By Abriana Jetté
Staten Island, NY, USA
To introduce the poet A.E. Stallings as a genius is not hyperbolic or some gross exaggeration; after all, in 2011, she won the popularly nicknamed "Genius Grant." More formally known as the MacArthur Fellowship, recipients of the grant demonstrate a unique and original dedication to their respective arts. Five years have since passed since Stallings received the honor, and she still continues to surprise, excite, educate, and scratch the minds of readers with her extraordinary linguistic talent. Sometimes her verse is formal, sometimes her reviews read like sonatas; whatever she is writing, it is always informed, and it is always sharp. In general, her poetry often evokes the narratives and voices of the women of Greek mythology, especially throughout her collections Hapax (2006) and Olives (2012), but the poet's wide knowledge of Greco-Roman literature and culture is not her only influence on the Humanities.
Since 1999, Stallings has lived in Athens, Greece, where her husband, also a writer, works as a journalist. Together, they have observed, documented, and lived through some of Greece's darkest economic days. A decade into her time as a resident of the ancient city, Greece underwent its third major bailout. The result was an earthquake without the faults: trust broke, accounts froze, and every major government trembled. Today, Stallings is knee-deep in what is commonly known as the "Syrian" or "Greek" refugee crisis, but what she calls "a Humanitarian crisis." Her want to change the term reveals how little many of us understand about what is going on right now in Athens. Call it what you want to call it, whatever it is, the crisis is not, nor has it ever been, a two country issue.
I believe poetry informs us in ways other genres of writing cannot. Its mysteries reveal, its rhythms remind us of a past we are part of. Because of this, I knew Stallings would offer a perspective that would not only inform me about the current status of Greek life, but would, more importantly, move me. In early May, I was honored to talk with the poet about the way the refugee crisis and her volunteer efforts have influenced her work and personal life. What followed was an unforgettable portrait of humanism.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. I was hoping we could start off there, actually, with your schedule. What is a typical day in Athens like for you?
A.E. STALLINGS: I don't know that there are typical days in Athens. It has been an extraordinary year here (after a series of extraordinary years), with surprising elections, protests, a memorandum, more elections, bank closures, capital controls, a rapidly shifting refugee crisis that started out on the islands and now is part of the fabric of Athens. I try to do some work while my kids are at school, but I have an assortment of other responsibilities and concerns as well. Maybe my husband, who is a journalist, has been covering some financial meltdown all day, and we have a sort of make-shift date, a quick drink between live shots on the roof of the Plaza Hotel, which has a great view of the parliament building and so is sometimes more frequented by journalists than tourists. A typical Tuesday or Thursday might mean spending the morning at a refugee squat with volunteers (and the odd anarchist), and the afternoon at the American School of Archaeology working on Hesiod. Walking along I might direct a refugee mother and child to a metro stop (they can't read the signs), or hear a local child singing for money with heartbreaking purity of tone. Maybe I will miss my metro stop because I am trying to find out from an 11-year-old Syrian child travelling on his own whether he has a family and place to go. (He does, but then I marvel that my own 11-year-old would not be so confident navigating the public transport on his own, and it's his town, and he knows the language.) There might be a taxi strike, or a protest march impeding my progress. In the distance, perhaps I hear stun grenades to disperse protestors, or maybe they are cannons celebrating some national holiday? Maybe an urban tortoise wading through poppies and nettles catches my eye as I walk past the first cemetery. If it's a Monday, the farmer's market comes to my street, and I will shop for what vegetables and wild greens and fruits are in season; as the market wraps up I will pretend not to notice the impoverished pensioners gleaning from the piles of lemons or tomatoes that have been left behind. Typically, my Facebook feed (with which I can become obsessed) is an overwhelming list poem for urgently and immediately needed items throughout Greece and Athens: baby milk, diapers, medicines, food, doctors, midwives, translators—with seasonal changes—warm clothes, sleeping bags, rain boots; sun-hats, mosquito repellent, sunscreen; this is punctuated by election news and po-biz posts from friends abroad. Maybe I will wait in a queue at an ATM, and be a little embarrassed that I have a foreign bank account and so can pull out more than 60 euros at a go. Maybe I just spend the evening supervising Middle School homework, cooking dinner, trying to get kids to bed on time. In the morning, if I am walking my kids to the bus stop (more often it is my husband who does this), we will say "Good Morning!" to the Parthenon when it looms around the corner against the faience-blue sky, and my 6-year-old daughter will ask, eyeing the scaffolding, when it will be finished.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: How would you describe the refugee situation in Greece right now?
A.E. STALLINGS: The situation is dire. It is a humanitarian crisis. People fleeing the trauma of war zones are being further traumatized by dreadful conditions in tent cities, lack of sufficient or sufficiently healthy food, basic health measures, and the biggest lack of all perhaps, information. Pregnant mothers, newborn infants, small children. Teenagers who have fled forced conscription because they didn't want to kill or be killed. Many unaccompanied children. I watched as in a matter of weeks—weeks—it went from being a minor crisis to have 30 families sleeping at the port of Piraeus (FB calls to bring food, sleeping bags, water to the port), to having a tent city of 5,000 individuals. Most of these have gone off to different camps (some decent, some not), but these are temporary solutions. My fear is best expressed in the Greek adage: nothing is so permanent as the temporary.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: When you reflect on what your life was like five years ago, what do you think has changed the most?
A.E. STALLINGS: Well, five years ago I had a one-year-old infant; now she is six. So that perhaps is the big difference. But as you can see above, Greece has been through a lot; the grinding burden of austerity measures, capital controls, etc. The way Greece has become a "warehouse of souls" for the refugee crisis, while Europe shuts its borders and threatens Greece with removal from Schengen. And there is a sense that with the financial crisis (threat of Grexit and so on), the can has just been kicked down the road. Everyone is still waiting for the big event, whatever that will be, to happen.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: It's no secret that you've actively donated pens, paper, markers, balloons, chalk, and other types of arts and crafts to refugee children, and you've been lucky enough to see the work they're producing. How has your volunteer experience influenced your art?
A.E. STALLINGS: I am probably spending less time writing, or even reflecting. My own volunteer efforts are quite minor compared to a lot of folk who were down feeding people at the port at six in the morning, spending hours sorting at warehouses, driving children to the hospital, things of that nature. I feel I can and therefore must spare a few hours a couple of mornings a week; it's not much but I am consistent about it. A local mother and artist (Eileen Botsford) started the Activity Kits for Refugee Children initiative, and I wholeheartedly support the philosophy behind it. She was seeing a lot of bored and anxious children in transit, waiting at train stations or for long bus rides or walks (that was when the borders were open). Anybody with kids knows how stressful a long plane ride or car trip can be with bored kids. The idea that we could do something so simple as give people some paper and pencils and that this would improve at least the present hour—it's powerful. And that they can express themselves. Older kids and adults too are very happy to have paper and something to draw or write with; adults frequently ask for pencils and pens. Of course, compared to the larger problems, this can seem pointless or slight and the needs overwhelming. I often feel depressed about it, and that our efforts are inadequate and feeble. Other times I am assured, by other volunteers or by refugees themselves, that it is important. I also have friends who crowdsource for food or other necessities. But since a lot of us are writers/artists ourselves, this seemed something we could understand and could do.
Mostly we see optimistic art—flowers, butterflies, rainbows. Aspirational houses, though I notice, seldom with people. (I think quite a lot of Bishop's "Sestina" when I see these somewhat "inscrutable" houses.) Now we are seeing a lot of rivers and bridges. But you also see some sobering stuff. Rafts with people drowning. Guns, tanks, bombs. Scenes of massacres. Still, I think it must be good they are able to express that.
Mostly I guess I just think they are like my kids, they are often roughly the same age, they like the same things. And the refugees themselves are often (not always, but often) well-educated, middle class folk—maybe with a degree in English literature, say, or engineering, or architecture, or dentistry. Not that it should matter, but it does make me feel continually, "They could be us. We could be they."
ABRIANA JETTÉ: When did you begin to realize that the refugee crisis was making its way into your work?
A.E. STALLINGS: I have been writing a lot of directly political stuff since the onset of the Greek economic crisis. Sometimes it is humorous or satiric. I did a canto for an anthology of a "new" Don Juan (A Modern Don Juan) set in the crisis. I have done some serio-comic haiku on the debt crisis as well. I have done some more serious things on the drownings in the Aegean, such as "Aegean Epigrams." Classics actually gives one a way into this—people have been refugees crossing the Aegean for millennia; classical literature is full of shipwrecks and war, drowning and exile. So this gives me a bit of aesthetic distance to handle material that is in fact unbearable. I think about the fact often that my children are swimming in the same water where other children have been drowning.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: How have you noticed the literary community responding to the refugee crisis? Is there anything you would like to see in particular from young, emerging, or established writers and artists?
A.E. STALLINGS: People are doing what they can. Many of the volunteers are writers or artists or musicians themselves. Some of the volunteers are unemployed Greeks, who would rather be doing something, helping, than feeling sorry for themselves. As far as Greek writers are concerned, they are responding to, if you will excuse a misused quote from Zorba the Greek, "the full catastrophe," financial and cultural. There are several new or newish anthologies of poems responding to the financial crisis: Crisis, edited by Dinos Siotis, Futures, edited by Theodoros Chiotis, and Austerity Measures, edited by Karen Van Dyck. The refugee crisis taps into recent Greek history (many Greeks are themselves only at one generational remove from being Asia Minor refugees), and I think contemporary Greek writers view the present situation through the lens of history.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: Are there any projects we can look forward to seeing from you in the future?
A.E. STALLINGS: I have a couple of books that should come out in the next couple of years, a new poetry manuscript, and a translation of Hesiod's Works and Days. It also occurs to me that I have enough prose (20 years worth) for a book of prose at some point.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: I'm sure I speak for many when I say that I'll be eagerly awaiting this work. Thank you so much for enlightening us. The work you're doing, both as a volunteer and as an artist, is important and far from unnoticed.
A.E. STALLINGS: Thank you for the opportunity to address these interesting questions.