Saturday, May 9, 2015

Poetry In Oxford

Haven't quite had your fill of elections in the UK? Boy are you in luck with this blogpost. My old friend Alicia Stallings has been nominated for the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Every five years the university convocation (all its graduates and current professors) elect a new professor of poetry - they've been doing this since 1708 and there have been quite a few notable profs who have gotten the job: WH Auden, Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney etc. You can read the full list and what the post entails, here. The first Professor of Poetry I encountered was Seamus Heaney who was giving a memorable lecture on Hero and Leander when he was interrupted and heckled by a foaming madman who was railing against the lack of metre & rhyme in modern poetry. The madman was dragged out by an aged security guard and Heaney, unruffled, continued. With me that day was Alicia Stallings who was my flatmate at Lady Margaret Hall. I was studying for an M Phil in politics and philosophy and she was doing an M St in classics. Alicia was then already an accomplished classicist, completely at home translating Latin and Greek poetry. 
Alicia was born and grew up in suburban Georgia before attending the University of Georgia at Athens. This was an exciting time to be in Athens as it was the heyday of a little band called REM and Alicia has written about the experience of being at the birth of the alternative music scene, here. When I knew Alicia she was already writing fiction and poetry. One of her stories was selected for the prestigious May Anthology of Oxford & Cambridge Short Stories and this was only the first of Alicia's many honours. Her debut poetry collection, Archaic Smile, received the 1999 Richard Wilbur Award and was a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award. Since then she has won or been shortlisted for nearly every poetry prize going including the Pushcart Prize, The Eunice Tietjens Prize, The James Dickey Award and The National Critics Book Circle Award. In 2011 she was given a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" and was picked by Penguin Classics to do the new translation of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura. 
Alicia has lived with her husband and two sons in Athens since 1999 and has regularly reported back on the chaos and surprising normalcy of that turbulent city for National Public Radio and the Times Literary Supplement. Alicia's poems have been published in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine and just about everywhere serious poets get published. She writes verse in a number of modes both modern and neo classical. She's not afraid to rhyme or to write in free verse. One of my favourite AE Stallings poems is this one: 

The Machines Mourn the Passing of People

We miss the warmth of their clumsy hands,
The oil of their fingers, the cleansing of use
That warded off dust, and the warm abuse
Lavished upon us as reprimands.

We were kicked like dogs when we were broken,
But we did not whimper.  We gritted our cogs—
An honor it was to be treated as dogs,
To incur such warm words roughly spoken,

The way that they pleaded with us if we balked—
"Come on, come on" in a hoarse whisper
As they would urge a reluctant lover—
The feel of their warm breath when they talked!

How could we guess they would ever be gone?
We are shorn now of tasks, and the lovely work—
Not toiling, not spinning—like lilies that shirk—
Like the brash dandelions that savage the lawn.

The air now is silent of curses or praise.
Jilted, abandoned to hells of what weather,
Left to our own devices forever,
We watch the sun rust at the end of its days.

Alicia faces some stiff competition for the Professor of Poetry position. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is up for the post and he's the early bookies favourite. He's the choice of the old establishment and he's also gotten the most celebrity endorsements. In a previous election he may have been the right man for the job but really it's time the men stepped aside. They've never had a woman as Professor of Poetry in the entire history of the university and even when Ruth Padel was actually elected to the job in 2010 she was driven out by a disgraceful whispering campaign against her and she resigned before formally taking up the post. Yes gentlemen women do write poetry and they've been doing it since the very beginning (Anne Carson's If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho is a book no house should be without.) Incredibly the home nations of the UK and Ireland have five female poet laureates at the moment but Alicia is still the only female candidate for the Professor of Poetry at Oxford. It's time to end this absurd boys club. But lets put that argument aside for the moment. The Professor of Poetry job should go to the best poet and if you actually compare the candidates work in poetry its obvious to me that Alicia is the most accomplished and deserving of the nominees. Forget celebrity endorsements, forget fame, forget what the establishment want, just look at the poems and this choice is pretty simple. Alicia will be an engaged, energised, youthful and brilliant Professor of Poetry and is definitely the best person for the job.  
If you are a member of the Oxford Convocation (a graduate or current professor) you can register to vote, here. You can read a great interview with Alicia, here. You can read all about the job, here