Poetic genius

Alicia Stallings wins a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation

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Poetic genius

Alicia Stallings

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Poet and translator Alicia “A.E.” Stallings (AB ’90) got the phone call in the middle of a busy evening of juggling dinner, bath and bedtime with her two young children.

She did not expect to learn that she was named one of 22 MacArthur Fellows to receive the “genius” grant, which carries an unrestricted prize of $500,000 paid over five years. Winners never expect the call, nor even know they are considered for it, as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s selection process uses anonymous nominations and stays completely confidential.

“I was, and then my husband was, in some shock at first, and it is really just starting to sink in,” says Stallings via e-mail from Athens, Greece, where she lives with her journalist husband John Psaropoulos and their two children, Jason, 7, and Atalanta, 2.

Stallings, the poetry program director of the Athens Centre, has been published in Poetry Magazine, two Best American Poetry anthologies, and her collections: the Richard Wilbur Award-winning Archaic Smile and Hapax. She translated Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius’ epic De Rerum Natura, or The Nature of Things. She also holds a master’s degree from the University of Oxford.

But before all that, she grew up in Decatur, Ga., the daughter of a Georgia State University professor and a school librarian. While a student at now-closed Briarcliff High School, she sold poems to Seventeen magazine for around $15 a piece—“nothing to sneeze about for a teenager in the mid-1980s,” she says, and “easier and maybe more fun than babysitting.” Soon she had a poem in the Beloit Poetry Journal.

At UGA she made lifelong friends in Church Hall, the Classics department and the Demosthenian Society, and she hung out at the Uptown Lounge on Tuesday nights to hear Widespread Panic. A violinist, she reveled (and sometimes played) in the ever-burgeoning local music scene.

Richard LaFleur, UGA Franklin Professor of Classics Emeritus, recruited a then-freshman Stallings into a graduate-level class on the Roman poet Catullus. Her “performance in virtually every respect exceeded that of all others in the class, despite their post-graduate status,” he recalls.

Her translation work is known for making complex ancient texts not just understandable, but also rather modern, even topical.

“The reason a lot of people think that classical poetry sounds Victorian is from Victorian translations,” she explains. “But the originals were ‘modern’ when they were written, unless being deliberately archaic. Catullus wrote in the contemporary vernacular of his day—even a little slangy—so instead of the correct Latin for ‘kisses,’ for instance, he has something more like ‘smoochies.’ That’s too cutsie, but I think you get the idea. And of course, he can be very racy, even obscene.”

Stallings has referred to herself in the past as a “poet housewife”—a term that has many layers, especially for other writers, mothers or self-described housewives. Sometimes she has to remind editors that she has to buy her work time from a babysitter. Balancing writing and parenting remains a challenge, and writing often takes a backseat to mothering.

“I try not to be too hard on myself about it,” she says. “I try to look on these as fallow periods. Also, with small kids, there are times when they need your complete, undivided attention, which means you are only going to make them and yourself angry if you are trying to compose a sonnet in your head while you are making pies with Play-Doh. But I think particularly as a woman you have to be careful to occasionally define a time and space that are just for you and your thinking—it is tempting to keep relinquishing and retreating, and give and give until you become resentful. Everyone is happier if you are happier. And I think it is good for the kids to see that mommy has her own work and her own life.”

—Mary Jessica Hammes is a freelance writer living in Athens.