A.E. Stallings: ‘I’m Optimistic About Poetry, but That’s Maybe the Only Thing’
The Author of Like in Conversation with Peter Mishler
A.E. Stallings is the author of Archaic Smile, which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax, which won the Poet’s Prize and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Benjamin H. Danks Award; and Olives. She has also published a verse translation of Lucretius’ The Nature of Things. Stallings is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2011 MacArthur Fellow. She lives in Athens, Greece.
Peter Mishler: Could you talk about your upbringing, your childhood, and some aspect of it that you think speaks to your life as a poet now?
A.E. Stallings: My father was a professor at Georgia State University, my mother was a school librarian; one grandfather was in education, and the other was an Episcopal priest; both of my grandmothers were teachers at one point. So there were a lot of books around, for one thing. My father used to recite a lot of poetry—the usual things, like parts of “Hiawatha” or the opening of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or “Annabel Lee.” At my mother’s father’s house (the grandfather who was a priest), there were a lot of books, but not a lot of child-friendly books. I read and reread Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, and eventually ended up in the poetry section, which consisted mostly of T.S. Eliot. T.S. Eliot had some poems on cats—that was promising, and there was a lot of friendly white space on the page. Church itself was probably an influence—the rhyme and prosody of hymns, and the special rhythms and sentences and cadences and mysterious vocabulary.
I read promiscuously as a child, whatever I stumbled on, or whatever was put in my path. There were a few children’s poetry books that were important to me—I would memorize poems and (pompously, no doubt) recite them at lunch. Often they were by a Greek poet known as Anonymous. I liked that some poems were scary or creepy—Edgar Allan Poe existed side by side in that way with Riley’s Little Orphan Annie. In early high school I went through a phase where I had some old poetry anthology I would carry around, because it had a lot of sad and gloomy poems in it. It was from the latter half of the alphabet—the second or third volume—so it had people like Poe and Wordsworth and Tennyson.
I didn’t always understand what I was reading. I remember loving Tennyson’s “The long light shakes / Across the lakes / and the wild cataract leaps in glory” because there was a castle in the poem, and for a very, very long time I assumed a cataract was a kind of endangered highland mountain goat, something like an ibex; imagine my surprise when I learned it was a waterfall. Although I thought I would somehow make a living writing novels (and I have written a couple, which will never see the light of day!), I started publishing poetry early on—in Seventeen magazine and other places from the time I was 16—and I would get these checks in the mail, and it seemed easier in some ways than babysitting. I also had an excellent English teacher in high school, Ms. Mary Mecom. That is an assortment of very different things, but all I think somehow went into my being a poet.
PM: What is it about Classical myth, culture, poetry that has proved seemingly inexhaustible to you as a subject, jumping off place, or portal by and through which you make your poems?
AS: There is, in the first place, so much of it. I am always learning new things, rereading things in a new light, rereading things from a different point in life. And as an imaginative map, it is a map with a lot of uncharted places. It is both now and not now. Women’s voices in ancient epic and lyric tend to be “unrecorded” (as how Penelope’s thoughts are always veiled—her name means veiled, in one etymology) or fragmented (as has simply happened to Sappho through no fault of hers) which is a lot of space for improvisation. I suppose the Athenian tragedians found the same thing.
That said, certain other tales and mythologies have a similar draw on me—Anderson’s and Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and the Alice of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. It is possible if I had not moved to Greece (I have now lived here most of my adult life), some of the Classical pull might have faded, but there is often a feeling of living diachronically, with various pasts and presents and futures rubbing shoulders. I have also become increasingly interested in how modern Greek poets (from Cavafy and Seferis and Sikelianos to Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke and Chloe Koutsoumbeli) interpret ancient Greek myth, and that has added another feedback loop or layer to these readings and thoughts.
PM: What would you want American readers (and poets, perhaps) to know about contemporary Greek poetry? Is there anyone we should be reading, and why?
AS: There is a lot of interesting contemporary Greek poetry happening now. A couple of recent anthologies include Theodoros Chiotis’ Futures and Karen Van Dyck’s Austerity Measures, both of which are concerned with poetry that speaks to the economic crisis. (A third called simply “Crisis” edited by Dinos Siotis came out slightly earlier, with an older generation of poets). You could start with these.
Kiki Dimoula is a fascinating poet some have figured for the Nobel, but she is difficult if not impossible to translate well, since she does a lot of wordplay on the Greek language and even Greek grammar. Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke is a more accessible and translatable poet who writes powerfully about the body and its desires; her English is excellent, and she sometimes translates herself. Among many poets I read with admiration are Katerina Iliopoulou, Stamatis Polenakis, Panayotis Ioannides, Orfeas Apergis, Dimitra Kotoula, Chloe Koutsoumbeli.
Very little modern Greek poetry rhymes, it is mostly free verse, but there are some younger poets who have embraced writing in sonnets and various meters and so on. It’s outside the mainstream, but it certainly exists. Among poets working in sonnets and other traditional forms are Stergios Metas and Yiannis Doukas.
There is also a category of Greek poets who write in English, rather than Greek, among them Tryfon Tolides, Eleni Sikelianos, Fani Papageorgiou.I liked too that “refugee” and “fugue” come from the same root—to flee.
Perhaps most interestingly, though, given Greece’s frontline in current waves of immigration are the number of non-Greeks (or Greeks of non-Greek backgrounds) who choose to write in Greek, rather than their mother tongue, such as Iana Boukova Gazmend Kapllani, Mehmet Yashin, Moma Radic
PM: Could you share your experience of writing both “Refugee Fugue” and the poem “Empathy”—I imagine that they are drawn from similar experiences and thinking?
AS: Both, of course, stem from being in Greece as it was the epicenter of migration flows to Europe across the Eastern Aegean, and being in proximity to daily catastrophes. (I try to avoid the word “tragedy” as there is nothing inevitable or fated about these deaths.) “Empathy” does spring from a different imaginative place. There is something very conscious—whether that is good or bad I don’t know—about the “Refugee Fugue” poems. They are very deliberate. “Empathy” sprang out of nightmares that I was having in response to the news, and to do with that visceral mother-terror you have for the vulnerability of your own children. These two things overlapped in dream waters. “Empathy” was written very quickly and only revised in such a way to slightly rough up the rhyme surfaces.
PM: Would you be willing to share your experience of composing “Refugee Fugue”—what are you willing to share regarding the writing of its separate sections and parts?
AS: There was a group of poems about the refugee crisis that I largely didn’t think could stand alone, but they were a way of trying to address a current event from different angles and strategies. I liked too that “refugee” and “fugue” come from the same root—to flee. Some of the news (and here it is local news) of the drownings (which continue) filled me with helplessness and the epigrams seemed a way to respond to individual loss of life at wholesale levels, by, again, using a form with some sharpness and distance and with a whole “body” of tradition (in the Greek Anthology) of addressing drownings in the Eastern Mediterranean. I wrote these constantly for a while, though not all of them made it into the book. I also largely wanted these poems to be set apart, not intermingled with the rest of the population of poems (the exception being “Empathy,” which did not seem to belong with the others) as a way of solemnizing them, as you might set apart ground for burial.
PM: I asked this question of Ange Mlinko in this series, and thought it might be interesting to ask it of you as well: what is the truest thing you know—what is it that you know for sure—about the phenomenon or experience of rhyme from a writer’s perspective?
AS: I somehow missed this and am really tempted to see what Ange says before replying! I am a big fan and think she is one of the best rhymers writing in English, as well as one of the most interesting poets.
Rhyme I would say is a kind of metaphor—a likeness between unlikes—and has some of the same mysterious power. It is a driver of composition and not an ornament (if done properly)—a rhymed poem should, in a sense, be “rhyme-driven.”
The truest thing I know about rhyme is that people’s responses to it, including that of critics, is emotional. Reviews (of my work) almost never mention meter, but always latch onto the rhyming. I am fairly often critiqued for rhyming poems that might somehow be good (or better) poems if they didn’t rhyme, according to the critic—although without the rhyme they wouldn’t exist. That said, people love rhyme until they are taught to distrust it. I think in the Anglophone world that distrust is often at some level puritanical, a distrust of pleasure and the rhetoric of pleasure.
PM: Maybe I should ask, then, what is the truest thing you know about the phenomenon of, and the making of, meter?
AS: Rhyme is a sort of echolocation—you speak out into the world, and it answers back to you. But meter is something more internal, it is more about listening to some internal voice. To be honest, I don’t know that I can say much about meter generally, whereas I could about particular meters (Sapphics, say, or trochaic tetrameter.)
PM: Something I’ve wondered about often as a reader: what is it about certain rhyming poems that don’t register to the ear as rhyme on first read (even when these rhymes are full/perfect) whereas in other poems the rhyme scheme is somehow more audible from the opening of the poem onward? I wonder what your take is.
AS: I think this is mostly to do with how syntax and sentence play across lines and whether rhymes are across parts of speech (itself an indication of syntactical and sentence play over line units) and between words of differing lengths and types or provenances (monosyllables versus polysyllabic words, words of Anglo-Saxon versus Romantic etymology, abstract versus concrete, proper nouns versus general terms).
If you land heavily on the chords (rhyme placed at ends of sentences or phrases, and even more so rhymes on same parts of speech), it will tend to be more audible. I am not a person that feels rhyme need be cleverly hidden or inaudible to be successful, by the way, as often one seems to run into in criticism as a virtue.
But I like almost all kinds of rhyme—antonymic rhyme (up and down), eye rhyme, slant consonantal rhymes, anagrammatic rhyme, palindromic rhyme, grandfathered full rhymes (like “love” and “prove”), internal rhymes, etc. Thread-bare rhymes too, like moon and spoon done in surprising ways. Very few kinds of rhyme grate on me, and those are rhymes that seem inelegant or clumsy and easily fixed, like singulars to plurals (loves/dove). Even so I am sure I could think of exceptions.I like things like rhyme and meter precisely because using these random limitations can leave you open to things beyond your control, spaces for the Muse to move through.
I do a lot of a technique (I am not sure what it should be called) which involves writing a strophe of some kind, and then just rhyming the originally strophe at random in no pattern with some of the rhymes at great distance from each other, so that they are probably nearly inaudible and other rhymes close enough to chime. Pairing things up is then part of the composition. I might even then go back and deliberately uncouple something so that a rhyme is orphaned.
PM: Is rhyme then the primary tool by which a poem starts to develop? What have you observed about your poetry, the art of poetry, or the act of writing as a result of this procedure or starting place?
AS: For a rhyming poem it might be the primary tool. I am very interested in stanzas and strophes of all kinds, and in stanzaic as well as more organically structured poems. And in syllabics, for that matter. For me I guess it does help to have a level of technical difficulty to overcome, something the conscious mind can absorb itself with, to free up more mysterious parts of the mind.
PM: I wonder specifically about you as a poet of what is both unconscious or mysterious—what observations might you have about that aspect of your writing in relationship to, or in opposition to, what we’ve been discussing about the technical effects of poems.
AS: Frost famously said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I would perhaps add, no discovery for the writer, no discovery for the reader. Ancient poets believed that they had access to knowledge and wisdom beyond their own human experience because of the divine intervention of the Muses. I also believe that. Inspiration is a state of receptiveness to things larger than or other than oneself, a kind of empathy not necessarily with people but with objects, slants of light, shadows, and the sounds of things. A good line is always a little bit of a mystery.
You learn to trust things you don’t necessarily understand intellectually (Keats’ Negative Capability, in a nutshell). This doesn’t always get easier with time and experience. The more experienced in a technique you become, the harder it can be to surprise yourself. Paradoxically, I like things like rhyme and meter precisely because using these random limitations (as a more avant garde poet might say) can leave you open to things beyond your control, spaces for the Muse to move through.
PM: A question I ask nearly everyone in the series: what is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
AS: It will outlast scores of species on earth.
PM: Could I ask you to say more?
AS: I think many poets, myself included, are struggling with how to keep writing in the face of the environmental degradation that is looming over us and our children, the beauties and seasons that will be lost, the diversity of flowers and trees and butterflies and fish. These are in danger of vanishing before the words for them do. Poetry is extremely hardy—it was around before the alphabet and will outlast many kinds of human technology. I am robustly optimistic about poetry, but that is maybe the only thing I am optimistic about.
I think a lot about Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet”: “Whether there shall be lofty or long standing / When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.” So much of our language is rooted in the old seasons, and in a miraculous natural world. It is terrifying to think that the language will outlast some of these. On the other hand, I suppose there will be new metaphors, and the poets of the future will find a way forward.