from Five Points, Vol. 14, No. 3
Well-known and admired for the fluidity and power of her formal verse, A.E. Stallings has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards. Trained in the classics at the University of Georgia and Oxford, she is the author of three books of poetry. The first of these, Archaic Smile (University of Evansville Press), won the 1999 Richard Wilbur Prize. Her second book, Hapax, was published by Northwestern University Press and won the 2008 Poet's Prize, and her most recent collection—Olives—is newly released from Northwestern. In 2007, Penguin published her translation of Lucretius, The Nature of Things. In 2011, Alicia was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Genius Award, and was named a fellow of the United States Artists. She lives in Greece with her husband John Psaropoulos and her two children, Jason and Atalanta. The following interview took place via email.
Gylys: For all of your accolades and gifts, you have always struck me as incredibly humble. I wonder what reaction you feel (if any) to being categorized/designated a genius?
Stallings: It's nice to know I come across as humble! Like most poets, though, I am capable of a great deal of egotism. It is ultimately a brash act to write down your words for posterity. You have to have a healthy ego, I think, to dare to create; or at least be able to silence your inner critic for swaths of time. And I think there are rare moments for most writers when the poem somehow comes out even better than you had hoped and when you do have this surge of energy and think—"I am a genius!" But then there is the other 98% of the time, when you are disgruntled with everything you've ever written, or despair of writing a poem again, and think, ''I'm an imposter!" Maybe you think both these things in the same day.
Gylys: You've said that when you received the call about the MacArthur, your youngest child (your daughter Atalanta) decided to throw a tantrum. I love that story, it also makes me wonder how being a mother had changed you as a writer—aside from the practicalities like having to deal with tantrums in the middle of a phone call or being distracted by the many demands of motherhood, so that you're not able to write as much. In other words, do you think being a mother has changed you at all artistically or aesthetically, and if so, how?
Stallings: A lot of motherhood is the practicalities. There are wonderful moments, naturally, but there are also hours of relentless drudgery (bedtime for me is this, and it looms at the end of every day). You have to assert yourself more to eke out those hours you need to be creative—it's easy to be subsumed, and for people to assume that that is natural and as it should be.
I think perhaps motherhood has altered my range of subjects, but then sometimes I think these subjects were around all along. The one thing that has changed is how I feel about my own mortality. This no longer concerns me much, except in how it would affect others. I fear for lives other than my own, but with that same primal terror. More so.
Gylys: One of my favorite poems in Hapax is the poem entitled "Ultrasound"—that feeling of otherness you capture. I don't have a clear question about the poem—I love its mystery—but I wonder if you'd say a little bit more about the thematic elements of your mother poems in Hapax.
Stallings: A lot of people mention "Ultrasound"—it seems to strike an ultrasonic chord, as it were. I suppose some of the attraction is its nursery-rhyme swing. To me it is a dark, scary poem, especially the last image. I think of a lot of my mother/child poems as rather dark or scary, they confront some primal fears for me, but it seems that a lot of them come across to others as light or whimsical.
Gylys: You've spoken about your decision to study the classics as making sense because many of the English poets you admired had also studied the classics. Did you know when you were an undergraduate that you planned to make a career as a poet?
Stallings: I was pretty serious about poetry and pursuing a writing career even in high school, though I think I thought I'd also write novels to make a living. I was publishing poetry in high school, albeit in places like Seventeen and glossy magazines about cats and horses. (It was encouraging that I received checks from these venues, sometimes as much as fifteen or twenty dollars a pop.) I was lucky in that my father, particularly, was supportive of, if not sanguine about, my ambitions—if there were a major writer speaking at Agnes Scott or Emory or Georgia State during the school day, he would pull me out of school to go hear them. So I heard writers like Eudora Welty, Stephen Spender, and James Dickey while I was supposed to be in P.E. or English or Biology or Geometry. As an undergraduate, yes, I planned to be a poet.
Gylys: You've taken a somewhat unusual route to poetry—you studied classics rather than pursuing an M.F.A. or a Ph.D in writing. Can you talk a little bit about how that choice has shaped who you are as a poet?
Stallings: I majored in classics partly because I thought that that was what poets (E. E. Cummings or T.S. Eliot or A. E. Housman, for instance) did—study Latin and Greek. I suppose I didn't know enough about contemporary poetry to know better. I did have a brief stint as an English major, but it didn't take. And M.F.A. programs were much further and farther between when I was graduating—it was not, then, as obvious a course for an aspiring writer as it is now.
Gylys: It strikes me that you're a poet who has made both classical literature and formal poetry (rhyme and meter) seem relevant and contemporary and cool. I wonder if you'd talk a little bit about those two elements of your work.
Stallings: That would be great if it is true! When I started out trying to publish poems out of college, there was still a lot of active antipathy to formal verse, though there were some journals, such as The Formalist, that sought to counteract that. I was less fully committed to rhyme and meter when I started out—I was still trying to write poems I thought would get published, instead of trying to publish poems I wanted to write. One turning point was that I sent a batch of poems to The Beloit Poetry Journal (one of the few poetry journals Georgia State carried back then), and the poem they accepted was the lone rhyming one. This was (and is) a mostly free verse journal. So I think that experience gave me the confidence to, for one thing, write the poems I really wanted to be writing, since the other ones weren't getting published anyway, and to submit "formal" poems to mainstream journals. It turned out that if you did rhyme and meter well, people were open to it after all. (Rhyme is really more at issue than meter—an unrhymed metrical poem can often slip past the radar anyway, but rhyme really gets people worked up, perhaps because of its irrational pleasures.)
Gylys: In an earlier interview you told a story about your first poem in Archaic Smile—"A Postcard from Greece"—a poem that describes a scary moment a speaker had riding along a cliff in Greece and almost plummeting over the edge of the road. You said that your husband thought he came off as a bad driver in that poem, and that he remembered the experience quite differently than it is described in the poem. You've also said the two of you exchange work and that he is often your first reader. I wonder if you'd speak to both the positive elements of that exchange and also its more challenging aspects.
Stallings: Once an event makes it into a poem, it ceases to be an anecdote (which means something that is "unpublished") and seems to acquire a factual life of its own. I have joked with my husband about that poem, that if he wants, he can write his own poem on the subject.
We do read each other's work—there is some synergy there. Journalism has its genres just like poetry, with their respective constraints and conventions. A radio spot needs to be so long and no longer, and whittling something down to its essence seems to me a similar process whether it is for reporting or a sonnet. We are both fanatic about trying to remove whatever is extra or unnecessary. I think it is ideal to have a non-poet with a good natural ear for a first reader—someone not bothered about contemporary poetry trends, who will just come out and say if something doesn't make sense or is obscure or dull. And someone who knows what he likes.
Reading a new poem, though, can be an emotional mine-field if you are married to the poet. Perhaps it is all she has written for months, and you can only summon a middling amount of enthusiasm. Perhaps the poem isn't any good. Honesty can result in tears or worse. He generally goes to get a beer before embarking on this delicate task. Very occasionally I disagree with his reactions. Usually, though, if he points out that something is weak or unintelligible, I'll change it. And sometimes he might think a poem is better than I think it is, and I'll go ahead and send it out on his recommendation.
Gylys: Has sharing your work with him ever made you 're-see' any of the experiences or elements you've tried to capture in a poem?
Stallings: Hmmm. I don't know ... most of my work, in truth, is not so event-based. I suppose it makes me re-see or re-think things if he doesn't get what I was trying to go for.
Gylys: In an interview in Valparaiso, you said, "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?)." I love this idea that form somehow confuses you enough to free you at the same time. I often talk to my students about this need to find ways to get out of our own way. I wonder if you'd say more about that either as it works for you as a writer or as you think it's one of the challenges that all writers face.
Stallings: I do believe that form is not about having control, but about giving up control, or the illusion of control, to the poem. A rhyme might give you permission to say something that you might have hesitated to say, or might not even have thought to say. It opens up the possibilities, for me, rather than closing them down. I find that I do have to have some sort of surface difficulty, usually, to get purchase on a poem. But not so much difficulty that it becomes an exercise in cleverness. I try to let the poem make its own rules. But I suppose all poets do that in their own way.
Gylys: In that same interview you were asked about whether living away from America made you feel more isolated or more liberated, and you said the following: "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." I had two related questions. First, how do you think that 'navel-gazing' expresses itself in and through American poetry?
Stallings: There is so much prose written about poetry's place in society, about how to make it more accessible or popular, to bring it to a wider audience, or to explain its vital importance, or else so much self-referential cleverness, so much talking over the heads of the readers .... There is the embarrassing boosterism of National Poetry Month. There are endless panels at AWP about poetry and its place or purpose or goals or what have you. Maybe some of this has to do with poetry's place in academia, with making a case for its usefulness in the curriculum or some such. I am not really sure. What I do know is that this cloud of anxiety around poetry is not the same everywhere. A lot of places poets just get on with writing poems and don't worry about whether it is important or necessary or justifiable. I think of the older generation of Greek writers, for instance, who have seen, in some cases, famine and war, exile and military dictatorships. I don't think beauty and pleasure and freedom of expression seem like luxuries to them.
Gylys: Second, are there American poets you admire who don't seem as caught up in that neurotic anxiety?
Stallings: Sure—there's a lot of poetry that just goes about the business of poetry. Kay Ryan, Natasha Tretheway, Joshua Mehigan, Christian Wiman, Rachel Hadas, to name a only a few.
I don't feel like this answer is very adequate—and it is always problematic naming poets—there is a temptation to include friends or be less than honest with the list. I may have to mull over this more ....
Gylys: Along those same lines, I wonder who you are reading these days that excites you?
Stallings: I am a huge fan of Scottish poet, Don Paterson. Everything he writes—verse or prose—is of interest to me, even if I don't always agree. There are a lot of recently deceased younger poets who were doing terrific work and left us way too soon—Michael Donaghy, Rachel Wetzsteon, Sarah Hannah, Craig Arnold, Wilmer Mills. But actually I do think that one of the problems with American poetry anxiety is far too much emphasis on the here and now (so that all the edginess is the same kind of edginess, a millennial mannerism). As Eliot would have it, all literature exists in a sort of eternal present. So perhaps more truthfully I would say I am excited by Pindar and Arioso, Larkin and Hesiod, Cavafy and Housman. They all seem like contemporaries to me.
Gylys: You've done quite a bit of translation. You published a book of Lucretius translations, and you are also working on translations of Hesiod. I wonder how that intensive close re-casting of another poet's voice and vision has shaped and changed you as a writer and/or a reader.
Stallings: As Rexroth says somewhere, "Translation saves you from your contemporaries." I have done a lot of translations from long poems, and from didactic poems, whereas I tend to write short lyrics. Translation is a kind of special reading; it is also the obverse of writing your own poetry—serving a voice and vision other than your own. On a practical level, it means you need never worry about writer's block—you can always do some poetic work, even on days when the blank page seems inviolable. It has taught me a lot about genre, and about how a longer poem works, which perhaps will come in handy some day.
Gylys: I was so sorry to hear about the loss of your father. He and your mother raised you in some unconventional ways—for instance he taught you how to fish—and gut a fish! —at a young age, and he and your mother tried to shape you in ways that would not bind you to specific gender roles. And now you live in a culture that isn't always as sympathetic to women's issues. Is it challenging for you to be an ex-patriot woman living in Greece?
Stallings: Sure. I have been here long enough, though, that I have made peace with it. Many people here only know me as Aliki Psaropoulou, wife of Yannis, mother of ]ason and Atalanta. That invisibility can lead to a feeling of erosion of the self, but perhaps it is also freeing. Despite the differences of gender roles, Greek culture on the whole is a lot more assertive than, say, Southern U.S. culture. I was crippled by excessive politeness when I arrived, which was often taken as weakness or an unwillingness to stand up for oneself, so that people would break ahead of me in line, etc. I now hold my own pretty well. Or Aliki Psaropoulou does, anyway.
Gylys: Speaking of Greece, there's been quite a lot of political and economic upheaval there. And your husband is a reporter. How has it been to experience these difficulties in such an up close and personal way?
Stallings: Athens is never dull. There is a low level of background stress and anxiety all of the time. The center is closed off to a protest as often as not, and at any given time it seems that some sort of service is on strike. On protest days, you avoid the center because of tear gas. On the other hand, life does somehow go on, and Athens still feels like a very safe city to me. The Greeks are resilient, too, about the crisis. They have seen worse things (again, famine, war, civil war, and dictatorship are all still in living memory). People are suffering, there is a visible increase in poverty, and it will get worse before it gets better; but people refuse to be wretched. They will still enjoy life. Sitting out under bright blue October skies and enjoying a coffee outside and conversation with friends is almost a human right here.
As the wife of a journalist, I am affected by the crisis mostly in that I see my husband a lot less.
Gylys: You've said winning the MacArthur will enable you to have a bit more freedom to do your writing, and you quite recently rented an office where you can work outside of your home. Can you talk a little bit about what you think the next few years will mean in terms of your writing life?
Stallings: The announcement has been rather overwhelming ... it has taken a while for the immediate uptake in administrative sorts of things (answering messages and so on—a price of success in poetry is spending a certain amount of time on the "business" of being a poet, instead of just writing) to die down. But in the long run, I do think it is freeing, though there is always some anxiety that goes with freedom—freedom is a little scary. I don't have my old excuses, for instance, for why I haven't produced much poetry in recent years—I can afford the extra babysitting, and I have a space to write, having rented an office. The office is an apartment next door to the house—it had been for rent for ages, and I had had my eye on it, in a purely subjunctive mood, even before the MacArthur announcement. It turns out to be perfect, well-lit, with a view to a little lemon tree, and I can even hear my kids when they are out in the yard. A climbing rose bush I had planted on our side of the wall reaches out to the office window, like a sign. If I forget something, I can zip back over to the house. And I don't have to lug books and computers to a smoky café to get things done. We'll see what happens. I suppose one thing is that it takes the pressure off "deciding" if we will stay in Greece during this crisis.
Gylys: Your new book Olives just came out with Northwestern. Are there any poem titles or poem subjects you might mention as a way of priming us for the collection itself?
Stallings: There are two title poems to the collection. In the one on the back of the book, I play around with the sounds and letters of "Olives," which ends up containing so much. ("Is love / So evil?" etc.) I love that "Olives" also contains "O Lives," and for me, the title of the book refers to both things (something we tried to get across in the lettering on the cover.) It is a book from smack in the middle of life, marriage and kids, and I hope is full in the way that my life is currently very full. And of course, this life is in Greece, so olives are appropriate in that sense, too, as a symbol of place. And I love that they are fruit which must be "cured"—the other "Olives" poem is a bit of an ars poetica in that vein. By the way, I realized there is a sort of ghost line to the anagrammatic poem "Olives" which I wasn't able to work into the poem itself after the poem had "set" in its form, but I was disappointed not to be able to insert somehow. But I'll let you know what it is—a perfect anagram of Olives: "O Elvis"!
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About the Interviewer
Beth Gylys is a professor of creative writing at Georgia State University and has published two award-winning collections of poetry: Bodies that Hum and Spot in the Dark. Her poems have appeared in many journals and literary magazines.
Georgia State University
Editors: David Bottoms & Megan Sexton
Poetry Consultant: Edward Hirsch
Fiction Consultant: Richard Bausch