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An interview with poet Eléna Rivera

The Library interviewed poet Eléna Rivera, who is currently a poet-in-residence at the Trelex Art Residency, on how she came to know the Library, what treasures she’s finding in our poetry collection, and how being in Paris is inspiring her work as a poet. Eléna is the author of several books of poetry including Scaffolding, The Perforated Map, Unknowne Land, and Atmosphered.

What brought you to Paris and how did you hear about the American Library in Paris?

I am currently in Paris writing new poems while housed by the Trelex Art Residency. I’m surprised I didn’t know about the American Library before this; I ended up hearing about the Library from another member who participates in a book group that meets at the Library once a month. The Library has been a refuge; it’s such a warm and welcoming place to work. And having access to English language books has been indispensable (I had been reading only in French at the start of my residency, also wonderful, but if you want to be writing poems in English, it helps to be reading in English).

What treasures are you finding in the poetry collection at the Library? What surprised you in our poetry collection?

The treasures really appeared in serendipitous fashion, first I was interested in the long-line so I picked up Whitman, Frank O’Hara, Jorie Graham, Alice Notley, but I ended up in the Florence Gould Reading Room looking at a book on Caravaggio’s secrets, and reading interviews with Matisse, David Hockney, and other artists instead. I’m very interested in the ways that artists in other fields work: painters, composers, filmmakers, and performers. The materiality of painting (the lines, perspectives, daubes of paint, swashes of color) especially helps me think about poems and the work with words and language. Mallarmé famously said that poems were made of words, and visual artists remind the writer that they have to work with the materials of language, sound, image, form, and diction rather than with ideas per se—that the words have to find their form before they can become a poem.

What poets/poetry collections are you enjoying right now?

I keep pulling familiar books off the shelf, mostly re-reading books I have previously read: Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency; John Ashbery’s Selected Poems; Paul Celan’s Selected Poems; Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip; Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed; Barbara Guest’s Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, and the Open Skies; William Bronk’s The World and the Worldless; Anne Carson’s Translations of Sappho; and Claudia Rankine’s The White Card. I’ve also enjoyed having access to new poetry and reading books like American Sonnets by Terrance Hayes, though my interests are more geared to writers like Emily Dickinson, Paul Celan, Marina Tsvetaeva, William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Michael Palmer, Wallace Stevens, Inge Christensen, and Lorine Niedecker.

How is being in Paris inspiring your poetry? 

Being in Paris, looking at art, speaking in French and English, being alone, conversing with other artists, noticing the details of all that I encounter, that is when the writing comes. An exhibition by the Danish painter Hammershøi, listening to the ways that French is expressed, the way the limits of language can also be its strengths, small details noticed, the seriousness with which poetry and other arts are taken here, all inspire my poetry. Also, being away from what is familiar and my regular habits, helps me to get back in touch with what I love about writing. I was doing a lot of translating (a third book by the well-known French poet Bernard Noël) and having this residency for the sole purpose of writing poetry has really been an important pathway in returning to the imaginative in me. I grew up in Paris and moved to New York when I was thirteen, and this stay has been noteworthy to my understanding of the ways that I’m very French alongside the ways that I am definitely American, i.e. neither and both at the same time (remembering that Spanish is also very much a part of my background, my mother is Spanish and I was born in Mexico City). Being in Paris these three months has been a way to reengage in the circle of my peripatetic life. A part of me will always be French and tied to this city, at the same time as I see myself very much as an American writer.

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