“Rhyme doesn’t bite. Ignore anyone who tells you rhyme (or meter or sonnets etc.) is against the rules.”
A.E. Stallings is an American poet who studied Classics at the University of Georgia and Oxford. She has published three collections of poetry, Archaic Smile, Hapax, and Olives, and a verse translation (in rhyming fourteeners!) of Lucretius, The Nature of Things. She has received a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from United States Artists, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She speaks and lectures widely on a variety of topics, and has been a regular faculty member at the West Chester Poetry Conference and the Sewanee Summer Writers’ Conference. Having studied in Athens, Georgia, she now lives in Athens, Greece, with her husband, the journalist, John Psaropoulos, and their two argonauts, Jason and Atalanta.
Do you remember an early experience of working in traditional form?
I did a bad imitation of Blake’s Tyger (also, as it happens, about a tiger), in gradeschool, and may have dabbled in some rhymed verses then. We were assigned the writing of a sonnet in ninth grade English (I think), which I took with Mary Mecom, a wonderful teacher. I wrote the sonnet, and then also tried an anagrammatic sonnet (strained, as you might expect) as an extra challenge, so I suppose I had the passion for it already.
Is there a received poetic form you are particularly drawn to and why?
Sonnets are my default form, and I return to them when I am rusty or just trying to write something, though these sonnets are rarely keepers. Triolets and villanelles are also default modes, but again these are usually poems I throw back.
What advice would you have for a young writer scared of or intimidated by formal poetry?
There’s no requirement to write formal poem (er, unless it is an assignment). I think to be good at form, you have to love some poems in form. Imitation is a great teacher. Meter unfortunately comes with a lot of long, scary Greek words I would ignore. If you love and memorize poems, some of it will come naturally. Enjoy playing with words and sounds. Rhyme doesn’t bite. Ignore anyone who tells you rhyme (or meter or sonnets etc.) is against the rules.
As you draft a poem, how do you balance your allegiance to traditional or received forms with language that feels contemporary? How do you mix registers of language in a single poem?
I wouldn’t say I had an “allegiance” to form, rather a knack for it, so I don’t feel any need to balance anything. I’m not above using the occasional archaism or literary language if it is to some purpose. I am not one of those who thinks poetry needs to sound exactly like contemporary speech (I’m a fan of the formal stiffness of John Crowe Ransom, for instance)–but as often as not it should have the illusion of contemporary speech. It sometimes seems to me prose writers get more latitude with vocabulary and syntax, and I think poetry should have access to that too.
I’m usually pleased to have a mix of registers, though I don’t like it done for glib shock value. My poem, “On Visiting a Borrowed House in Arcadia” has both the words “shitty” and “Pythagorean,” but I think both words absolutely belong in the economy (the home-law) of the poem.
You live in Athens, Greece, and have translated several texts from ancient Greek. How has working in that language influenced or shaped your writing of poems in English?
I live mostly in a foreign language. My children are native speakers of it; I am not. In some ways that keeps me in a perpetual stage of language acquisition, which can be frustrating but also a wonderment. Clichés in Greek to me still sound rich and strange. (Here, for instance, it rains chair legs instead of cats and dogs; a nightmare is an Ephialtes, both an ancient demon and the name of the Greek who betrayed the Spartans to the Persians at Thermopylae.) In the last case, this itself inspired a poem. I am aware of using more Hellenic vocabulary than I used, instead of merely Anglo-Saxon versus Latinate. And translating poems gives you access to other voices, references, points of view, and influences. (As Rexroth would have it, it “saves you from your contemporaries.”)
Would you describe the process of writing your poem, “Sestina: Like”?
That was very quick–it practically wrote itself. I love “Sestina, Bob,” which does the same thing with”Bob.” And of course, “like” is everywhere all the time in our speech. Also, I’d been teaching people to write sestinas for a long time, but hadn’t really done a proper one myself. I used to say that the sestina was about obsession. (“Sestina, Bob” is obsessive!) But I then realized the real “problem” with the sestina wasn’t repeated words, but length. 39 lines is a longish poem, over a page: it’s going to need an argument to develop or the impetus of a rant or the pull of narrative. And I sort of wanted to prove that repeated words were the easy part. I also submitted it almost as soon as it was done, which I never usually do. Then I realized in proofs that I had got carried away and had an extra line! (I cut it to keep within the form.)
In every interview, we ask the following standard questions:
How did you come to poetry?
I think I always wanted to be a writer, though as a kid I imagined doing all the genres–perhaps writing a series of fantasy novels etc. My mother was a school librarian and I always understood that books were written by people. My father used to recite a fair amount of poetry, which also probably helped. And I liked tigers (hence my early interest in Blake). Also, I was good at it; it came easily at first, and I published early on and got paid for it. In high-school it seemed an easier way to get pocket money (I used to submit to Seventeen among other paying periodicals) than babysitting. Of course, now I realize that getting paid for poetry is, er, unusual. I wanted to have written poems the poems that I love. Infatuation and envy (and, let’s face it, competitiveness) have always been motives.
Can creative writing be taught? How?
Revision can be taught, and reading can be taught. Probably the only sound pedagogical tool for poetry is imitation. Writing can be introduced to people. But ultimately only poems can teach poetry. A class can be a nice warm greenhouse for new poems, though.
What’s your required reading list? Which five books should everyone reading and writing poetry today know?
I’m not at all good at this sort of question. And I would strongly disagree that everyone should be reading one list–that would be a disaster. Great poets have tended to have eccentric influences, and often not that great in quantity, but in breadth or depth. Five anthologies from different periods might do the trick. What about a dictionary, a great novel, a poet fallen out of fashion, a nonfiction book about a subject that fascinates you, and the Oxford Book of English Verse?
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received or your favorite writing quote? What’s your advice for working young writers?
Rachel Hadas suggested to me when I was hesitant to take on a book review because I felt I didn’t know enough about the topic that one should “learn by doing.” I think it is good advice to just plunge right in. Do you want to write a novel? Don’t start by writing a short story, just start the novel. Learn by doing. Also, don’t hold back material or a phrase or an image that you think is going to make it into another, better poem. Use everything you’ve got at the time, and if you want, steal from yourself later.
What are you working on now?
An overdue book review, a long overdue translation’s apparatus (intro and notes), an overdue “Letter from Athens,” and the ending of a poem I have been wrestling with for two years. Also, in theory, I am ordering a new manuscript.
Can you provide us with a poetry prompt for our students?
Write a poem about your least favorite (or favorite if you prefer) school subject–algebra? social studies? chemistry?–using some interesting un-poetic vocabulary from that subject. Find the poetry in the unpoetic, or the unpoetic in the literary.
- What is “Fairy-tale Logic,” according to the poem? What tools does the poet use to make these premises seem logical?
- Why do you think Stallings chose the “home-law” of the sonnet in writing “Fairy-tale Logic”? If you already know a lot about sonnets, why do you think Stallings employed this particular form of sonnet?
- “Fairy-tale Logic” seems to take place in a world of fantasy and magic, pulling from genre conventions in fantasy writing. Do you see any ways that this poem might also be applicable to our real-world lives as well?
- Research the traditional form of the Sestina. In what ways does Stallings “Sestina: Like” conform to and deviate from the tradition?
- In “Sestina: Like,” the word “like” is repeated over and over. Do you see any differences in the way the word “like” is used in different places in the poem? How does the poem get away with repeating this word so many times?
- Describe the rhyme scheme of “Asphodel.” Why do you think Stallings employs it? What effect does that rhyme scheme have on you, the reader?
In her interview, A.E. Stallings describes “the home-law” of a poem—the manner in which its various parts fit and work together. In this activity, we’ll think about the home-law of two important forms in poetry, the sestina and the sonnet. How do these structures express the meaning of a poem? How do the laws of poetic form advance and enact ideas?
Read “Sestina: Like” and “Fairy Tale Logic” by A. E. Stallings.
Think about how these poems use the formal laws of the sestina and sonnet, respectively, to talk about contemporary phenomena, such as the Facebook like.
If it would be helpful, you can read more about the sestina and the sonnet before you begin.
Now: What other aspects of contemporary life could you imagine a sestina or a sonnet to accommodate and express? It could be the Twitter hashtag, or the names of stops called out on the bus, or a particular trend in language or in fashion or music.
Write a sestina or sonnet that tackles this contemporary idea. As you write, think about how to keep your language as natural and contemporary as possible. Remember, you’re writing a poem for our time in the language of our time. How might this form help you reimagine or reflect on a concept from our contemporary moment?
A.E. Stallings’ Prompt:
Write a poem about your least favorite (or favorite if you prefer) school subject—algebra? social studies? chemistry?—using some interesting un-poetic vocabulary from that subject. Find the poetry in the unpoetic, or the unpoetic in the literary.
A.E. Stallings Online