Ellen Stone taught special education in the public schools in Kansas and Michigan for over 30 years. She advises a poetry club at Community High School, and co-hosts a monthly poetry series in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ellen's poems have appeared recently in Mantis, Moon City Review, Pretty Owl Poetry, San Pedro River Review, and are forthcoming in Switchback. She is the author of The Solid Living World (Michigan Writers' Cooperative Press, 2013). Ellen's poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart prize and Best of the Net.
Her poem, "My life as a lawn sprinkler," appeared in Issue Eighty-Four of The Rupture.
Here, she talks with Angela Redmond-Theodore about motherhood, making a declaration, and the use of rhyme.
The intimate details the speaker offers in "My life as a lawn sprinkler" make me think that you as the author were trying to get at something as you were writing. Where did this poem come from?
This poem came from my experience raising three daughters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and owning a house with my husband. I was raised in rural Pennsylvania, so suburban living still seems novel to me. I am a gardener, and southeastern Michigan can turn from wet in the spring to prairie-dry in summer. My intimate relationship with mechanisms like my lawn sprinklers fascinates me. I was literally thinking about motherhood and how much it is like a lawn sprinkler as I moved my small metal mechanism around my front yard raised bed, and all the flower gardens. I don't think I got the connection entirely until I read Matthew Olzmann's inanimate object poems. Originally, the poem was called "Winning the west in my own backyard." I must have been thinking more about the conquest of land, how to tame it at the start.
This question is related to the first. As with any creed or manifesto, the poem's opening words, I believe... signal the reader to pay close attention to what follows. What follows are four stanzas of the inner workings, functions, and musings of a lawn sprinkler; and then two stanzas declaring an understanding of purpose: filling the well, distributing it. Is this a personal manifesto, or an artist's statement, perhaps?
That is an intriguing question. Originally, the "I believe" line is the fifth line in the poem, not the first. The poem is perhaps a bit of both manifesto and statement. It came from noticing and connecting; however, the poem is clearly a declaration. I am the one outside moving the sprinkler around. I describe myself as a receptacle, but one that can adjust and modulate. (In the original draft the children are "draping over hammocks, davenports, porch furniture." The father is nowhere to be found—although my husband would say, in his defense, that the gardens are primarily my creation!) When I realized that I was truly relating my life as a mother to a lawn sprinkler—seeing the arc and breadth of what I did every day raising my daughters—I was able to hone in on the poem's purpose.
I love the way you've spread rhymes throughout the poem: do-over/spreading over/sweet clover; pressure/ churr, churr; continual spit/twilight dips/fireflies backlit; distributing it. Is there a poet who has influenced your understanding and use of rhyme?
The funny thing is I don't consider myself good at rhyming at all. Intentional rhymes like those in sonnets are difficult for me and often feel stilted. The rhymes in "My life as a lawn sprinkler" were originally embedded in more of a prose poem. In the subsequent revisions, the poem became more spare, and the rhymes more evident. The language of poetry feels alive to me, so sometimes the rhymes appear as I write because I am in the moment of the poem's action. I often write down lines as I walk, for instance. So, I think maybe I am more of an organic rhymer—it it happens, great. If it doesn't and I want to make it rhyme, I struggle.
As for poets who have influenced me, early on it was the language of James Wright and his ability to capture place and people so simply and lyrically. Sylvia Plath amazed me in her ability to mold and craft language to her purposes. But, I don't think of those poets as rhyming poets, exactly. Perhaps Emily Dickinson seeped into me. Walt Whitman could be my father in terms of how I see the earth and my connection to it. I also have always been drawn to Langston Hughes and his evocative, plain and powerful words. My favorite sonnet is "The sonnet ballad" by Gwendolyn Brooks—who I revere. And, of course, there is Shakespeare. I taught Romeo and Juliet for about 15 years in high school, and I am always floored by the sonnets in that play. I want to write one good sonnet like Shakespeare before I die!
Do you read to escape? If so, what is your preferred genre?
I absolutely read to escape. My favorite genre is still fiction, although I fear I am way pickier about what I read than when I was a child. (By the way, I adored Thomas Hardy novels as an adolescent, and I think he had an influence on my becoming a poet, too.) I want a good story that grabs me and keeps going strong until the end—the last novel to do that was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. The other kind of novel I adore is one that has a sweep so broad and lyrical, it blows me off my feet. The Overstory is doing that to me now.
What project(s) are you working on at this moment?
I am working on a small project called "American abortion sonnets" to keep myself sane and connected in the current chaos of our nation. They are modeled somewhat off of Terrance Hayes' American assassin sonnets (modeled after Wanda Coleman's American sonnets), but I am trying to do the rhymes more traditionally. Given what I said earlier about my challenge with "forced" rhyming, I might need to abandon the form somewhat and improvise as Hayes and Coleman did.
More broadly, I am writing a poetry manuscript about my daughters leaving home. "Daughters leaving home in the age of aggression" is one of the poems that might be the title. Of course, my own leaving home sneaks into the work. I am also still fiddling with a manuscript I have out in the world about growing up with my mother who is bi-polar. So, like the lawn sprinkler, I am far reaching—and somewhat scattered—in the scope of my work!