Poet Andy Stallings talks punctuation, velocity and walks with The Arcade

Stephanie Chen, Senior Staff Reporter

Andy Stallings is a generous poet. The former Tulane adjunct professor’s debut collection “To the Heart of the World” was published this fall, and it demonstrates Stallings at his most triumphant, crushed, probing. He will read from “To the Heart of the World” at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 10 in the Stone Auditorium. The event is free and copies of the book will be available for sale.

Each poem in the collection makes friends with the reader—there’s no room for condescension in Stallings’ writing. He is certainly no proponent for the idea of the poet as an isolated genius and is quick to acknowledge those who have influenced him. Within the book is a world of friends, students, colleagues and canonical poets put into dialogue with each other, and the reader is invited into that conversation. The poems in this collection pulse and wander between desperation and exuberance, and often declare both at the same time. In the poem “To Daniel Grossberg,” the speaker says,

“every life is

at a distance the

insane wish

to live all days & to

be all people with

the incomplete desire

for completeness &

disruption at the

exact same time

the impossible”

It’s a plea for intimacy, for the elegant proposal of immediate, lived experience and for communities one can depend on. This collection is of course born out of the poet’s necessity, but here, it is also an immense gift to the reader. These poems want to wrap you in their arms. They want to buy you a beer and walk through the city late at night to discuss something of urgency, and they’re not ashamed to say so. It’s the most generous thing the poems can do. The Arcade spoke with Stallings about the ampersand, his writing process and the nature of community.

The Arcade: This collection seems especially interested in relationships, in communities of people – other poets, friends, students, colleagues. Why was it important to you to put these relationships at the center of the collection?

Andy Stallings: Community is a fiction, a way we have of convincing ourselves that we’re acting in something other than self-interest. For the most part it’s a productive fiction. I’d implicate myself, and my book, in perpetuating that fiction, and in some fashion providing a sense of community as at least a reading experience. But when it comes down to it, I’m the beneficiary of that fiction – it’s what let me write the poems I wanted to write.

I never felt at home in New Orleans. I never felt welcome at Tulane. Part of that’s my personality, but part of that’s due to the fact that, as an adjunct professor, I always felt as though I was on the verge of being dismissed. And yet, as a writer and teacher, the idea of community, the idea that there are other poets around, and that they are as invested in the art as I am, is vital. Feeling like an outsider in my city and at my job provoked me to act otherwise. While teaching at Tulane, I constantly attempted to project a sense of community into my classrooms, and beyond my classrooms, because I desperately needed for there to be other poets around, and I know that poets emerge when there’s a sense of there being other poets around.

You see how self-interested that is – but it worked, and continues to work, and I guess I don’t think the world is worse off for having these poems in it, or for having a few more poets in it than it might have if I’d spent my time at Tulane feeling alienated. Community is a fiction, but it’s a powerful fiction. “To the Heart of the World” is very definitely a record of my feeling its necessity.

The Arcade: A lot of the poems in “To the Heart of the World” are written directly “to” different people. Did these poems begin in that epistolary mode, or do they begin sonically or with a feeling, etc.?

AS: Pretty much every poem in “To the Heart of the World” began with some sort of sonic proximity between lines I was holding in my head on the day in question. This is specifically true of some of the shorter poems, like “To Nico Alvarado” and “Hallelujah.” Often, the pattern began to emerge while I was out for a walk at night. There were many nights, during the year I spent writing the book, on which I returned from a walk, sat down in the front room of our house in Algiers and began to quickly scribble down what I’d been working hard to hold together for the second half of my walk, hoping to not lose the pattern.

There are only two poems in the collection that originated in ideas – “To Carolyn Blessing,” and “To Sally Beauvais.” Those poems both have to do with the concepts of understanding and narrative, David Antin’s concept of the latter, a concept I’ve been grappling with for a few years, more or less unsuccessfully. His definition of narrative is “the confrontation of the desiring subject with the threat, or possibility, or threat and possibility, of transformation.” I think this idea has vast implications in our lives, that it is a fundamental aspect of our being, and that in our culture it is largely lost. Actually, I think the part of “To Sally Beauvais” having to do with narrative was edited out in the final version of the poem, evidence that poems change as they go, but it had its origin in the idea.

The epistolary gesture usually came pretty rapidly after the sonic pattern – I’d write down my initial notes, and by the time I’d done so it was usually clear who I wanted listening. There are poems in the collection that aren’t addressed directly “to” a person, but which nevertheless are silently directed at some particular person’s hearing. On the other hand, those addressed “to” a specific person sometimes have very little to do with that person, and are directed to them both for them and for specific overhearing by others.

The Arcade: Your poems are deeply sincere. Is it intimidating at all for your voice to be that stark and vulnerable in these poems?

AS: For me, it isn’t. I haven’t got anything I’d care to hide from the world, at this point in my life. I’ve worried at times that the people named in the book might be intimidated by my vulnerability or openness, but ultimately I think it’s clear that I care deeply about everyone named in “To the Heart of the World.” And in the end, what can you really do about how another person feels, assuming that you do your sincere best not to hurt them?

The Arcade: There isn’t much punctuation in this collection, but you’ve chosen to use the ampersand sign instead of the word “and”. Why the ampersand?

AS: Not to overstate it, but the ampersand was really important to the shape the book eventually took. The first of these poems, chronologically, was “To Zoe Clements.” The velocity of that poem, as I was writing it, required an ampersand at a certain point, and because I liked how it functioned when I used it that time, I carried on using it in my notebooks for the couple weeks after writing that poem. Eventually, it had a significant impact on how I shaped my lines. Specifically, it allowed me to shorten the lines, which shortening was what let the poems open up and breathe, and become what they are in the book. I’m not sure why I think of the ampersand as having greater velocity than the word “and.” But – it does, doesn’t it?

The Arcade: The form of these poems is really interesting – they’re generally long poems (the longest is 26 pages) but with extremely short lines. How did you start using this, and how were you able to retain movement without exhausting that form?

AS: Much like the ampersand, or even because of the ampersand, I started using these lines for velocity – I wanted the poems to move quickly. I figured that speed would allow me to engage with complex ideas and emotions while not sacrificing rhythm and attention. So far as I’m concerned, though, and for now, I believe I’ve exhausted the form. My lines at the moment are really long, and that suits me.

The Arcade: The speaker of these poems does a lot of walking. Where are your favorite places to go for a walk?

My favorite places to walk may be somewhat different than the actual walks I take. I think I’d prefer to walk in the big cities most of all, but my life hasn’t worked out that way. Where we lived while I was writing these poems, a couple blocks away from the Mississippi, deep in Algiers, there happens to be a long stretch of levee that’s relatively free of traffic in the late evening, and I did most of my thinking about these poems while walking there last winter. I recommend it to anyone who has a car and doesn’t mind a 25-minute drive from Tulane.

The Arcade: Which poets not referenced in this collection have you found echoes of in your own writing?

AS: In general, I’m both conscious of and not shy about whose poems have influenced my own. For better or worse, I’ve always felt comfortable entering into imaginary conversation with poets who are much greater than I am. Those who echo through this collection are named, either in the poems themselves, or in the notes at the end of the book. I have, though, already had a couple experiences, having sent my poems off to be printed, of reading poems that do seem to echo with my own.

For a long time now, my friend Zach Savich has mentioned James Schuyler when talking about my poetry. I just read a book of Schuyler’s for the first time this spring, and while there are vast differences between his poems and mine, there are also correspondences of tone and shape.

Then, this summer, during a class on Bay Area poetry, the last class I taught at Tulane, we read Kenneth Rexroth’s “In Defense of the Earth,” and Chelsea Weller, who had read some of the poems from “To the Heart of the World,” pointed out the strong resemblance between a couple of the poems from that collection and the shape and tone of my own. And it’s true – if I’d read Rexroth’s book a year earlier, I’d have been deeply influenced by those poems when writing my own. I don’t know – it’s nice to have echoes of that sort, the conscious ones and the ones that occur later. I’m grateful for both.

The Arcade: Hunter Deely is in so many of these poems – in the poem addressed to him, but other poems feature him or grapple with his death. If he could read the book, what do you think would be the first thing he would do after finishing it?

AS: I feel pretty certain that he’d write a poem, and I wish I could read that poem.