Posts Tagged ‘A.E. Stallings’

Poet A.E. Stallings in Athens: the children recall school bombings, massacres, and drownings at sea

Monday, November 20th, 2017
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A girl named Aqdas recalls those lost at sea.

Migrants have arrived in Greece since Hesiod’s time. Certainly, tales of treacherous Aegean crossings fill the pages of Homer. The poet A.E. Stallings has been a student of the classics since her Oxford days, but Homer and Hesiod didn’t prepare her for the hands-on experience of volunteering with refugees during the disaster that has engulfed Europe.

An Afghan girl recalls drownings

My article on her heroic work with migrants, “Crossing Borders” is currently the lead story at the Poetry Foundation website. I met the Athens-based Alicia Stallings, a MacArthur “Genius” fellow, at last spring’s West Chester Poetry Conference, where we discussed her experience being at ground zero of the immigration crisis.

An excerpt:

She would meet refugees at the disembarking areas and, with her friends, pass out shoes and serve food. Facebook groups spread the news that 2,500 people had arrived at Piraeus, survivors of the dinghies that washed ashore at the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, and were moving on to Athens. Or that 20 families had arrived in the port and needed sleeping bags, clean clothes, food.

“It was quite unreal. Two thousand people walking out of a war zone, with muddy feet, poorly dressed,” Stallings said. “Some with wounds, others in fur coats or rags. If you had anything you would wear it. Some people would be coming out with wheelchairs; some were carried out. Others came with a dog or cat. Some had a taxi waiting to take them to a hotel. Others would be walking to Hungary.”

These were the lucky ones. As Stallings wrote in an epigram with a title almost as long as the poem itself: “From an autopsy report of an unknown drowning victim, Ikaria”:

Female. Nine years old. Found wearing a blouse,
And a pair of sweatpants patched with Minnie Mouse.

Epigrams were often the form she chose to express the horror and humanity of what was happening around her. “I wanted them to be sharp,” she explains. “Something that had distance, irony. The reality was too overwhelming for a sonnet. These are real people. The situation is bad enough that you don’t have to poetify,” she said, stressing the last word with a little self-mockery.

On land, the adults were bored and anxious, and the children more so. “The worst part is being in limbo and waiting. The uncertainty is really unbearable for people,” said Stallings. “This is their life. Instead of finishing their law degrees, they’re wearing ill-fitting shoes.” She remembered, in particular, a Syrian graduate student who felt his youth was being frittered away. From “The City”:

“I want to go to another land. I want to cross the border,”
The young man out of Syria said. “I’m tired of being stuck.
Sure, Greece is nice enough if you can get a job: good luck.”

“The saddest cases are men in their twenties. They don’t want to fight for Assad or ISIS. Their youth is being eaten—and they don’t know what will happen.”

Stallings and her friends brought supplies—crayons, Play-Doh, markers, bubbles, and pipe cleaners—to keep the restless kids busy as they waited day after day to learn their fate. “We’re the artists, we’re the painters, we’re the poets. We can do this,” she said. “I’m a mother; I can yell at kids in four languages.”

The Play-Doh, markers, and crayons ushered in a new era for the children. They may not have been eloquent in their native tongue, but were eloquent on paper. One drew a massacre he had witnessed and more than one drew those who have drowned at sea. Others illustrated bombings, one with the word “Assad” written on the aircraft. They made a case for immigration more heart-rending than any politician’s speeches.

Read the whole article here. Images courtesy A.E. Stallings and the “True Colors” Facebook page.

Children and adults are afraid of the sea now.

A Syrian boy recalls a school bombing.

The same Syrian boy recalls the maiming of a teacher at his school.

A child depicts a Turkish vessel firing a water cannon to try to sink a dinghy

“It’s a negative freedom, something like a negative capability type of freedom.”

Friday, October 27th, 2017
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“I love the technical joy and pleasure,” says poet and translator Dick Davis. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Our friend and eminent blogger Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence has a review over at the Los Angeles Review of Books this week – “A Negative Freedom: Thirteen Poets on Formal Verse” (it’s here). The book considers Thirteen on Form: Conversations with Poets, a collection of interviews edited by William Baer. A number of other dear friends – poets, all – are mentioned. And there’s some splendid words about the often-overlooked form of “light verse.”

A moralist at heart

Said Richard Davis, the foremost translator from the Persian into English ever as well as a top-notch poet in his own right, said, “I do love those kinds of poems — light verse as it’s called. I love the technical joy and pleasure that takes place in the writing of such poems, and the hope that those reading them will sense the pleasure that the poet experienced while writing them.”

Patrick Kurp notes that R.S. Gwynn is often labeled a writer of light verse, “a classification at once limiting and dismissive.”

Top blogger Patrick Kurp

He wrote: “Like many formal poets, Gwynn is a moralist at heart, one who favors mockery over sermons. His instincts, if not his politics (which remain unstated in the interview with Baer), are conservative, and the best satires are most often produced by writers of conservative sensibility. Think of Juvenal, Pope, Swift, Johnson, and Waugh.”
According to Sam Gwynn, “[M]y lyricism works best when it’s counterpointed against something else, like irony, for example.” From Patrick’s review:

In “Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry,” Gwynn assembles a poem consisting entirely of lines from 28 certified poetic war horses. Half the fun is identifying the sources and marveling at the deathless elasticity of iambic pentameter:

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Lucretius fan

MacArthur “genius” Fellow A. E. Stallings, who recently translated Lucretius’s The Nature of Things into rhyming fourteeners, also writes witty, graceful, and profound poems in form. Rhyme, she says, allows her to “say something shocking or something totally unexpected.” In Alicia’s own words:

It’s helpful and effective to have some limitations on one’s choices and even to “give up” some control over the poem. Which, I suppose, is a little scary for some people. To give up some control to the muse, to outer things. I feel there’s almost a sort of Ouija Board feeling about rhyme and meter, where maybe you’re in control, and maybe you’re not. […] Maybe it’s a negative freedom, something like a negative capability type of freedom.

Read the whole review here.

Oxford Professor of Poetry: a great honor or “sherry-drill for important people”?

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015
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Oxford 022

Missing Oxford every minute. From my stay in 2009.

After my recent post on Geoffrey Hill, I have been following the selection of his successor to the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, a highly prestigious position previously held by Seamus Heaney and W.H. Auden, among others. Alas, not being a graduate of one of my favorite institutions, I am not eligible to cast a ballot. Oxford grads must register to vote by June 8. It’s too bad. I’m more excited about this than the U.S. elections. It’s way better than football. Results will be announced June 19.

The going money (presumably Ladbrokes is taking bets) is on Nobel winner Wole Soyinka, poet, playwright, novelist, and political activist. The Nigerian writer is also over 80 – disqualifying? Not so fast. So is Geoffrey Hill. According to The Guardian:

Ken Macdonald QC, the warden of Wadham College and one of Soyinka’s key backers, said: “Wole Soyinka is a poet and activist of world standing who has faced persecution and suffering with surpassing dignity. He is that rare thing: a great writer whose life and eloquence have come together in a valiant struggle for rights and freedom. His election would grace the University of Oxford.”

Soyinka’s candidacy has been endorsed by a number of high-profile graduates, including the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti. “Pursued and repeatedly imprisoned by dictators who feared him, his shining language of resistance has never dimmed and his sense of justice never faltered,” Chakrabarti said. “His appointment would bring honour to the University of Oxford.”

The former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has also endorsed Soyinka, calling him “a massive cultural presence”.

A rival is emerging in poet Simon Armitage, with prominent broadcaster Melvyn Bragg recently switching his support to Armitage.

Among my own friends, there is a determined campaign for dark horse A.E. Stallings (full disclosure: a Facebook friend). There’s even a Facebook page (here) and a Twitter campaign for her candidacy. From The Guardian again:

Alicia Elsbeth

Dark horse.

Alicia Stallings, an American poet who studied classics at Oxford and the University of Georgia, and who has published three collections of poetry, is the only female nominee. The role was briefly held by Ruth Padel in 2009, but after it emerged that she had informed journalists about past allegations of sexual harassment made against her rival Derek Walcott, she resigned after less than two weeks.

Stallings, who lives in Athens, said in her statement that it is “not only the making of poems that interests me, but memorising and speaking them”, and that if elected, she would speak on topics including “the problems and possibilities of translation, poets in other languages (such as modern Greek), the classical tradition, the gears and springs of technique, the resonance between poems, and on new poets and poets fallen out of fashion”.

Ian Gregson and Seán Haldane are also contenders.

However, losers have this consolation: Philip Larkin scoffed at the honor. In a recently unearthed artifact:

The letter, typed on Larkin’s letterhead at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones library, replies to a suggestion from the college’s then-principal, Rachel Trickett, that he should stand for the prestigious role. Larkin receives Trickett’s letter on 8 October 1968, and after “the luxury of a few minutes day-dreaming on the subject”, writes to dissuade her from putting his name forward.

Frontrunner (Photo: Chidi Anthony Opara)

Frontrunner (Photo: Chidi Anthony Opara)

The poet tells Trickett he is entirely “unfitted” for the role. “I have never considered literature in the abstract since that blessed day in 1943 when I laid down my pen in the Sheldonian Theatre and sauntered out into the sunshine, a free man; anything I have written since then has either been hack journalism or cries wrung from me by what I believe Gide calls the frightful contact with hideous reality,” writes one of the 20th century’s most beloved poets.

He adds that he has so far given just one lecture in his life – “I hated it, and a number of people walked out in the first few minutes” – before explaining that the increasing publicity which comes with the position makes him “quite unsuited” to the position.

“My idea of hell on earth (physical pain excepted, and I am not sure that it is excepted even in this case) is a literary party, and I have an uneasy feeling that the post carries with it a lot of sherry-drill with important people,” he writes, describing himself nonetheless as “deeply honoured” to be approached.

Don’t know about you, but I could definitely use a little sherry-swilling myself. Not to mention the £12,000 annual stipend that comes with the five-year position.

Congratulations, Kay Ryan and A.E. Stallings!

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011
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"Let there be lightness" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Who could be more deserving of a MacArthur “Genius” Award than Kay Ryan?  (We’ve written about her here and here and here – and my 2004 San Francisco Magazine essay on her, “Let There Be Lightness,” is here.)

Here’s what the New York Times had to say:

“Kay Ryan, 65, a former poet laureate of the United States who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry this year, said the money provided a certain “mental ease,” as she continues to write and to advocate for community colleges, where she has taught remedial English skills for decades.” [For you Bay Area denizens out there, she taught at the College of Marin – ED.]

In Athens (Photo: John Psaropoulos)

“I was very, very surprised,” said Ms. Ryan, who lives in Fairfax, Calif. “I had certainly thought I was over the hill. Obviously these people think I’ve got five more good years in me.”

But here’s the other half of the news:  A.E. Stallings has also been awarded.  I sent my congratulations to both, Alicia via Facebook, Kay by “regular” email.  And also a note to Dana Gioia, who has promoted Kay’s work since way back when she was a relatively unknown Marin poet.  His reaction?  “Great news for two fabulous poets.”

Time to finally get a copy of Alicia’s 2007 verse translation of Lucretius‘s De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things).  Yes, I’m that far behind.

 Postscript on 9/21:  And happy birthday too, Kay!