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: fragment78@aol.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 about, etc.

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 rules.

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 presence.

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 Albiach, etc.

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 Translation Conference.

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 we did.

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 your activity.

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 world.

 

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