The literary world is aflush, it seems, with ruddy-cheeked excitement at the election for the next Oxford Professor of Poetry, a chair that has cushioned many celebrated posteriors since Joseph Trapp first took up the post in 1708. According to that fine literary reference library Wiki, he was a churchman fond of reciting the works of Shakespeare in Latin.
Since then there has been a stream of prominent churchmen (not all of whom could quote Shakespeare in Latin, I suspect), a series of academics and critics and even a couple of genuine A list poets; Cecil Day-Lewis, WH Auden and Robert Graves are all on the list as, indeed, is my old friend Seamus Heaney.
Did I ever ever tell you the one about how I persuaded Heaney to translate Beowulf?
There are five runners this year: Simon Armitage, Wole Soyinka, Sean Haldane, Ian Gregson and AE Stallings. Reading between the lines, any of the five would be excellent but I have to admit that I am biased on this one. Had I passed through the hallowed halls of Oxford rather then the dirty doorways of Dublin, then my vote would be going to Stallings
It is important that I lay the cards on the table. I have never met Armitage or Soyinka although I will admit, in the case of the latter, considerable hair envy. Shades of Don King. With a beard. Nor have I come across Gregson or Haldane.
But I have known Stallings for the best part of a decade now, almost throughout the period that we lived in Greece and since. She has mixed me the most divine mint julep; her husband gave me a job; our kids have played together. Absolutely, I am biased.
What was interesting about Alicia is that, unless you were particularly wired into the poetry world, you would never have guessed that she was such a prominent voice. I mean lots of people say “oh yes, well my wife writes poetry” but how many of those actually mean anything more than a six-line ditty in the kids’ birthday cards? She always came across as a very decent, funny, slightly frazzled young mother, more concerned about keeping the lollipop out of her son’s hair than composing an epic poem in iambic pentameter.
The first indication I had that she was a touch above the ordinary was when I went to a reading at the Athens Centre in the lovely suburb of Mets. Her poetry bristled; it flowed effortlessly with rhyme and rhythm. There was a lot of humour and a great deal of dexterity in the way she swapped her forms. She explained how she would set herself exercises, writing in different meters and different forms. Every poem was different. She enthused about the mechanics of poetry as well as the ideas within a poem.
By that stage I already knew her husband John Psaropoulos in his capacity as editor of Athens News, a weekly English-language newspaper that had been going since the 1950s. I had managed to persuade him that non-Greeks living in Greece really were interested in knowing what was going on in the world of Greek football and hence a column was born. Alas, a change of ownership in 2008 led to John’s departure and the Athens News has subsequently closed down. John is still going strong as the Athens correspondent for Al-Jazeera.
One of the high points of the summer was their garden party to coincide with the Kentucky Derby. As a Georgia girl, it was the one sporting event bred into Alicia from an early age. And with it came the mint julep. And a very late night.
Alicia’s reputation has grown over the last decade. The award in 2011 of a MacArthur Fellowship propelled her into the premier league; it is sometimes known by its other name of Genius Grant. At that point, I did my one and only interview with her for the magazine Insider Athens (which you can read below).
And now Stallings, who was herself a student at Oxford, stands alongside four men for the vote, open only to graduates, for the post of Professor of Poetry.
I hope she wins for many reasons but there are three that stand out.
First, in the 307 years since Joseph Trapp took up office, there has never been a woman in the post. Actually, that is not quite correct. Ruth Padel did win the election in 2009 but stood down nine days later over an argument about the nature of canvassing. And that is a serious omission that urgently need addressing.
Second, as a Classics graduate and translator as well as poet, she may be the first Professor of Poetry to go one better than Trapp and quote Shakespeare in Ancient Greek.
And third, because she is an all-round good egg who will bring vibrancy to the lecture theatre and inspire the new crop of Oxford students to dig deep and discover their own poetry.
If you are a graduate of Oxford University then you are entitled to vote. Registration – which can be done by clicking here – closes at noon British Summer Time (GMT+1) on June 8 while voting ends on June 17. The winner will be announced on June 19.
©Barney Spender 2015
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Literature Genius rhymes with…
Poet AE Stallings talks to Barney Spender on her new status as genius, after receiving a grant from the Chicago based MacArthur Foundation, popularly referred to as ‘genius grants’ and on meeting her Muse in modern-day Athens
The American poet AE (Alicia) Stallings hails from Atlanta, Georgia but for the last few years has been living in Athens. Her first collection of poems, Archaic Smile, won the 1999 Richard Wilbur Award and was shortlisted for many other prizes, including the Yale Younger Poets Award. In 2008 she was given the Benjamin H Danks Award by the American Academy of Arts, partly in recognition for her 2007 verse translation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things). She is also the Poetry Programme Director of the Athens Centre. In 2011, she was one of 22 fellows worldwide to receive the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is one of the largest private foundations in the United States and has awarded more than US$4 billion in grants since its inception in 1978.
Congratulations on winning the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship… what does it mean to you to be named a ‘genius’?
The MacArthur Foundation discourages that nickname (the genius grants) precisely because ‘genius’ comes as so loaded and fraught a word. It’s the sort of thing that could potentially be intimidating for a writer, because of course a writer always has to be willing to start with the blank page and to write something bad, to fail utterly. Still, I have been thinking of it as the “no excuses” grant. I can’t go around and complain that I can’t afford the babysitting to work or a space to work in. Now I can, and I just have to get on with things!
You have two small children; is that a help or a hindrance for your poetry.
There is a famous line from Cyril Connolly: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” In a sense, he is probably right. The most obvious way in which having children has affected my writing is that there is less of it. On the other hand, children also are fascinating for a poet to have. It is like having the world made new before your eyes the way they look at things. And of course, language acquisition – much less bilingualism – is fascinating. Kids are natural poets. A three-year-old can beat a working poet for inspired lines or phrases with one sticky hand tied behind his back any day. I am not above stealing lines from my children.
Was the grant for a particular work – or for a body of work?
As I understand it, it is for future work, which may or may not be a continuation of what you have been doing already. It is a big vote of confidence, basically, that you have more to write and do.
How is it likely to affect your standing as a poet in the US?
It does certainly raise your profile. There was a spike in book sales for a while (never terribly high for a poet anyway), and I think that my forthcoming book, Olives, will get more attention—and be subjected to greater scrutiny, perhaps.
Does being a ‘genius’ now mean that you can beat your husband at Scrabble?
Sometimes the better part of genius is NOT beating your husband at Scrabble. And presumably you can now get him to do the chores around the house Well, I hope it takes some pressure off John as being the sole breadwinner in such uncertain times. He’s always been helpful around the house. (I have a much higher tolerance for chaos—though genius has a nicer ring to it than slob.)
Is there such a thing as ‘a good place to be a poet’?
Anywhere you can write poetry is a good place to be a poet. Some poets need urban decay or dreary provincial towns to be inspired, some need to wander lonely as a cloud among drifts of daffodils. I was worried when I moved to Athens that the Muse wouldn’t have my forwarding address, but she seems to have found me here. Actually, being a Muse, she was probably born here. So how does the noisy, polluted, strike-laden city of Athens suit your process? I probably prefer daffodils – or wild amaryllis – to urban decay, so maybe it is not so much Athens as Greece that suits me. But, again, the poems get written. I can write pretty much anywhere if need be – a side-effect of motherhood – and often write at a local café against a backdrop of throbbing Greek pop music and the clacking of backgammon.
You have a background in Classics – has that helped you relate to Greece?
Maybe. Maybe it hurts. I am not sure. I think in a way it was easier to write about Greek mythology when I wasn’t smack in the midst of it all the time.
What was the first poem you ever wrote?
I couldn’t say. I was probably making up poems from six or seven years old. I had my first poem accepted for publication at 16.
Did it win any prizes?
No, but I got paid! I got a cheque for fifteen dollars. And the poem only took about an hour to write so I thought, “Well, this is an easy way to make a living”. And, er, here I am.
So, did you always set out on a career path to be a poet?
I think I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but probably didn’t know I wanted to be more exclusively a poet until high school. And the enthusiasm of editors for my poetry – as opposed to a novel manuscript languishing somewhere in a drawer – may have nudged me in that direction too.
I like the fact that use humour in your poetry; it is something that many people feel is incongruous in “serious” poetry…
I love humor in poetry. And rhyme is certainly a good vehicle for humour. Humour and seriousness, of course, are hardly exclusive of one another. A humorous poem can say deep and serious things, and a ‘serious’ poem can be shallow as the paper it is written on, not to mention dull. Plenty of serious poets such as Housman and Eliot, have written splendidly funny poems.
You mention those two – who else is on your poetry reading list?
I love Seamus Heaney, William Blake and I am also a big fan of Philip Larkin, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop. Among contemporary poets, I always look forward to new books by Don Paterson, Kay Ryan, Richard Wilbur. I like poets that nourish my own writing. I am attracted to wellcrafted, musical poems that take some emotional risks.
Cavafy is my favourite modern Greek poet, which is hardly surprising. Lately, I have been very much enjoying reading and translating Sikelianos, who writes in a wonderful assortment of forms – sonnets, quatrains and so on. And I am currently at work on an English verse translation of the Cretan epic-romance Erotokritos.
I did hear a rumour that your cure for writer’s block is a strong mint julep. Any truth in that?
I wouldn’t turn one down. Are you buying?
Athens Insider, February 2012