Exclusive Interview: “The Blue Mimes: Poems” Author Sara Daniele Rivera


Back in the day, when I wrote poems, it was always as a catharsis, a way of dealing with something.

Which is what drew me to The Blue Mimes (paperback, Kindle), the new poetry collection by Sara Daniele Rivera, in which she’s dealing with something as well.

In the following email interview, Rivera discusses that something, as well as what influenced how she wrote them.

Sara Daniele Rivera The Blue Mimes

Photo Credit: Eliade Novat


To start, is there an underlying theme that connects the poems in The Blue Mimes?

A theme of loss, absence; I was contending with the losses of loved ones, the grief of losing my dad and my grandmothers, while our country and world were dealing with collective trauma (the years of the pandemic, mass shootings, racial violence).

While writing, I kept encountering new kinds of absence: the silence of reaching for a word and not remembering it, of feeling your selfhood lost inside chasms of translation, how migration and assimilation can cause such loss.

Structurally, I was interested in mimicry and echoes as a way to bridge these gulfs: how we try to approximate ourselves in order to survive. I was interested in the things we say and can’t say and choose never to say, and how we attempt to make sense of those silences.

So, did you start out with this theme in mind, or did you realize at some point that a theme was emerging?

My poems tend to come from my journaling practice. I journal pretty regularly, just to process my life and think through things, then typically shape poems from that material. So I pretty much never know when the thing I’m writing is actually a poem, and didn’t know I was writing these poems as I wrote them; I was just trying to get through some really difficult years of my life, and the connective threads started to emerge over time. I do think all of the themes I’m interested in are present in the first poem I wrote for the book, which is why it remained the titular poem.

Once you realized a theme was emerging, why did you decide to run with it as opposed to, well, run away from it?

I don’t think I could any more run away from the theme of grief / loss than I could run away from the grief itself.

I did worry at times that the collection was too dark, too hopeless and shattered, but over time I feel like I started to coax out the threads of hope. Grief is endlessly complicated; it’s a universal human experience, but when you’re living through it and you’ve lost the particular world of a person you love, it feels like you’re the only person who has ever felt this pain. These losses are part of me now and will be with me my whole life, so there was a great deal to mine and process once the themes revealed themselves.

What kind of poems did you include in The Blue Mimes, structurally-speaking?

Most of the poems are free verse. There’s one sonnet, one poem that is a kind of invented form that mirrors itself (“Telephone Game”), and quite a few prose poems (a handful that stand on their own, and two longer prose poem sequences). The titular poem has a vignette structure; it’s arranged as a series of diary entries.

What poets do you feel had the biggest influence on the poems in The Blue Mimes?

Alejandra Pizarnik and Blanca Varela. A quote from Pizarnik’s diarios opens the collection, and some of the final poems use epigraphs from her as well. I started reading and translating her work in grad school. Her poetry and prose in Spanish — interested in silence as much as music, deeply internal, brutally honest, at times absurd and surreal — opened up new possibilities for me in poetry. Her work held a corner of my own voice I hadn’t touched before.

I was translating Varela as I was writing the book (my co-translated collection of her work is published by Tolsun Books, The Blinding Star: Selected Poems). She’s one of the most important poets of Peru, and has only recently started appearing in English. I felt such a connection to her existential feminine world, so Varela-isms snuck their way into the language even when I didn’t intend it. The sieve of translation will do that; my voice fills my translations of her work, and her voice passed through into my poems.

There’s also a quote from poet Eavan Boland that I held in my mind, even though it didn’t make it into the book: “This is what language is: / a habitable grief.”

What about non-poetry writers? Were any poems in The Blue Mimes influenced by any prose writers?

Latin American novelists kept cropping up: Diamela Eltit, Ernesto Sábato. Some of the poems carry imagery from folk tales, myths, and fairy tales; in the untitled poem that begins “Someone curls into themselves at the edge of the sea,” I was thinking of selkies shedding their skin as a metaphor for internal transformation. In “The House It Is,” I was thinking of the Sábato novel directly referenced (El túnel), but also other enclosed, endless literary spaces, like Borges’s library, the prison cell of Invitation To A Beheading by Nabokov, the family house in Casa de los Espíritus by Allende. The poem “Sol” contains a reference to The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. As I wrote “Naufragios,” I had a quote from Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in the back of my mind: “I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck — the places floating, finally legible.”

How about non-literary influences; were any poems in The Blue Mimes influenced by any songs or paintings or anything like that?

There’s a poem that didn’t make it into the final draft that was based on the paintings of Fernando de Szyszlo (a Peruvian painter, and Blanca Varela’s husband, coincidentally). Even though the poem didn’t fit, I found myself returning to the fragmented, nightmarish quality of his work. When I wrote “Fields Anointed With Poppies” — a memorial poem for the victims of the 2019 El Paso Wal-Mart shooting — I was thinking of the repetitious, fragile quality of installations by Doris Salcedo, often created as public memorials. The first poem in the book, “Earthworks,” references land art installations by Andy Goldsworthy. The act of line drawing — line drawing as a kind of searching, of reaching out of silence to locate form — is very important to the book, which is why line drawings (some by me, some by my dad) separate its sections.

The poem “Resound” was written in memory of my friend Isaac, and as I wrote it I was thinking of all the niche indie folk concerts we went to together (the poem includes a line by Neutral Milk Hotel).

I guess the last thing I’d say is that I worked on this book a lot at my best friend’s house. She’s an opera singer, and I love to write while she practices. Her voice and song trailed into the poems, too.

And what about your pets; your cats Parker and Santino, and your turtles, Acorn and Anya? How did they influence these poems? Because turtles love limericks, but only if they’re dirty and about turtles. They’re weird like that.

My cats are my office assistants. They assisted the writing of the book by leaping onto my desk, lying down on the printed poems, stepping on the keyboard while I was typing, biting my pen, and insisting that I pet them or cradle them in my arms while trying to write. I fired them both, but they refuse to acknowledge it.

I sometimes worked on the book while sitting out on the patio, watching my slider turtle Acorn build nest after nest during her egg-laying season. The turtles don’t really acknowledge poetry, only because they are poetry, true masterpieces, and the queens of our household. I haven’t tried dirty limericks with them yet.

Acorn, Parker, Santino, Anya


On a tender note: around the time I lost my dad, I lost my dog. My family only ever had this one dog, our collie Blaze, who was intelligent and incredibly gentle and the once-in-a-lifetime dog of our hearts. The grief of losing an animal like that is so particular, because pets give us the purest, most unconditional love. So I held Blazey close while writing this book.

Back in the 1800s, when I wrote poetry, I used to workshop stuff by reading it out loud; sometimes at home, sometimes at open mics. Do you do this as well?

I read poems out loud constantly. Poetry is such an aural form; the music is important to me, the flow of the prosody, and I have to hear it constantly. When I teach, I make my students read their work and each other’s work out loud all the time, and many of them have never done it. If we want to engage all of the sound-capabilities of language, I think we have to listen.

Also, I’ve been to some truly terrible poetry readings where poets read their work in complete monotone. Reading is one way we communicate our poems to people. It’s important to practice rendering the inflections and emotion you put on the page out loud, if you want to really deliver your poem to an audience and connect with the people who need to hear it.

Were any of the poems in The Blue Mimes previously published in any anthologies or journals? I ask because I’m curious if the versions in Blue are the same as the previously published versions, or if you made any major changes.

Most of the poems, at this point, have homes outside of the book. Several are adjusted slightly from previously published versions.

In some cases, it had been years since the poem was first published, and time made me see / hear certain moments differently. In other cases, my editor pointed out something I’d never noticed or thought of.

The poems I’ve written mark certain points in my life, and I like to both honor them as a testament to that time (keeping the core of what I wanted the poem to be intact) while allowing them to be living forms that can evolve as I evolve. I don’t feel bound by print; for me, a publication isn’t the end of the road for a poem. It continues to have a place in my life and so it can continue to change.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Blue Mimes?

Just that it’s still wild to me that this book is out in the world, that so many brilliant people have put their weight and their support behind it, and that people are reading it and feeling a connection to it. Every nice Instagram tag and Goodreads review and message sent through my website has made my day.

Sara Daniele Rivera The Blue Mimes

Finally, if someone enjoys The Blue Mimes, what poetry collection of someone else’s would you suggest they check out? Oh, and extra points if it’s someone’s debut collection

Oh, I love this question and the first time I tried to answer it I went way overboard. I had to trim down my list, really thinking about books that resonate directly with mine, and it’s still…kind of overboard.

First: the other books that have won the Academy of American Poets First Book Award are pretty much all phenomenal. The last two, Saltwater Demands A Psalm by Kweku Abimbola and Against Heaven by Kemi Alabi are two of the most stunning debuts I’ve ever read. Other favorites include Brute by Emily Skaja, Eye Level by Jenny Xie, and Afterland by Mai Der Vang.

I very much need people to read Have You Been Long Enough At The Table? by Leslie Sainz, a fellow Cubana. Reading that book, I found a home for so many of the contradictions and silences and complexities I hold as part of the Cuban diaspora. I recently blurbed a beautiful debut by my friend Kristian Macaron, Recipe For Time Travel In Case We Lose Each Other, that is full of myth and memory and loss. I just received my copy of Cindy Juyoung Ok’s Ward Toward, which I’ve been dying to read. I also eternally love my friend Duy Đoàn’s debut, We Play a Game, and think that people drawn to the language liminality in my book would love it.

Other books that influenced The Blue Mimes, tonally, formally, spiritually:

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz

Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen

She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo

Averno and The Wild Iris by Louise Glück

Golden Ax by Rio Cortez

The Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail, tr. Kareem James Abu-Zeid

Obit by Victoria Chang

The Good Thief by Marie Howe

Bestiary by Donika Kelly

Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral

Lima :: Limón by Natalie Scenters-Zapico

The Blue Estuaries: Poems, 1923-1968 by Louise Bogan

Seam by Tarfia Faizullah

Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine

Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay

Concierto Animal by Blanca Varela

Poesía Completa, Prosa Completa, and Diarios by Alejandra Pizarnik



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