Workshops and Retreats in Europe 2015
June 23rd - July 3rd 2015 @ the Aegean Arts Circle
Join DAVID LAZAR, Poet, Essayist, and Founding Editor of Hotel Amerika, and poet and essayist ADRIANNE KALFOPOULOU, author of Ruin, for a ten-day workshop on the enchanting island of ANDROS, in Greece
The Aegean Arts Circle
Contact the Aegean Arts Circle for more information about their summer programs in Creative Writing
An Interview with A.E. Stallings of the Athens Poetry Centre
Linda Lappin talks with A.E.Stallings about her life in Greece and the workshop she teaches for the Athens Poetry Centre.
Poet and workshop leader Alicia Stallings, author of The Archaic Smile (University of Evansville Press, 1999, winner Richard Wilbur prize) and Hapax (Northwestern University Press, 2006), talks about the Muses’ Workshop and its focus on myth.
Lappin: There’s an emphasis on myth and mythology in your workshop, which is indeed dedicated to The Muses. Why?
Stallings: Because we are in Greece, I wanted to use what was around us. Mythology pervades Greek life. My children are named Jason and Atalanta, and their friends on the playground are named Electra, Achilles, Andromeda. It’s also a way to enter into contact with modern and contemporary Greek poetry: poets like Cavafy and Seferis make use of mythology. And it’s a key to understanding modern life in Greece. It brings together many elements in the classroom. Many of my students have been writing confessional poetry. For them, using myth in different sorts of ways and seeing different examples of myth-based poems introduces a new dimension, and can help open them up to new subject matter.
Lappin: Some people may remember studying the Greek myths or the Odyssey at elementary school, with antiquated Victorian translations, high flown language, or modern bland prose versions. In class, you were saying how important it is to approach this material with fresh eyes and a spirit of innovation.
Stallings: In working with myth, you have to feel free to make variations. You don’t have to approach the material in a fusty way, or feel reverent and respectful. Ancient writers didn’t feel that way. They experimented and could be both playful and raunchy. You can take the standard story and give yourself permission to play with it. The Greek myths are very contemporary. Consider the story of Phaeton and the chariot of the sun. It’s the story of a teenager who has been given the keys to his dad’s Porsche and doesn’t know how to control it. Or take The Odyssey—among other things, it’s the first western.
Lappin You say that Greek myths still pervade contemporary Greek consciousness and Greek life. In the current economic and political crisis, do you see any myths operating?
Stallings I’d have to think about this.
Lappin: I was thinking the other day about the sacrifice of the young Athenians to the Minotaur…
Stallings : Actually, that might make a bit of sense… There is a resonance of events. You need to read the current crisis against a larger backdrop of modern Greek history: the founding of the Greek republic, a sort of colonialism that took place. Some people wondered if Greece was ready for democracy. Loans were made on calamitous terms. In any case, it is a gerontocratic society. Young people have no power, no say, an insecure future. Like Kronos, Greece eats her young.
Lappin: In your own work, are there myths that have shaped your life or your vision of your art?
Stallings: I have written a lot about the underworld. Hades and Persephone. Orpheus and Eurydice. I am fascinated by the Underworld. The classical, pagan view of the afterlife seems much less abstract to me, more real than our Christian heaven and hell.
Lappin: I share your fascination. I find your images of the Underworld extremely striking, particularly in the poems “Hades Welcomes His Bride” and “Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother “ in Archaic Smile, or “Dogdom of the Dead,” and “An Ancient Dog Grave Unearthed During the Construction of the Athens Metro.” Especially in the first two poems, you give Hades such vivid physical reality, it’s the world of roots and snakes and burrowing right under our feet. In a forum I found on the Internet, you mention that for a while you lived in a basement flat, and that this subterranean environment might have unconsciously influenced you. I’d be interested in hearing more about your fascination for the underworld and its meanings for you.
Stallings: I think if I fully understood my fascination with it, it would subside somewhat. Part of it may be how the dead continue to exist, but as shadows of themselves, like dim but stubborn memories. I like the realness of its geography, how it is a place to be travelled to but not (usually) returned from. I sometimes think, looking back at early poems of mine about the underworld that they are as much about depression as death. But that’s an idea that has only come to me lately. And I think writing about the underworld is fun, too, as well as frightening.
Lappin: You’re a classics scholar and a great admirer of the Odyssey, which you use in your writing classes at the Muses Workshop. I was wondering how you relate to one of its main themes: exile or dislocation. What’s the hardest thing you have had to deal with as an expat writer?
Stallings: Losing track of American vernacular and being out of touch with popular culture. You’re not watching the same television shows, keeping up with the same trends.
Lappin: That might not be bad for an artist.
Stallings: Of course, yet sometimes I find myself re-reading a line I have written and will ask myself, “would someone really say that?” You have to keep in touch with the language. As an expat and also as a mother you are isolated.
Lappin: Elsewhere you have described yourself as a “Mommy poet.”
Stallings: I am. With small children it’s a struggle to find time and quiet in which to work.
Lappin: Do you feel part of the American writing community, the poetry community?
Stallings: With social media, internet, Facebook, Skype, it’s easy to be included in the conversation and to keep in touch. But it’s also good to be independent of it all.
Lappin: Do you teach elsewhere in Athens or Greece?
Stallings: I run this workshop (normally 3 weeks in summer) and teach at some workshops/ residencies in the US. I do a lot of literary translation, and also some of what I call “hack work” –reviews, articles, essays. I am a professional writer. If someone says, write me a 500 word blog on Greek food and pays me, I’ll do it. After all, I have to pay my Bulgarian baby sitter who looks after my children when I am teaching or when I need time to write! But both writing and translation take time and energy away from my main work.
Lappin: In this very intense week of the Muses Workshop, we’ve worked a lot with rhyme and form: sonnets, sestinas, pantoums, and villanelles. Would you elaborate a bit about your emphasis on form in your writing classes?
Stallings: I run a poetry boot camp! Many people misunderstand the use of form and think it entails submitting to restrictions. But instead it means giving up control. Not submitting to restrictions, but to destiny or chance that helps choose the next word. Rhyme is also an engine of syntax. And it helps make lines memorable.
Lappin: What writers do you read for inspiration?
Stallings: Among many others, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Don Paterson, Seamus Heaney. And ancient writers. My favorite poet is A.E. Housman.
Lappin: You have translated both texts of classical antiquity as well as modern Greek poetry, and have received a grant for your translation work. In class you said that translating was a form of very close reading, and a way to know another writer’s work intimately. Aside from Cavafy or other early modernists, are there any contemporary Greek poets whom you have translated whose work you find especially inspiring?
Stallings: I suppose you could include Angelos Sikelianos in the early modernists? There are many wonderful contemporary Greek poets. Interestingly, two of the most prominent are women: Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke and Kiki Dimoula. I have not, however, attempted to translate any living writers. (Indeed, Anghelaki-Rooke translates herself!) I suppose one advantage of working with a living writer is you could pose queries to them. But the disadvantage is you might not like the answers.
Lappin: In class, we looked at the many hand written and typed drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle, The Art of Losing, which I believe went through eleven drafts. Do you think word processing has made the labor of writing poetry easier—not having to retype every fresh revision? Do you work with a word processor or write long hand?
Stallings: Some people have a fetishistic approach—they have to use a certain pen, etc. I am not like that. People need different things. I write long hand and then on the computer. I actually have some theories about using computers to write poetry. I think that looking at a back-illuminated screen ties up your visual attention in a way that looking at a page doesn’t. I always print out and revise on the printed page. Sometimes in revision, you can lose a certain freshness, and if you’ve just deleted blocks of text, it’s hard to go back and find your earlier versions. I tell my students to always keep a copy of their earlier versions.
Lappin: You’ll be bringing out a new book soon…
Stallings: Yes, it’s called OLIVES—which can also be O LIVES.
It is forthcoming with Northwestern University Press, and should be out early in 2012.
Lappin: A word of advice to writers?
Stallings: You have to give yourself permission to write bad poetry. Clean the brown water out of the pipes. It’s often in revision that a poem goes from bad to good or from good to great.