Eléna Rivera’s new collection of poems, Scaffolding, is a sequence of eighty-two sonnets written over the course of a year, dated and arranged in roughly chronological order. The work vividly reflects life in New York City, where Rivera resides. A poet and translator, Rivera’s earlier collections include The Perforated Map; her translation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Recently, Rivera answered some questions about her book, the interplay between form and content, and the life that informs her writing.
Why the sonnet?
ER: I’ve always been interested in form, the interplay between form and content, between the inner and the outer. I wanted to experience what it would be like to write discreet poems over time. I had been engaged with writing long poems for a while. I’d work on a piece, playing with different possibilities, until the form would come to me and I knew then that the poem had found its direction (the amount of time I have, and the concerns of the poem, are what dictate the poem’s length). I was interested in the book as form (a love of the epic) and made one-of-a-kind books, and books in hand-letterpress editions (fascinated by the weight of the single lead letter). At first the sonnet seemed the complete opposite of what I had been doing, but really it wasn’t that different, the form got smaller, tighter, and I filled it rather than found it; it shaped the conversation, the music of it. I really became fascinated by the fourteen-line form, what such a compact container could give rise to, and once I committed myself to it I felt compelled to continue.
And why the additional eleven-syllable line constraint?
ER: At the time I was translating a book from the French written in hendecasyllable lines. I wondered if writing in lines of eleven-syllables would be as difficult as translating them. I wrote a few sonnets in eleven-syllable lines, enjoyed the constraint, and found it much easier than translating into eleven-syllables lines. Of course we don’t usually count syllables in English, but I found this constraint useful, gave the poems more breadth. I was inspired by Bernard Noël’s example, and translating him, as I was by the experiments of the Oulipo writers in France, like Jacques Roubaud for example. I liked too that the eleven-syllables veered away from the pentameter line we’re so used to hearing; it added unaccountable rhythms below the surface of the lines. I read sonnets, conversed with sonnets, responded to what was on my mind on any given day, and would then shape the poems into these eleven-syllables lines.
Is that why your sonnets are dated?
ER: Yes. After the first few sonnets, I gave myself the task to write a sonnet a day for a year. Needless to say that didn’t quite work out the way I imagined it would because of time constraints mostly. I also threw out many very bad sonnets, which diminished their numbers. It’s when I began revising that I also realized that I had to change the date of a poem and add a new date, to show that a poem might have been written on one day and much later rewritten on another day. Some poems just worked right away and others were more reluctant. Sometimes I liked the new version as much as the old one and kept both. I wanted to track that; I wanted it to be a book of sonnets that showed what was on my mind on a particular day, what I was reading, thinking, in touch with, remembering, etc.
I noticed that you include a spattering of words in French and Spanish, why is that?
ER: I grew up speaking French and Spanish. I had some knowledge of English, but for me English is a learned language not the one we spoke at home. My mother spoke to us in Spanish and some French, and we spoke to our parents in French (I was in French schools from the time I was three). So I consider French and Spanish my “mother-tongues.” I learned English quite quickly once we moved to the United State, and worked hard at it (the kids in my public Junior High School were unforgiving regarding my strange accent).
So how did it happen that you grew up speaking French and Spanish?
ER: My parents met while working in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. My mother wanted to travel, and in her family there had always been an element of yearning for Spain, where she was born (lots of stories around that). My father is American and half-Mexican from New Orleans, and my mother is Spanish and German. Her father, a Botanist, was a refugee from Franco’s government during the Spanish Civil War, and had to flee the country. My mother grew up in South America, fleeing countries as dictatorships rose. Later after my parents married, they moved to Mexico where I was born, and three years later moved to France. My mother was eager to go to Europe and my father, who wrote poetry, and had written a thesis on Rimbaud, was easily convinced. They led quite the bohemian life of expatriates in Paris in the ’60s and ’70s. There were also all the political events, the marches and protests, and getting locked in the Sorbonne in 1968. All their friends were musicians, painters, writers. I grew up in museums, galleries, listening to a lot of jazz. We moved to New York when I was 13, and that’s when I experienced the shock of the violence in America, the racial hatred that was all around me. I didn’t understand it, but the violence of the country really marked me, and enters my poems. After my parents separated, we left New York City and lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Muir Beach in Northern California. It was only much later in my 30s when Russell and I moved to Montréal that I started to incorporate some French into my poems — Montréal being a bilingual city. I had written poems and other pieces in French, but never tried to publish them. I’ve gone back to France at various periods of my life, one time for as long as two years, and now in the last 10 years I’ve been translating and working with French poets, and so the French is reentering. I’d like to do more with the two languages, and Spanish, too. I miss the languages; they are an integral part of my being. Sometimes I just can’t think of the word in English, and the word in French or Spanish will emerge — so much more expressive of the emotion or thought than the English word.
Do you think of yourself as European or French then?
ER: No, not anymore. I don’t think of myself as belonging to one particular country. I am in the place I’m in; that’s it, and I write from that place. Susan Howe said in an interview, “Trust the place to form the voice,” and the poems in Scaffolding are very much New York poems.
About the title, Scaffolding, could you elaborate a bit more about that?
ER: When I wrote the poems, our building complex was undergoing extensive facade work. The place was covered in scaffolding for about a four-year period — a long time. It wasn’t until I finished the manuscript that I began thinking of Scaffolding as a title. The sonnet form is a kind of “scaffolding,” a structure, for the substance and sounds of the poem, as is the hendecasyllable line. I also like the darker meaning of the word, “an elevated platform on which a criminal is executed;” there was something that felt dangerous about these poems, about what I was doing.
ER: That’s complicated. Many reasons. It’s my vocation. I write poems. I’m always writing (poems and prose). From a very young age, I wrote, painted, put on plays, and sang. When we moved to America, I wanted to be an actress. I kept writing, but I didn’t think of writing as something one made one’s life around, not until my late 20s. My relationship to English is very complicated. Writing and reading are very physical endeavors for me — when I read I get so excited, I want to meet it, to be there in the language with it. Writing was always a necessity that helped me to live in the world. Writing was a way out of erasure, the silence that is imposed from the outside. In writing and reading, I found the words that I didn’t have otherwise. And then there is another kind of silence, one that sets one free, but for that one has to be able to speak, beyond categories, beyond the idea of “self,” beyond any kind of fixed and permanent “I” (that illusion).
Eléna Rivera is a poet and a translator. Her poems have appeared in publications such as the Nation, Denver Quarterly, the New York Times and many others. She is the author of The Perforated Map and Unknowne Land. Her ranslation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Rivera was born in Mexico City and spent her childhood in Paris. She currently resides in New York City.