A.E. Stallings Interviewed by Edward Byrne
The following questions and answers were compiled from parts of an ongoing conversation I conducted with featured-poet A.E. Stallings in a series of e-mail messages to her in Greece during this past summer. I thank Alicia for generously giving her time and effort in responding to my correspondence.
Would you please begin by sharing biographical information with readers?
I grew up in Atlanta—well, the area around Emory was a suburb of Atlanta when I was growing up, but now is practically intown—which was a much smaller place in the 70s, and our house backed onto what was essentially a forest. My father taught at Georgia State University and my mother was a school librarian. I got a surprisingly solid education in the public schools—my high school English teacher, Mary Mecom, was rigorous and influential. Then I took a scholarship to the University of Georgia in Athens GA, where I eventually found a home in the warm and welcoming Classics Department, then chaired by Richard LaFleur. I later did a Masters in Classics at Oxford with Richard Jenkyns. Since 1999, I have lived in Athens, Greece with my husband, the journalist John Psaropoulos. We have two children, Jason, just six, and Atalanta, who is now a year old.
When did your initial interest in creative writing, particularly poetry writing, begin to reveal itself?
From the get-go, really. I have always wanted to write books. I think having a librarian mother was a factor—I always had the sense that books were written by someone, and I wanted to be an author. Books were important. I have some little stapled-together booklets I was making at four or five years old, stories complete with illustrations. My favorite crayon was clearly black!
As a student who studied classics as well as wrote poetry about contemporary situations, in what ways (if any) did you discover the two areas complementing one another?
I think it was a discovery that the classical authors were so contemporary—they were writing about contemporary situations, which, frankly, haven’t changed that much. They seemed fresher and more modern than most of the contemporary poetry I was reading in journals in the late eighties and early nineties. It was a revelation, for instance, that a poet like Catullus was writing about contemporary (and raunchy) things in contemporary Latin diction, but in tight, elegant metrical forms. One shouldn’t confuse fusty, schoolmastery Victorian translation with the direct electrical jolt of the originals. My first stabs at translation were of Catullus poems.
How have your projects translating classic works influenced your own writing process as well as the content or perspectives in your original poems?
That’s hard to answer. Maybe in some ways it has left less time for my own work. But perhaps in another way it is comforting to always have some poetic project you can sit down to—one need never fear the blank page. And my own poetry has always been a form of hooky, so it is good to have something to play hooky from. My translation work has largely been from long poems, epic, narrative, didactic—and perhaps that has enabled me to write some longer poems myself, I don’t know. (For me, longer is anything over 20 lines!) But translation is also a strange act of self-effacement, as opposed to the self-assertion of writing a lyric poem. I think it is a salutary exercise. And of course I have also learned a lot from it, reading authors much more closely and thoroughly than I would ever have done otherwise. A sort of do-it-yourself PhD, I guess. I do think translating Lucretius changed me—converted me, really. It was hard to spend that long in his company and not be won over.
Your first collection of poetry, Archaic Smile, won the Richard Wilbur Award and was critically well received. Could you talk about the early experiences seeking publication and the impact to your career or confidence realized by release of your first book?
I began publishing poems at 16 (in some local literary journals and in Seventeen, which paid $15 a poem, which seemed a fortune to me at the time—easier money than a night of babysitting.) But I didn’t publish my first non-juvenilia poem in a literary journal until 24, upon my return from studying in England. It was taken by Beloit Poetry Journal and went on to be included in the Best American Poetry series, and I was invited with a handful of poets from that anthology to attend an event in New York celebrating its publication. That was a considerable boost to my confidence (I felt like Cinderella), though fraught with the idea that it was all a sort of fluke (and after, the carriage would turn back into a pumpkin). I’ve always been pretty lucky with publications. And I’m stubborn and thick-skinned when it comes to rejection.
I probably submitted my manuscript 30 times before it won the Richard Wilbur Award. And the Richard Wilbur Award was a brand-new contest and something of an unknown quantity at the time—I think my book was second in the series. So I was relieved to finally be having a book out, but didn’t know what it would mean exactly. Evansville did a gorgeous job with the book—beautifully presented and all hard-backs—and were very supportive of it—again, I feel very lucky. I was thrilled it got reviewed at all, but there were some very nice reviews, including one in Poetry magazine, for example. But I think a book tends to be out there for readers you already have. I think you win more readers by having them stumble across something in a magazine or online, on places like Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. (Poetry Daily was also an early supporter of my work.)
Your work frequently has been associated with formalist poetry. Has this link influenced readers or editors in their reception of your work?
One is never overjoyed with the stuffy and conservative-sounding “formalist” label. (I did a blog on this, in answer to the coveted “avant-garde” title that people actually seek.) But I don’t think it has had that much influence on editors. I actually tend to publish in more “mainstream” journals—I don’t really submit that much to exclusively formalist venues, now that the Formalist has shut down, maybe partly out of a concern for labeling. But also I’d rather my poems be in a broader mix. That first poem in the Beloit Poetry Journal employed rhyme, though there was scarcely any of that in the journal. In my experience, editors of nearly all stripes are quite welcoming to well-executed formal poems.
Could you speak in general about the ways you perceive formalist poets have been viewed during the past few decades?
Personally, I find it a little depressing and somewhat perplexing that people want to divide up poems based on whether they rhyme or not. (And let’s face it, this is about rhyme—blank verse can often “pass” for free verse. Meter doesn’t get people exercised, but rhyme sure does.) Are Emily Dickinson and Alexander Pope similar poets, should they be in the same school? Well, they both rhyme. That’s how absurd it is, seems to me. I’d like people to look beyond that to other aspects of the poems.
There are bad and boring poets that rhyme, of course. It is interesting to me that in attacks against formal poetry (and I have served as a jumping off point to some of them in reviews), there is never any naming of names, just clichéd generalities about “new formalism,” whatever that is. And I’ve noticed they are often written by younger poets who themselves use rhyme and meter, who are perhaps using the forum to distance themselves from formalism’s negative connotations (iambic metronomes, predictable anecdotes, political conservatism, aesthetic philistinism in throwing Modernism’s baby out with the high falutin’ bathwater.)
I suppose rhyme and meter are less out of fashion than when I started (though, again, I never really experienced much bias against what I was doing.) And a lot of poets of my generation and younger are happy to go between more formal and freer constructions—you do see this in the new Swallow anthology edited by David Yezzi. One envies British poets in this regard—there was never this cut and dry division.
I think there does persist, however, a basic misunderstanding about rhyme and the use of rhyme. Rhyme is not an “ornament”—it is essential to a rhyming poem; without it, the poem would not have happened. That is, the poet does not “know” exactly what the poem is going to say and “translate” it into rhyming verse—or shouldn’t, in my book. On the contrary, it is the strange dream-logic connections of the rhymes themselves that lead the poem forward, perhaps into territory the poet herself had not intuited. Rhyme is a method of composition.
I like your comment: “Rhyme is a method of composition.” You appear to also find delight in attempting different traditional forms, or exploring new ones, as though anticipating and eagerly approaching a challenge. Do you believe the use of rhyme and meter combined with your exploration of forms, heightens your awareness, and that of your readers, of precise or effective language?
I find I do need to work against something—a form or structure of meter or rhyme scheme—to gain traction. But I am usually not overly interested in formal challenges for their own sake. There are forms and rhyme schemes that I would find too elaborate for my purposes. I do need some sort of difficulty, though, to catch myself off balance, to make me keep my wits about me, to keep the right brain from knowing what the left brain is doing, as it were (or is it vice versa?). Perhaps rhyme highlights precision—I’m not sure (one could argue the opposite—that unrhymed verse foregrounds diction more)—at any rate, rhyme does call attention to itself and word choices, so it is rather unforgiving of inaccuracy and infelicity.
As an American poet who
lives in Greece and spends most of her time away from her native country, do
you think you find yourself more isolated or more liberated than your
contemporaries by the geographical and cultural differences you experience?
I can’t say. I’ve been here now for a fourth of my life, for half of my adult life. Living in a foreign culture, and a foreign language, certainly has challenges for the poet. (I sometimes wonder if I am losing a grasp of the American vernacular, for instance…) I am probably more isolated or liberated from being outside academia, being a housewife poet. (I imagine most poets are isolated in some way.) I suppose one thing that strikes me very strongly is the extensive and excessive navel-gazing of American poets about their place in society, their almost neurotic anxiety about it—one sees this a lot in the prose at Poetry magazine. Then to allay this there is, say, the embarrassing boosterism of National Poetry Month. (Is there a national symphonic music month? A national sculpture month? Why does poetry get all the press?)
It is something of a luxury—a privilege, if you will—to doubt the purpose of beauty or art. I think people who have experienced serious hardship, deprivation and danger do not doubt the need to create and experience beauty/truth for its own sake. (I am not saying I am one of these people—far from it—but one certainly sees this in elderly Greek poets, for instance, who have in the course of their lifetime experienced German occupation, famine, bloody civil war, dictatorship, and perhaps even exile and imprisonment.) Of course, I am not suggesting all poetry needs to be beautiful, but to have aesthetic power, yes. The opposite of the aesthetic is not the ugly, but the anesthetic, and it is to this last that modern America seems really addicted. Our pleasures (oxymoronic “reality” television, say—and I watch my share) are anesthetic ones.
There also seems to be a sense of aggrieved entitlement among many American poets which I don’t quite get—why don’t people read us, etc. Why should they if they don’t want to? This anxiety seems to do with being cut off from the tradition in some ways—writing and reading too much in the present. Poetry is a conversation with the dead and the unborn. In this way, one never feels lonely or unappreciated just because one has a small, select readership in the present. One feels a kinship with like minds across the ages, and no, it is never going to be the majority.
Anyway, for my own part, I do not share that anxiety about the place or purpose of poetry. Maybe that has to do with geography or cultural differences, I don’t know. I think, again, it largely has to do with being outside the academy. I have an urge to write poems and some people like them—that is sufficient, really. And perhaps being married to a journalist adds to my perspective. Poetry, like the poor, will always be with us. Journalism as we know it is critically endangered and threatened with extinction.
Your poems are often clever and witty, satirical or sarcastic, even outright funny. These are qualities I especially admire and envy, and I am sure these characteristics delight other readers as well. (Hapax even displays a light-hearted “Antiblurb” poem on its back cover.) At the same time, these poems seem to maintain a sense of sophistication and a high level of technique. I detect that you also enjoy these elements when they appear in your translations. Could you speak of your appreciation for the humorous portions, though sometimes presented with an edge, not only in your own poems but also when found in poetry in general?
Humor and rhyme are related—they work in much the same way technically, that is in terms of setting up an expectation and then undermining it or else fulfilling it in a surprising way. I think I see humor in my poems rather differently from most of my readers—that is, a lot of poems generally perceived as humorous are, to me, much darker than they appear—and, vice versa, a lot of my “darker” poems have for me a kind of gallows humor to them. I find this in readings a lot—poems I find harrowing will get a surprised laugh, and poems that I find funny might elicit a gasp. It is surprising for me, for instance, to hear “Anti-blurb” described as “light-hearted.” It’s placement in lieu of a blurb is playful, I suppose; but for me the poem is a serious one. Anyway, I like that the poems have a life of their own. Once they are out there, I am happy for them to have their own relationships with readers. I don’t want to tell people how to take them.
I adore humor in poetry—language that delights in itself and isn’t afraid to elicit a laugh rather than a pompous nod. It need not be any less deep or thoughtful than “serious” poetry. On the contrary, humor is risky and subversive. (I am not talking about cheap jokey endings, though. One sees too much of that, certainly.) It is an antidote to the deeper-than-thou smugly serious.
Overall, the brilliant poems in Hapax seem to me a bit more playful, relaxed, and personal than those lovely works first encountered in Archaic Smile. Many poets regard their books as having distinct yet valuable personalities, though they might exhibit connective styles of writing or address similar topics. Do you perceive differences in the two collections? Did you approach them differently at all? If so, could you discuss how and why those collections can be seen as individual and separate? Equally, what similarities do you recognize as present in the two books?
It’s nice to hear adjectives like brilliant and lovely! The poems of Hapax were written after I married and moved to Greece, and most of the poems were written after my father’s death in 2000. So they were written while I was struggling with a lot of changes and challenges and events in my life. I was in a different place metaphorically and literally. (Writing about Greece, for instance, was problematic—it was where I lived now; I wasn’t a tourist. I didn’t want to produce “travel” I'm-in-an-exotic-landscape-on-a-Fulbright poetry. It was hard to know how to approach it.)
In a sense, though, my process or methods don’t change much, even if the results do. I just set about writing individual poems, not books of poems, though it is natural that poems from different stages of one’s life will fall into different thematic clusters. That they are divided up into “books” is arbitrary, though. Don Paterson I think has referred to his work as one big book, and I suppose I think much the same way about my own stuff.
Finally, could you speak to readers a little about concerns or subject matter inspiring the work you are currently producing and the prospect for a new collection in the near future?
I have a baby daughter as well as a six-year-old son, and my main concern in the last few years has been doing any work at all. This is always a terror for a “mommy” poet, that you will simply become subsumed in the parent role, that you yourself will cease to be. Some of it is just physical—lack of sleep, lack of enough quiet to “hear yourself think.” And poetry is all about hearing yourself think. Let’s be honest, the main impact of children on a poet’s output is there is less of it. I also do a fair amount of translation work and criticism, and this also takes “time” or perhaps I should say “opportunity” away from one’s own poetry. I am grateful when I produce anything at all. On the other hand, it is the opposite of writer’s block. One feels a back-up of creativity under the surface, if one only had an outlet. Or that is the hope, anyway. Having been through this with the first child, though, I have more faith that the time, the opportunity, the work, will return. I have (slightly) less terror of this fallow period.
There is a new collection in the works—it is essentially completed and my publisher is waiting for the manuscript, which only needs, I think, a bit of tweaking on the ordering and such. I am told this book is darker, but I don’t know. All my stuff seems about equally dark, or light, as it were, to me. I am also going to be working on a new verse translation of Hesiod for Penguin Classics. I seem to have an affinity for curmudgeonly didactic male poets in dead languages.