LIKE THIS BOOK: AN INTERVIEW WITH A.E. STALLINGS BY MICHAEL ODOM
It’s not the common image of a great poet. Two women, two makers, display a large shiny satchel. One has used the dinghies that carried her & other refugees across the Mediterranean as raw materials to produce the bags for sale. Next to her is the MacArthur “Genius” famous for her own poems and her translations from classical languages. It would be more surprising had I not also seen pictures of A.E. Stallings underhand-pitching a baseball to boys who had only recently been passengers on those rickety boats.
If art is the raw material human life is made from, then what should be the expected image of a poet? In the title poem of her new book, Like, she is a mother solving the crisis of her child’s lost Lego brick. Mnemosyne is with her. Life pours into the classics as the classics pour into life. Then the classics are life. That’s why they last. That’s why they are classics.
For we panicky types, a mom going about her day of making flights, typing drafts, sorting dinners, finding toys, giving readings, translating the ancients, and generally being a genius while neo-commies punch neo-Nazis, President Pussy-grab meets pussy-hatted resisters, the cities burn, and the academies fail… is calming.
Her earlier books also played with prosody, rhetoric and diction, but in her new book, Like (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2018), Stallings shows the value of mastering an art—the focus, secured needs, the firm hold on the center, carrying calm into the chaos. Hell is just the scenery. Look at Sisyphus. She seems happy.
Michael Odom: First, would you be an old-fashioned foreign correspondent for America? You were in Greece, one of the hardest hit countries during the financial collapse. Has Greece recovered? Will it?
A.E. Stallings: Greece wasn't just one of the hardest hit countries--it was the hardest hit. Greece hasn't really recovered. Its recession is deeper than any suffered by a developed economy since WWII. Elements of the economy are doing better—tourism is way up, and Greece has graduated from the "bailout," but ordinary citizens are still suffering from austerity. The human cost has been enormous and is not something that can bounce back. People in their twenties or thirties either left, or had their lives derailed. Homelessness, suicide, and preventable deaths from disease are all up, while births are down by a fifth over the past 8 years. Unemployment and underemployment are still at numbers that, for the US, only the Depression would be comparable. Greeks are very resilient (and have seen worse, as people of my mother-in-law's generation will remind you), but the human costs have been shocking, and pointless.
Michael Odom: The migrant crisis has pushed much of Europe, America and the world (see the Dalia Lama!) to the right, sent Britain out of the EU, and might still push Turkey out of NATO. I know you have been very active in helping refugee families in Greece and your poem, "Empathy", is a beautiful evocation of the existential fears in an empathetic mind. But I wonder what specific things you’ve seen? Most of your posts on social media contrast starkly with the narrative of a migrant “invasion” of young, military-age men. Does your perspective as an expatriate American in Greece allow what those with no such perspective might miss?
A.E. Stallings: Migrant crisis is something of a misnomer—the numbers reaching Europe are manageable—several leaders, including Merkel, have pointed this out.
I hear a lot about the "Syrian refugee crisis," but (as you suggest I think), the situation is broader: we are seeing asylum-seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, and even now Rohingya from Myanmar.
In terms of statistics, the majority of people reaching Greece (over 60% according to UNHCR) are women and children; one in eight children is an unaccompanied minor. I do feel for the "military-age" men, as you describe them. I have met lots of young men in the middle of university degrees, who have left because they do not want to kill their neighbors or be killed, and to stay would mean being taken into Assad's army or ISIS. The young men I have met want to finish their degrees and get on with their lives.
And I feel for the teenagers—minors who might look more like grown-ups. I tend to be particularly attuned I guess to boys my son's age—14 -year olds, say, now. They might look big and "scary", be sullen with wispy hints of mustache, but they are still kids and they light up with attention. Many have lost fathers and are supposedly the "man" of the family. Others miss their moms. Volunteers and charities tend to focus on women and little children.
Interestingly, Greece seems to be an exception to this push to the right. Though on the front-lines of the financial crisis and refugee influx, Greece has its parliamentary democracy intact, and has kept its politics mainstream. No populist strongman has arisen. Golden Dawn (the neo-nazi group) continues to poll at roughly the same numbers year after year.
Michael Odom: Now, to the poems: it seems the 20th Century debate of formal rhyme/meter or free verse/prose is well in the past now. Do you feel a conclusion was reached, did it just get old, or did people grow rigid in their positions with no interest or willingness to hear or try the other side (like, for instance, our politics has now)?
A.E. Stallings: When I started writing increasingly in form (in the early 90s), I was worried that somehow this might be a barrier to publication—in those days magazines would sometimes say "no rhyme." But it tended to be my most formal poems that would be picked up, even by non "formal friendly" journals. The debate never made a lot of sense to me—hostility to rhyme and meter in particular strikes me as bizarre, but I think there is less of that around these days. But it is true I have been called upon over the years to write defenses of form and rhyme for various outlets. I suppose there are corners of the "formal" world that are still suspicious of free verse, and it is evident to me from teaching at conferences where the majority of participants are at MFA programs, that there is still some distrust out there over embracing meter and rhyme rather than flirting with it or subverting it. I get the sense there was never this division in the UK.
Michael Odom: Your poems are rich with allusions to English, Greek and Roman classics, the whole Western tradition. The poem Colony Collapse Disorder, being a riff off a passage of the Iliad, seems a diagnosis of a culture that’s lost its “traditional dances.” Is that where Europe is? Is that where the US is?
I believe you responded positively to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. Myself, I saw the Rock Star winning the Nobel, the rapper winning the Pulitzer, the teenagers going to college to write the curriculum & shout down the professors, and the reality TV star becoming President as all part of the same anti-intellectual, anti-art culture. Should I be surprised a classicist has no problem with popular culture taking the spaces once reserved for more accomplished, sophisticated thinkers and creators?
A.E. Stallings: The Nobel Prize strikes me as a strange institution anyway—this idea that a prize somehow confirms a writer's place in the pantheon. Bob Dylan certainly didn't need a Nobel, so perhaps the Nobel felt they needed him somehow to be relevant. I like to point out that the prize isn't for poetry, but literature, and I think song lyrics are part of that. (Sappho, for instance, wrote song lyrics, we've just lost the music.) And as the prize is also about the benefit to mankind, popular music probably does more than most genres. Courses are taught on Dylan, there are academic books about the lyrics, so I think there is that critical appraisal out there too. If you look at the list of winners, both who is on there and who isn't is surprising.
I don't know if I can answer the first part of the question—I am very interested in (steeped in?) Western tradition, but also in Classical reception—so looking back and looking forward.
Michael Odom: Thank you for your responses so far. Just to clarify, the term "military-age men" is one I've heard repeatedly from anti-immigrant media stories. Personal experiences shared with me, like your own photos of you playing baseball & making crafts with children, contradict the reporting. That's why I thought you should speak to that.
A.E. Stallings: Yes, I see. I just always find it a strange phrase—why not "college-age men" for instance? But it is true that they make up the minority of asylum-seekers.
Michael Odom: A reader can’t miss your unwillingness to choose your diction from far more than the common and immediately contemporary, yet your poems are never dense or difficult or academic. They read as casual and accessible as Larkin’s without his often humorous traipsing through the demotic mode. Do you have a method for selecting diction? Do you revise with an eye toward meeting the reader halfway, most of the way, some of the way?
A.E. Stallings: I love getting in a range of diction, high and low registers, though not for the purpose of having jarring shifts. The vernacular is so much more interesting than how most people write. And I think it is OK for a poem to sound differently from actual speech, for it to have a bit of poise or strangeness. Mostly I hope for the language to be interesting. But I like using cliches, for instance, if I can somehow re-inject them with their original figurative language. I like rescuing words that are just on the brink of not fitting into a poem. But I'd have to think about revision—I don't think I would take a word out because it was obscure or arcane—I assume people can look things up, and maybe will even enjoy that—but I might change a word that seemed too bland. I am also really fond of puns and playing on etymology. I'm always pleased if I can make a word do double duty.
Michael Odom: In a craft lecture you gave at Sewanee (A.E. Stallings Poetry Craft Lecture | Sewanee Writers' Conference), you walk the audience through descriptions of storms from the history of literature. I get the impression of your process as being almost a construction of reactions to pieces from the canon. A reader might think you are researching to create each poem entirely consciously. But your poems don’t feel like academic creations at all. In “Lost and Found,” the classics are so embedded in your mind that a common parenting task of searching for a missing Lego leads to a dream of Mnemosyne then Sappho, Dickinson, Bishop, Plath, …. How conscious is your method in making these new poems seem organically grown from literary tradition?
A.E. Stallings: That's a good question. I'm not sure I have a good answer. I think it actually probably works the other way around—I have a scholarly side, but I probably come at that scholarship from a poet's angle—I'm interested in things partly because of what I can use in my own work. Etymology always gives me a thrill that way, and certain kinds of allusion. I have spent a lot of time translating longer poems, and I find myself interested in the nuts and bolts of how they work, which has in turn led me to try longer poetic performances myself. I'm glad the poems don't come across as academic creations. I guess I like to put as much into the poems as I can, and that includes these literary references and layers. I am always interested in how poems speak to each other across time.
Michael Odom: How do you choose which poems to translate? I’ve only read your Hesiod and Lucretius. Especially with the Hesiod, Works & Days, but with Lucretius as well, I am surprised by the contrast with your own work. The works you translate seem more heavily didactic than your own. The Hesiod seems almost self-help & the Lucretius Common Language philosophy (to use a 20th Century reference). Where do you see didactic poems fitting into the 21st Century since they've been out of fashion so long?
A.E. Stallings: I am fascinated by didactic, a genre that has almost entirely dropped out of verse (though which is going strong on the self-help shelves). I'm intrigued with how it is related to other genres—epic, and pastoral, say. Both Lucretius and Hesiod were commissioned, but I have turned down doing other authors, so clearly something in these interests me. I came to Lucretius through Virgil. But whereas the Aeneid gets a new translation every year it seems, Lucretius was more "open" territory. Hesiod also fascinates me as an underrated poet, always in the shadow of Homer, and yet for the ancient Greeks he was of equal importance. Maybe I like something about their difficulty and cragginess.
Michael Odom: A technical question for my own benefit: I’ve been working with falling rhythms and Catullus in my own poems. It seems, in English, unlike Greek and Latin, they push one toward a more dense, serious, almost stately mode. It seems one must almost consciously force the demotic or crass or emotional tones into them. I kept thinking of W.C. Williams and others feeling iambic rhythms had become straitjackets. Do you ever feel constrained by rising or iambic meters or do you find them so natural to English you can vary subject and mode easily? Did you ever go through periods trying to write hendecasyllabics, sapphics and such in English, not as a translation? If so, what was your experience?
A.E. Stallings: I love what sapphics do in English—it is just a whole different set of rhythms to fit speech into. Sapphics, I've realized, are very good at getting in proper nouns and brand names—they can be very contemporary. But yes, I think they are a different music to iambics, and a welcome change. I am also particularly fond of what I'd call the "English Sapphic," which is a rhymed quatrain with a short fourth line. I have only done a few experiments in proper Sapphics, to be honest. But I think it is for similar reasons that you mention that I work fairly often in syllabics, to shake off the iambic lilt and weigh each syllable. Anything I can do to catch my subconscious a little off guard. In my case, that often means addressing a technical problem to keep the conscious mind engaged.
Michael Odom: I know you were recently in the running for the Oxford Professor of Poetry Chair, but for the most part, you seem to exist outside of the university. Has that been an advantage for you? Perhaps it’s allowed you to be aloof from a lot of the worst trends in theory and the faddish politics of academia? Under what conditions would you take a job as a professor? Just Oxford?
A.E. Stallings: I think maybe it is an advantage to be on the outside. I don't have some pressures—publishing, for instance, and I teach only in the summers in short intense bouts. I have other pressures—those of a freelance writer. And I have some of the work of an academic job without the institution—writing letters of reference, for instance. But I think I have liked keeping a distance from some of the professionalism. I can be hopelessly out of step with the times if I like. I think there may also be an advantage to being outside the American poetry scene, though I dip in on social media or publications or conferences. The Oxford professorship mostly involves giving lectures, and meeting with students, which I think is something I would be good at and enjoy. I love teaching, but I think I would prefer to teach courses other than creative writing on the whole.
Michael Odom: Now, because of the internet, it’s becoming common for intellectuals that have left or been evicted from academia to sell out auditoriums for lectures and colloquiums. Some call them an “Intellectual Dark Web.” Some call them the rebirth of the public intellectual. I’m very curious whether that same movement of the culture out of the universities could happen for poets. Your career would seem to be an exemplar? Can you see that happening? Would you welcome it?
A.E. Stallings: I can't say I know much about the "Intellectual Dark Web." It would be good to see an interest in public intellectuals, or intellect of any kind, as we seem to be in an age that prefers know-nothings and reality-television spectacle. I am sometimes called on more to address things other than poetry—I have written and spoken about Greece in the crisis, about the refugee situation, etc. I was even asked my opinion on Brexit! I have also begun writing more political and more topical things in my poems. Byron is a good model for this—writing about current events and engaging in the world, although one doesn't want to end up dying in Messalonghi. But a poet also has to protect whatever private world--and whatever shadowy ambiguities—that is the source of the poems. You have to keep a balance. (I'm not sure I've answered this question!)
Michael Odom: Do you follow the identity politics of the left, the kind that has students ripping down pictures of Shakespeare or demanding Western Civilization not be taught or demanding English literature curriculum drop white (as the English have tended to be) writers? How would you respond to such leftist students calling you a “white supremacist?” Does that radicalism that dominates academia here reach you in Greece? Does it concern you?
A.E. Stallings: No, this is not something that has really reached Greece. I suppose I am not too concerned about it, but then I don't deal much with it, though I read worrisome things about universities in the states. Actually, I worked as a secretary for a prominent professor of African American studies (Dr. Asa G. Hilliard) in the 90s during the whole Black Athena controversy, and I was a bit shocked at the condescension and disdain that came out of the Classics departments for what was not really a radical suggestion—that a lot of the elements of Greek civilization came out of Egypt and the east—Greek authors like Herodotus themselves claim this. The classical world was rich and diverse in ways that have been white-washed by European scholars for their own ends. That said, not teaching Shakespeare because he is white, male, and dead seems silly and very reductive to me. But Shakespeare will survive—I don't worry about that—for as long as English is spoken, longer. I suppose I am more leery about arguments against "appropriation" since human culture and literature have always been enriched with borrowings and cross-fertilizations—that's why the Aegean is so rich in civilizations. I believe what's human belongs to all of us. Maybe that is partly my interest in translation—bringing over not only a text but a culture from one language to another. Something new happens.
Michael Odom: I am finishing up another interview with a theorist, Dr. Michael Rectenwald, as I’m starting this interview and I would like one question to bleed over: the fate of poets and poetry in the English Departments that have come to be dominated by theorists for whom “the author” is dead. As a living author, I wonder whether you have encountered that tension, snobbery, hostility?
A.E. Stallings: Not really, but that may have been why I left the English department in university and went over to Classics. The authors seemed more alive! There was less interest in theory, and more interest in the nuts and bolts of how literature worked. In how poems scanned! I have always tried to avoid theory.
Michael Odom: Sewanee and West Chester versus AWP? How are they different in character? Are there tribal differences between conferences? How do you decide which conferences, events, readings, etc. will get you onto an airplane?
A.E. Stallings: It would take a lot to get me back to AWP—it is just too big and overwhelming, and generally the panels (on creative writing and pedagogy etc.) make me dyspeptic. I finally learned the key to AWP was just hanging out at the book fair and talking with friends, but one doesn't need a big conference for that. West Chester is a kind of home (as is Poetry by the Sea) —old friends, and conversations about meter or rhyme or favorite poets, gossip of course. Sewanee too feels like a family—one becomes quite close to other faculty members year after year—and somehow it is nice to have friends who write in other genres, to get a different perspective. I kind of grew up at Sewanee, as I used to go to the music camp there in the summers when I was in school.
Michael Odom: I know your husband is also a writer, a journalist, and Greece has been in turmoil. Does Greece have a history of attacking journalists? Do you ever feel in danger? Do you ever want to run back to the states or do we seem worse right now?
A.E. Stallings: Journalists can be attacked—it has happened—some stories (organized crime, neo-Nazi groups) are more dangerous than others. I was more worried I suppose when he was the editor of a newspaper here rather than a freelancer. He is quite often tear-gassed at rallies. But on the whole, Greece feels safer to me than the US. Athens is a very safe city, with very little violent crime. I love the US, and miss our friends there, and enjoy visiting, but I do find the country to be in a strange place right now. My husband is probably more sanguine about the US than I am right now.
A.E. Stallings is an American poet who studied Classics at the University of Georgia and Oxford. She has published three collections of poetry, Archaic Smile, Hapax, and Olives, and a verse translation (in rhyming fourteeners!) of Lucretius, The Nature of Things. She has received a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from United States Artists, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She speaks and lectures widely on a variety of topics, and has been a regular faculty member at the West Chester Poetry Conference and the Sewanee Summer Writers' Conference. Having studied in Athens, Georgia, she now lives in Athens, Greece, with her husband, the journalist, John Psaropoulos, and their two argonauts, Jason and Atalanta.
Like by A.E. Stallings is now available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Michael Odom is the author of Boredom, Vice and Poverty and the chapbook Strutting, Attracting, Snapping. His poetry has been published in the literary journals, Clean Well-Lighted Place, The Henniker Review, In Posse, Pucker up, Watershed, and others, as well as two anthologies, Between the Leaves and Ritual Sex. Between 1989 until recently, he was a bookseller, Manager, and Buyer for both independent and chain bookstores. If you shopped for poetry at the Tower Books in Chico, CA, or Manhattan, in the early 90’s, you browsed the titles Michael Odom selected to have on sale in that store. The same is true in the final 7 years of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco (which went out of business before the unrelated journal of similar title began) and Windows on the World in the Sierra foothills. As a single father with bookstores closing all around, Michael Odom pursued and recently received his MFA in Poetry from New England College. His latest books, Selene: In Poems and Count Arnau & Other Poems of Joan Maragall are available on Amazon.com.