and sometimes next to each other?
E: I certainly see that love is consistent. I’m not necessarily talking about romantic love, but being affirmative. Loving everything and everything. Death is consistent as well. Peter Pan, says that ‘Death is an adventure’. So it might be kind of a romantic adventure to die. Whitman too says in “Songs of Myself”: ‘Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?/I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.’
K: Powerful. This makes me think of other ways in which you marry what are considered opposites. These lines from “Grass: A Cosmography”:
Cocoons erupt into yellow moths
as shy lovers kiss at the airport
and ragged hobos punctured by hailstones
die in streets swept with habits and nuns
This is just one instance of how you write tenderness for that we grieve about in the same breath as that we celebrate, bringing them together.
E: I think I love everything.
K: Yes, you do! You love everything! You also bring a sense of wonder to everything you write and talk about.
E: We should recapture childlike whimsy in adulthood; we’re somewhat impoverished if we don’t. Henry David Thoreau said that we are all living in quiet desperation. The desperation that we have seems to refer to grown-ups, not children. I believe that many adults are killing themselves by insisting upon a system that is based on economics and discrimination rather than wonder, mystery and ecstasy. We are killing our dearest values. Many people are committing a slow suicide by not pursuing wonder. I’m not naive; People have to feed their families and I work too. But, no matter what system you work in, you must use that system to serve your happiness. I want to urge us to maintain wonder and claim happiness, rather than just wait upon a future where you may have certain possessions or a achieve certain things. Wonder is an experience of the present.
K: Indeed, it is! I think I will be quoting you on that for years. Thank you so much for your time, your eloquence, this interview, and this book, Eric.