Alex Custodio in Conversation with Rebecca Păpucaru

To the Editors at Penthouse Forum (Sapphic)

Brutal enough was the first. On the cold floor,
by my shortest hair, taking me square against my
coffee table, pulling and prodding came he
but in passion missed

by a mile my porcelain vase. Off the marble
it slid, cracking his poor pate open. Vowed the
next, "I'll enter via the terrace." If I
only had remembered to

open the gate. Wanting me to resist while
I was letting him in he pounced and jabbed
like a kitten. No time to warn him that the
railing had come loose.

The third said he'd surprise me in my shower,
terrorize me with a blow dryer. Saying
I was dirty, sluttish, a bitch, his reading
so aroused him he

slipped and knocked himself dumb. I never wanted
some lost episode of "Here's Lucy". These days
rape games don't incite me. I'm not into that:
getting swept under.

Excerpted from Rebecca Păpucaru, Acta Victoriana, 2008-2009. 

Alex Custodio in Conversation with Rebecca Păpucaru

Alex Custodio: In your poem, “Said Saint George to the Maiden: Wait in the Car”, published in Issue 15 of Soliloquies Anthology, you immediately bring the mother and the father to life by describing the contents of their sock drawers. Is this a poem where you knew who the characters were and created the setting accordingly, or did the mother and father emerge from the richly detailed bedroom of the opening line?

Rebecca Păpucaru: I did know the characters but made deliberate choices regarding the setting and other details. The details came first, the characters afterwards. A lot of poems I write start with a detail.

AC: How would you describe your writing process? Do you plan the structure of a poem before sitting down to write it or is your process more spontaneous?

RP: More spontaneous. I tend to impose a structure later. There are exceptions: I once gave myself the task of writing a ghazal and, before that, a Sapphic ode. I find it really satisfying to impose a tight structure on a poem. Limitations can be liberating, and how often do we get to surprise ourselves, in life and in art? I have a poem coming out in EVENT, “Retouched”, that has a rhyme scheme I imposed on myself, which really brings out the humour of the poem.

AC: Inspiration is one of those words that comes up a lot in classrooms, but is impossible to teach because of how much it varies by person. Would you say your poetry is inspired by encounters you’ve had and people you’ve known, or do the ideas come largely from somewhere else?

RP: Encounters, people, everyday experiences, and also books. “Rosalind Franklin in Open-Toe Sandals” came from reading James Watson’s account of the discovery of DNA, and a biography of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin. A photograph of Rosalind from the biography, looking nothing like the unfeminine bluestocking Watson describes, got me started. I was interested in the role appearance plays in how we assess women like Franklin, and its connection to her work as an X-ray crystallographer.

AC:  Are there any particular poets or writers who stand out as strong sources of inspiration for your writing?

RP: Carl Dennis, David Donnell, Elise Partridge, Karen Solie, Philip Larkin, Carol Ann Duffy, among many others. For fiction, I’ve been reading a lot of Penelope Fitzgerald and Beryl Bainbridge lately. I'd like to start reading Saul Bellow again, next.

AC:  I noticed that family, especially parents, makes a frequent appearance in your poetry. Are there topics you find yourself continuously coming back to in your writing? If so, why do these things grab you so much?

RP: This is a surprise to me! I am more interested in community, in finding your people. My novel is about this.

AC:  Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?

RP: I am revising aforementioned novel, although maybe revising is not the best word. Rewriting entire passages, jettisoning others, and trying to follow Elmore Leonard's advice about revision: cut out all the boring parts.

AC:  Is there any advice you would like to give to upcoming writers?

RP: I consider myself one too, but the best advice, I think, comes from Stephen King on writing workshops, on the importance of knowing when the work is ready for critique and knowing when it will be beneficial. I've made the mistake of attending writers' workshops with work that was far from finished, and was really still just part of the process, not anywhere near the end result. It was counter-productive in that I received a lot of input (sometimes praise, sometimes a good tearing apart) on something I later abandoned—not because of what was said at the workshop, but because it wasn't the story I wanted to tell. Here, I'm referring to fiction. I've had rewarding experiences with poetry workshops. I'm not sure what accounts for the difference, but there it is. 

Rebecca Păpucaru's poetry has been shortlisted for Arc Poetry Magazine's Poem of the Year contest, and has appeared in Prism international, EVENT, The Dalhousie Review, and The Antigonish Review, among others. Her poetry has also been anthologized in I Found It at the Movies: An Anthology of Film Poems (Guernica Editions, 2014) and The Best Canadian Poetry in English (2010). 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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