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Art Notes: Norwich filmmaker’s documentary spotlights Vermont poet Ruth Stone

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    Poet Ruth Stone in an undated photograph. The film "Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind" screens on Nov. 20, 2021, at 4 p.m. at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt. (Jon Gilbert Fox photograph) Jon Gilbert Fox photograph

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    Poet Ruth Stone at her typewriter in 1976. The film "Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind" screens on Nov. 20, 2021, at 4 p.m. at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt. (David Carlson photograph) David Carlson photograph

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    Ruth and Walter Stone in an undated photograph. Walter, Ruth's second husband, was also a poet and ended up shaping her life's work. The film "Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind" screens on Nov. 20, 2021, at 4 p.m. at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/18/2021 6:31:14 AM
Modified: 11/18/2021 6:33:11 AM

Like so many creative endeavors, Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind, a new film about a Vermont poet who deserves greater attention, started off as mere conversation.

Poet Chard deNiord contacted Stone for a book he was working on, a collection of interviews with the elder stateswomen, and -men, of American poetry, including Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly and Maxine Kumin. (The book, Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, came out in 2011.) After that initial visit, deNiord stopped in to talk with her every couple of weeks.

Stone, he realized, was a genius, a poet of such singularity and originality that she deserved to be more widely known.

“I thought, ‘This was a great opportunity to get Ruth on film,’ ” deNiord said in an interview Monday. In 2009, when Stone was 94, deNiord enlisted Norwich filmmaker Nora Jacobson, and she too was captivated by Stone.

The resulting feature-length documentary is an invitation to a poet whose small public profile is in inverse proportion to the stature of her work. Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind screens at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. The screening, a program of White River Indie Films and CATV, will be followed by a talk-back with Jacobson and participants in the film. Admission is by donation to benefit a partnership between CATV and Telling My Story, an Upper Valley nonprofit filmmaking and storytelling enterprise. Masks and proof of vaccination or a recent COVID-19 test will be required, and the event also will be livestreamed and rebroadcast on CATV.

The story the film tells focuses mainly on Stone’s time in her home in Goshen, Vt., a small town tucked into the Green Mountains, and on her work. It gives the shape of her life, but doesn’t trouble too much over dates. According to a 2002 profile of Stone in The New York Times, she was born in Roanoke, Va., into a family of artists and writers, in 1915. Ruth MacDowell grew up mainly in Indiana and was married to her first husband, a fellow student at the University of Illinois, when she was 19.

It was her second husband, the poet Walter Stone, who ended up shaping her life. Ruth, who never took a college degree, followed him to Harvard, where he was a graduate student, then to Vassar, where he taught. They were both experiencing some success as poets. Ruth won a Kenyon Fellowship, and she used the money to buy the house in Goshen.

“It had an orchard, a brook, everything I wanted,” she says in the film, adding that Walter didn’t talk to her for a month afterward.

The family was living outside London in 1959 when Walter took his own life at the age of 42. They had two young daughters, Phoebe and Abigail, and Ruth’s daughter from her first marriage, Marcia.

Walter’s death left Ruth both inconsolable and impoverished. She tried to work, but couldn’t, so she took the girls to Goshen. Her first book of poems came out in 1959, but for years afterward, she wrote little. She became a wandering academic, teaching for a year here or there, taking the girls with her.

When she returned to writing, her work was freer, less formal, more feral, characterized by a raw honesty and a searching observation of herself and the world around her. Stone described writing as a kind of unconscious act. The muses inhabited her body.

“It’s not that she didn’t work on her poems,” deNiord said in an interview. “She certainly did. But it just flowed through her.”

Her late husband was a constant subject. “Inside your skull, there was no room for us,” she recites in one poem in the film. She titled a 1991 volume of poems Who Is the Widow’s Muse?.

In making the movie, Jacobson had a few strokes of luck. First and foremost was that Stone was a magnetic subject. DeNiord noted that she could recite from her work, all of it, with flawless recall. “Tell me how it goes,” she’d ask, and when given a poem’s first line she’d continue on.

Stone was someone “who could look at you in the eye and recite, and there are not many poets who can do that,” deNiord said.

“If she read with her head down it would be so different,” Jacobson said.

But Jacobson also learned that in 1973 a budding filmmaker named Sidney Wolinsky, who’d been Stone’s student at Brandeis University, had brought a film crew to Goshen and made a short documentary. He had reels of unused material in his garage in Santa Monica, Calif., and some of that footage made its way into Jacobson’s film. (Wolinsky has had a long career as a film editor, including work on The Sopranos and other acclaimed TV series.)

For much of her life, Stone taught enough to keep the wolf from the door, but her house in Goshen was a bit of a shambles, lacking central heat and potable water. Her major successes came late in life. By 1973, she’d published four books of poems, but came out with nine after 1986, the year she turned 71. The State University of New York at Binghamton awarded her tenure when she was 72. She won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2000 and in 2002 won both a National Book Award and the Wallace Stevens Award, which is worth $100,000, from the Academy of American Poets.

Stone also served as Vermont’s poet laureate from 2009 until 2011, the year she died.

At the urging of deNiord and others, Stone established a trust to safeguard her work. Bianca Stone, one of Ruth’s many granddaughters, and Bianca’s husband, Ben Pease, have overseen a restoration of the house. Ruth had wanted it to be a retreat for poets, and that’s what it’s become. The film documents the transformation.

Though it focuses on its subject, Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind is very much an Upper Valley production, between Jacobson and her collaborators, including her sister Antoinette and co-executive producer Bill Stetson, also of Norwich.

Jacobson didn’t know much about Stone before she started filming, 12 years ago. But there’s power in Stone’s story.

“Even when terrible things happen, you can transform them,” Jacobson said. “Something can come out of it that is life-enriching and life-affirming, rather than deadening.”

So far, the film has screened at film festivals in Boston, where it was one of five chosen to air on WGBH, the Hub’s public television station, and in Vermont. But it will travel to New Jersey and out to Binghamton and to Pittsburgh. Plans are developing.

“I really want to get it out, because I think not enough people know about Ruth Stone and I want them to,” Jacobson said.

For more information about Saturday’s screening of Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind, go to wrif.org.

Bigfoot sighting in Sharon

Seven Stars Arts Center in Sharon has scrambled together a concert for Saturday night featuring a trio of Upper Valley musicians who are better known for other projects.

Calling themselves Bigfoot Uprising, fiddler Jakob Breitbach, of Wilder, singer-guitarist Kit Creeger, of Meriden, and singer-bassist Jim Murray, of Plainfield, plan to play a mix of country, folk and old-time rock ’n’ roll.

Tickets are $15, and they are few in number, with attendance capped at 40 people. Masks and proof of vaccination are required. For tickets and info, go to www.sevenstarsarts.org or call 802-763-2334.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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