As Baylor University’s Beall Poetry Festival begins on Wednesday of this week, Bohemia took some time to catch up with A.E. Stallings, one of the poets headlining the festival.
Stallings is an international import to this year’s festival, traversing far from her current abode of Athens, Greece. During her U.S. sojourn, Stallings will also read at her alma mater, the University of Georgia. “I have never been to this part of Texas before, so it’s rather exotic,” says Stallings, noting that Baylor approached her nearly a year ago about the opportunity.
Stallings is known as a master in weaving the classics into her poetry and translation, drawing from a huge repertoire of Greco-Roman mythology and Greek culture.
Her works often deploy traditional poetry forms in surprisingly modern ways. Take for instance, her villanelle, “After a Greek Proverb,” which borrows a translated Greek line as one of its refraining lines. “We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query—/ Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back. / Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.” While some poets have moved away from form favourites such as sonnets, Stallings revives them, proving their relevance and efficacy to illuminate the modern world (see “Fairy Tale Logic”).
Some have placed Stallings under the umbrella of the New Formalism movement, which advocates a return to traditional rhyme-and-meter forms in the poetry world. However, she hesitates to categorize herself there, noting that she has published in form-friendly and non-form-friendly journals. “I don’t know if I’m really part of it, or if it really exists,” she says. “In England, it doesn’t. When I was first publishing and writing poems, I didn’t know there was a movement. I was interested in rhyme and meter, but was unaware that there were others going in this tradition, as I didn’t do an MFA. There was a time when it was hard to publish a poem in rhyme, but never in meter. You can always slip one in… “
Originally from Athens, Ga., Stallings received her masters from the University of Oxford after studying at UGA. She moved to Greece in 1999 after her marriage to a Greek national whom she had met in London. They had intended to try the arrangement for just two years, but after 13 years, there she remains. Despite living across the ocean, Stallings remains deeply entrenched in the American poetry scene, with a large canon of published poems and translations. “I think in some ways that I was lucky,” she admits, “When I moved to Greece in 1999, it was much less complicated than it would have been in, say 1989. I have a good relationship with editors and can email them submissions. It’s very easy to still be involved in literary friendships; it’s the best of both worlds.”
In September of 2011, Stallings was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. The prestigious fellowship, endowed across many disciplines and not just literature, includes a stipend of $500,000 over five years. The somewhat mysterious fellowship has no application process, and has no strings attached. “There are no stipulations, they say that they want to support your future work, and recognize that it may not resemble your past work,” recounts Stallings. For her family, the fellowship had perfect timing. Due to the shaky Greek economy, Stallings and her family (now with two children) had been considering a move back to the States. The fellowship has taken the “pressure off,” she explains. “It’s given us a bit of a push, which is miraculous. It enables you not to have to worry about mundane things. It’s a huge confirmation, but also a bit of a shock and intimidating. I keep thinking, What if I publish something and they want to revoke it?” she laughs.
Stallings’ new book of original poems, titled Olives, is due out later this year. “It’s practically out, but it’s like the younger sister of a debutante; it’s not out yet,” she jokes. Attendees at Wednesday’s reading may hear some poems from the book, but the poet is will also focus on more current endeavors. “It seems part of the past,” she says. As a writer, she measures success by what she’s currently writing.
Aside from the classical poets, Stallings attributes her historic literary influences as A.E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop. She also looks to contemporary peers such as Don Patterson, Kay Ryan, and Richard Wilbur (Stallings’ 1999 book, Archaic Smile, won the Richard Wilbur Poetry Award).
As a translator, Stallings appreciates being able to inhibit other writers’ styles and to extend her own voice through the translation process. “Even if you’re not inspired, you can work. [Translation] enables you to try on other voices. In translation, I could be a white misogynist; I can try on other things. It’s not about not exercising your ego. It’s healthy for a poet, and very freeing.” Unlike in the United States, literary translation is very common in Greece. “Greece has an insecurity complex; they want to know what’s going on. In the States, you don’t have that many writers who can translate due to our lack of focus in education on foreign languages. It’s a great alternate universe for a poet.”
What advice does she have for budding young writers? “In the U.S., poetry has been very professionalized, a course of honors through which you must pass. But the thing is, there’s a lot of pressure to be new and edgy. The new, when looked at in hindsight, seems to be very similar and alike. Write what you like and what your ideal writer likes, not to impress a journal. If you like what you write, everything else will come. That, and don’t be boring!”
Even in a town like Waco, artistic success and community are achievable. “When I was a youth in Athens, Ga., in the 80′s, it had the aura of being the center of the universe. To be cool in Athens, Ga., was to be cool anywhere else. If you feel that life is here and not somewhere else, then that’s true.” Your story, it might seem, is but a rough draft.
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