This interview was conducted
by e-mail in the Spring 2002.
Bio : Jennifer Dick
was born in Minnesota. She studied English Lit. and Russian Lit.
in translation with Joseph Brodsky at Mount Holyoke College in MA.
She has also studied, and still is, in France—at Paris III
where she is in the Littérature Générale et
Comparée program writing her DEA on the influences of Mallarmé
and Duchamp on contemporary "experimental" American Poetry.
She is Lectrice at the University of Orleans. She also teaches creative
writing at WICE where she is co-editor in-chief of the Lit. Mag.
Upstairs at Duroc. She writes poetry, doing occasional translations
or re-readings for writers (for example, she re-read a few of Canadian
novelist Nancy Huston's translations into English this year) and
of late making collages.
Vincent Broqua : One of the reasons we are doing
this interview is that you are exceptionnally active on the poetry
scene in Paris, and especially so with your poetry newsletter published
each month via the web. Could you say more precisely what this is
all about? How and when did the whole thing start? Did people talk
you into doing this or is this something that you were already doing
in the US? What prompted you into setting up this newsletter? Why
do you think it is so crucial that people be informed in this way?
Jennifer Dick : The
poetry newsletter came about as a way to know what was actually
happening in Paris. As an anglophone writer myself, I feel it is
important to not lose touch with what writers in the States are
up to, so I go to readings when I have the time. A few years ago
when there seemed to be an explosion of writers visiting and reading
in and around the city I kept hearing about the events after the
fact. The newsletter was my way to remedy my missing the events
I wanted to see. It's grown a lot since then, and I've tried to
add French readings, some theater, etc.
VB : Have you thought of any other media than the e-mail?
JD : Of course, I am interested in having someone pop it up on a
website, that would in fact be easier. But still waiting for offers.
It gets popped up on a website in NYC through Ernie Hilbert at NowCulture
and eVerse, but not on any sites that focus specifically on Paris.
As for distributing a paper listing, that would be excellent if
someone else wanted to get the list and then print it up, do the
layout and distribution themselves—I just can't afford the
time at the moment.
VB : How many people have access to your newsletter and how did/do
you constitute your list? Do you just pick up names as you meet
people? or do you do this in a more systematic way? How may people
reading this interview and willing to get your infos contact you?
JD : There are about
600 people on the list. I started off with a few which grew by request,
then via the review Upstairs at Duroc and the WICE website,
via the Upstairs and the NowCulture, eVerse mailings and
websites as well as nice ads from Stephanie at Moving Parts and
3AM online magazine. I do continue to pick up names as I meet people.
Inversely, I seem to be meeting more and more people at events whose
names were emailed to me at events, via their friends, etc and who
come over and just say "Hi, I get your newsletter." If
anyone new wants on or off, I just tell them to email the address:
email@example.com and I'll add them to the next mailing.
VB : We haven’t talked much of what you advertise in your
newsletter. How do you get your information?
JD : I get info from people and bookstores who email me with listings,
from friends, from flyers I pick up or bookshops I pass—literally
I scratch down info from window ads sometimes! Rarely, I will get
something off websites, but I prefer people to send me the info.
VB : Could you define your line, if there is such a thing. How
do you choose what will appear in your list?
JD : There is no line—I promote readings in and around Paris
first and foremost, primarily anglophone and francophone, but have
also added a little anglo theater, writing course offerings, and
an art show or two every month. I do a small blurb at the end on
a review I like or advertise a review friends of mine run or which
are appearing in Paris. I am trying to keep listings short since
the lists tend to be getting longer.
VB : I was just referring to ‘the poetry scene in Paris’.
Do you think such a phrase is accurate, i.e., is there such a thing
as a poetic community, if one means by community a group of people
defined by shared space, time and identity (notions etc.), with
the danger of being fenced in this frame.
JD : Like Paris,
the poetry scene is many scenes—we could talk of the French
poetry scenes, the open to bi-lingual work poetry events (then we'd
also be getting into what langauges were represented), and the anglophone
ones. Not to mention the playreading and prose writing scenes here.
Within that we’d have all the people only interested in one
kind of writing, or in well-known or in totally unknown writers.
There are people who go devoutly to certain amateur events every
month or even every week, just to see what's new. That sort of dedication
is interesting, and a sort of "scene". KiloMeter Zero
has had a lot of success this year organizing really happening mixed
media events on Sunday nights, with invited readers and performers,
music and open mikes, and they certainly have the whole art squat,
young artists scene going on. Similarly, Double Change has a very
serious following of known and up-and-coming anglo and francophone
writers—a totally different, very serious scene of its own
which has finally introduced a mix of people also translating or
seeking to be translated. I've also done a lot in organizing readings
at The Red Wheelbarrow, WICE and Le Rideau Rouge in the last year
for Upstairs at Duroc and we have definitely had a certain
following that can be counted on making an appearance at most readings,
can be found sharing work other days in cafés, be spotted
cohorting together in bars, having crazy parties at each other’s
homes, drooling into each other’s beers some odd new lines
or arguing about the value of this or that gesture in a line, or
simply encouraging each other to read something or mail a poem to
a review someplace, etc. Again—a sort of scene. I do feel
that for the foreign writers who are struggling unknowns here, the
"scene" is perhaps simply a social reinforcement of what
they need—ideas for new reviews to check out in the states
or Canada since they haven't been back in a year but someone else
has, a new publisher to look into, a new contest or poet to read
You can get lost as a writer in a
foreign language, and then you either start writing in that foreign
tongue, like Nancy Huston, Cioran, Todorov, Kundera, Nabokov, etc
or you make grandiose efforts to remember what your language can
do and to keep that fresh by reading new work, listening to it read,
etc. so that your own work doesn't become repetitive and stale.
VB : Now, as we move on towards broader issues, it seemed interesting
to me to have your opinion on French contemporary poetry. You, yourself,
are a poet and translate French contemporary poetry, you are also
involved in American contemporary poetry. Paul Auster quoting Octavio
Paz’s « the French tradition and the English tradition
in this epoch are at opposite poles to each other. French poetry
is more radical, more total. » says « on the other hand,
this much is also certain : if there has been a steady interest
in French poetry for the past hundred years on the part of British
and American poets, enthusiasm for the French has often been tempered
by a certain wariness, even hostility, to literary and intellectual
practices in France. » This was in 1982. According to you,
what is now the situation of French and American contemporary poetries?
JD : Funny you should
use these Auster quotes, which I believe come from that Random House
anthology of French Poetry translated by writers. I used these quotes
a few years back in a grant application, and I believed them heartily
then, but since my second stint in Paris (these past 3, going into
my 4th year) my opinion is shifting.
First, Auster/Paz wrote this at a
time when the avant-garde poetry and poetics of the beginning of
the century were still flabbergasting many Americans, but now the
tables are reversed. In the late 1800s early 1900s Americans, especially
American intellectuals, artists and writers—as well as writers
and artists worldwide—came to Paris. Paris was the capital
of the world, people flocked here for the great expositions
universelles, to discover the new painting, the new poetry
of Baudelaire, to see the unusual new cubist works, and to discover
Duchamp—he was an icon in the states long before he went there.
Everything here seemed more radical, more pure, perhaps simply freer
in how it moved across the page, unconstrained by the puritanism
(I don't mean subject matter, but Protestant prayer rhythms, and
how the body was seen and treated which is reflected in how the
voice moves) containing and restraining the American poetry. American
poetry was enmeshed in the founding of the current trends—enmeshed
in Dickinson and Whitman, who would strangely breed a variety of
odd bunch children—on the one hand, fragmented verse, prose
and poetry which broke against itself and struggled with and within
rhythm, leading forward toward Stein (via Picasso), etc. On the
other hand, the influences on the Beats, the New York School, Olson's
Projective Verse, etc. Meanwhile, in France Mallarmé had
already written his Un Coup de Dés… which
was remarkably ahead of its time, suggesting futurism, especially
Russian Futurism, dadaism, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and then the
more recent work which, like Cole Swensen's, is fragmented across
the page, directed often by a series of sonorous and polyphonic
However, it feels to me as I look
at the latter half of the century that the French have given their
good writing over to theory—producing great minds and great
books by Derrida, Blanchot, Bataille, Barthes, Foucault, Cixous,
Irigaray, etc.—and perhaps given some of their radical gestures
to the novel—Queneau, Perec... Inversely, in the States the
poetries abound, and many many poets are in the process of incorporating
and relating to and responding to the French poetic criticism with
a very radical poetry. Some of the poets that come to mind here
are Brenda Hillman, Cole Swensen, Cha, Laura Mullen, Kathleen Fraser,
Laura Moriarty, Michael Palmer, Alice Notley, Lyn Hejinian, Charles
Bernstein, as well as Erin Mouré, Anne Carson and Steve McCaffery
(Canadian poets). Many of these writers have translated French poets
and are in constant contact with how poetry in France has developed
and is developping. There are also tons of up-and-coming interesting
poets, such as Josie Foo, Sawako Nakayasu, Christopher Arigo, Michelle
Noteboom, George Vance, Dan Rhiele. Amazing Literary magazines are
pouring out of campuses and private funded institutions and partnerships
all over the States, such as Chain, How2, The Germ, Shiny, Murmur,
Mantis, Crowd, Conjunctions, Slope, Facture, Factorial Press!, Volt.
I feel like every month I hear of a new "must see this, great
unusual new work in this" magazine. Of course, there are the
old dry standbys, too, publishing the same verse they've been publishing
for 50-100 years, like I see here, and often these get more mainstream
press because they are more accessible, but the "radical"
underground is quickly rising to the surface to demonstrate its
I read that over 2000 new poets have
published over 5 books of poetry in the states, and the number increases
every year despite the KMartization of the world, and people are
clamoring to go to readings, which you often have to pay to get
into in NYC. I don't think that this can be said for France. In
Paris the number of readings for new French poetry collections is
pretty minimal—no auditoriums are filling with 20 euro ticketed
spectators to hear André Velter or Christophe Tarkos's new
collections, though perhaps they should. Similarly, according to
Eveline Pinto, New York 100 years after Poe's death has become the
heart of the art world—and it is true that most artists of
established caliber consider it a real achievement and necessity
to get a good show in a quality gallery in NYC. They want to show
there because they sell work there. Here, artists are often saying
to me that if they can go out for dinner on sales from work in Paris
that's something to celebrate—people just aren't perusing
Paris galleries to buy, they are passé or overhip, and no
one knows right now what to do about that. (Of course, this, too,
is metamorphosing with the aid of travel ease and new technologies,
so perhaps soon there will be no art capitals.)
Yet, that said, French poetry does
still move more physically across the page than American poetry
(and certainly much more than Irish, Scottish or British poetry!)—as
we see in numerous poets’ work, such as that of André
du Bouchet, Jean-Louis Giovannoni, Claude Royet-Journoud, Anne-Marie
I don't want to bang on the French,
but I believe that the poetry here is a bit stagnant right now.
Much of the poetry has been making the same aesthetic gestures since
the '50s, and "new" supposed "radical" or interesting
language use, such as Christophe Tarkos's anaphore-based poetry,
has actually been being done by dozens of poets since the '70s (including
at one point or another Olivier Cadiot, Stéphane Rosière,
Jean-Luc Parant, Philippe Beck, Yannick Liron, Christian Prigent,
Jean-Patrice Courtois, Michel Bulteau, etc) and perhaps these poets
are simply discovering this gesture on their own and are unaware
of each other's work, as I find many poets here don't know many
poets outside their small groups, since the publishers are like
school-creators here, making it difficult to find new writers at
random since one must know their maison d'édition.
Of course I am generalizing here,
but there are a lot –a LOT– of poetry books in the "well-published"
domain in France that are coming from the same writers we've been
seeing over here since the '50s (For a sign of this, all you have
to do is open the Gallimard Poche edition of recent 20th century
French poetry to see that no one in there is under 50! Not to discuss
the absolute non-representation of women poets). Meanwhile, the
majority of writing contest winners for strong first books of poetry
in the States in the past year were in their mid-20s to mid-30s!
That said, I feel France may also
be on the edge of a youth revival. There are more and more young,
not-yet published on a wide scale, or 1st book poets I meet whose
work is fabulously interesting, also the maisons d'édition
are being turned over to younger writers or opening up to exposing
some of these writers to the public. But what I am saying in a very
long way is that I think that there has been an exceptionally strong
exploration of the possible in poetry in the States in the last
20 years and that exploration strikes me as more radical than the
contemporary work I have been exposed to thus far over here in France.
VB : Let me borrow
a sentence from Jacques Roubaud’s Poésie, etcetera
: ménage which seems particularly relevant to what we’re
discussing, even more so in the current situation : « if X
is a country, what does ‘the poetry of X’ mean? ».
How may contemporary French poetry and American poetry compare?
In other words, what can the one bring to the other and vice-versa?
JD : Difficult question.
I suppose that for me, the contemporary French poetry can bring
America a stronger exploration of the abstract and the philosophical
space as disembodied from the everyday. Here I think of Claude Royet-Journoud,
du Bouchet, even Jean-Louis Giovannoni and Raphaële George.
I feel a sort of fist pressing down
on the language, squeezing it for that last drop, when I read a
lot of poets over here. That dense, patient pressuring is lacking
in a lot of American work. In part this is also because much of
the current work I am seeing over here is not small, short titled
poems, but longer poems or even book-length works of fragments.
We are seeing this in the states in, for example, such work as that
of Laynie Brown, Michael Palmer sometimes, and especially Myung
Mi Kim, Thalia Field, etc. But there is a large mass of work in
France that allows pages and space and time to read across and through
those pages. We Americans have tended to be too impatient for that—flying
in fact towards the reverse, the sound-bite poem, the 3-5 liner
that can leap off billboards or can be stacked on journal pages.
Conversely, what can America give
the French? I haven't really thought about this and think I am not
prepared yet to answer that. Perhaps, on the basest level, a freedom
to be more energetic and piercing, to risk more on the page than
the aesthetic, to be sloppier with the white surface, and even to
seek multiple voices in other ways besides anaphore, etc. I think
a greater inclusion of the objects that people the world, the electronics,
the politics, the news, and ways to pull these apart—as we
see in American surrealistic work, such as Mesmer's is (like Tate,
Simic, etc in ways) –or, in another way, like we see in Stein-like
work. There is a lot of multi-genre work being produced in the States,
mixed prose/poetry "novels" as well as collage work, taking
the Calligramme a step farther, not representing a figurative with
the words, but rather layering one abstract atop another, sometimes
overlapping, crossing out, etc. This sort of work, as explored by
Susan Howe, Joanna Drucker and Lisa Jarnot might well have a lot
to offer the French.
VB : As I said earlier, you translate French poetry into English.
This is obviously of great importance for a journal like ours. Who
have you translated so far and how do you choose the poets you translate?
JD : I started translating
with what seemed an easy book—the early collection Pas
Japonais by Jean-Louis Giovannoni. I did a million versions,
it seems now, and decided to translate it because I had a friend
who couldn't read the French. Later, I came up with more rational
reasons, his mixing haiku-like gesture with Western philosophical
space, and response to the imagists.
The second collection I chose to do
for a similar emotional impulse—Raphaële George's Traded
Nights. She simply moved me, and I wanted to try and work at
finding her tenuous language in English. Outside these two, I have
occasionally translated a poem here and there, to share with a non-speaker
of French, or because I thought it would be a challenge (Du Bellay
I discovered impossible to do justice to, for example).
VB : Do you publish your translations? where?
JD : No, or I really haven't pursued this. I would like to at some
point send the work around and suppose your questioning should press
me forward in this! I was invited to read them at the Steven's Institute
VB : You’re also involved in creative writing. The subject
is a sore point in French universities : creative writing programs
have flourished in American universities whereas France seems to
be reluctant to the idea. Do you know of any reasons why this might
be? And, as, if I’m correct, you also study at the University
(Paris 3), can you imagine any creative writing programs being set
up in French universities?
JD : I think even
in the States this is an extremely heated point. I personally did
choose to do an MFA, and am pleased with that choice for the time
it gave me to write, for the fellow writers I worked with that were
all very very different and so the time with them expanded my outlook
and I was forced to read really widely in order to understand the
basis for each of their works, to fairly comment on it and give
them the feedback I felt could help them press forward and become
the writer they were becoming. However, I do feel angry sometimes,
irrationally, perhaps jealously, when I hear of MFA programs where
people just write and don't study literature and language, etc as
I guess, the levels of hostility towards
these programs are multiple: 1st, the idea that you can teach writing
like math is aberrant—to all of us, I believe, those for and
those against programs, 2nd, the idea that writers are merely forming
clones of themselves is a strong criticism, and perhaps has its
validity in cases—it is something to watch out for if deciding
to do a program. 3rd, it goes against the image of the "great
writer" the divine or the inspired or the somehow "other"
than normal person. Here in France I believe that idea is still
very alive and well, and so perhaps one of the largest blocks to
MFA/Writing workshops. The idea that one is made to fill a particular
role or have a métier that you are naturally made for. In
the States, many many people do a writing program then never write
again, change areas, etc and that goes full against the idea of
being called to write. 4th, the French academic system brings new
meaning to the word "rigid" and therefore until the way
people are taught and the way they are used to relating in a classroom
situation changes radically, I don’t think the system would
work for a writing workshop.
I cannot, currently, imagine a creative
writing seminar in the Paris III curriculum, but perhaps it would
help the students think a little on their own, and force them to
read differently—For example, when I did my MFA we also had
courses with students studying literature, and it was very difficult
for those students in seminars with us because we tended to read
more, have a deeper understanding of how the language was functioning
on the page, we read the texts more thoroughly (often NOT the criticism
until much later, if at all) and thus had a deeper sense of the
work itself. We also tended to read work that was published at the
time by other writers and may have influenced the writer we were
studying, and the writers' letters, essays, etc. So, perhaps if
universities got students involved in workshops this might lead
to more thorough reading and a deeper sense of personal investment
in that reading. Who knows?
As I mentioned, I teach 2 workshops
at Wice, and then teach workshops for high school students in the
summer for Oxbridge Summer Abroad Programs. I do not think in all
cases "This person will be the next great writer". I never
think that, in fact. I look at what they are doing, give them what
secrets or reading knowledge I have to help them go farther in that
domain, or give them—like a painter in a beaux-arts class—exercises
to work on certain skills or to hone others, so they can take that
with them wherever or however they wish. Often, I get people who
are just trying to write anything, and that means for me perhaps
in the end they won't go off to write a book, but they will read
more and more attentively, I think. A plus, no?
VB : Apart from the cultural differences and perhaps also a problem
of funding, I tend to think that there’s a misunderstanding
as to what a creative program might be in France. Could you describe
JD : Depends on the
program. I think I have addressed the workshop above: we critique,
suggest readings, changes, sometimes talk as if the writer were
absent about how we understand the work or don't—then the
writer will either change or not this work based on the feedback.
But for me, the MFA also included a large literature curriculum,
preparing us to teach American modernism and postmodernism, composition
and creative writing. In that case, it spares us years in doctoral
thesis writing while we write poems instead and work on compiling
them—a work that takes time—Yet the MFA prepares us
to teach thus to earn some sort of living in this realistic, economic