ISSUE 19
February 2002

A.E. Stallings

 

A.E. Stallings is an American poet residing in Athens, Greece, with her husband, John Psaropoulos, editor of the Athens News. Her first collection, Archaic Smile (University of Evansville), won the 1999 Richard Wilbur Award. Her work has twice been included in the Best American Poetry Series (1994, 2000), and has received a Pushcart Prize. She has work recent or forthcoming in The Formalist, The Hudson Review, The Yale Review and Poetry. Her on-line appearances include Poetry Daily and Able Muse. Aside from working on her translation of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura for Penguin and readings scheduled in the U.S. this spring, she teaches an annual poetry workshop on the Greek Island of Spetses.

Introduction by Ginger Murchison

Alicia is visiting Atlanta from her current home in Athens, Greece. Although perfectly fresh and vibrant, she has a terrible sinus infection, so I brew some hot tea, which I hope will be soothing. Waiting for the tea, she surprises me with the gift of a hand-painted ornamental plate she's brought from Greece. I thank her, we take the tea things into the study, settle into a comfortable spot in front of the fireplace, and begin to chat about her impressive first book, Archaic Smile.

—Ginger Murchison


The Interview with A.E. Stallings


TCR: Alicia, this is just a stunning book.

AES: They did a very nice job.

TCR: I must say that when I pick up a book of formal poetry written by someone trained in the classics, I don't expect to find a lot of humor, but one of the things so special about this book is its freshness, and I don't limit that freshness to newness. There's another kind of freshness here, a cheekiness, and part of the surprise is in the perspectives you take. We're familiar with your subjects; many of them are Olympians––inaccessible, unapproachable––yet because of your perspective, it's almost as if we've caught a goddess hiking up her pantyhose. How did you come to that? And that was a very long question. I'm sorry.

AES: One thing about studying the classics is that you realize there is no one version of a myth. Bullfinch's Mythology tells us there is a myth, but that just isn't true. Homer may have one version, Ovid another version; Virgil still another version, and the classical authors clearly felt free to change the myths to suit their own purposes. They didn't consider them cast in stone or untouchable, so you get the impression you can be free, too, to do with the characters what you want to. Sometimes when I want to write something personal, I'll write through a persona; then it's neither personal nor mythical, and it sort of becomes a combination of the two things, and if I'm trying to write about the myth, I'll deliberately search for a wholly different point of view because the traditional one doesn't make for a very interesting poem.

TCR: It's that freshness, no doubt, for which this book got so much attention. It won the Richard Wilbur award, judged by Dana Gioia, but was short-listed for several others, right?

AES: Yes. [Laughing] It was short-listed many, many times: short-listed for the Yale Younger Poets Award three times and the Walt Whitman Award three times; and lots of other ones, too.

TCR: It must have been terribly exciting to get all that response to your first book.

AES: At first, yes, but then I just thought I was going to be a permanent finalist. [Laughing] Actually it's a real honor to be a finalist, but what I don't like about some of the contests—the Yale Younger and the Walt Whitman are both examples—is that they send you a "Congratulations-you-may-have-won" letter telling you you're a finalist, and you have to live with that for three months until the winner is announced. This is terrible for everyone. You are on tenter-hooks for all those months; then you lose. I'd much prefer to find out that I didn't win, but that I was a finalist. It was nerve-wracking, but it was definitely encouraging.

TCR: …and you've won the James Dickey award.

AES: For two poems, yes, that I published in Five Points.

TCR: …and the Pushcart Prize, and the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry Magazine.

AES: Yes, I feel pretty lucky.

TCR: I just want to turn you loose here to talk about your childhood, your family, your early schooling and whatever you think specifically might have prepared you to become a poet.

AES: I think it was an unusual childhood. My father, who was a professor at Georgia State, was both intellectual and outdoorsy; so he could discuss Proust or skinning deer, and we, my sister Jocelyn and I, grew up, not exactly tomboys, but I did know how to gut a fish when I was four. I think my parents had a theory that children should be treated as if they had no gender. We had a workbench for carpentry, and we played with dolls. Well, we were actually forbidden to play with Barbie dolls, but we weren't really interested in Barbie, anyway.

TCR: I have to interrupt already. In your poem "Ariadne and the Rest," you talk about what makes girls feminine. Nursery rhymes, you say, were concocted

To beguile the little girls indoors,
To keep them out of fights, discourage
Curiosity in swords, to keep them still
While nurses yanked out knots from tangled curls.

So I got the idea that maybe you had that kind of sculpted, sweetly protected childhood.

AES: No, no. My parents didn't actually believe in the gender thing, but I think maybe we were interested in it anyway, partly because we saw others being happy with that and partly because our parents didn't seem interested in it, but we were read to: all kinds of things. I always liked the fairy tales—the original, uncut versions, the ones with violent, horrible endings. I think the unexpurgated fairy tales are actually comforting to children. They are a lot more cathartic. I mean something happens to the bad people, and they get put away, so you feel safe when the story is over. I never remember having a nightmare because of a fairy tale, and I liked Hans Christian Anderson's tales. They often have sad endings. The Little Mermaid, for instance, has a very sad ending.

My mother was a school librarian, so there were always books around the house, and the shift into reading on my own was natural. Every week we took a laundry basket to the public library and filled it up, so there was a lot of reading….

I was aware, too, from a very early age that books were written by people and that one could be a writer, and I wanted to write books. My mother encouraged me, and since I expressed an interest, my dad would take me out of school to hear a speaker at Georgia State, Eudora Welty at Agnes Scott, Stephen Spender, all kinds of writers, so I was always aware of people who were writing.

I went to Briarcliff High School that closed shortly after I graduated, but I got a really good education there. It was on the verge of being shut down because the area had gotten older and there weren't many kids in the neighborhood, so we had a small student-teacher ratio, and people with Ph.D.'s were teaching at Briarcliff. We had an excellent English teacher, but a terrible football team. [Laughing]

Since a lot of Emory, Georgia Tech, and Georgia State professors lived in the area, quite a lot of the students were children of professors. For that reason, I guess, there was a significant group of unusual kids; we had our own in-group of geeks, I guess. [Laughing]

TCR: Had you found poetry by this time? Do you remember the first time you were fascinated by a poem?

AES: There are actually two or three of those moments. My parents, though big on reading, were not particularly interested in poetry, though my father, like a lot of people of that generation, grew up with Longfellow. It was maybe a generational thing, but he could quote long passages and would on occasion, but he didn't have an interest in keeping up with contemporary poetry. I remember at about 8 or 9 being really fascinated with William Blake's "Tiger, Tiger," partly because I was obsessed with tigers—one of my phases—and I wrote a poem in imitation. I don't remember the poem except that it was extremely close to the original.

And then when I was about 13 or so, I was at my grandparents'. It was one of those long Sunday afternoons, and we'd run out of things to read. I went through the books on the shelf and opened T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" to the section where a woman is brushing her hair, and Eliot mentions the baby-faced bats and the strings. I had no idea what it meant, but I thought it was really, really cool, and I remember being fascinated by T.S. Eliot after that, not from any kind of intellectual comprehension, but I thought the sounds were really neat.

So I was attracted initially by rhythms. "Tiger, Tiger" is in that strong trochaic tetrameter—most nursery rhymes are—that is very appealing to children. It was purely the music that drew me to T. S. Eliot. Later, I would try to do term papers and understand him. Even now, though, I think there is too much energy put into attempting to understand Eliot. He even talks about "The Wasteland" as being "rhythmical grumblings."

TCR: …and then college at the University of Georgia?

AES: Yes. I was an English and music major. I'd read in English, and I'd run into this Latin phrase and that classical allusion, and there'd be a footnote, and it occurred to me that I needed to, as it were, get me some Latin [Laughing], so I took a Latin class from a wonderful professor, Dr. Harris, a legend at the University of Georgia, and it was such a wonderful class that I changed my major. My father wanted me to take Latin in high school, which seemed to me a good reason to take Spanish—a teenage thing—so he was pretty amazed when I changed my major.

I'd always enjoyed the classical myths, maybe from my early love of fairy tales, but it became more and more clear to me that the English poets whom I admired had actually studied the classics and not English, which wasn't even a discipline then , so I guess that seemed to me a good path to follow.

TCR: Were you writing poetry by then? Had you attempted to publish anything?

AES: Actually, I was kind of lucky. I had published some poems in high school. While it was lucky for me at the time, I'm not sure it was good for me. I published some poems in Seventeen, some other magazines, even some literary magazines. I think the first poem I sent out got accepted, and I got a check and I thought, WOW! this is my big career, easier than babysitting, and obviously I was completely misled. [Laughing]

Later on, in college, I had the attitude...Oh, well, I've been published in all those magazines, I'll try these bigger, better ones, and of course, I got my reality check.

TCR: So, Dr. Harris led you to study Latin. Can you credit anyone in particular with leading you to write poetry?

AES: I had a very good—a very, very good—AP English teacher at Briarcliff, Mary Mecom, who recently passed away with cancer. We didn't study poetry writing; the class was about reading, but I think they're really flip sides of each other: reading is about writing and writing is about reading, so class with her was very helpful. It was a very intensive AP class with Perrine's Sound and Sense, which is a wonderful book. I guess we did a sonnet or something like that in class, and I published some poems in the high school literary journal. Mary Mecom definitely helped in terms of writing.

TCR: I'm sorry she can't hear you say this. Did she know before she died that you were writing, knocking down all these poetry awards?

AES: I didn't speak to her again personally, but I did write her several letters. When I first got into Best American Poetry, I sent her a copy.

TCR: …and after the University of Georgia?

AES: I lived in London for a year and worked at The Institute of Classical Studies as the canteen manager: I was "the tea girl." The director there encouraged me to apply to Oxford for graduate school. I stayed, then, for graduate school and studied Latin and Greek. I met my husband there.

TCR: Your husband is Greek…John Psaropoulos, who edits the Athens News.

AES: Yes, he'd gone to boarding school and university in England, and he was working on a masters in classics at The Institute for Classical studies where I was the tea girl. While I was at Oxford, he stayed in London; then we both moved to Atlanta; then we married and moved to Greece.

 

TCR: OK, here's where I have to ask you about "A Postcard from Greece," the incredibly stunning opening poem in Archaic Smile. Is it really autobiographical?

AES: Yes, although I take some poetic license and adjust a fact or two. My husband feels his driving is impugned in the poem [Laughing] , but we did hit an olive tree. Apparently, lots of lives have been saved by that particular tree—it has a huge dent in it—but I guess I should mention that John doesn't feel the event happened precisely that way.

TCR: Whether it did or not, it's perfectly clear that something pretty traumatic is going on in you.

AES: It was traumatic for John, too. Although he'd grown up in Greece and lived there at different times, he hadn't lived there for a long, long time. We'd both quit our jobs, sold pretty much everything we owned, left our friends and my family here, and took this huge cultural leap. It was a traumatic uprooting; very sudden.

TCR: What's a typical day in Greece like?

AES: John's days are much more typical than mine. He's very busy at the paper. I'm either taking Greek classes or I'm at the American School Library working on my translation, but in Greece, everything takes time—grocery shopping, paying bills—there's more bureaucracy, so it's really helpful that one of us is not working.

TCR: Some women poets say their husbands, though outwardly supportive, resent the isolation poetry requires. Does John resent, at all, the time you spend on your writing? You're both educated in the classics, so in some ways that might unite you, but in other ways, does your writing strain your relationship?

AES: Not really. He works twelve hours a day, and he's very supportive. He's my first reader.

TCR: Your husband is your first reader?

AES: I think that's a lot of pressure. I've been sitting home all day; he walks in and I say, "I have a poem." If he doesn't like it, we'll have a fight, then I'll change everything. [Laughing]

Very occasionally, I disagree. Well, I always disagree at first, you know, because, of course, it's brilliant work [Laughing], but he's right ninety-eight percent of the time. He knows my work very well, so he also knows when I'm at the top of my form. He has a very good natural ear, so if meter is a problem, he points that out, or if a rhyme is weak, he sees that.

TCR: Was writing in form, by the way, a conscious decision made somewhere along the course of your studying the classics?

AES: No. I started out writing in form; it comes naturally to me. I went through a phase where I was really interested in T.S. Eliot, and I was trying to write like that—really exploded form. Those poems sort of look like free verse, but they're heavily iambic with a lot of internal rhyme. Because I didn't think you could publish formal poems—I mean it wasn't a good time for formal poetry in the magazines—and I really did want to publish, I tried for a while to write free verse, and I went through this long, dry spell where I didn't publish anything. When I went back to submitting poems, oddly enough, it was the formal poems that were accepted, even by the mainstream journals, so I realized that's what I should be doing, and I gave up experimenting in free verse.

TCR: It's true. Form doesn't seem to inhibit you at all. You're one of the few people, I think, who can make a formal poem conversational.

AES: Obviously I work at the edges, revise a lot, but I don't sit there and scan lines. It pretty much comes. The rhythm is very natural to me. That's not a very interesting answer, I know, and I fought it for a long time, maybe because when something comes easily to you, you value it less or feel it should be more difficult, but I really did struggle writing dreadful free verse for a long time.

TCR: The fact that you feel more free than bound by form is an interesting one. I found an essay of yours on the Internet—I don't remember where—titled "Crooked Roads Without Improvement: Some Thoughts on Formal Verse." In it you say, "to rule out meter or rhyme as tools available to the poet is far more limiting than the playful, silk-ribbon bondage of the sonnet." Would you elaborate on that for TCR readers?

AES: The truth is that prose has access to all the rhetorical devices available to poetry—metaphor, anaphora, simile, you name it—except the line as a unit, and except for regular meter and rhyme. Those are some of the most powerful tools in the poet's kit. To arbitrarily say I'm never going to use those things seems as absurd to me as a painter deciding he will only paint in black and white. Why not use these great tools? What could be more fun than playing around with rhyme? And people love rhtyme. Rhyme and meter make things memorable. And that's a physical thing—they work differently upon the brain, I'm sure of it. Form opens up all kinds of possibilities. Rhyme often leads you to write things that surprise you. A meter may help you tap into a forgotten emotion. With form, certain decisions have already been, arbitrarily, made for you—a certain number of lines, a designated meter with a particular pattern of rhymes. That frees you up to think about other, more interesting choices in the poem.

TCR: In further defense of form in that essay, you say, "the way literature classes are taught, with developments in a chronology, imples that there is some sort of progress in literature, but this is an illusion. There is change, yes. Progress, no." I like your argument here. Would you reiterate it for TCR?

AES: Of course there is change, even innovation. But poetry does not evolve towards something better. It goes in cycles. Golden ages are followed by silver ages, not the other way around. There is nothing in Western literature greater than Homer, and he marks the very dawn of our literature. To be honest, I also find this freeing. I am not concerned with the pressure to be original, which, more often than not, leads to novelty rather than innovation. And nothing gets old faster than novelty.

TCR: I know you're a friend—at least an acquaintance—of Turner Cassity's. Turner calls you a "born technician." He argues, by the way, that that's not an oxymoron. Do you feel like "a born technician"?

AES: I do enjoy playing with the technical aspect of poetry, and inasmuch as I feel very much at home with form and meter, I guess I could be because a lot of it is not all that conscious. It's there, but most of the time I don't see it until later.

TCR: When you are writing in form, are you religious about it, or do you break the rules? [Laughing] I think I know the answer to this already.

AES: There are formalists, actually, who object to a lot of the book, who feel that I take too many liberties with metrical substitutions; I have some heterometic poems where lines are longer or shorter than how they start out. I've got a poem in there that looks like a villanelle but isn't a villanelle. Form is just a tool, another way to get where you're going, and you should be able to use it any way you want to. Maybe I should feel more reverent about it, but poets in the past pretty much used form however they wanted to. Shelley's "Ozymandias" is a sonnet with a nonce rhyme scheme, so I feel pretty free to do whatever I want.

TCR: Do you decide on the form before you start to write, as in, "OK. I'm going to write a sestina"?

AES: No, I don't get very far with a poem until I've got a first line, and I don't find out what it's going to be until I get the first line.

TCR: You have to have the first line? [Laughing] Those just pop out in the dark?

AES: [Laughing] Pretty much. I might have an idea for a poem, but unless I've got a first line, I can't get into it. The first couple of lines suggest the form. If I sit down and say I'm going to write a sonnet, that's usually purely an exercise when I'm having a hard time writing anything, and that usually doesn't result in much, so it's usually the first couple of lines in a poem that suggests something. For instance, if there's an immediate repetition in the first couple of lines, I think: maybe this is headed toward a villanelle. If it's going to be a fairly short poem in iambic pentameter, then I start thinking: maybe it's a sonnet. Most of my sonnets are either 12 or 16-line poems that I decided were actually pretty sonnet-like, and I just reinforced that form by taking out lines or seeing where I could fill it out. The first line really tells me a lot about the poem. If it's about a character, that character's whole voice will be in the first line. I don't think any of my poems ever got written and then the first line added. The poem dictates.

The nice thing about form and especially about rhyme, however, is that rhyme schemes often tap into the subconscious because a word will suggest itself, in fact a whole line will suggest itself in a rhyme scheme that you would not have thought of, and you wouldn't have expected that's where the poem was headed. The word or line was suggested because it rhymes, yes, but looking for that rhyme, you tapped into a different level of your thoughts, and when that happens, you write something quite surprising.

TCR: That shows up, I think, because the formalism is in striking contrast with the ordinariness of your characters. Is that a contrast or counter-weight you go after deliberately, or does that just happen because you know the myth doesn't have to be strictly adhered to?

AES: I think you'd achieve a certain amount of sterility if you were working in traditional forms and writing about high-falutin subjects in elevated language. You'd just be regurgitating Victorian literature, and you wouldn't be getting at anything new. I guess I do enjoy contrasts. I enjoy throwing a very colloquial word into a sonnet. [Laughing]

TCR: Who's your favorite poet, then, who writes in form?

AES: Among the living poets, my favorites are Richard Wilbur and Seamus Heaney, but my favorite poet is probably A.E. Housman, and I love Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, all the Georgian poets, basically. I feel descended more from them, I guess, than the modern poets.

TCR: And what non-traditional contemporary poets do you read, or do you even feel comfortable in a poem that doesn't have a traditional structure?

AES: Yes, I do. Like I said, I had an early love affair with T. S. Eliot. I read a lot of poetry, and I like the modernist poets a lot, but I guess I would say this: strictly free verse poetry requires a lot of tension and skill to carry off. I like the poets who tread a thin line between form and free verse or who early-on were formal poets and then went to free verse because I think they are the ones best able to maintain that discipline and tension. So I like of lot of James Dickey's early work. I like a lot of Roethke. This is what I like about Seamus Heaney, for instance. He does a lot of formal poetry, and he does a lot of free verse, but his free verse maintains that tension, that discipline. I like to feel that tension. I think free verse is sometimes chopped-up prose.

TCR: Another question or two about Archaic Smile, then I'm going to ask you to read from it. I'm curious how you came about the title and the cover. The cover, by the way, is exquisite.

AES: John picked out the photograph. I probably would have picked out a photograph with more of an archaic smile on it, but I think it's a beautiful kore—the kore are ancient statues of women, usually Persephone, and most of them have significant damage to the face, but this is a very nice one, and you can still see some of the paint. Of course, ancient sculptures were a lot more garish than we think they were. As for the title, the book had gone through all kinds of titles, and nobody liked any of them. This one just came to me one day, and everyone was happy after that.

TCR: It's clear you've taken a hard look at these mythical figures and become completely comfortable with them, and it's that intimacy that creates the fun, the archaic smile. It's understandable you could get familiar with Persephone, perhaps, but the demons? You say they're "more beautiful than the angels" because "they had no qualms about plastic surgery," and "their complexions were so pale/ The blonde looked natural, only more so." How did you get permission to take such liberties with demons?

AES: I think I find the pagan concept of the underworld and afterlife almost more believable—more human—than the Christian heaven and hell thing, which seems like an immense abstraction very difficult to picture, but the pagan underworld is really under the world; it's a physical place with physical rivers and geography. Maybe it's a combination of having visited Mammoth Cave as a small child and having read those fairy tales like The Little Mermaid. Remember, she goes down to the sea witch's house. Certainly there are wonderful descriptions in Virgil, in book 6 of the Aeneid, for instance, where the underworld is really very realistic, and when Aeneas, who is a living person, crosses into the underworld, he has to take the little boat, the ferry, across the River Styx, and, of course, they're all ghosts getting carried on this leaky boat, but Aeneas is a living person, so when he steps in, the whole boat sinks over in his direction, and water comes up through the planks. It's these wonderful early descriptions that seem so very real to me and make Hades a real place.

TCR: This would be a good place for me to ask you to read "Persephone Writes a Letter to her Mother." Would you mind?

AES: Of course not.


Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother   


First—hell is not so far underground—
My hair gets tangled in the roots of trees
& I can just make out the crunch of footsteps,
The pop of acorns falling, or the chime
Of a shovel squaring a fresh grave or turning
Up the tulip bulbs for separation.
Day & night, creatures with no legs
Or too many, journey to hell and back.
Alas, the burrowing animals have dim eyesight.
They are useless for news of the upper world.
They say the light is "loud" (their figures of speech
All come from sound; their hearing is acute).

The dead are just as dull as you would imagine.
They evolve like the burrowing animals—losing their sight.
They may roam abroad sometimes—but just at night—
They can only tell me if there was a moon.
Again and again, moth-like, they are duped
By any beckoning flame—lamps and candles.
They come back startled & singed, sucking their fingers,
Happy the dirt is cool and dense and blind.
They are silly & grateful and don't remember anything.
I have tried to tell them stories, but they cannot attend.
They pester you like children for the wrong details—
How long were his fingernails? Did she wear shoes?
How much did they eat for breakfast? What is snow?
And then they pay no attention to the answers.

My husband, bored with their babbling, neither listens nor speaks.
But here there is no fodder for small talk.
The weather is always the same. Nothing happens.
(Though at times I feel the trees, rocking in place
Like grief, clenching the dirt with tortuous toes.)
There is nothing to eat here but raw beets & turnips.
There is nothing to drink but mud-filtered rain.
Of course, no one goes hungry or toils, however many—
(The dead breed like the bulbs of daffodils—
Without sex or seed—all underground—
Yet no race has such increase. Worse than insects!)

I miss you and think about you often.
Please send flowers. I am forgetting them.
If I yank them down by the roots, they lose their petals
And smell of compost. Though I try to describe
Their color and fragrance, no one here believes me.
They think they are the same thing as mushrooms.
Yet no dog is so loyal as the dead,
Who have no wives or children and no lives,
No motives, secret or bare, to disobey.
Plus, my husband is a kind, kind master;
He asks nothing of us, nothing, nothing at all—
Thus fall changes to winter, winter to fall,
While we learn idleness, a difficult lesson.

He does not understand why I write letters.
He says that you will never get them. True—
Mulched-leaf paper sticks together, then rots;
No ink but blood, and it turns brown like the leaves.
He found my stash of letters, for I had hid it,
Thinking he'd be angry. But he never angers.
He took my hands in his hands, my shredded fingers
Which I have sliced for ink, thin paper cuts.
My effort is futile, he says, and doesn't forbid it.


TCR: There's a good bit of death in your poems, but no morbidity. You call death the "deportation officer," describe it as "clarity of mind," and in the poem, "Elegy for a Loggerhead Turtle," you say the turtle is "a broken time machine," a "shipwreck…washed up on Death, that long, dry land." Later, in "A Lament for the Dead Pets of Our Childhood," death is a "cold thing in the image of a warm thing,/ Limp as sleep without the twitch of dreams." Death and the underworld seem more euphemistic, then, than morbid, more about change than loss, with a definite fairy tale aspect—that's a warm-hearted way of looking at it.

Which poem in Archaic Smile do you enjoy reading most?

AES: I really enjoy reading the Willow Tree poem because it's very accessible and people seem to enjoy it.

TCR: I've heard you read that, and you're right. The audience loved it. Would you mind?

AES: Not at all.


The Man Who Wouldn't Plant Willow Trees   


Willows are messy trees. Hair in their eyes,
They weep like women after too much wine
And not enough love. They litter a lawn with leaves
Like the butts of regrets smoked down to the filter.

They are always out of kilter. Thirsty as drunks,
They’ll sink into a sewer with their roots.
They have no pride. There's never enough sorrow.
A breeze threatens and they shake with sobs.

Willows are slobs, and must be cleaned up after.
They'll bust up pipes just looking for a drink.
Their fingers tremble, but make wicked switches.
They claim they are sorry, but they whisper it.


TCR: That freshness comes to your poems in so many ways, and here it's apparent in the repetition of sounds. You play on our sentimentality with "they shake with sobs," then follow immediately with the starkly unsentimental, "Willows are slobs," laughing at us, almost, for falling for it. It would be impossible to miss the fairy tale quality in that poem. It's clear that you are not a morose person.

AES: [Laughing]

TCR: One of my favorites is "Cardinal Numbers." I can almost visualize children skipping rope to this, and I'd love our readers to hear it in your voice. OK?

AES: Certainly.


Cardinal Numbers   


Mrs. Cardinal is dead;
All that remains—a beak of red,
And, fanned across the pavement slab,
Feathers, drab.

Remember how we saw her mate
In the magnolia tree of late,
Glowing, in the faded hour,
A scarlet flower,

And knew, from his nagging sound,
His wife foraged on the ground,
As camouflaged, as he (to us)
Conspicuous?

One of us remarked, with laughter,
It was her safety he looked after,
On the watch, from where he sat,
For dog or cat

(For being lately married we
Thought we had the monopoly,
Nor guessed a bird so glorious
Uxorious).

Of course, the reason that birds flocked
To us: we kept the feeder stocked.
And there are cats (why mince words)
Where there are birds.

A 'possum came when dusk was grey,
And so tidied the corpse away,
While Mr. Cardinal at dawn
Carried on,

As if to say, he doesn't blame us,
Our hospitality is famous,
If other birds still want to visit,
Whose fault is it?


TCR: How can any reader not revel in a rhyme like "glorious/uxorious." The poem has its dark side, but it's still fun.

AES: A huge number of fairy tales and nursery rhymes have dark sides, and we do a disservice to Disneyfy everything for kids. Children are aware that bad things happen, that people die and animals die, and when that's incorporated into something like a story or a poem, where it's put into some sort of order, where it's controlled, it becomes less threatening, and they know they're dealing with the truth, that we're not hiding things. But when death isn't mentioned at all, when the monster is only a monster because he is lonely and wants to make friends, we offer a false sense of security. In fact, it doesn't tangle with any of their real concerns; it's a completely false world. I think it's nice to bring the real world into something controlled like a story and a poem. Giving up something, a character, an animal in a story or poem, is practice for giving up something closer later.

TCR: So what is next for AE Stallings?

AES: My main project right now is a translation of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura [On the Nature of things] for Penguin Press. It's about the atomic theory. That makes it sound dull, but it's really a wonderful poem, and I'm translating it into verse. I'm about halfway through.

TCR: Why did you choose a translation? Won't a translation quiet that imp in you?

AES: I think it does actually. Translation is a different process, but you are using the same skills and creativity, not with your own words, your own ideas; it's just a very different kind of process. I have been writing, at the same time, of course, my own poems, but the translation is taking up most of my energy right now. On the other hand, since I'm in Greece and don't have a job right now, it gives structure to the day. I'd probably be writing more poems if I weren't doing the translation, but it will obviously enrich me in other ways.

TCR: Are you letting some of your light spirit get into that work?

AES: Yes, I think so, because the original is in unrhymed dactyllic hexameter, and I'm doing it in rhyming fourteeners, which is a very rambunctious meter, and I'm having a lot of fun with the rhymes, so some of me gets through, too. It has its own light touches, and it's a poem I'm sort of well suited to in several ways. Even though in theory it's this sort of dry text explaining atoms and Epicurean philosophy, Lucretius explains things in wonderful vignettes. There's a wonderful passage where Lucretius is talking about the evils of religion, but it's about a cow whose calf has been taken for sacrifice, and the cow wanders over the meadow and back to her stable, mooing for her lost child, mooing that no other calf can replace it. It's beautiful and at the same time whimsical because there's so much personification lavished onto a cow. It's full of interesting touches like that with a lot of whimsical aspects, even very funny ones.

TCR: Did you choose that project and take it to Penguin or did they offer it to you?

AES: It was strange. I had translated the first book—it's an epic poem in six books—as a lark. My former tutor at Oxford knew about it, and someone from Penguin approached him, saying they were looking for translators, and he mentioned I was working on Lucretius. I really didn't think it would fly. I mean I didn't think Penguin would want a rhyming Lucretius, but they thought it was fun, so we'll see.

TCR: So, will we see another collection like Archaic Smile after you finish De Rerum Natura?

AES: I actually have quite a few new poems, but I'm not planning to have another book out for four or five years. I was very happy with this book because while I was waiting to publish it, I kept taking poems out and putting poems in. That was really good for me and good for the book, and although I'll probably have enough poems for a book in a year, I'm not in any rush about publishing another one.

TCR: Before we finish, I'm going to look up one of my favorites, "The Dogdom of the Dead," and see what first line just popped out in the dark…. "There is no dog so loyal as the dead." That line just popped out in the dark?

AES: Well, that one is interesting. [Laughing] That line actually occurs in the Persephone poem (slightly differently), but I liked the line, so I decided to write a separate poem with it.

TCR: [Laughing] At least you're smart enough to steal from a really fine poet! You are going back to Greece in a few days. You've been gone two years now. What shocks you most when you come back?

AES: The sheer glut of products in the grocery store that people do not need. The consumerism is almost obscene… and being able to buy strawberries only in season has its advantages; it means that they are a surprise every year.

TCR: And what will you take back with you?

AES: I'm not sure yet. Grits!

TCR: GRITS!?!

AES: Yes, grits, and hot sauce. Maybe maple syrup. We can't get black beans there, either.

TCR: [Laughing] Alicia, you are as much fun to talk to as you are to read, and The Cortland Review is happy you've become part of its family. Best of luck with your translation of Lucretius, and feel better.


Ginger Murchison traded her teaching career for time to write and enjoy poetry in 1997. She is published in several small press magazines and anthologies, including Touched by Adoption (Green River Press, 1999) and, most recently, Intimate Kisses (New World Library, 2001). She divides her time between Atlanta, Georgia and Sanibel Island, Florida. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of The Cortland Review.

 

 

A.E. Stallings: Interview
Copyright © 2002 The Cortland Review Issue 19The Cortland Review