Making the Ancient New: A Conversation with A. E. Stallings

Georgia Review editor Gerald Maa spoke with A. E. Stallings on 16 November 2019 at Hendershot’s, in Athens, Georgia. Three poems by Stallings appear in our Summer 2020 issue. 

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Gerald Maa (GM): I’m sitting here with Alicia Stallings; this is the weekend during which she’s inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. I was thinking the model for it is the pantheon. It’s Parnassus, right? But it’s also homecoming for you, which is a bit weird.

A. E. Stallings (AES): It is a kind of interesting aspect to be back in old stomping grounds and to be celebrated.

GM: And to be exalted. One of the interesting things about Greek myths, which are such a touchstone for you, is that the gods mingle with the mortals much more fully than in monotheistic religions.

AES: “Mingling” might be one way to put it.

GM: In a variety of ways, right? I enjoy reading your poems and being reminded that Greek myths model a world for us in which the coexistence of the divine and the banal is not exceptional.

AES: I think the domestic world is very much the world in which most of my poems unfold and that is combined somehow with the mythic world. “Ajar,” one of the early poems in Like, is about a washing machine being broken, and it’s about Pandora. To me that connection seemed very obvious as I was wrestling with the washing machine. “Cast Irony” does something very similar as well, where it unfolds on a domestic stage but the resonances are mythic and epic. And in a way, the ancient epics have this in reverse: it’s in the epic simile where often you have this mythic legendary action, like arrows hitting a shield, compared to something quotidian, black beans hitting a bowl. Suddenly you’re taken from the battlefield into the kitchen. Or Odysseus rolling around, unable to sleep for the slaughter of the suitors—he hearkens back to watching the suitors roast a sausage by rolling it over the grill, which seems to me a very realistic anxiety dream. This is constantly happening where there are windows into the ancient kitchen, and really the domestic world is largely a woman’s world. Even though the epics are vast and masculine, the similes, which are these lyric moments, tend to be domestic and feminine.

GM: When you speak about the analogies between the domestic world, especially the objects of the domestic world, and what is considered mythic and epic, I think of “A Miracle for Breakfast” and Elizabeth Bishop, more generally, who writes so poignantly about the miraculousness of the everyday, not only the life of the everyday but the objects themselves: the objects in the house, or looking at a fish in many different ways and seeing within it the stories. How does the object become a catalyst or a vessel for the beginnings of a poem for you?

AES: I think it certainly always wouldn’t be the case, and I’m not a very good housekeeper, but there is a way that if you’re washing dishes or putting laundry out on the line, you have to be in that moment. You’re not on a screen, you know; you have to pay attention in this very dailiness kind of way. Maybe it allows for some sort of imaginative window to open up. Certainly it’s true in The Illiad and The Odyssey, with what are called “object biographies”: kings will be talking and suddenly—there’s this wonderful bronze cheese grater, and where did Nestor get that from, and who gave this chair, and who made the chair, and how was the chair inherited? And in these moments of attention on objects there’s sometimes something added to the larger story. Like when Achilles picks up the lyre and is strumming his songs, we’re told that that’s the lyre of Eëtion. When you’re reading, you kind of float along and it might not mean anything to you, but he’s the father of Andromache, and Achilles took the lyre after he sacked the city and killed Eëtion. It’s this kind of bloodied instrument of violence as well as an instrument of music. I do love the personality of objects.

GM: Is there one of those object histories that are very important to you or that you really love, one that you return to time and again or that puzzles you?

AES: This lyre of Achilles is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. The bow of Odysseus—you know, he gets it through a series of inheritances—so it’s clear, it used to be the bow of Hercules, so it’s a heroic object. When Penelope isn’t sure if she’s recognizing Odysseus or not, she recognizes the shirt she embroidered. There’s a lot of these kind of recognitions through objects.

GM: You mentioned the other day that it’s a great time for feminist translators.

AES: Emily Wilson did The Odyssey. Caroline Alexander was the first woman to put The Iliad into English. Sarah Ruden did The Aeneid. These were all firsts for women putting these epics into English.

GM: Which is exciting.

AES: Well, it’s a way to get some attention to translation, and it’s a way to sell books. I think a lot of women are, through this attention, being encouraged to jump on the bandwagon, which is a good thing. The more the merrier, in terms of translation.

GM: Is it Emily Wilson’s intro which specifically talks about the gendered aspect of translation? This is kind of part and parcel of a moment where, as you said on Friday, translation is being acknowledged more so now than in the past, as a craft and an art unto itself. Not only does it take technical mastery, but it also takes some sort of imaginative acumen to have a really strong translation. I think one of the great things about translation is that translation should not be in the throes of pure subjectivity, but it’s neither purely . . . objective, is that the word? What’s the rubric for a strong translation? No longer is it pure objective fit. What’s your rubric for a translation that works for you?

AES: I think, and as Emily Wilson points out, a lot of the language we have around translation is kind of gendered. There is this idea of “fidelity.” The translation is some kind of marriage: the beautiful translation isn’t faithful, and the faithful translation isn’t beautiful. And we talk about fidelity to an original. I think translation is a kind of sexual reproduction. It’s not cloning. It’s not going to be genetically identical with the original. It’s going to have some of the DNA of the “birth mother,” as it were. There is an ethical dimension to translation, and that usually has to do with how the translation is framed. I think you can do anything you want to do. You can have wild, crazy variations. You can do Robert Lowell–type imitations, but you call them “imitations.” Or you say, “Look, I don’t have any Chinese at all and I am being helped by this Chinese poet and am looking at a trot,” and that’s okay, if you say that. I think it is not okay if you try to pass in a language that you don’t have at all, and you’re saying, “I’m translating this.” I think it’s fine to use a trot, to use help, or to translate with someone. Anything is okay as long as the reader knows that that’s part of the process. I do think, with somebody like Homer, who’s been translated a gazillion times, you can get away with a lot more, because there are so many translations out there. You’re not leading anyone astray. But, for instance, with a poet who has not been translated at all into English, I think there is more of a responsibility to keep your own ego in check and try as much as you can to be of service to the original.

GM: Tell me a little bit about the way your translation practice and your poetry practice work together or not, even on the nuts and bolt level.

AES: Often, if I have a deadline and I really need to get translation done, and I am used to translating longer passages as opposed to individual poems, where you really need to be doing twenty lines a day, which, actually, for me is almost impossible and would be a very, very good day––you end up writing poems as a way of playing hooky. So, in a way, it does produce poems.

GM: Delinquency?

AES: Yes. I think most of my poems are playing hooky from some other assignment, which is maybe why I take assignments on. If it were just my assignment to write poems, I would probably play hooky by doing translations.

GM: Talk to me a little bit about the space that ancient Greek literature opens up for you to think about domesticity or, dare I say, a feminist undercurrent in your work. The Victorianist Yopie Prins recently wrote a book that argues Anglo-feminist literature was able to establish itself legitimately by way of what Elizabeth Barrett Browning called “Lady’s Greek.” Feminists used classical training to establish what many consider the beginning and/or high point of feminist literature in the English tradition.

AES: It is very striking, if you’re reading nineteenth-century novels, the number of times it comes up that some girl wants to learn Greek or Latin. Her brother is learning it, but she’s being made to learn French and music. The idea that Greek in particular is a sort of gateway that’s being kept. It was one of the issues, really, about Keats to the Romantic poets. He was not an aristocrat and did not have Greek, which is why he had to read Chapman’s Homer. And there was this idea, until not terribly recently, that a poet needed to have Latin and Greek. That was the training of the poet.

I think it is a wonderful training, partly because there is a discipline just to the grammar and the language. But there is a sense of empowerment in being able to read something in the original, without a veil between you and it, to be part of this tradition of a very exclusive kind of education. And yet, it’s really open to anyone who can find the class, or so on. And there is a lot of nuts and bolts training about meter, about how a poem is working, about the rhetorical devices a poem is using. It’s a very nuts-and-bolts way of looking at poetry, rather than a theoretical kind of reading. You’re in there, touching the words and the parts of speech. And then in all of these stories and the plays, even though Athenian women could barely leave the house, they have such strong voices. It’s one of the mysteries. There are such strong and interesting female characters. You’re kind of invited, even, to go in there and play around with those stories and find out what people are saying.

GM: Especially when you feel newly empowered, right? You’re accessing this and knowing, “I have mastered something.”

AES: There is a pride and a kind of self-select exclusivity, I suppose. But the feeling that there is this very arcane thing, and I’m starting to understand it . . . that is empowering. Homer, Sappho, the plays—they stay contemporary. They speak to us in different ways than they spoke to the nineteenth century, rightly so. But they still have things that they are speaking directly to us. When Pound says “make it new,” that’s the “it” that keeps being made new.

 

Gerald Maa is a writer, translator, and editor based in Athens, GA.  His poetry and translations have appeared in places such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, and Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from China (Copper Canyon, 2011).  His essays have appeared in places such as Criticism, Studies in Romanticism, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (University of Georgia, 2015), and The Little Magazine in Contemporary America (University of Chicago, 2015).  Work from his practice of activated writing have been performed and mounted in Los Angeles, New York, and Sweden.  In 2010, he founded The Asian American Literary Review with Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, where he served as editor-in-chief until starting his job at The Georgia Review in August 2019.