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10 Questions for Stephanie Papa

Pebble tossed, ricochets, sinks
The sea mounts, thrashes
I shake from my body
The wave's vengeance
—from "The Pebble" by Levent Beskardes, Translated by Stephanie Papa, Volume 63, Issue 4 (Winter 2022)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
I think the first poems I translated were actually in Portuguese, rather than French. I went to Brazil in 2013 for a few months, and had the incredible luck of going to FLIP, an international literary festival in Paraty. I will never forget the atmosphere—papier mâché puppet parades, children reading books that dangled from trees by strings, crowds singing on the street, and rooms packed for poetry readings. There, my friend introduced me to Laura Liuzzi and Alice Sant’Anna. I started translating their poetry just for fun, as I loved their approaches to intimacy. The first poem I translated seriously was “On the Last Day” by Xavier Bordes, originally in French, and published in World Literature Today. It was a wonderful challenge because of his sly play with sound and meaning, his unusual midline shifts, and how he maneuvers through memory and time, like some version of your future self giving you a “premonition of eternity”, as he writes in the poem. It was also a huge pleasure to exchange with Xavier, who ended up translating one of my poems into French.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
The list is long. I would say Federico Garcia Lorca was the first poet who rented a room in my psyche early on, who “baptized” me “with dark water” and the “drama of living forms”, as he writes of duende. Unfortunately, growing up, the choice of diverse female poets to read was more limited. Fewer women were published in anthologies that were readily available, and school curriculums were male-dominated. So while this meant some of my very earliest influences were male—Dylan Thomas, Miroslav Holub, James Wright, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Fernando Pessoa, Stanley Kunitz, Rumi, Czesław Miłosz, Philip Larkin—I was soon blown away by Gwendolyn Brooks, Stevie Smith, Joy Harjo, Wisława Szymborska, Sonia Sanchez, Elizabeth Bishop, June Jordan, and many more. In more recent years, I’ve certainly been changed by the work of Okot p'Bitek, Natalia Ginzburg, Li-Young Lee, Layli Long Soldier, Christopher Logue, Kei Miller, Malika Booker, dg nanouk okpik, and Italo Calvino, and some anthologies that never leave my side: The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping, Sounds and Silences, edited by Richard Peck, and a homemade, hand-written anthology from my partner, featuring poets from Linda Pastan to Dindan, a Bedouin poet.

What other professions have you worked in?
I was an intern at PEN American Center and at a literary agency in New York before coming to Paris 12 years ago. The summer before I arrived, I was paid a very humble sum to dress in a sweaty, oversized panda bear costume at a gourmet food expo. It was both absurdly freeing and also perhaps a sign to leave New York. Since 2010, I’ve been teaching, researching, translating, writing, and editing. I don’t see them as professions so much as interactions and discoveries. Maybe I’m good at avoiding professions.

What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
I found the anthology Les Mains Fertiles, edited by Brigitte Baumié, about two years ago, which is where I discovered both Levent Beskardes and Djenebou Bathily. Levent Beskardes is a phenomenal performer in French Sign Language. I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on other poems of his, and to have seen him perform live, which involves, as he said in an interview, using ‘signs and gestures like choreography’. This comes across in his video performance of “Red”; his signs allow for a river of blood to merge into thousands of flowers. I love that the poem seems to contain everything—violence, sensuality, and a playful reference to the poem itself. Beskardes isn’t afraid to be lighthearted and eccentric in his poetry, or to be vulnerable (as in the line “Drunkenness, rings under my tired eyes”), which is an unpretentious quality that really appeals to me. Influenced by the haiku tradition, he can also be brief and philosophical, as in the poem “Pebble”. This is an extract from a longer piece in which he jestingly acts out a pebble sinking differently each time it's thrown in the water.

Djenebou Bathily’s poem “Street Scream” really came alive to me in her signed performance of the piece. The intense rhythmic unraveling of this poem struck me, as well as its brusque snapshots and surreal images like “a reflection of my scream in the mirror.” Bathily so skillfully puts us in the place of the person in distress through a heightening of the senses that becomes unbearable, and yet she asks us to bear it with her.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Its cobbled streets hug the hills like a game of snakes and ladders. It’s stunning, yet the town's past is marked by centuries of slavery, which 19th century Minister of Finance, Ruy Barbosa, tried to erase by destroying all the government’s slave records. The landscapes in Chapada Diamantina would be another. I feel privileged to have been to these places, and it feels like they are somehow there behind anything I write.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I usually listen to the music of people chatting around me. I like to write in cafés (as long as it has the perfect ambiance, I know it when I see it) or on a public bench. Other peoples’ conversations or gestures often help the process, and point me towards something shiny at the bottom of the deep end. If I do listen to music when writing, I usually play Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal’s live shows together.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Writers who I know will be honest. Jeffrey Greene and Stuart Dischell have been extremely helpful readers. I have a group of poet friends who share work with each other, and they give brilliant feedback. My partner is the most critical, so if I do give him something to read, I close my eyes and run. Turns out he’s often right.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I would devote more time to photography. I take photos with my father’s old film cameras, mostly of people. I love faces. Photos I’ve taken of strangers are framed around my house, which may sound odd. Photography for me is a cousin to poetry in that it attempts to pause movement, and yet, like poetry, its stillness is deceiving. I feel that something is stirring in the suspended moment. Cartier-Bresson said that a photograph “offers itself up”, it isn't taken by force. I think there’s a similar offering in poetry; sometimes you don’t entirely know where the poem came from.

What are you working on currently?
I’m working on translating the poems of Pierre Créange, a French poet who was a victim of Nazi deportation, and was killed at Auschwitz. Before he and his wife were deported in 1942, he published a few books of poetry, one including a preface by the Symbolist poet Gustave Kahn. Miraculously, two poems which he managed to secretly write while interned at Klein Mangersdorf camp, before being sent to Auschwitz, were saved and brought back to France. His children compiled a book of selected work, including these two poems. Créange’s children recently died, yet I’ve had the privilege of speaking to Créange’s wife’s great niece about the translation. She was kind enough to share the details of Créange’s story, how he and his wife nearly escaped deportation.

What are you reading right now?
C+nto by Joelle Taylor, Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America, Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems: 1956-1998, translated by Alissa Valles, and dipping back into Juris Kronbergs’s Selected Poems, translated by Māra Rozīte, and Rachida Madani’s Blessures au vent.

STEPHANIE PAPA is currently an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow. Her poetry and translations have been published in Modern Poetry in Translation, The Stinging Fly, World Literature Today, and Verve Poetry Press anthologies, among others. She is the poetry editor at Venti and is an instructor at the Paris Institute of Critical Thinking.

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