TJ: Do you actually sit down to write a sonnet, ghazal, or villanelle? Or is it a more organic process related to the content?
AS: Sometimes I suppose you do set out to write a form. It’s probably unlikely, for instance, that you stumble your way into a sestina. Sonnets and villanelles are sort of default forms for me, so after a long period of not writing, I might set myself the task of either. That would rarely result in a “real” poem, but might clear the pipes for one. Most of the time, the form and I meet halfway–I realize I have 16 lines of iambic pentameter, say, with a turn in it, and I wonder if cutting two lines would be an improvement.
TJ: Is there ever a thought, even a fleeting one, about where a poem you write ‘fits’ within the history of the forms you choose?
AS: No, probably not. Well, I take that back. It’s probably true of ottava rima.
TJ: Do you find the structures of form liberating or constricting when you employ it for a poem?
AS: I like to say that form is not about having control, but giving up control, allowing other forces into the poem. Absolute liberty is paralyzing for me.
TJ: How often do you look outside English language poetic forms? Do you feel it to be a sort of vacation when you visit them, either when writing them or just reading them?
AS: Most forms–maybe almost all– in English are not native English poetic forms, but they get nativized. There are probably next to no French poets, for instance, currently writing triolets or villanelles, while there continues to be a vogue for them in English. The traditional Greek meter is a fifteen syllable couplet, but that corresponds very closely to ballad meter in English.
TJ: Which writers are your touchstones when you find yourself in a rut?
AS: The ones I turn to most are probably are Housman (not necessarily when in a rut, but when feeling down) and Larkin, to a lesser extent Heaney, Dickinson, Bishop, the Oxford Anthology of English Verse.
TJ: Which contemporary poets do you envy? Exactly what do you envy?
AS: I find myself regularly envying poems by Don Paterson and Josh Mehigan. You know, that feeling when you want to have written that poem or one exactly like it.
TJ: Did you have a mentor when you began your writing career? What characteristic would you most like to emulate as you move forward?
AS: My father, in particular, was very supportive, and took me to readings and lectures, even if it meant taking me out of class in high school, and I had an excellent high school English teacher, Mary Mecom. Probably the first “real” writer I had a friendship with was Turner Cassity, who took me seriously even as a very young person. Meeting Rachel Hadas at Sewanee was important, a source of inspiration, friendship, support, and good advice. (I find it intriguing, by the way, that Mentorship is arguably a feminine virtue–since Mentor was in fact Athena disguised as a mortal.) I was encouraged in my classical translation efforts–and never discouraged from rhyming– by Rick LaFleur, Richard Jenkyns, and Peter Carson.
I do have some students who have become friends, and whom I try to encourage and to harangue them with my accumulated wisdom. I hope that I always answer serious letters about poetry from young people.
TJ: What do you feel about the current state of the writing community?
AS: Well, while there are good things about MFA programs obviously, I think the professionalization of American letters is problematic. And I have a foot in two worlds, I guess, as I don’t physically live in the U.S., and spend much of my time in another writing community altogether.
TJ: I put writers into two categories: writers who make me want to write and writers who make me want to throw up my hands and give up because they are just that amazing. Can you pick one writer for each category and can you explain the choice?
AS: Good writing makes me want to write better, even if I fail at it. Larkin’s greater poems strike me as having almost an unapproachable perfection.
TJ: If you could go back in time and talk to your wide-eyed 10 year old self, what would you tell her about your choice of writing as a vocation?
AS: Don’t worry about that journal of stories and poems you wrote that your teacher tossed in the school incinerator (a true story)–you’re going to write lots more, and better.
TJ: Wait, you HAVE to tell me that whole story.
AS: In “Discoveries” or whatever the “gifted” class was called, we all kept journals. You could write whatever you wanted, diaries, etc. Mine consisted heavily of short stories and poems. They were very imitative–I remember one that was basically a version of Kiplng’s “White Seal”, and I think I had an imitation of Blake’s “Tyger”. But other kids kept diaries, and the teacher would write back and forth in them. My sense is that one of these exchanges was somehow inappropriate or problematic (for teacher or student, I don’t know), and her solution was to burn the journals en masse. (I should add she was an important teacher to me in many respects, and I did learn a lot from her very high academic standards.) I was devastated and hysterical about it, as it was my life’s work as far as I was concerned–I must have considered myself a writer. My homeroom teacher, on the other hand, was a sort of coach figure, a tall, imposing athletic type and not the most academic or scholarly person. But he was absolutely furious particularly, on my behalf, and went out and gave her a talking to I don’t think she would have soon forgotten–to have someone stand up for me that way was heartening. So maybe the incident taught me something about kindness and large-hearted outrage as opposed to the coolly intellectual. And then, of course, I had to start my life’s work from scratch. So I suppose that was a lesson about persistence.
Read more of TJ’s interviews in Women in Form
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award Hapax (2000), and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things, is published by Penguin Classics. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. She lives with her husband, John Psaropoulos, editor of the Athens News, and their small argonaut, Jason.