A. E. Stallings
Interviewed by Nicholas Pierce
This interview was conducted, in person, on November 6, 2016 at the Florida Writers Festival in Gainesville, Florida, at which A. E. Stallings was one of the guests.
You mentioned during your craft talk yesterday that your work has become increasing political over the last few years, as the refugee crisis in Greece has escalated. Have you noticed any other changes—for instance, have your formal considerations evolved to accommodate your expanding interests?
I would clarify. It’s not that I’m not writing non-political things; it’s just that I’m also writing political things, whether that means my work is getting more political or I’m just adding that in…I think that political things have their own kind of constraints. And it really started more with the debt crisis. I started writing about that because I had some work commissioned. There was an anthology called A Modern Don Juan. A bunch of writers were asked to do a canto of Don Juan, to update it. And since Byron is often quite political and about the times, it seemed a good opportunity to talk about what was happening in Greece, in this kind of light, Byronic rhymed verse, because it had the pedigree, the DNA. Likewise, with the refugee drownings, which were so—it’s obviously still happening, but for a while it was really horrific. You’d wake up and find that thirty people, mostly children, had drowned off a Greek island. That’s a schoolroom of children. And then we know people. I mean, we have a friend on Icaria who’s a poet and doctor, and he was performing autopsies on drowned refugees. So it felt fairly immediate even though I wasn’t personally on the beach. And in that case, the epigram seemed the way to go. Epigrams had a bit of distance. They had a sharpness to them, because, you know, it would be easy to wallow in a—this is very sad. You need an ironic distance to handle the material.
One of the poems in the new issue of Subtropics is a translation and another is an adaptation of Cavafy. Do you find that current events in Greece are easier to address by going into the past?
Yes, I think so. And again, it’s achieving a little bit of distance. I think you have to, especially if you’re writing about current events. Normally, we would let time do some of that work, but if you don’t have time doing that work, then you have to find another strategy. And in the case of things happening in Greece, you have poets like George Seferis who talk a lot about refugees and exile. I mean, refugees and exile is basically a Mediterranean theme from the beginning. You have these illusions and you have these other layers that you can put on it, because just writing some rhymed verses of outrage is not necessarily literature. And I’m not even saying all of my political things are literature. I’ve done some debt crises haiku that are just, you know, humor. Gallows humor, maybe…It was increasingly striking me that I was walking around in a Cavafy poem. You’re talking to these people from Damascus and Alexandria, and they’re stuck in these sad circumstances.
Can you expand on that a little more, because you said that yesterday. What do you mean by “walking around in a Cavafy poem”?
Well, so many Cavafy poems…There are many different kinds of Cavafy poems, obviously, but so many of them take place in the Levant and have to do with people stuck, or with failures, or else with characters under the shadow of historical events, but it’s always a minor character. Or if it is a major character, it’s not someone who’s big in our history. In a way, it’s byzantine. There’s always something kind of slightly out of the way…And then the famous The City (“I want to go to another land, I want to go to another sea”), and then to have some kid out of Damascus just look at you and say, “I want to go to another land.” I mean, the Cavafy is actually “I’ll go to another land,” but the kid even used the word “land,” which is our traditional way of translating that Cavafy line. This was in English, but there’s often this strange—and I think that’s partly how we experience things as poets: we experience them through the filter of the poems we know.
To go back to form, do you feel like there are particular formal techniques that you can or can’t use, or that are more fitting for these topics? For instance, some of your recent poems haven’t used as much rhyme.
I don’t know. I would like to have more poems that don’t rhyme, but rhyme for me is a method of composition, so a lot of poems do rhyme. I do a lot of very distant rhyming. I don’t mean off-rhyming; they’re perfect rhymes, but they’re separated by thirty lines, so I’m still using rhyme as a method of composition, but you can’t necessarily hear it. Mostly, you just experiment and see what’s working. I did a sort of blues poem about the drownings last summer, when there were so many people drowning and so many coming in. We were going to the seaside, and my children were playing in the water, and it’s the same water. So maybe it’s more a matter of perception, how you perceive the world, and if you’re a poet, you perceive it through the poems that you know. But when they particularly start speaking each to each, it is striking. And that maybe gives you an entrance, because then you can be part of the conversation.
Is there any overlap between your interest in form and myth? They seem to me both vessels for experience. Your poem Champagne, which relates song to the effervescent wine, says that the vessel feels heaviest when empty. Does that claim speak to your feelings about using myth in poetry?
Well, it’s partly that champagne bottles have that reinforced bottom, and it’s that unfortunate moment where you pick it up and think there’s champagne in it. And there’s not…All classical poems are in some form of rhyme or meter, and the myth coming out of that—I don’t know. I guess they’re both ways of handling material and giving yourself something to work against. That’s my problem with free verse. It’s not that I have a problem with free verse. Free verse has a problem with me. I can’t get any traction, so I have to have something that I’m working within, but that is also a kind of working against. I’m sort of finding my handholds and footholds, but for me free verse is a sheer wall. I need angles, nooks and crannies, and then I can get finger-holds and so forth.
Do you often determine the form of a poem before you write it, or is it found in the first line or first few lines?
What usually happens—it’s a little bit like what Christian Wiman [another particant in the festival] was saying. There’s a sound which might be in the first couple lines, and you start reinforcing it. Now, I won’t say that I’ll never start a poem with a form in mind. I might say, “I’ve never written a ghazal, I guess I should try it.” That rarely results in anything more than an exercise. So what usually happens is I’m writing something and then I see, oh, it’s starting to look fourteen line-ish. In fact, often a poem has been in another form before it arrives in its form. I guess I’m trying to deal with the material, and I’ve done it the wrong way, and the poem has failed. And if the poem has completely failed and I’m still interested in the material, I may just try recasting it in another kind of formal medium and see if that gives it more energy.
Your poem “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia” borrows its rhyme scheme from The City. I’m curious if that’s an instance when you had a form in mind before writing?
That one started as an experiment. “To leave the city always takes a quarrel,” and I think, okay, I have to try to do this. So it is and isn’t after The City, which is different metrically and is only the two octaves. What’s really cool about the rhyme scheme of The City (ABBCCDDA) is that it comes back to the beginning. You don’t really realize what the rhyme scheme is until four or five lines in, and then there’s this movement—because couplets are usually progress or movement—and then there’s this total circling back, which is perfect for what the poem is saying, which is that you’re not going anywhere. It’s very important in translations of Cavafy—I think a lot of people get a sense of him as a free-verse poet, and he translates well even in free verse, though a lot of the poems are actually rather intricate.
I remember reading something in which you praised James Merrill’s translations of Cavafy.
I think he has three poems, and they’re some of the finest Cavafy translations. Cavafy is one of those poets—and not all great poets are like this—who survive even a botched translation, because there’s something in what he’s saying. The prose of the poem is very important in its own right.
Between “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia” and this new adaptation, it seems like Cavafy’s The City holds a particular importance for you.
Well, I’m an expat. It’s one of the great poems, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about it. It is a strangely particular and universal poem at the same time. For instance, the Greeks, if you’re talking about The City, that’s Constantinople—that’s the city. But I think it’s just one of the great poems about how wherever you spend time, the time is spent. And I’m particularly fond of poems that end in negation, and Cavafy is the king of that.
Why is that?
I’m fond of negation, particularly poems that end in it, because it’s something only words can do. You have your cake and eat it too, or eat your cake and have it too. If I say in language this didn’t happen, I’ve also said that it happened, and I’m having both of those things. “No” is also our first assertion of free will and individuality. That’s why it’s a toddler’s favorite word. I think negation is particularly powerful in poetry: it’s full of possibilities.
Both “On Demetrius Soter” and your adaptation of “The City” are about Syrians held captive in foreign countries. Do the two poems overlap in any other ways?
They’re both about displacement or desire to be elsewhere. The refugees are stuck. They’re neither home, nor are they resettled. There’s so much waiting, and that’s a very Cavafian emotion.
When you set out to write The City, did you know that you were writing an adaptation from the get-go?
Oh yes, this was tossed up very quickly. It was basically, like, what happens if I plug Individual A, if I plug Muhammed, into The City? Does that work? Does that not work? Ange [Mlinko, poetry editor of Subtropics] said it worked. That was the confirmation. So it’s all Ange’s fault.
The individual in this poem, it sounds like you actually met him and had a conversation with him?
Yes, he has a whole story online, although I don’t know if he wants a poem about him.
Have you kept in touch with him?
I’m in touch with him now, but people go off the grid. He’s—how old are you?
He’s twenty-six and doing a degree in English literature. He’s just like you, only he’s a refugee—and has, you know, been captured by ISIS. But otherwise, exactly the same.
I’m curious about your move to Greece. Was it an attempt to physically inhabit a tradition in poetry, similar to Lynette Roberts with Wales? Put another way, did you envision a trajectory for your career before you moved to Greece, or has a trajectory revealed itself since?
Different things converge. I studied classics, I went to London, I met my future husband. Actually, my husband and I have been together since we were twenty-one, so our entire adult lives. We dated for a long time, and we came back to the States, and at some point John wanted to move back to Greece. I said I’d go for two years, and that was about fifteen years ago. So in some ways it’s just life. Now, the other way you can look at is: I studied classics, I met a Greek boy. I think there was always a subconscious interest in these things, or a conscious one, but the decisions—it’s like working in form. You make random choices, but you’re constantly shoring up. The rational is firming up the unconscious.
How do you feel about Greek politicians quoting poetry to further their cause, if that’s what they’re using it for? And what is it like living in a place where poetry plays a prominent role in politics?
You get that a little bit in the States. There are always X number of commercials that use a snippet of Robert Frost, but I guess we use poetry for commercial purposes, and Greece uses it for political ones, and that says something about our relationship to things that are important to us.
Were you thinking of a particular person when you wrote “Gentleman Crow”?
I was thinking of a crow. Greece has these hooded crows who are very elegant. They stroll about the beach, which suggests a certain kind of person. I don’t know. Maybe it’s John Crowe Ransom.
What are three books that every poet should read?
Oh, dear. I was going to say the OED, but one doesn’t read the OED. If I can change the question in a political fashion, it’s very important for poets to read good prose. That almost may be more important than reading a bunch of poetry. When I’m in a position of workshopping people, there’s often a lot of excellent stuff in the poems but not good sentences. I think it’s really good for poets to read Jane Austen and other excellent prose stylists. The problem is, every poet who’s going to be a serious poet needs to pick their own three books. My three books would be exactly the three books you shouldn’t read. What does Housman say his three influences were? OK, you always take that with a grain of salt, but his three influences were the songs of Shakespeare—the songs, mind you—the King James Bible, and the poems of Heine. That’s a very narrow band of influence, and it produces a certain kind of aesthetic. Of course, he’s influenced by other things, but he’s aware of those influences. Emily Dickinson’s influences are quite narrow if you look at what she’s reading, so I really feel like my choices would be what to avoid. But I think it’s really important for a young poet to read someone at least one generation removed, and to read someone who’s patently unfashionable, because whatever the fashion is, that is going to be in a certain sense dated. And to read what you like, and to read what nourishes you, and to read what irritates you. You should always like at least one poet you would be kind of embarrassed to discuss in a—there should be one poet you wouldn’t want to bring out in a job interview at AWP.
A. E. Stallings’s poems The City, Gentleman Crow, and Champagne, appear in Subtropics 22.