At a time when most modern poets write in free verse, the work of A. E. Stallings is distinct. She is arguably one of the best formalist poets working today. Over the past quarter-century, she has earned a reputation for her poems that skillfully use meter and rhyme and adhere to traditional verse forms: sonnets, couplets, quatrains, villanelles, ghazals and sextinas. In his poem “Cardinal Numbers”, “glorious” is paired to rhyme with “uxorious”. A trained classical, now living in Athens, Greece, his poems are also notable for their allusions to classical Greco-Roman mythology. She goes back to antiquity to explore contemporary life, often invoking the persona of a Persephone, a Pandora or a Penelope to examine the truths of what has been called the poet’s “servant archaeology”. – marriage, parenthood, etc.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation cited his “mastery of highly structured forms…and his consummate skill in creating new combinations of meter, rhyme, and syntax in distinctive and emotionally compelling verse” when reviewing it. was named winner of a “Genius Award” in 2011.
Author of four acclaimed collections, including 2018 As, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Stallings will read excerpts from his work at this semester’s Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading tonight, Tuesday, November 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Leventhal Center, followed by a reception and book signing. at the castle. His latest book, This Afterlife: Selected Poemswill be published by Farrar, Straus and Grioux next month.
Joining Stallings in reading tonight. Muzanenhamo wrote three collections of poems, the most recent, Virgin (Carcanet Press Ltd., 2021), presents historical events linked by meteorological phenomena. Poetry reading is free and open to the public.
Stallings’ poems are renowned for their wit. “I love puns, I love puns. I love etymology,” she says. “I write for an ideal reader who also loves those things. Look at Shakespeare, who just boils with puns and puns; anyone who thinks this goes against depth or sincerity is wrong. It’s a way to pack more meaning and more fun.
UB today spoke with Stallings ahead of tonight’s reading about her love of rhyme, the ways mythology can be used to explore contemporary domestic life, the way she approaches a poem, and her work as a translator of classic texts.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
With AE Stallings
UB today: You grew up surrounded by books: your father was a teacher and your mother a librarian. When did you discover poetry and when did you know you wanted to be a poet?
Stalls: My dad used to recite a fair amount of verse as he walked around the house – things like the overture to Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” or Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner” or Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” . We had a big nursery rhyme book that I loved, The real mother goose. The children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I lay down to sleep” always gave me a little thrill (or thrill?), because it meant imagining my own death. I loved tigers and then I loved “Tyger, Tyger” by William Blake.
I knew very early on that I wanted to be a writer. I was making little books before I could read or write – pieces of old punched computer paper stapled together with my own pencil illustrations and then dictating the story to my mother… Even in my twenties, I dabbled in fiction. But I got pretty serious about poetry as a teenager, and started publishing then, in places like Seventeen.
UB today: Your work is renowned for the way you probe mythology to illuminate contemporary life. Can you talk about that?
Stalls: Mythology is often centered on domestic and family relationships – I think Freud showed us that! – and as such, is often a useful way to talk about domestic and family relationships. We live our lives on a mythological scale – life is mythological in its expanse – birth, growth, gaining wisdom (or not), parenthood (or not), love, death. I love the distance a character gives me from my own life, allowing me to explore truths that might otherwise be more difficult. But I also like to escape into another figure or another story.
UB today: You are one of the greatest formalist poets working today. Why are rhyme and meter so important to you? Can you tell us about the pleasure you experience in experimenting with them?
Stalls: I think everyone derives pleasure from rhyme. Kids love it. I think we train to like it, to show off our sophistication or something. Also, who doesn’t love rhythmic speech? Look at rap and hip-hop. But those obvious asides, I love rhyme in part for the way it leads me through a poem, often to something surprising. Rhyme opens the door to reason. I love the discipline of meter, how it makes you make hard choices and how those two things play with and against syntax. I like to work against formal constraints because I find it paradoxically liberating. Some choices are made for me – if I write a sonnet it will be 14 lines – leaving more interesting choices up for grabs.
UB today: Your poems have a wonderful, familiar quality that invites readers. How to make a formal poem conversational?
Some lines speak for themselves in my mind and I listen to them – maybe an inner voice. But I’m also a big proponent of performing poems in front of an audience and “listening” to the audience’s attention. I usually know what to cut when I’ve read a poem aloud – you can feel the poem slacking off and, as a result, a wandering of attention in the listeners.
UB today: Can you talk about your initial approach to a poem and the role revision plays in your work?
It depends on the poem. Some arrive pretty much all at the same time and only need minor touch-ups. Others take months or even years and total rewrites. Some languish for years because they need something, and it takes me a long time to figure out what. I love revision, though, because it feels like magic when changing a word or a phrase or a line or a pair of rhymes completely takes the poem from something mediocre and passable to something strong and living. Working in shape often means that the revision is quite surgical. If you have a functional villanelle [a poem comprising five tercets followed by a quatrain, with two repeating rhymes and two refrains] , but that’s not quite what you want, it’s usually more about tinkering with individual lines and rhymes rather than tearing everything down. In a formal poem you sometimes have a line or a word or even a placeholder image, and so editing is about changing them from a placeholder to something vital and inextricable to the poem as a whole . This is the challenge, and also the pleasure.
UB today: You are also a renowned translator, having published a verse translation of Lucretius The nature of thingsand Hesiod Works and Days, among other works. Does your work as a translator inform your poetry and vice versa?
Yes, I think so. It helps you keep your work in good shape, even if you’re not writing it yourself. It also allows you to explore other identities, other personalities, other subjects than you would otherwise. It is a way of escaping from oneself and from time.
UB today: Your first edition of selected poems, This life after death, is about to come out. How did you go about deciding which previously published poems to include?
Every once in a while you realize that a poem that made it into a book wasn’t ready for prime time, and so the ones I chose to pull. As for what I’ve chosen to include, many of them are greatest hits or heavy on rotation when reading. I also asked a bunch of people what they wanted to see included. So I tried to walk a line between being exclusive (keeping only the best poems) and inclusive (including what people wanted to see). But I constantly doubt or change my mind about the poems even now.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, featuring AE Stallings and Togara Muzanenhamo (GRS’22), takes place tonight, Tuesday, November 15, at 7:30 p.m. in the upstairs auditorium of the Leventhal Center, 233 Bay State Road. The readings will be followed by a book signing and a reception at the Château de la BU. The event is free and open to the public. Find more information here.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Reading Series was created by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
Listen to AE Stallings read his poem “On a Greek Proverb”, from his 2012 collection, olives, on a PBS NewsTime December 21, 2012, broadcast here. She wrote the poem in response to frequent questions from friends asking “How long are you staying in Greece?”