Devil’s Lake


Interview with Kristen Stone

Q: Your first book of poems and lyric essays, Domestication Handbook (Rogue Factorial), names imaginative influences ranging from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series and Charlotte’s Web to Donna Haraway, Emily Dickinson, Best Lesbian Erotica 2003, Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats, and more. If all of these influences converged for a dinner party, what would it be like? What would you serve? Would any of your influences fight, or would everyone get along?

Emily Dickinson would probably be appalled by the erotica but also intrigued … I mean, she knew about intensities.

I’d probably serve goat cheese. I hate goat cheese. I feel like a jerk because I wrote a book that’s about goats and I hate goat cheese. It just tastes like a milking parlor to me. It would have to be a potluck, actually. I like to think we would play some summer camp games and it would be sort of awkward but kind of nice. I would have one too many gin and tonics and fall asleep under a table, as I am wont to do. And my dog would steal things out of everyone’s purses, and eat their shoes. I read in The Wilder Life [by Wendy McClure] that Laura [Ingalls Wilder] was pretty uptight, but I also think she had really good manners, so she’d keep her criticism to herself. Emily Dickinson would probably be appalled by the erotica but also intrigued (like my teenager narrator). I mean, she knew about intensities. They would step out the back door and share a cigarette, I think, before quietly leaving together. I think Donna Haraway is probably a good party guest. I heard her speak at MSU a few years ago and she was really lovely. I think she’d have something critically engaged but not unkind to say to everyone.

Q: What do you do for work? Do you subscribe to an idea of “work/life balance”? What is your writing process like and (how) did having your book published affect that?

For my job I do counseling and support groups for children at a domestic violence shelter. I try to have an idea of a work/life balance. But is writing work or life? I don’t have a lot of free time, that’s for sure, but most people don’t. I find time to write when I can. I have the house to myself today, so I’ve been reading over some notes I made last weekend for a story and will work on that when we’re finished talking. Sometimes I really wish I were an academic, that I had an institution to be a part of, to ask for support, that I could devote more of my energies to things that are related to writing. Last fall, I applied for the PhD program in English here, at the University of Florida. I was convinced it was the right thing to do. I didn’t get in, and that was really crushing, but I also remember how awful I felt about academic bureaucracies, and I have all these values about Writers Who Also Work In The World (but what is work, what is the world?).

I also remember how awful I felt about academic bureaucracies, and I have all these values about Writers Who Also Work In The World (but what is work, what is the world?).

My writing process has changed a lot, not so much because I wrote a book, but because my life has changed a lot—when I was getting my MFA and writing Domestication Handbook, I was living in Michigan, moving around and interning on farms and working at a summer camp, living in barns and stuff. Having lots of Experiences, you know? In a lot of ways I’m more settled down now: I pay rent and live in a house with my partner and our best friend, in a neighborhood, and every day I have to put on clean clothes that match and go talk to kids about trauma, and do things that are distinctly not writing. It makes me feel really unhinged sometimes, but also I really believe in the tension. I think it’s important. For me, anyway.

Q: Many of the poems in Domestication Handbook take the shape of prose poems. What is your relationship to form and genre?

That’s a really good question. I mean, I don’t know. Are they poems? When I first started promoting the book, I didn’t know what to call it. Sometimes I called it a lyric essay. Sometimes I called it prose poems. Or an anti-memoir. I try to write things that I would like to read, and one of my big secrets that is not a secret is that I don’t read a lot of poetry. I have a complicated relationship to the line. Douglas Martin, when he was my adviser my first semester at Goddard when I was writing a lot of free verse, kept suggesting I break my lines differently. But I didn’t quite see it. It was like being tone-deaf or something. So when I realized I could do experimental things, but write in mostly straightforward prose, that was huge.

Q: One thing I love so much about your book is the titles and how they speak to each other; for example, the piece called “I think it is perverse to write a memoir” is followed a few pages later by “More notes for a memoir.” To what extent does Domestication Handbook feel like memoir to you?

All the events are pretty factually true, in that they happened, or that I remember them happening. One of the things I sort of talked around in the book is the idea of trauma, and feeling like there was never an event, or nothing you can remember, but a sense of ongoing unease. An act of writing around, if you will. When I was touring with Feng Chen this summer, she called it ‘ambient trauma‘—I really liked that. I feel like memoir is about (or is supposed to be about) coming clean or confessing or revealing The Thing whatever The Thing is. But how do you confess if there is no thing? And what’s wrong with you anyway, pull yourself together. So you never stop talking because you can never get to the nugget at the center, or the secret, or the root, because there is none. Like the part where the narrator is writing in her notebook all the time but nothing is happening. I feel like memoir is about resolution (Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World is an example that comes readily to mind): a bad thing happens to you, you process it (partially with the act of writing) and then you are Better. I think I mostly write in opposition to that sensibility. Writing is not therapeutic to me, although I get why and how it is to other people, and how important that is. I think of writing more as assemblage-making. And when you write like that and call it a memoir, people get mad. Sometimes I wish I were better at just making things up. I have a really poor imagination actually. Whatever I start, my own actual life just creeps in, and there I am writing about my boring ass adolescence again.

Q: One of my favorite moments in the book is in “Investment mission,” when you write, “I wake in corn country to hundreds of millions of potential consumers. I wake next to the neighbor’s soybeans, to a booming middle class. I wake to your breast in my hand and I try to be tender, our priorities are clear.” I love the way that excerpt, and the whole piece/section, juxtapose a living breathing sexual life with agricultural politics. Can you talk about the term “ecopoetics”—your relationship to it, what it means to your work?

Science can be a springboard for imagination, rather than providing answers or closing a debate.

For my undergrad degree I studied women’s studies and anthropology, so I developed a pretty strong vocabulary for critiquing biological determinism and essentialism. That kind of learning, though, felt very negative: biology is not destiny, bodies are NOT…but there wasn’t any language there for talking about the body, the animal body, the body of the sad girl, whatever. My education was very abstract, you know, so a lot of this work came out of figuring out how to talk about the body when I was suddenly confronted with bodies—how to talk about caring for and eating the bodies of plants and animals—in a way that resists an evolutionary-psychology or biological determinist framework. So I think it’s a lot about interface and interference, about potential and what we don’t know. Science can be a springboard for imagination, rather than providing answers or closing a debate. It seems like Big Ag[riculture] likes to say, “Well, it’s science, end of story” And it’s hard to argue with that if you don’t know how. Donna Haraway, for me, sets a really good example of how to think about science in ways that are socially and morally embedded, imaginative, and generative. Language is really, really important, but there are things outside language. Woo-woo things like feelings and sensation, and tangible things like goats and eggs and soil.

Q: If you could be an animal other than a human, what animal would you be and why? Or would you be a plant?

Maybe a whale, because I love to swim but I’m sort of scared of drowning, and whales never drown, do they? Or a dog with a job to do, like a Great Pyrenees or a herding dog. Or a spider, because they have a zillion babies and I really love babies.

I’m torn between giving an honest answer that makes me look energetic and prolific, or one that is also honest but makes me look somewhat depressive and slow. I’ve started a lot of things but since I don’t have a ton of time to write, it feels hard sometimes to sustain a project. I write in fits and starts, mostly on the weekends. I’ve started making notes for a novel about babysitting, and I have a couple short stories in the works. I wrote an enormous, sloppy, traumatized manuscript last year between graduation and Domestication Handbook being published, which is a lot about my sisters. I’m sort of sitting on that and thinking I’ll never know how to make that into a thing someone might read, always thinking about disassembling it and making it into something new. And eking out Unthinkable Creature chapbooks. That was the middle ground answer.

KRISTEN STONE has undergraduate degrees in anthropology and women’s studies from Rollins College, and received an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College in 2011. Domestication Handbook (Rogue Factorial, 2012) is her first book. She has had work published in Glitter Tongue, Women’s Studies Quarterly, 3:AM, Finery, and elsewhere. She is a sporadic poetry editor for Limn Literary and Arts Journal and runs a tiny chapbook press, Unthinkable Creatures, out of her home. Kristen currently lives in Gainesville, Florida, where she works as a youth advocate. Her research and creative interests include animal studies, social work, and printmaking.