Stephanie Papa is a poet and translator living Paris, France. She is completing 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 NOON, great weather for media, Four Chambers Press, Paris/Atlantic, Literary Bohemian, 5×5, Rumpus, Cleaver Magazine, Cerise Press, The Prose Poetry Project. She organizes anglophone writing workshops in Paris.
NICHE: I always like to start at the beginning. When did you begin writing poetry and why?
STEPHANIE PAPA: I must have been about 8 years old, at least I remember writing poems at that age. The question “why” I was writing didn’t occur to me, but because my mother is a writer, books were everywhere. My mother insisted on a building bookshelf that reached the ceiling, so we were surrounded. Exposure to poetry was unavoidable. As a child I fell in love with writers like Maurice Sendak, A.A.Milne, Edward Lear, Roald Dahl. I started writing poetry a bit more seriously–or badly–as a teenager. Then in college, I had a wonderful professor, Peter Sharpe, who introduced me to some of my favorite writers today.
NICHE: We’re thrilled to be publishing “Lebanon on a Map” in the next issue of Niche. I found your poem very accessible. As a poet, how accessible do you believe poetry should be? Do you believe readers should work hard at “solving a poem?”
STEPHANIE PAPA: Thank you, I’m very flattered to see it in Niche. I think poetry should be accessible in a way that it allows the reader to access it’s many dimensions. Paul Muldoon was quoted to say that he’s writing “difficult poetry for a difficult age.” We don’t live in simple times. In fact, things are more complex in so many ways. I think poetry should reflect the complexity of reality, even if the poem seems very obvious and straight forward on the surface. No good poem is handed over too easily. A strong poem for me has a force, or forces, driving it, and you may have to feel around in the dark for the light switch a bit. I love sparse poems that feel accessible, as long as they have multi-dimensional qualities, just like a living thing. I gravitate towards Asian poetry–Han Shan, Tu fu, Li Po, Issa–because they tend to master this. So, it’s not so much solving the problem of the poem, maybe there’s nothing to solve. It’s more about how many dimensions it has, “parting the grasses,” as Jane Hirshfield puts it; exploring the expansiveness of a poem.
NICHE: One aspect I admired about “Lebanon on a Map” is how effortlessly you seem to portray, not just one state of mind, but three minds. As a reader, I’m given a sense of what each person in this restaurant wants from all the others. As readers, are we meant to fill in the narrative there?
STEPHANIE PAPA: I suppose the other characters present in the poem act as flags or signposts. Even if they’re not aware, I think they’re both trying to reveal something to the narrator, trying to tell her something. They almost urge her to realize the present moment she occupies.
NICHE: Your poem seems to convey a sense of removal or distance. For instance, the “you” quotes an idea that isn’t his/her own. The narrator doesn’t share his/her thoughts with her companion, and the waiter shows the diners where Lebanon is on a map even though the restaurant is in another country. I guess, “displacement” is the word I’m looking for. It is an interesting feeling to get from this poem since all the “mysterious” items the narrator thinks of are so concrete. As a writer, I know that we often write from a place of emotion and figure out what we’ve written afterwards, but in this case, was displacement a feeling you wanted to convey?
STEPHANIE PAPA: In a way, yes. This poem for me was describing these moments when you might ask yourself, how did I end up here? Could it have been any other way? In the poem, it was a seemingly banal circumstance, but being in this nondescript situation makes perfect sense, that it’s necessary even. The narrator has to accept that, without rationalizing it. The list in the poem is simple and complex at once, a contradiction I think we face all the time.
NICHE: Lately, certain genre lines have been blurred. In your opinion, what distinguishes poems from prose-poetry, or even micros that rely heavily on imagistic techniques?
STEPHANIE PAPA: I tend not to be too worried about splitting the two cleanly. It’s like sexuality, ethnicity or…insert your own ‘ity’. The borders aren’t clear at all, and it would be boring if they were. It reminds me of an early Frank O’Hara poem, “Oranges.” He talks about a poem he starts to write: “It is even in/prose, I am a real poet. My poem/is finished and I haven’t mentioned/orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call/it ORANGES.” Many other New York School poets blurred the line between prose and poetry, and it’s vibrant, I think. However, form would certainly be an indicator as to what genre a piece would fall into, if you want to plunk it somewhere. Poetry can be more exact in this way, the line and form helps the poet be more precise
NICHE: What can you tell us about the teen workshop that you conducted this past April at the American Library in Paris?
STEPHANIE PAPA: I learned so much from the students at that workshop, both the younger children and teens. The children were so sensitive and imaginative, and it came out in their writing. When I asked them what their idea of poetry was, for instance, one of the girls said, “you can do what you want.” That might be my new motto. We did lots of hands on exercises with things in nature; texture, smell, shape. Some of them couldn’t stop writing, and they’d thrust their arms up to share their poems. But I especially liked working with children of various learning paces and individual difficulties. Sometimes this made for the most interesting writing. It taught me to be more patient, to listen. Also, there was popcorn.
NICHE: Along those same lines, do you have any advice for aspiring poets out there?
STEPHANIE PAPA: I’ll steal a line from my mentor: “Marry someone rich.” He was kidding…I think. As I’m also learning and looking for advice, I can only offer the same constructive nudges I give myself. For example, I try to remember to stay curious, and enjoy it. Even if the writing is dark or difficult, I should be compelled to write it. If I’m not compelled or enjoying it, I might have taken a wrong turn. I also have different readers who I trust and respect, I always learn a lot from a fresh eye. Also believe in your work, don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid, period.
NICHE: What are you working on now?
STEPHANIE PAPA: I’ve finished a collection of poems that I hope to publish. I’m also enjoying translation, especially films, from French to English. In September, I’ll be travelling to the Philippines for a music project. I find that travel really inspires me to write. I’m also looking forward to collaborating with new writers and artists.
NICHE: What about translation in particular interests you? What films are you interested in translating?
STEPHANIE PAPA: I’d say that everything about translation interests me. I wrote a series of poems about a trip to Brazil, and I asked a Brazilian poet to translate them into Portuguese for me. He was so attentive to convey not the same word but the same feeling in Portuguese, so that the poem’s natural ethos came through. In the end, it’s probably better than my original. Poetry itself is translation in a way, from thoughts to the page. So translation is just another way to reinterpret the beauty of the original, to transfer the meaning. With film, the screenplays are very varied. But it happens that for the most part, I’ve translated scripts with bold, forceful subject matter, that push the boundaries in some way.
Be sure to check out Stephanie Papa’s other work at https://stephaniepapa.wordpress.com/.
This interview was originally published on Niche’s website on June