Published: January 14th, 2015
A.E. Stallings is an American poet whose accolades include a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship, Walt Whitman Award, Guggenheim Fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and National Book Critics Circle Award to name a few. Her poetry has also been featured in The Best American Poetry anthologies for 1994 and 2000.
Howl: As a poet, what do you look for when either reading or writing poetry?
Stallings: It has to be interesting. I would rather read something bad or ugly that is interesting than something accomplished and well-written but dull.
Howl: As a translator, do you feel that there are some emotions or concepts better
expressed in one language over another?
Stallings: Sure, of course. That is what makes translation so hard, but also so interesting and challenging.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
Stallings: I do write something every day, although it might be just a letter, or prose, or what have you. Poems tend to start when I am walking or doing something else, or supposed to be doing something else – poetry as hooky. (Don't underestimate the important connection of movement and thought!) I compose a bit in my head. Then I jot things down long-hand, and eventually I move to a computer.
Howl: What is your editing process like?
Stallings: It depends. Sometimes a poem is finished fairly quickly, and I leave it more or less alone. Other times I obsessively tweak or completely rewrite. It really depends on the poem. I decide something is "finished" when I can resist the urge to tweak it (the urge itself never goes away) when I am sending it out. I rarely revise after I publish something. I'd rather move on to something else. I don't believe in "perfection" in the sense of "without flaw," just in the Latin sense of completely finished.
Howl: What is it about poetry, the genre specifically, that speaks to you?
Stallings: I like its brevity for one thing. I don't think I have the attention span for writing a novel! I like how it condenses thought and surprises, and I am very interested in the words themselves. I love that you can memorize it and carry it around with you in your head – make it physically part of your brain, yourself.
Howl: Any advice for budding poets?
Stallings: Memorize poems. Also, read what you like. Don't worry what is fashionable, because whatever is fashionable now, won't be by the time you are a grown-up poet. Poetry is a nice field too in that hardly anybody writes a really good poem until they are over 20 – there are one or two exceptions – and many not until much later, so there's no time pressure. By "hardly anyone writes a good poem before they are twenty" what I really mean is hardly anyone writes a GREAT poem before they are 20. (Rimbaud?) I've seen lots of terrific work by high-schoolers. And I myself started publishing at 16. It's not like being a gymnast or a mathematician. You can always fail at something else and then return to poetry. (Many poets tried first to be painters, novelists, etc.) Also, don't be afraid to write bad poems. A lot of good poems start off as bad poems. Much of the real work is in revision. And don't be afraid to be funny, rude, whatever. Just be interesting!
Howl: Your poetry has been described as formal, poised, strict, and restrained, all in the context of being expertly and thoughtfully written. What are your feelings about contemporary poetry when it seems that the growing genre is more free verse?
Stallings: I suppose I could quibble with some of that. I find form very freeing. I think of form as being about giving up control. There is actually quite a lot of good formal verse being written now, and published. Much more so than when I started out. I love free verse too, I just am not very good at it. Anyway, I try not to worry too much about contemporary poetry.
Howl: What inspires you in your writing?
Stallings: When you are in the middle of writing a good poem, or have just finished one, that is the best feeling in the world. You get addicted to it. You want to have that high again and again.
Howl: How do you know when you've achieved what you wanted when writing a poem?
Stallings: I think I am surprised by it. It startles me somehow. I think – did I write that? Wow!
Howl: Any recommended required readings for young adults?
Stallings: Read what you love. It's OK if it isn't fashionable. What you like as a teenager will probably not be what you like as an adult, but that's OK, and that is part of who you are. Also, if you are reading for pleasure (i.e., not for an assignment) and you get bored with something or don't understand it or are not interested in it, it is OK to not finish a book. Move on. Anthologies (or poetry journals for that matter) are also great places to start and just flip through. When you find a poem you like, go look for more by that poet. I guess I am not sure I believe in required reading! I think there are some wonderfully accessible poems by Emily Dickinson, William Blake, T.S. Eliot (Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats), Wallace Stevens (“The Snow Man”), Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, Kay Ryan, etc. That said, one shouldn't be too worried about accessibility or "understanding" poems – you can like, even love, a poem without really "understanding" it. There really should be an anthology of "real" poems for young adults. I loved the fairy-tales of Hans Christian Andersen, and they probably had as much an effect on me as anything else. Prose is also very good for budding poets. I love big baggy Victorian novels (I'm rereading Middlemarch right now) and their wonderful variety of sentences sounds.