Interview by Russ Green
Stephanie Papa is a writer living in Paris, France. Her work has been published in 5×5, Rumpus, Cleaver Magazine, Cerise Press and The Prose Poetry Project. She organized the Writers on Writing series in Paris, and has worked as poetry editor for Her Royal Majesty magazine. Stephanie is currently working towards an MFA in poetry in the Pan-European Creative Writing Program. Find her poem “Nude” in the great weather for MEDIA anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand.
RG: Stephanie, we are excited to have you in our newest anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand. It is always intriguing to welcome poets and writers from abroad into our great weather family. A lot of people talk about picking up and moving to a dream destination like Paris— you actually did it! Did you go over from the United States just because of the Pan-European MFA Program or have you always wanted to live in Paris?
SP: Although Paris sounds appealing to many people, I never imagined living here. I’ve always been itching for travel, so after I finished university in New York, I was looking for a way to get on a plane. I started working as a teaching assistant in a suburb of Paris, unaware that I would be overpowered by the screams of hormone-driven teens, only asking what English words meant in rap songs. I sugrvived one school year, and left to start new work and projects. Four years later, I’m still here. The city has beautiful things to discover, it feels like home. But I’m willing to welcome whatever comes next.
RG: Tell me about your reading series Writers on Writing. What was it like running a reading in Paris as opposed to one in a city in the United States?
SP: The only difference between a reading in Paris and one in the USA is that in Paris there’s always more wine. That series in particular didn’t last very long as I had other commitments—but it felt fantastic to talk to Anglophone writers about their work, especially with an enthusiastic audience. It was helpful to explore the process of writing, and I’m certainly an advocate for reading aloud. In fact, I recommend you read this out loud right now, just for practice.
RG: Hear, Hear! How has living in Europe changed your writing? Has your relationship to the creative process changed as well?
SP: Being in a foreign place is a refreshing experience for me, and therefore it’s significant for writing. I feel more aware, observant, and spontaneous. Hearing different languages also opens my mind to other ways of perceiving. I suppose my process of writing hasn’t drastically changed, although I’m learning so much through the editing process. I still write outside of my apartment in cafes, parks, on street curbs. I want to see people buying flowers and dropping change, watch toddlers jumping, talk to a stranger. For me there’s nothing inspiring about sitting in my bedroom.
RG: You are from a small town in Pennsylvania. How has that helped or hindered you—as a student and also someone working, running events, and moving in the artist circles of Paris?
SP: I don’t think it necessarily hindered or helped, it’s simply a part of me. It was a warm-hearted community—maybe that’s why I tend to avoid exclusive artistic circles or atmospheres with cutthroat competition.
RG: Although I am a vegetarian I always say to friends that I could not be a vegan because I’ve spent time in France and I can’t give up the cheese. Is it difficult for you being a vegan in France, especially Paris?
SP: True, if people expect almond milk in every Parisian cafe, or barbecued tempeh in a brasserie, shame on them. Unfortunately, vegan options in French restaurants are scarce. Which is why I don’t usually eat in French restaurants. I gravitate towards ethnic restaurants—there are plenty! Shopping for vegan ingredients is easy. I’m used to it, and I’m content as a kale leaf.
RG: In your poem “Nude” that we are so proud to have included in great weather’s latest anthology, you take us behind the scenes of the fantasy idea of the beautiful nude model and expose both the psychological and physical reality you went through leading up to and through the act of posing for the artists. Did you experience something similar when you stepped back behind the curtain and settled in to live in Paris as an American expat as opposed to a tourist?
SP: As peculiar as it sounds, I’ve never thought of myself as an “American expat.” When I say where I’m from, it sounds quite out of context now, although I don’t mind telling people when they ask (most people assume my neighbors were Amish). I’m also half-British, which attracts me to this side of the ocean. I think change is a reality, we’re constantly evolving. In a way, “Nude” describes that. Being the nude subject in a drawing is a unique experience; time and space slow down, all categories seem irrelevant.
RG: Who are your favorite writers? Either French or those who spent time in Paris?
SP: I confess, French writers haven’t been on the menu lately. I don’t identify with French poetry as I do with other work in translation, such as Spanish or Portuguese. Yet I do appreciate the Syrian-born, francophone poet Adonis, and when I studied French and Francophone literature, I enjoyed Albert Camus and Margueritte Duras. Of course, brilliant writers have left footprints in Paris: Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Oscar Wilde, Mayakovsky, to name a few.
RG: The spirits and footprints of so many great writers still linger in the streets and cafés. I remember spending time at the Père Lachaise Cemetery where many of them rest along with the great singers and performers: Oscar Wilde, as you mentioned, Edith Piaf, and of course we can’t forget Jim Morrison among them. Do you sense the influence of those great writers and performers of the past in the work that is coming out today from the local poets or are they looking more toward the future or beyond the horizons of France as you have?
SP: This is an intriguing question. Writers and artists flocked to Paris especially in the early half of the 20th century and throughout the Post-WWI era. Many of them were fleeing their countries to test an avant-garde, novel style of expression. Artists who were excluded for ‘radical’ thinking, and often racial discrimination, came to Paris and felt welcome. It’s still a refuge for artists and musicians, especially because the government supports their cultural contribution. The Paris from Gertrude Stein and Hemmingway’s Lost Generation era is gone, yet the city’ Anglophone poets make their voices heard. There are some very strong writers living in Paris or simply passing through with fantastic energy. I’d like to see Paris growing into a more eclectic hub for poets in the near future.
RG: Going back to favorite writers, who do you admire in Spanish and Portuguese? Of course, we can’t help thinking of Neruda and Lorca in Spanish translation.
SP: Both of these languages are so melodic, and lend themselves beautifully to the spoken word. The first time I traveled to Grenada, Spain, I went directly to Lorca’s house. It was like walking through a dream. His work has been very close to my heart. I also fell in love with Pessoa when I first discovered him. Other incredible poets writing in Portuguese are Carlos Drummond de Andrade, or his contemporary Vinicius de Moraes, who are really icons in Brazil. I attended the FLIP literary festival in Paraty, Brazil in 2013, and saw poetry found itself in music, song, nostalgia, and the beauty of the land. Spanish and Latin American poets are inspiring because of their longing, the bittersweet impossibility of things, surreal metaphors.
RG: It really is a beautiful thing. You mentioned earlier that, although Paris feels like home for you, you are ready for whatever comes next. Do you have an idea what that may be? A move to a different European city or continent? Thoughts of coming back to the United States, or are you content to see what the next sunrise over the River Seine has in store for you?
SP: I think it’s important to be open for any rousing possibility. There are many other places I would love to discover—I’m very curious! I think living in Paris has helped me understand the pros and cons of a city and how I can both love and hate it. Moving back to the United States isn’t on the cards for the moment; I don’t see myself settling down there. I enjoy the feeling of being able to adapt to a new culture. But I’m still tasting and discovering Paris, its crooked alleys and eccentric characters, madness and close friends. That’s what is keeping me here for now.
Read Stephanie Papa’s poem “Nude” in the great weather for MEDIA anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand.
***Easily ordered in France through any bookstore. Here is the French amazon link***
If you are in Paris and would like to learn more about great weather for MEDIA, our editor Jane Ormerod will be reading at Paris Lit Up on Thursday February 5th 2015. Details