When teaching formal forms to my poetry students, at some point I inevitably turn their attention to A.E. Stallings’ poems that never fail to delight, challenge, and surprise with their dexterity of craft and unexpected, revelatory results. “The ancients taught me how to sound modern” says Stallings, a feat so paradoxical, yet one she continues, unequivocally, to accomplish. The poet and scholar of mythological and classical studies draws us into the intimate and grandly epic, and with a taut, formalist hand and gifted musical ear, converges sound and meaning in lines that maintain a lustrous tension in addressing the everyday, the mythic, marriage, mothering, and the urgently political. Her re-examinations of iconic female figures from antiquity, coupled with often witty, complex explorations of domestic life are testament to her impressive imagination and facility with language—all earning her, to my mind, a rightful place in the feminist authorial pantheon.
Stallings lives in Athens, Greece, and has been a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, a winner of the Poets’ Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Benjamin H. Danks Award, and Richard Wilbur Award. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow, United States Artist Fellow, and MacArthur Fellow, and has translated Lucretius’s The Nature of Things and Hesiod’s Works and Days.
I jumped at the opportunity to spend time with her recently published collection, This Afterlife: Selected Poems that reflects her prolific career. At the start of 2023 I emailed her questions about life and work.
The Rumpus: In the past you’ve stated, “I like rhyme partly for the way it draws me through a poem, often towards something surprising,” and also that “form is not the enemy of urgency, but its instrument.” I could not agree more. And yet, while formal constraints amp up pressure on the confines of the page and in the poet’s mind, and that pressure can force language and imagery in marvelous, mysterious ways, it can, potentially, feel limiting. Any thoughts on that?
A.E. Stallings: I need limits. Limiting for me is a positive thing. Unlimited freedom for me would lead to creative paralysis. I don’t feel hemmed in by rhyme as a rule, maybe because I am just very practiced and adept in it. But if I have painted myself into a corner, or into too much tidiness or patness, with a rhyme scheme or with a particular pair (or trio) of rhymes, I am willing to toss them out and start afresh. (When having trouble with a rhyme, it is always important to look at the rhymes as a unit and both under consideration: Think of them as entangled particles, a kind of unit.) If any part of a poem is becoming a problem rather than an aid—number of lines (sonnet), syllable count, meter, rhyme—and I am still interested in what I am tackling, I’m willing to tear it down and start from scratch. Sometimes this happens over months or years. But the “scratch” will most of the time be a different recipe of constraints, perhaps with more free or random elements. That said, I do dabble in free verse and even the odd prose poem.
Rumpus: I’ve noticed that even when you don’t employ an elaborate, recognizable form such as the sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, ghazal etc., you often keep to a five-beat line. So, I wondered about that as a cadence you naturally lean into. Also, is there a form you love best? I know that may be an unfair question, and one that changes over time and may be dependent upon subject matter at hand.
Stallings: Yes, I suppose blank verse is also one of my default modes, and a loose iambic pentameter line. It is such a good unit for the breath, and for parsing out sentences of thought, and often has a feeling of “rightness” if it comes at the conclusion of a piece. I am really fond of shorter and hymn meters, which are more songlike, but they aren’t as good for pieces that are meant to sound like utterances instead of songs, and also tend to want to rhyme more. I find syllabics really exciting to work with, and when I can get a syllabic poem off the ground, I am always a little giddy about it. It’s a different way of thinking about rhythm—the contrast not between syntax and meter or how a word falls into a foot or across a foot, but how to fill up the syllable real estate—will this be (in a five-syllable line) five chunky monosyllables that stomp along, or one sweeping five-syllable word? And, so on.
Rumpus: In your earlier poems—in Archaic Smile, for instance, you conjure such striking “re-tellings” or “re-voicings” of female archetypes—Persephone, Medea, Penelope, Daphne, Eurydice—among others. In entering their personas, donning their skins, so to speak, the resulting narrative feels importantly feminist. In later works, the speaker’s current concerns and reality feel front and center with the ancient veils, and threads echoing through in less obvious, overt ways, as if the mythic personas and sensibilities subtly resonate up from underneath into the poet’s present after all those years of marinating in them.
Stallings: At a certain point a poet becomes one of their own influences to confront. One feels one cannot keep doing the same thing in the same way. But I still remain fascinated with these myths. I suppose my engagement with them now is more mitigated, and often also more inter-textual. Possibly the first method is more powerful, but I do find myself coming at the myths from different angles now. Perhaps living in Greece has been a factor, and being older, more of a mother than a daughter. (One thinks of Eavan Boland’s being able to enter the myth of Demeter/Persephone “anywhere.”) I do continue to write the odd persona poem, though, as for instance a couple of recent (still uncollected) poems from the vantage point of the fiftieth Danaid, and I’m always grateful for these convenient masks. (“Mask,” after all, is the meaning of “persona.”)
Rumpus: In relation to the above question, has your decades-long dwelling in Greece affected how the myth tropes enter or are entered into?
Stallings: Ah! I see I leaped ahead. Yes, living in Greece affects my reading of myth. You know people named Daphne, and Antigone, and Eurydice for one. And there is a different understanding of the layers of history and the diachronic life of places. I certainly read The Iliad and The Odyssey and the plays differently, with an awareness of geography, for instance, and how more current events overlay ancient and legendary ones, refugees, for instance, crossing the same stretch of water from the mainland to Lesbos that features in Achilles’ raids in The Iliad. And then there is living in Greek, a language I am both at home and at sea in.
Rumpus: Your poems that address the quotidian, the domestic, and what might seem, at first, to be trifling abstractions, have a way of expanding into unexpectedly grand and revelatory terrain. There are plenty of plays on words and turns of phrase to delight the reader’s mind, but this elevation of everyday matters concerning the raising of children, the maintenance of marriage, and embrace of the mundane is laudable and ultimately, feminist and humanitarian in my estimation. Nothing’s to be taken for granted. Thoughts?
Stallings: That’s very good to hear! The Greek poet Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke used to talk about poetry being for her, a state of mind, a sort of altered state of consciousness, one you are either in at the time or not. At any given moment everything is poetic or nothing is, and I somewhat buy into that. That is to say, there are times when even—or especially—everyday objects or events vibrate with meaning. Our lives may seem to be lived on the small scale of the everyday but, because we are mortal, because ultimately everything is at stake, also play out against something universal and important. Words themselves are part of that, and wordplay, even or again especially the humble pun, sometimes seem to me a kind of sympathetic magic. To me, Greek myths themselves are often domestic (so often about families, for instance, and romantic relationships), and for me intersect in the mytho-domestic sphere. But mostly I am pleased to hear that this embrace of the mundane strikes you as laudable, feminist, and humanitarian!
Rumpus: So much has transpired politically, economically, culturally across the globe, and certainly there in your part of the world and surrounding countries. The crisis in Syria; the displacement of whole populations of people. This becomes more evident in your later poems, specifically selections from Like. How have the events around you and here in the United States affected the direction of your work?
Stallings: From the moment we moved to Greece, we have been living in interesting times here. Being on the front line of several global crises has meant, I think, wanting to be more of a witness in my writing. I wanted the tear gas to be able to roll into the poems, and to address things that were of current concern in my life. I started thinking of some of the refugee populations entering Greece—from the Levant, from Afghanistan even—as belonging in some ways to Cavafy’s world, and historically connected to Greece since ancient times. A lot of what has happened in the US, especially since 2016, I have found distressing, but I am not sure much of that gets into the poems. I still lead a weekly poetry workshop, which started in 2015, with refugee women, from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. One perspective this has given me is the importance of poetry and the arts to our collective humanity, how it isn’t luxury but necessity. The cultures these women come from invariably prize poetry—and poets—higher than we do in Western Anglophone cultures. So, it is always inspiring, humbling, and grounding, to work with them.
Rumpus: As your children grow up and your life changes, do you see your concerns and modes as an artist shifting?
Stallings: My son is off at college now, and my daughter is a teenager, so, yes, I would say that affects my concerns. Childhood—my own and theirs—is a poetic source for me, a time when the world again vibrates with mysterious meaning, and when language acquisition strips even cliched expressions back to their original force. One thing, since 2017 when I suddenly understood better what we are facing, I worry about the world they will face with the climate catastrophe that we seem to be unwilling to address or even attempt to avoid. That frankly can make it hard to write at all, when your concern is about the end of the world as you know it, species vanishing etc. But I also think it is important for the poets to keep doing what they do, however futile it might seem. It is a way of preserving a sort of biodiversity—verbo-diversity—of experience and language. It is important to wonder at and appreciate what we have now.
Rumpus: Thank you for the tasty lagniappe (and uncollected translations!) included at the end of This Afterlife. I wonder how those didn’t show up in previous collections?
Stallings: We decided not to do a “new and selected,” but I did want people to have some things that weren’t available in the other books, to have some added value to this. There were always a handful of poems I rather regretted not including—just as one sometimes regrets including the odd poem!—and this was a chance to put them back into context. In some cases, they didn’t fit well with the themes of a book, or there were already too many sonnets or poems about Halloween or what have you. In a couple of cases an uncollected poem was super popular at readings (the Edna St. Vincent Millay one, for instance) and people kept asking where to find it. So, I thought it might be fun to give these poems another chance at an audience.
Rumpus: Might there be a favorite place in Greece you find particularly sublime or a little sacred? That inspires you? And if you could go there and relish a certain food you deem divine, what would that be?
Stallings: The ancients were very good at selecting real estate for temples. Greece is full of sublime, sacred spots. A favorite place not far from Athens is the temple to Artemis at Brauron. It was the place for Athenian girls to put away their childish things—a favorite doll, for instance—as they commenced womanhood. It also served as a sort of convent school for some well-born Athenian girls. The girls on the cusp of womanhood were known as “Little Bears.” The temple is nestled among some hills near a river and amidst wetlands. Perfect for a temple to Artemis, virgin goddess of the hunt and wild animals. I love the combination of ancient ruins and wildlife—belching frogs, and water snakes, sparrows nesting in gaps in the column capitals, and bright red dragonflies hovering over the ancient spring where women dropped gold jewelry to make their prayers and wishes to the goddess for all kinds of women’s complaints—miscarriages or infertility—or in thanks for successful childbirth. The place definitely has a mystical energy to it.
Author photo courtesy of author