In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve asked some of the poets who have published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets to highlight and discuss a single line in their poetry that has special significance. Today Eléna Rivera, author of Scaffolding, talks about inspiration while writing “Sept. 1” (Scaffolding, 24). Check this space each week for more favorite lines.
A line comes into one’s thoughts as a kind of inspiration, or it finds its way by sheer persistence (“no that word won’t do,” “this doesn’t work” and “that one doesn’t have the right amount of syllables,” “what about…. ” ). The 11-syllable line forced many lines into shape in Scaffolding. The “meaning” came with the form, counting syllables; in trying to get that right something was revealed in the line that was often unexpected and surprising—“Oh really, is that what this is about?” That kind of discovery is what makes writing interesting, engaging, a necessity. The line can be scary, disturbing, or just pleasing; there’s so much to let go of in the process (i.e., the sense of having control over a work). As if there were a voice beyond the learned language of childhood, beyond dailyness, beyond fear, awkwardness, the “should’s,” beyond the doubts of ever being able to say anything. Persistence, working through a poem, waiting for the words to fall into place, or not, facing that what one originally loved may be destroyed with nothing to take its place; it’s all about words, sound, rhythm, image, and “intellection” (as Louis Zukofsky called it). The line comes as a surprise because it is bold, unexpected, and points toward where the poem lies. In the poem “Sept. 1” the line: “‘I write to keep alive” Who said that? I did” shows the back and forth between different selves in the poem itself, the questioning and the constant back and forth that happens in language.
Eléna Rivera is a poet and translator. She is the author of The Perforated Map and Unknowne Land, and her poems have appeared in the Nation, Denver Quarterly, the New York Times, and many other publications. Her translation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. She was born in Mexico City, spent her childhood in Paris, and now lives in New York City.