A.E. Stallings & A Quiz on First Love

Some of are afraid of traditional poetic techniques such as sonnets, sapphics, meter, and rhyme. But then again, some of us—like A.E. Stallings—are fearless, and use these forms to make contemporary experiences feel timeless. In this post, local poet Gabrielle Bates describes her first encounter on the page with Stallings’ work, which you can hear Stallings read and discuss live on Monday, November 13th, at McCaw Hall as part of SAL’s 2017/18 Poetry Series.

By: Gabrielle Bates

As a junior in college, I took a class that would change the course of my life, in which we read four contemporary collections of poetry: When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, Crush by Richard Siken, Rookery by Traci Brimhall, and HAPAX by A.E. Stallings.

When I encountered A.E. Stallings’ poems for the first time that fateful semester, one of my eyebrows rose. This was a contemporary collection, and yet, here before me was, of all things, rhyme. And not sneaky, mid-line or slant rhyme, but strong, audacious rhyme—exactly where I expected it, in plain sight. I was embarrassed for Stallings; didn’t she know rhyme was embarrassing? That it was old? That old techniques = embarrassing techniques?

But quickly (by the end of the first poem, in fact) I realized it was I, not Stallings, who had something to learn about what poems should and should not, can and cannot do.

That blatant rhyme, which at first seemed to me Stallings’ fatal flaw, is actually, I think now, her great power. I find myself re-astonished by its wiliness (and my own inability to anticipate it) every time I read her work. The overt formal elements of Stallings’ poetry are bait that allows for her great switch. Skepticism heightens attention; meanwhile, complex, gut-punching, deeply human insight is sneaking through the back window to appear poignantly, unmistakably before us.

Just the other day, riding the ferry from Seattle over to Bainbridge Island, I re-opened HAPAX to a page my 18-year-old self had ear-marked: “First Love: A Quiz.” It’s an unforgettable poem, formally unique and disarming until WHAM—it runs you over like a truck. This poem utilizes slow reveal in a way we expect more from great fiction than great poetry. (Really, just go read it.)

In the work of A.E. Stallings, Greek myth feels as real and relevant as the cormorants flying over the ferry, the water folding itself into a wake. The ancient music is the music of our own particular sorrow, fate, delight. The everyday is part of the eternal.

Gabrielle Bates works at Open Books: A Poem Emporium and serves on the editorial board of the Seattle Review, Poetry Northwest, and Broadsided Press. Her poems and poetry comics appear—or will soon—in Poetry, New England Review, jubilat, Alaska Quarterly Review, Black Warrior Review, and the Best of the Net anthology, and she’s the recipient of support from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Hugo House, Artist Trust, and the University of Washington, where she completed her MFA. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she currently lives in Seattle. Visit her on the web or via Twitter.