How often had you sent out They Sing at Midnight before it was chosen as the winner of the 2003 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Book Prize?
Countless times. I came in second in the Barnard New Woman Poets Series in 1988, and every year after that I sent to most of the national contests. I was a finalist in a bunch of them, some repeatedly, which gave me the encouragement to keep spending the entry fees.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
The first version was my undergraduate senior thesis. This version was more obviously influenced by music than later drafts; I had song lyrics in a column on the left, interspersed with the poems. I abandoned that by the next draft, which is the one that Barnard liked. After that, I kept revising poems and also writing new poems and taking poems out. By the time it was published, I had switched the poems so thoroughly, it was actually my second or third book.
What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?
A concern? I thought that would be a plus! I figured it would show editors that other editors liked me, as well as hopefully creating a readership for my work.
How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book won to the day the book was in its final proofing stage?
By the time it was accepted, I had revised the book so many times, with input from so many people, that it was overcooked. I read it a few more times line by line and fiddled with line breaks, put commas in and took them out. I had finished any substantial revisions a few years earlier.
In addition to being a poet, you’re also a painter and a visual artist. What kind of influences do the visual arts have on the spoken word, especially with your own poetry?
That’s a big question! The relationship between the two has taken so many configurations throughout history—people who do both, like Blake, friendships between poets and painters, the influence of Cubism on Eliot, poems written about paintings, etc. In terms of my own work, I think that anything creative opens channels and keeps energy flowing. So painting inspires me to write and vise versa. When I was at art school, I wanted to make paintings that “went with” my poems, to combine them somehow. But abstraction was the prevailing style at my school, and the teacher was quite dismissive: “The illustration department’s down the hall, if you’d rather be there.”
There are a few ekphrastic poems in They Sing at Midnight ("On Display" and "Psyche" were stimulated by painting and sculpture, respectively), also "Swan Lake," which was inspired by a ballet. Recently I finished a sequence of poems in the voices of the Major Arcana of the tarot. That was the most intense and extended connection I’ve made between the two.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I got home from work at 11:30, and the boxes were waiting in the entryway. I had a new baby and hadn’t slept in three months, so the whole time seems blurry and surreal. I do remember feeling a sense of “Wow, finally.”
The cover image is one of your own paintings. How long did it take you to decide on this particular painting? It seems to not only fit well with the poems in the book, but did it also save you money and the possible headache of finding the perfect art for your book cover?
I never thought about saving money; I just knew I wanted my art on the cover. I was very excited about The Stone Tarot, so I decided to use one of those images. The Moon symbolizes night, the emergence of what has been repressed, memory, fear, and the journey to change. That seemed to fit the themes of the book.
How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I had a fantasy—awards, packed readings, a teaching position. None of that happened, so I’m very lucky to have a creative non-poetry job that I love.
The most wonderful surprise is when, a few times, people would see the book or hear someone call me by name and say, “You’re Alison Stone? I remember your poems from Poetry.”
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I was able to get a few readings after the book came out (a local library, Barnes and Noble, a group NYQ reading.) I was also part of two book fairs for books published that year, one at Poets House and one at a museum in Nyack. Over the years, I’ve read at Brandeis, which was quite emotional for me, and several bookstores in MA. My mom lived in MA, and she would set things up for me. Recently MMM did a group reading and had a table at AWP. Hopefully I’m a better poet than I am a networker or promoter, because I still feel very unsure of how to go about the whole thing.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Before the book arrives, find out from the press exactly what they are planning to do to promote it. Then make arrangements to do the rest yourself. And if you’re like me and have no idea of how to do that, ask someone who is good at it for advice. Also, try not to time having a baby for the same time the book is released.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
It allowed me to finally close the Gestalt on that book and consider all new poems as part of a new book.
And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?
I have a second manuscript finished. I had many of those poems written in rough drafts before They Sing at Midnight came out; and I revised most of them during one semester at the Pine Manor MFA program. It’s such a supportive and stimulating community. The book is tentatively titled Hair to Sky. I also have the sequence of tarot poems I mentioned earlier, which I might hold for a third book or publish as a chapbook, From the Fool to the World.
Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
If you believe in your book, then keep sending it out, no matter how long it takes.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes, because anything that changes one person changes the world. The process of writing, at its best, connects the writer to a fragment of truth and allows her or him to record it. Even if the poet isn’t tuned in in that way, the act of writing can help in working through an issue or emotion (Though the poems made this way often are not very interesting.) Then when a good poem finds its readers, they are moved in the process of reading. Any authentic contact creates change. At the same time, neither reading nor writing poetry frees us from the need for more direct world-changing actions, like political action, meditation, or practicing compassion in our relationships.
Alison Stone’s poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and a variety of other journals and anthologies. She has been awarded Poetry’s Frederick Bock Prize and New York Quarterly’s Madeline Sadin award. Her first book, They Sing at Midnight, won the 2003 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Award and was published by Many Mountains Moving Press. She is also a visual artist and the creator of The Stone Tarot.