We talk to Aria Ligi, Senior Poetry Editor at October Hill Magazine, about her work, inspirations, and the role poets can play in our current political landscape. Aria’s work has been published in numerous magazines, chapbooks, and anthologies including Light Magazine, October Hill Magazine, The Australian Times and the Vermillion Literary Project. Two of her earlier books, Temple of Love: Poems for Marie Antoinette and Blood, Bone, and Stone are available for purchase on Amazon.
Her latest book Hammer of God, published by Poetic Justice, is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and numerous other retailers. Read more of Aria’s work here, and be sure to connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
What is your objective as a poet? And why write poetry?
My goal for each poem and book of poetry I have written has been to serve humanity. I view each book as a kind of gift, which asks the reader to not just read the work but to take it in so that it might improve, educate, or enlighten them. That being said, my poems are not sermons and I do not wish to baldly lecture the reader.
My work uses the mechanics of poetry, meter, form, aptly set aphorisms, and alliteration to convey a message. Thus, as a poet, one must seduce the reader, letting them imbibe the verse like a glass of warm port wine. One feels it going down and burning the throat, before giving way to a feeling of peace and unification with the self and everything around you. It is a permeation of the subconscious which is both visceral and vital. Transformation can be subliminal and that is how poetry works when done well.
How did you come to write Hymn to Equity?
After completing my book for Byron, I shared it with a good friend, the renowned poet Scott Hastie, who suggested that I write books for both Wordsworth and Coleridge. I had already written books for Mary & Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron, so I would have been remiss not to include the two fathers of the movement as well.
At first, it felt like working backward, because I had already written four volumes on the later Romantics and the ordeal had exhausted me. A four-volume series was more than enough, so why go further? But I realized, in the end, that it would not have been fair to exclude Wordsworth. So I went from 1824 back to 1770.
Writing on Wordsworth fills me with a palpable sense of awe, one because he was so highly lauded, and two because of the great responsibility I felt as a poet. How does anyone go about composing something that does justice to such a renowned literary figure? My desire to portray the man as truthfully as possible could not be understated. I also knew very little about Wordsworth, and I was intimidated, to say the least. But my consternation fell away once I jumped into the task and I started to get a sense of Wordsworth as a real person. From that point, I was hooked.
There is such tremendous depth, pathos, complexity, and wonder within Wordsworth the man, the life he lived, and the lives of those that he knew. Like many of the Romantics, I also found in him a kind of kinship, the two of us sharing many similar personal experiences in our lives.
One of the great things about writing for historical figures is that one finds connections between oneself and the person they are writing for. These connections can function as the reader’s way in to the text, linking them with its subject, and creating a meta-network between all parties involved in its writing, reading, and inspiration. You can see the thread as it crosses between you (the writer) to the subject (in this case, Wordsworth) and to the audience who reads the work.
With Hymn to Equity, as with all the series’ volumes, I wanted to make it clear to the audience that I did not intend to rewrite ‘The Prelude’, ‘Tintern Abbey,’ etc., but to sketch out, in poetry, all the other little-explored moments in Wordsworth’s life.
Namely, his mixed feelings about the French Revolution: his excitement for the people’s cause when it first began, after which he slowly became disillusioned as the struggle became bloodier and more volatile.
I also wanted to explore his feelings for his sister Dorothy, and the anguish they both felt at the death of their parents (William, Dorothy, and their siblings were all left destitute after becoming orphans). Moreover, there were so many moments in Wordsworth’s life I wanted to explore:
- The death of his brother John, a British captain for the East India Company, who drowned at sea.
- His affair with Annette Vallon and the birth of their daughter Caroline.
- His love for wife Mary and the premature death of their three-year-old daughter Catherine.
- The complicated feelings he harbored for his friend and fellow writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both as a poet and as a man.
- His lifelong love for the land, plus his anxiety surrounding the industrial revolution (the advent of train travel, increasing urbanization, destruction of the natural world, etc.)
Writing historical poetry offers a fresh perspective on figures like Wordsworth. One could easily sketch out all of the above details in a biography, but that would have been a dry endeavor. There are innumerable great biographies already written about Wordsworth, and any further attempt might be viewed as stale and perfunctory.
The aim of Hymn to Equity was to recount the story of Wordsworth’s life in poetic form, buttressed by the conventions of the Romantic genre, while giving readers a taste of the wider themes explored, not just by Wordsworth, but by the other Romantic poets. I wanted to write something equally accessible to the modern reader and to scholars of Romanticism alike.
Tell us about the other volumes in the series…
It would have been unfair to overlook Samuel Taylor Coleridge as he and Wordsworth were both great friends and, for a time, partners in writing. After Hymn to Equity, I penned a volume for Coleridge too, but I didn’t stop there. While researching Wordsworth, many other names kept appearing whom I wished to learn more about. Among them was Leigh Hunt, without whom Shelley and Keats may never have become the poets they were. Another writer friend of mine suggested Dorothy Wordsworth. I possessed a lot of material on Dorothy, having already written for William, which made the task of writing for her far easier. Following Hunt and Dorothy, I discovered Lady Blessington, whose Conversations of Lord Byron I had read, although I knew little about her as a person. I wrote Volume Nine with the aim of exploring her life and work, at which point I discovered that I was on a role.
Volume Ten is very dear to my heart as it focuses on Lady Caroline. She is often unfairly pigeonholed as just another one of Byron’s lovers, but she was also a deeply complex woman who struggled with bipolar disorder. She composed poetry, wrote several novels, and openly advocated for disabled rights (her son was born with severe mental problems). Lady Caroline was well ahead of her time in opposing the death penalty and the ill-treatment of women in a patriarchal world. I had long wanted to write for her after reading Paul Douglass’s biography and a collection of her letters.
The next volume deals with Mary Wollstonecraft (this one is very dear to me as well) and ties together Volumes Three and Four (for Mary & Percy Bysshe Shelley). I allude to Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley, in both previous books, almost as if each volume were speaking directly to the other. She also gave rise to Volume Twelve for Mary Darby Robinson, a friend and colleague of Wollstonecraft, both of whom were influential women of their time.
At this juncture, I sent a proposal for the series to my editor, who questioned why I had not included William Blake, and I freely admit I was embarrassed that I had not considered him before then. Blake’s subsequent volume was and is very different from the others, as he was not only a poet but an engraver, which meant I had to adjust my approach. I wanted to be fair and to present him in the fullest form possible.
Taking that into account, I decided to write a book of poems pertaining not only to his life but to his engravings as well. With that in mind, each poem has an engraving on the opposite page, responding to a specific work of art, while also commenting on Blake’s life and beliefs, and the historical setting in which he lived.
Still, I knew I was not done. The final book, Volume Fourteen, is work for the much-maligned and unsung bluestocking women. This includes Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, Fanny Burney, Lady Morgan, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, and of course, the exquisite Madame de Staël, whose book Corinne was so popular and brazen for its time (in having a heroine who was not a victim) that Napoleon ordered the print blocks to be destroyed.
The series has in total seven volumes for the men and seven for the women, each of which carefully lays out their lives in poetry, providing footnotes and an en précis delineating my thoughts on their work and experiences.
All the poets I chose to write on espoused ideals of a Pantisocracy, a kind of Utopian social paradigm in which the field of play was level, whereby all members would live with constraint in terms of race, gender, or class, and neither their work nor the rewards would be based upon any of these things. Shelley, Blake, Wollstonecraft, Coleridge, and Hunt were all adamant on the subject, and so, by dividing the series equally between male and female writers, I hoped to honor them and their cause. Furthermore, I wish this to be a thoughtful reminder of the continuing political struggle that still rages to this day.
What drew you to poetry in the beginning?
I was a creative child, keyed into anything that allowed me to express myself. My first loves were singing and painting, the latter of which is intrinsically tied to poetry, so the leap from singing to writing poetry was a natural progression.
I was pretty lucky in that my father had a huge library of rare books which included the complete works of Byron, Yeats, Shakespeare, and Poe which provided me with a good foundation for writing, and piqued my interest in poetry at an early age.
Which writers and/or poetic movements have had the strongest impact on your work?
My greatest influence is the Romantic movement (Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, etc.) but the first poet that ever spoke to me was Sylvia Plath. Her poem ‘Daddy’ resonated with and inspired me to write. I was able to look at Plath’s life and identify with her on a multitude of levels, least of which was her being female, and say to myself, this is what I want to do. This is who I am. I knew her on an intrinsic primal level and that is a very powerful thing.
After Plath, I would have to cite TS Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Emily Dickinson (who is not a modern poet, but a good one for anyone starting out), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, WH Auden’s ‘September 1st, 1939′, Adrienne Rich, Erica Jong’s ‘Fruits and Vegetables’, Pablo Neruda’s ‘Body of a Woman’, and Osip Mandelstam’s collection Tristia.
From the Romantics, I would be remiss if I did not mention Byron’s epic ‘Don Juan’ (to my mind, the finest poem ever written). I also love Coleridge’s ‘Fire, Famine and Slaughter’; Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘To Ianthe’ and ‘The Mask of Anarchy’; William Cowper’s ‘The Negro’s Complaint’; and the works of William Blake, not to mention his sumptuous engravings and prints. All are excellent.
For women, I would urge them to read Plath’s Ariel, and most importantly her poem ‘The Jailer’, a work not normally remarked upon, but one which tackles the very real trauma of domestic abuse.
How can poets break out of their niche to reach a wider audience?
That is a good question. Firstly, I would counsel all writers to be themselves. The most important thing is to find your voice and not to let anyone dissuade you. You know who you are and your writing should reflect that. This is the reason I do not like (and nor did Byron) the notion of a Poet Laureate. They are essentially poets for hire, whose purpose is to write for the county, city, or monarch. The idea of a laureate, while it sounds nice, makes the poet, and their work, something which is sophistic and biased because it cannot ever have the flavor of truth.
For instance, right now we are living in a time of great civil unrest due to the George Floyd murder. If one were a laureate, say, for a county, a city councilperson could then request that you write poetry praising his/her treatment (the use of tear gas, shock grenades, etc.) of the protesters. You would be forced to compromise your values and attach your name to those of the elected official, or party, subsequently linking you and your work to something which is not representative of how you feel. That is an extreme example, but it is well worth noting. The bottom line is to be yourself. No writer with any integrity would wish to betray themselves and their work by misrepresenting their values.
If writers wish to reach a wider audience (and keep their integrity intact), there are several paths available to explore. The first would be to network:
- Create social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.
- Meet other writers and poets.
- Send your work out.
- Do not be afraid of rejection (believe me, there will be a LOT) and good, honest criticism.
Constructive criticism is almost always valuable, yet most poets are averse to hearing it, much less editing their work. Good criticism should not be personal, but it should always be personalized. Seek out people who you know will offer a different perspective, and be sure to remain open to their feedback. Poetry groups are also beneficial (see Facebook and LinkedIn), but be sure to read their guidelines before submitting your work online.
What role should poetry play in today’s society?
Poetry today, and I believe I speak for a lot of poets, is the rallying cry when disaster strikes. The poem ‘Invictus’ by William Earnest Henley kept Nelson Mandela’s spirits alive while he was in prison. Attendees at George Floyd’s funeral, as well as supportive voices in mainstream media, have all recited poetry in his memory. Poetry can serve as a salve for our wounds, but it also serves as an outlet for our emotions.
In ancient times, epic poems like The Iliad and The Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid were recited and passed down from speaker to speaker, and only transcribed from memory long after the works themselves had first been composed. Great poems are not trite like the lines in Hallmark cards, but profound messages whose meanings resonate with and reverberate among us. Poetry speaks to and from the heart.
One example would be Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, which remains relevant even today, especially in Manchester, England, where the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 remains a local and national tragedy.
Poetry is a threat to all thinking human beings who seek power for selfish means. When Trump became president, one of the first things he did was defund the NEA. Many political prisoners in Iran are poets. Poetry asks us to reach deep within ourselves, to look at that which is uncomfortable and bring it to light. Its importance cannot be overstated for how it holds up a mirror to humanity (and asks us to do the same).
Poetry provides palpable self-analysis (something I think Freud would have readily agreed with) for it can, if one is mentally ready, heal the troubled mind. The key for the reader is to be willing to listen, to let the poem do its work by taking it in, and then course correct not only our beliefs but more importantly how we treat our fellow human beings and the world around us. This is not easy stuff. Self-analysis is hard, but the poet, by writing, does half the work and opens the door for the reader to do the rest.
Header Image from Pixabay.
Written by Aria Ligi and Michael Conroy.