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
The Interview with A.E.
TCR: Alicia, this is just a stunning
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
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 conteststhe Yale Younger and the
Walt Whitman are both examplesis 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
won the James Dickey award.
AES: For two poems, yes, that I published
in Five Points.
Pushcart Prize, and the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry
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.
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
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.
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
talesthe 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.
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
tigersone of my phasesand 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
tetrametermost nursery rhymes arethat 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
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 Spanisha
teenage thingso he was pretty amazed when I changed my
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
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 gooda very, very
goodAP 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.
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
John Psaropoulos, who edits the Athens News.
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
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 treeit has a huge dent in
itbut 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
timegrocery shopping, paying billsthere's more
bureaucracy, so it's really helpful that one of us is not
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 thatreally 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 poemsI mean it wasn't a good time for formal
poetry in the magazinesand 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
TCR: The fact that you
feel more free than bound by form is an interesting one. I found
an essay of yours on the InternetI don't remember
wheretitled "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 poetrymetaphor, anaphora, simile, you name itexcept
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 thingthey 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 youa 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
friendat least an acquaintanceof 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
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
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
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
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
korethe 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 believablemore
humanthan 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
Firsthell 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 animalslosing their sight.
They may roam abroad sometimesbut just at night
They can only tell me if there was a moon.
Again and again, moth-like, they are duped
By any beckoning flamelamps 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
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 seedall 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 aspectthat's a warm-hearted way of looking at
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
TCR: I've heard you
read that, and you're right. The audience loved it. Would you
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,
Theyll 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.
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?
Mrs. Cardinal is dead;
All that remainsa beak of red,
And, fanned across the pavement slab,
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)
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
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
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
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 bookit's an epic poem in six booksas 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
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
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
. "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?
The sheer glut of products in the grocery store that
people do not need. The consumerism is almost
and being able to buy strawberries only in
season has its advantages; it means that they are a surprise
TCR: And what will you
take back with you?
AES: I'm not sure yet. 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.