Alicia (A. E.) Stallings is an American poet and translator who has lived in Greece since 1999. She has published four collections of poetry, most recently LIKE (FSG), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer. Her most recent book of verse translation is the Pseudo-Homeric Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice (illustrated!) with Paul Dry Books.
She has a Selected poems forthcoming shortly from FSG, and FSG is also reissuing her first collection, Archaic Smile. She has received fellowships from the USA Artists, Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. Excerpts from Stallings interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast are included below.
James Morehead: I want to start with the wonderful words you employ in your poems. Here are a few examples collected from your books: asphodel, caliginous, dendritic, crepusculum, adumbrated, punctilious, and so many more. I regularly share a word from one of your poems with my father, who is a lexicographer, to see if I can stump him. These words, though, are such perfect words in each context and wonderfully poetic. What is your approach to the poetic puzzle of finding the perfect word?
Alicia (A. E.) Stallings: “Sometimes the perfect word is a very plain word, a nugget of a monosyllable and sometimes there is that stretch. I do like to get in words that you might not expect to be in the same poem. Say, I’m trying to get dendritic with them one of the simpler words in the same poem. Some of them might send you to the dictionary, and some of them I maybe fetched out of a dictionary, but I hope that they jostle along with words that you use everyday.”
Morehead: Many of your poems include references from, or are rooted in, Greek mythology and poets. Your poems are also personal and grounded in modern objects, experiences and places. Pandora from LIKE is one example. How do you balance the present with historical and mythical references?
Stallings: “I’ve lived in Greece since 1999 and although I was writing poems about Greek mythology from long before that, it’s all happening here. You might be on the street named after Heraclitus or your kid is on the playground playing with Xenophon. These words and these stories are still very much in the air.
“I think mythology and fairy tales, that I was attracted to from when I was a small kid, have always been, for me, a way of reading the contemporary world.”
Morehead: You employ received forms in many of your poems. You even found a way in Hapax to have fun with the limerick, while retaining the art of poetry. Why are you so attracted to received forms and does the form drive the poem, or do you discover the best form during the revision and editing process?
Stallings: “I think they’re interesting and difficult questions, and may depend, in a lot of cases, on the poem. There are times when you have a fallback form, maybe a villanelle, or a sonnet, you’re kind of rusty and work on poems might end up being real poems, or might just be exercises.
“I have a poem, in Hapax, Bad News Blues, which seems so obvious that it would be in a blues literary form, but it started as quatrains. And then it was a sonnet and only when I found the form did it fall into place, and other times it’s the form that drives the poem. It really depends.
“I’m intrigued with received forms because I enjoy the constraints. I enjoy having certain decisions having been made for me, so I can concentrate on other more interesting decisions. How many lines is a poem going to be is not a terribly interesting decision. If it’s around 14 lines, I might expand it or cut it to make it a sonnet. Not all the received forms I write in are poetic forms. I have a poem that’s in a multiple choice quiz, which is a received form that is not usually a poetic form.
“I really enjoy working with forms because it’s a bit like humor or a joke where part of it is setting up certain expectations. In free form you don’t really have those conventions that you’re working with, or against, that you can subvert or you can exploit. I really like how for forms allow you to employ conventions even if it’s to subvert them.”
Morehead: You’ve found inspiration in museums, and in art; Implements from ‘The Tomb of the Poet from your book Hapax is one of many examples. How do you approach ekphrastic poetry, to be true to the experience that inspired the poem while going beyond being purely descriptive?
Stallings: “A purely descriptive poem can be very effective. Museums are spaces that put me into a poetic frame of mind. There are objects that people from long ago handled or touched. There’s already a built-in sense of time and irony. [Museums] tend to be quiet, meditative spaces where you interact with these objects. Museums put me into a poetic frame of mind when I get a chance wander around them.
“What makes a museum poem a successful one, and not just sort of an exercise, kind of depends. I have an older poem about going to these weird museums that we used to have in Atlanta, before Atlanta got fancier, just odd jumbles of things put in a museum, and I enjoyed going and seeing these incongruous things together. They are places that tend to inspire me, but I’m not sure I could tell you exactly why.”
Morehead: Your poem “Refugee Fugue” from “Like” is striking in how you contrast the tragedy of refugees with the privilege of others. You wrote,
“Look how glad our kids are, making their sandy town,
And how they build the battlements the laughing waves tear down.
But it's the selfsame water, where some swim, and others drown.”
What is your approach to tackling such a difficult subject, while remaining true to the poetry?
Stallings: “That was something I did struggle with. Greece, as you may know, has been on the forefront of the migration wave and refugee crisis since around 2014, starting off with the Syrian Civil War, but it really came to a peak around 2015. You’re talking tens of thousands of people arriving daily on a tiny Greek island. I think it’s hard to understand the scale of what was happening versus how small the islands were. Every day waking up to the news of children drowning and so forth. There was the one kid [Alan Kurdi], the photograph that went around the world, and everyone was moved. But on my local Facebook feed I was seeing many more children, more graphic poses, and realizing my own kids were small and you look at them and you’d say, ‘oh my God, these are the same as my child. My child has the same pair of pants.’ I really felt that we could be them, and they could be us.
“I know some people find that simplistic but I really had that very strong feeling. The water is touching everybody, you’re in the Aegean and the water is touching your child, and the water is touching another dead child. It became overwhelming for a while.
“How to write about it? I didn’t want to exploit other people’s stories, or other people’s experience. I realized I had to write from my point of view, which is kind of an observer. Someone in the same space. I think one of the things that helped with that were formal choices, so I have a set of epigrams. I think epigrams work very well because they often have a bit of ironic detachment. They can have a bit of wit to them. I know, it sounds odd talking about wit when you’re talking about drownings and deaths, but it gave a slight ironic distance to have that sharp form. Epigrams have been used for people who have drowned in the Aegean for thousands of years, they’re in the Greek Anthology, so it also seemed to be a formally correct way of dealing with some of these things.
“I did struggle with how to write about some of this, I even wrote about that struggle in my poem Empathy, I’m saying I can write about this but I’m not experiencing this. I think as long as you foreground where you’re coming from, you can write about current events, and you’re not trying to speak for other people. That is where I would feel uncomfortable.”
Morehead: You have developed a wonderful ability to incorporate structure and rhymes without distracting from the poetry. Burned in Olives is one of many examples where the form is there, but never overwhelms the poem. The poet Carmine Di Biase, who appeared in the first episode this season, created a wonderful trio of sestinas based on Shakespearean characters – the sestina form was there but never overwhelmed. What advice do you have for poets looking to try new forms?
Stallings: “Reading a lot of contemporary work in form is a good way to start. I think you can get into trouble if you’re only reading, say, Victorian poetry that rhymes: you’re going to adopt some of those mannerisms which were fine for the time, but obviously not fine for our time. There’s a lot of exciting work being done in meter and in rhyme now in a contemporary idiom.
“If you enjoy writing poems, don’t be bullied into not writing them. Oftentimes rhyme gets a bad rap when it’s not done well. Part of that is absorbing the rules and learning how it’s done, by reading poems that do it successfully. When rhyme sounds jingly and jangly, and that’s all you’re noticing in the poem, that’s often to do with the syntax of the poem. If you have a poem that’s rhyming ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ and ‘mat’, which are all monosyllabic nouns, it means those monosyllabic nouns are ending up at the end of every end-stopped line. Instead, think about rhyming across parts of speech, ‘love’ and ‘above’ for instance, is a good rhyme. Then you’re going to have more interesting syntax going across the lines. If the rhymes are falling on different kinds of words that’s often a much more subtle effect. So that’s something that you can be conscious of.
“If you go and look at poets who are really good at rhyme, you’ll see this in operation. You can just look at the rhymes and say, wow, this person’s rhyming a monosyllable with a polysyllable, an abstract thing with a concrete thing, a proper name with a generic thing, an adverb with a noun; there’s variety that’s going against the sameness of the sound jingles.
Morehead: The majority of your poems are a single page, or less. In Lost and Found, however, you build a longer poem from 36 poems following an ottava rima form. Was this poem developed and added to over time, or tackled as one project? What was your thought process for knowing when this poem was “done”, what to edit out, what gaps to fill?
Stallings: “As you say, I’m mostly a one-and-a-half pager. Ironically I translate a lot of longer poetry and I think a lot about longer poems, and what makes them work or not work. I’d received a significant grant so I had time to think about writing a longer poem, which is going to be harder to place in a magazine. I was doing it more for my own sake and it’s modeled on various things. I was thinking about Byron, and thinking about lots of Underworld episodes in poems from Homer to Virgil to Ovid and thinking that this would be a fun thing to do, a kind of Underworld poem. I liked the idea of exploring an imaginary space and getting to use some of those tropes from the ancient poems.
“That ottava rima was hard. I think that the reason it was so hard is you’re often thinking about rhymes in pairs and to suddenly have to pull them out in threes, I would sometimes forget, I’d come up a line short. I realized I had completely forgotten a rhyme. It mostly came out over a period of time, in narrative order, just sort of adding, and there was a point when I realized I could add some detail here and add some internal stanzas, but it mostly flowed from start to finish.
“It was fun for me because I usually write short poems and was able to wake up with a project I could continue on instead of, I’ve written this sonnet and it’s a success, or I’ve written this sonnet and it’s a failure, and then I have to start over from scratch or work on revising; this idea that you could wake up and think, ‘Oh, I could go here with this poem or there with this poem.’ I think that’s the advantage of a longer poetic form.”
Morehead: I was listening to an interview with you from several years ago and you were asked how you know when a poem is finished and you answered, something like, I delete the last two lines. There have been times when I’ve done just that – when I’ve been struggling on how to end a poem and then realize the ending is right there if I edit out the last few lines. What are some of the strategies you employ during the revision and editing process?
Stallings: “I have a feeling that if you were to ask me these questions over time it would be different. For instance, now I think if you would ask me how I know a poem’s done, I kind of know when I can resist rewriting it and fiddling with it too much. If I can resist going in and changing a bunch of stuff then I feel it’s ready to be pushed out of the nest.
“It’s kind of easy to focus on the beginning of a poem, and then there’s an anxiety of endings. It’s like you’re on this runaway horse, how do you dismount? I think that often when poets are anxious about how to end the poem, they write towards a very poetic ending. I find that really big statements, “poeticy” endings, aren’t often very aesthetically successful. Often I feel that when you have a big gesture in mind that’s sometimes right when your subconscious has freed up, which is why so often, there’s a really good two or three lines before. I think that’s the point where you relax because you can see there’s a way to get out of this interesting conundrum that I’ve written myself into.”
To hear Stallings recite several poems spanning her books, listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.