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MFA Spotlight: Stephanie Papa

Stephanie Papa is a poet and translator living Paris, France. She has an MFA degree in Poetry from the Pan-European Program at Cedar Crest College. She is poetry co-editor of Paris Lit Up magazine. Her work has been published in World Literature Today, Niche, Yasakmeyve, NOON, great weather for media, Four Chambers Press, Paris/Atlantic, Literary Bohemian, 5×5, Rumpus, Cleaver Magazine, Cerise Press, The Prose Poetry Project and One More Glass. She organizes anglophone writing workshops and readings in Paris.

Stephanie Papa

As a poet, what has drawn you to poetry as a genre?

My mother is a poet and writer, so poetry rubbed off on me at a very early age. I remember writing a poem in an arts camp when I was seven or eight. It was the first time I took it seriously, so to speak, and I’ve been fascinated ever since. The qualities of poetry are so different from other genres, like fiction. It’s a different skill, like comparing a rugby player to a modern dancer (writers burn less calories, unfortunately). Poems are more often bound to reality, even if the facts are altered slightly. I think real life is wild enough as it is, so fictionalizing doesn’t appeal very much to me. I also love the spontaneity of poetry, the careful choice of words. I like poems that involve compression, clarity, and revelation. I also believe a good poem can have a profound effect on you, positive or negative, perhaps because of its brevity and intensity. Frederic Seidel said that “art doesn’t do anything,” but Ted Hughes said that poetry “builds something shining out of the ruins.” I really think poetry can do the latter.

How do you choose the language you will utilize in a poem? As you speak several languages, how do you navigate the language of your poetry? 

I always write in English. French is the only other language I speak fluently for the moment. But writing in French feels affected; I feel distance from my own voice. I’m drawn to English as my maternal language, and for its flexibility. However, other languages have no doubt shaped my writing. My mother is British and my parents met in Italy, where they lived for about 8 years. I grew up hearing British nuances and expressions, and an inevitable bias towards anything Italian. When I started reading poetry more, I fell in love with poets writing in Portuguese and Spanish:  Lorca, Pessoa, Drummond de Andrade, De Moraes, Neruda. I loved their sensuality and passion, their connection to the land.  When I found myself in Brazil, Portuguese triggered an intense desire to write more frankly about nature, longing, and curiosity. Poetry in Brazil was intertwined with song and dance in a way that English never was for me. So, this vitality of culture and language is inspiration. Chinese and Japanese poetry also have had a heavy influence on me, as for so many poets, mostly since Ezra Pound’s Cathay, and again Gary Snyder’s Han Shan translations in 1965. The writing tends to be more stripped down than Romance languages; the poems are pensive, observant and introverted, with themes of seasons, time and friendship. The influence of other languages allows for a very immediate multiplicity, which can open up so many outlets. About a month ago, I heard a Finnish writer read her poem in Finnish. The sounds of her words stayed with me for days, and I’m sure they influenced my own writing that week as well.

Regarding translations, could you explain the method you would use to translate a poem (as opposed to translating a conversation)?

I never adhere to one single method. I guess I could say that about almost everything, except maybe how I make a cup of tea. Each poem and its translation have its own personality. The word translate itself is from the Latin meaning “carried over,” a transportation from one understanding to another. For me, this implies a sort of an illumination, a shift of consciousness. Italo Calvino would even say weightlessness. I try to be aware of this luminous quality of poetry, and I think it’s necessary in translation as well. It’s like a door is opening when you didn’t even know there was a door. Once, I managed, with a massive language barrier, to tell someone he had almost been pick-pocketed. When he finally realized what I was on about, the man’s face lit up. He said a word in a language I didn’t know, but I knew it meant “thank you.”  It was a shift, an illumination, across languages. I would say that translation is like this; human understanding, listening, and letting language sink in deeply. Then, of course, there are cultural factors that a translator should be aware of to craft a poem, to understand how it might be received in a specific social context.

Do you find that your relocation from a small town in the United States to a city in France has changed your poetry in some way? How do you feel external culture might influence personal language and style?

Between living in Pennsylvania and Paris, I spent almost 5 years in New York City. I was reading a lot of American poets at the time:  Frank O’Hara, James Wright, Sharon Olds, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman. As I was studying on Staten Island, I took the ferry to get to Manhattan, and the Verrazano to Brooklyn. It was hard not to be inspired by the bay, the immensity of the skyline. But I often found contemporary American poetry to be limiting, mostly the poets who sounded like facsimiles of the same Americana voice. Historical status is a weakness of mine; the older something is, the more impressed I am. Going to Europe was, perhaps unconsciously, a way to get closer to origins and cultural traditions. Living in France for the past seven years has also made daily observances more fascinating. There are so many interesting characters to watch; the woman who pinches people’s bums outside the metro, the alcoholic neighbour who stole flowers and replanted them in my garden, children selling eels in Chinatown. Paris inspires me to write about people, past or present. In the end, I think poetry evolves all the time because experiences are never the same.

I know you are interested in international poetry.  Without restricting you to French language, who are the poets you might recommend to a reader?

It’s an endless list! Apart from the poets I’ve already mentioned, here are just a few, contemporary and ancient: Yves Bonnefoy, (France), Miroslav Holub (Czech Republic), Seamus Heaney (Ireland), Zeina Hasham Beck (Lebanon), Sujata Bhatt (born in India), Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal), Yehuda Amichai (Israel), Nazim Hikmet (Turkey), Adam Zagajewski (Poland), Lam Thi My Da (Vietnam), Rabindranath Tagore (India), Khalil Gibran (Lebanon), Kobayashi Issa (Japan), Rumi (present-day Afghanistan), Jia Yi (China), Han Shan (China), Tu Fu (China).

Lastly, as both an editor and a poet, what advice might you give to someone beginning their journey into the craft of writing?

I’m looking for writing advice all the time. But I might steal a line from E.E Cummings’s father, a priest, who said to his congregation: “get out into the beautiful world instead of listening to my sermon.”  Get out and experience the world.  It allows for something more applicable, more approachable. Also, listen. One of the more exciting parts of poetry is what’s between the words, what’s left is unsaid.

Interview Credit:  Rachel A. Phelps
Photo Credit:  Danny Niento