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The Interview with A.E. Stallings  Page Two

by Vera Ignatowitsch

BTS: Which poets inspired you most, ancient or modern?


AES: It may be that it is individual poems more than poets. But among influences I am aware of (and I’m sure there are many I am not), A.E. Housman, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, Edna St Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot. My favorite poem is probably “The Odyssey.”


BTS: In “Olives,” you wrote, “These fruits are mine— /small bitter drupes /Full of the golden past and cured in brine.” How much of your work does this vivid image represent?


AES: I think it definitely represented many of the poems in that book, poems of grief or nostalgia. There are others that probably don’t fit that mold at all. I think the poems in the new book, Like, are more about the present, or the future.


BTS: In addition to Greek mythology, you seem drawn to all things Greek. Is this an attraction that predates your marriage?


AES: Ha! Yes, no doubt. One led to the other. (My Greek husband and I met in London, when I was the tea girl at the Institute of Classical Studies and he was doing a master’s degree in Plato’s Republic.)


BTS: In your view, what is poetry for?


AES: To have life, and to have it more abundantly. (This is the answer I sometimes give to myself. But other times I feel differently about it.) Other times perhaps it is about making dead limbs come together and miraculously breathe—to bring something to life, even if it is a monster.


BTS: Is it that poetry serves different purposes at different times?


AES: Reading poetry and writing it come out of slightly different needs, I think. Sometimes the need to write a poem is a need to make something live, to dig up the dismembered parts and hope for the flash of lightning that will make them twitch.


BTS: Which poems did you love first and best?


AES: I went through a phase in high school where I carried around poems by Edgar Allen Poe and Tennyson. I then “outgrew” that and for a while was obsessed by T.S. Eliot. In college, I also adored Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I went through a year after college where I did almost nothing but read everything by Robert Graves I could lay hands on. I think I then settled into Housman and Larkin. In terms of memorization, the most lines I have are probably Housman and Frost. Two favorite poems are “Terrence This is Stupid Stuff” and Marvell’s “Coy Mistress”—in fact, I find they have surprising things in common.


BTS: Which poems of yours are some of your favorites?


AES: That’s hard to say. I think I am fondest of atypical ones whose structure surprised me. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Plant Willow Trees” or “True Love: A Quiz” or “Alice in the Looking Glass” or “Whethering.” I have a fondness for the ambitious things, too, like the “Arcadia” poem or “Lost and Found.” I like the spooky ones, like the “Ghost Ship” or “Ultrasound.” Hmmmm. I like the ones that go over well in poetry readings!


BTS: What have I not asked that you would most like to tell about regarding poetry or your poetry?


AES: Well, something maybe I would add about poetry in form, particularly rhyme. Sometimes people think that one has composed the essence of the poem, and then goes and versifies or rhymes that. In fact, rhyme is a method of composition, a way of reaching out and listening in the cave of the unconscious.


BTS: Thank you, Alicia!

BTS: As a scholar of classics, do you view everything contemporary through a historical lens?


AES: Also—yes. (And I am married to a classicist who is also a journalist.) Living in Greece adds to that sense of seeing everything in strata, of the past and the present and the future existing simultaneously and in conversation with each other, of glimpsing the ruins of the Parthenon between 1970s concrete apartment blocks while an acanthus plant scrolls out of the ground in a nearby park, like a Corinthian column capital come to life.


BTS: Is poetry about Time (I love “Lost and Found”) one of the ways in which you deliberately weave the past and present together?


AES: I suppose that I am always weaving them together. Rhyme does that, connects a poem together at different points in time. Rhyme is a kind of wormhole. I am particularly interested in how the subjunctive future speaks into the poem. That uncanny conversation of the dead and the unborn.


BTS: Where have you most often found your muses?


AES: That perhaps changes. Sometimes on walks in Nature. Sometimes it is in the strange quiet after the storm of an argument. Insomnia and Jetlag have both been Muses, being awake when others are dreaming.


BTS: I love your sonnet, “Sine Qua Non,” written to your father. How did your parents and your childhood influence your poetry?


AES: Thank you! I was very close to my father, we were very alike in a lot of ways. He died in 2000. He was a professor at Georgia State University. My mother was a school librarian. I grew up around libraries and books. My father was supportive of my goal to be a writer and would go so far as to take me out of class in high school if a famous writer were speaking at, say, Agnes Scott or Emory or Georgia State. (In this way, I saw Mary Oliver, Eudora Welty, James Dickey, and Stephen Spender, among others.) My father also often passed “classic” books onto me without comment, and I read promiscuously. Somehow my mother’s being a librarian meant I understood that books were written by people, that being an author was a career path. My sister and I lived in a world of stories, often of our own making. My aunt, Dr. Frances Anderson, is an artist, and I think that was also an influence, that you could live in the arts. Growing up, too, in the Episcopal church meant that I could sometimes opt for a lecture on T.S. Eliot instead of the more usual Sunday school. And there was wonderful music in the lyrics of hymns and the old prayer-book.


BTS: How has being a mother influenced your writing?


AES: I used to joke—there is less of it! That is probably true. But it also is a way of staying in that place of wonder and language-acquisition. It has been fascinating to watch them grow up bilingual as well. There is very little prose in childhood, it seems to me. That’s something they learn as they grow up.


BTS: As an expat American, do you interact with more international poets writing in English than you would if still living in the US?


AES: Absolutely. I participate in international poetry festivals in Greece and the region, I translate some Greek poets, I attend Greek poetry readings occasionally, and then there are UK and other poets who come through Greece. So yes I think.


BTS: Do you still consider yourself an American poet? Or perhaps an international poet?


AES: I am definitely an American poet. I don’t think I could be anything else.


BTS: What, for you, is at the heart of a successful poetry translation?


AES: It should work as a poem on its own terms. It should have a sense of discovery.


photo credit Diane Arnson Svarlien

a young A.E. Stallings

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