Bianca Stone has a healthy fear of illustrations. There are no images inside her 2012 chapbook, I Saw the Devil with His Needlework, and none on the cover. “We respond to images immediately, and we look to them for explanation,” says the 28-year-old Stone. “I don’t want to tell anybody how to interpret a poetic line. It’s not good for the poem.”
Bianca Stone (photo by Hillery Stone)
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Stone, the granddaughter of the late, celebrated poet Ruth Stone, is also an illustrator. She has gained attention for what she calls “poetry comics”: original poems cradled within illustrated panels that contain characters, action, and a sense of place.
Her surreal watercolor-and-ink scenes have caught the eye of many, including poet and translator Anne Carson, Stone’s former professor at NYU. Carson asked Stone to provide artwork for Antigonick, her recent translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, encouraging her “to make drawings of some other world entirely, some other story.”
This approach neatly aligned with Stone’s own philosophy of illustration. Her poetry comics are based on the hypothesis that words and images can interact on the same plane. Her drawings and poems exist in parallel universes; instead of strictly illustrating the imagery in her poetry, Stone’s illustrations act as a kind of counterpoint. “I’m interested in what it means to have a poem and an image together, and what that can do to further both, instead of taking away from either one,” she says. This philosophy has helped Stone carve out a poetic path distinct from her formidable family legacy.
The marriage of poetry and comic strips isn’t a new idea; Joe Brainard pioneered poetry comics back in the 1960s. Today, there is a growing movement of young poet/comic artists like Stone, including Paul K. Tunis, Alexander Rothman, and Paul Legault. “There’s something in the air these days,” said comics artist Matt Madden at a Poetry Foundation lecture in August, adding that he had noticed an increase in comic artists turned poets and poets turned comic artists.
Unlike traditional comic-book writers, Stone says that her images do not illustrate her words, but instead act “as if the drawing were another line of the poem.”
The result is chimeric. Stone’s poems, already rich with imagery, are transformed within her comic universe—a whirl of ink, watercolor, and typewritten lines, peopled by bundles of slouching, faceless figures and horses in goggles that cannonball through the panels. There are Star Trek characters and forlorn lovers, piles of football players and pairs of disembodied feet. The poem, which is usually composed long before Stone takes out her watercolor paints, takes on an entirely new meaning. “It’s kind of a translation,” says Stone. “I could illustrate a poem in several different ways, and it would be three different things.”
Take the closing lines of her poem, “Les Misérables”:
There’s a certain short ballad playing in my glass.
It begins: when I was afraid
I took all my animals to bed with me.
When I was afraid I spoke to my brother about my skill with knives
and we sat up all night back to back, singing.
In Stone’s first comic book, I Want to Open the Mouth God Gave You, Beautiful Mutant, published in February, the above lines are spread across three panels. Each phrase is given space to breathe, slowing the eye as it drifts across figures and empty space. Stone says this relaxes the pace of the poem and brings each line into focus: “I always find that we read poems too fast.”
Beneath the words—where you might expect pictures of children or stuffed toy animals—are a trio of thin female figures, nude, knock-kneed, their arms crossed before their breasts, with small blooms of ink for pubic hair. The tallest trails a Sega game-controller behind her like a dog. Their little upturned mouths and the white spaces between them convey great vulnerability. The adult rawness of the image tempers the nostalgia of the words.
Stone never studied art formally, and she says that her artwork is made from the perspective of a poet. As a result, her drawings have a certain unevenness that resembles the unstudied abandon of outsider art. “You see the marks of [Stone’s] hand, you see erasures,” says Bill Kartalopoulos, professor of comics history at The New School in New York. But he doesn’t see these markings as mistakes. “It looks like it’s drawn the way it wants to be drawn.”
Stone’s interest in illustrated poetry was sparked while she studied at NYU, where she received her M.F.A. in 2009. During a course with Anne Carson on collaboration, Stone started to draw her classmates’ poems. “Everybody really liked it, so I started doing more,” she says. She began an independent study, poring over the work of well-known comic book artists and illustrators, from William Blake to Charles Schulz. She was struck by the similarities between comic strips and poetry—the constriction of form, the manipulation of pacing. Along the way, she incorporated the techniques she admired into her own work, such as “rhyming images,” comics-speak for when one shape echoes another in different panels.
Since graduating, Stone says, “my drawing has become integrated with my poetry life, and my poetry life has become totally integrated with my drawing. I do them both equally now.”
Today, Stone resides and works in a railroad apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn—a gallimaufry of books, art, antique furniture, and colorful beaded lampshades that her mother made. She lives with her boyfriend, poet Ben Pease, and Russell, an old gray cat. A wooden box below her drawing table is stacked high with works in progress. On Stone’s desk and lining her shelves are books by the artists and poets who influence her, most notably several collections by her grandmother, Ruth Stone, who won a 2002 National Book Award and died in 2011 at age 96.
“Her poetry is the most important poetry to me in the whole world,” Stone says. “Her lines run through my head all the time.”
The two were very close; Stone’s single mother often sent her to stay at Ruth Stone’s farmhouse in Goshen, Vermont. She remembers accompanying her grandmother to lectures and readings. After her death, Stone found herself meditating on her grandmother’s poems about her grandfather, poet Walter Stone, who committed suicide in 1959. “I’m so grateful that she wrote those poems,” says Stone. “It’s so hard to articulate loss.” She is now one of the three trustees of Ruth Stone’s estate, and someday she hopes to turn the farmhouse into a writing retreat.
Her grandmother’s creative influence was deeply felt by other family members. Stone’s mother, Abigail Stone, is a novelist; her aunt, Phoebe Stone, writes and illustrates children’s books; her older sister, Hillery, has also published poetry and teaches expository writing at NYU. But growing up, Stone was most enamored with her grandmother’s work.
“She really encouraged me to write,” says Stone. “She wanted everyone to write, but I was there with her so much that I wrote a lot when I was a kid. It seemed really important to me—poetry seemed like a really important job. She got me a typewriter, and I wrote whole manuscripts.”
Sharon Olds, who also taught Stone at NYU and now employs her as an assistant, notices deep similarities between the Stones’ poetry. “It’s like Ruth later, when a little more terrible water has gone under the world’s bridge,” Olds says. “Bianca’s poems and drawings play, they do brilliant shenanigans, but—and—they are deeply genuine and honest, they play no games meant to fool or deceive.”
While recently going through some old boxes at her mother’s house, Stone found a battered red spiral notebook she had owned at age nine. She had emblazoned the words “The People of Distress and about me” across the cover, and the pages inside were filled with drawings and writing, including a short autobiography: “I think that Bianca Stone (me) is a good Righter and Dose good Pomes. I like her.” And then, “I love to draw.”
“There was some weird connection that I had made at such a young age to what I’m doing now,” says Stone.
Stone described this notebook in a section of the poem “The People of Distress”:
… I am patiently waiting.
Reading my early manifesto
which merely explains that I will one day
write the People of Distress via words
but for now it is all pictures.
When asked what impact her art has on her poetry, Stone says that she tries not to overthink the connection between her two different, often entwined modes of expression. “I don’t always know what I’m doing,” she says, “but that’s such an awesome place to be.”