Interview with Bénédicte Vilgrain and Bernard Rival

conducted by Olivier Brossard
(cliquez ici pour la version française)


OB : When was the publishing house le Théâtre Typographique founded? What led you to go into publishing?

BV & BR: Bénédicte Vilgrain created le Théâtre Typo in 1984, in the courtyard of a building, using a printing press. She printed books in limited editions, in rather large formats, marked by her interest in the oral literatures of Asia and Africa , and anthropology. Bernard Rival came in 1988. Théâtre as "place where something happens," as in "Theater of War" or "Theater of Memory," without this something necessarily being the responsibility of a person (one, or two characters). Take, for instance, the marionette theater. Typographique (with a capital), because this something manifests itself through the form of printed characters.

You publish a lot of poetry (D. Fourcade, J. Roubaud etc. . . ). In which poetic tradition, if one can employ such a term, would you place yourself?

It's Harold Rosenberg who spoke of The Tradition of the New (University of Chicago Press, 1960). At present, the publishing house Al Dante perhaps best illustrates this notion of a tradition of the avant-garde.

As for us, let's say that we wind between the traditions and their avatars.

How did you come to American poetry?

When we began to work together, Bénédicte did not like English much as a language, which, like everyone, she knew imperfectly, and which she found simplistic and overly dominant in relation to other languages. She worked with German and Tibetan.

From early on I was aware of the idiomatic nature of the English language(s). First I got to know English as spoken by the Irish. Then, in the early 70s, I was a bartender in London , which was a good spot to hear the great diversity of English. In the USA , a little bit later, I realized that the same proper name is often pronounced in very different ways, as for instance when Hawthorne writes, and probably pronounces, the name Thoreau as Thorow .

The first book of American poetry that we published was Cumming's 39 Selected Poems . It was at once a beginning for publishing American poetry and an exercise in typography.

You have published Susan Howe, Charles Olson, and George Oppen among others. Why these authors? What makes you interested in their work? Even if the works of these authors are very different one from another-if only because they belong to different generations-do you see a link between them? Is your interest in a poetic and literary tradition that one might call "experimental," even if the term is insufficient?

It was Dominique Fourcade who first brought our attention to the books of Susan Howe. I like the idea, even if it would need historical proof, that everything begins around 1970 when a French poet, Claude Royet-Journoud, meets an American poet, Keith Waldrop. At nearly the same time, an anthology of Serge Fauchereau appears with the Lettres Nouvelles . But in 1943 it was a philosopher, Jean Wahl, who sent translations of Wallace Stevens, Cummings, and Williams, by the French poets in exile in New York , to the journal Fontaine, in Algiers . I remember poems by Rosmarie Waldrop, translated by Roger Giroux in the journal Argile . I also remember the translations of Gary Snyder by Jacques Roubaud in Action Poétique . I liked Gary Snyder a lot during this period, because he was, like me, a country fellow, and I knew that he was hiding under the name of Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums.

We translated and published George Oppen's Discrete Series without even knowing the existence of a nearly complete translation by Serge Faucherau, published by the Pompidou Center , I believe. There was also an issue of Europe on the Objectivists (1977) in which Roubaud had translated some poems of Discrete Series , but we were not aware of that either! I believe we should all pay more attention to including in our books bibliographies whicha are as complete as possible. When Emmanuel Hocquard in ma haie mentions the books of Susan Howe and of George Oppen, he does not give the titles of the available French editions. But we knew Alferi's translation of the Zukofsky book from Royaumont and of course the beautiful translation of the second poem of Discrete Series published by Dominique Fourcade in Au Travail ma chérie , which we reprinted in our book. We had decided to keep the original title, because in a letter to Faucherau from the 60s, Oppen wrote: "We say Les fleurs du mal " (!) Why, he insisted, not keep my book-if it is to be translated in France -with its original title? The list of numbers one finds on the white page separating the translation from the English text also comes from one of Oppen's letters; he regretted not having placed it in the original edition. It's a discrete series, the numbers of the subway lines in New York .

Susan Howe, that was a real discovery. The fact that she had an Irish mother and an American father and was therefore extremely sensitive to variations of the English language, idiomatic and otherwise, counted a lot for us. Nearly half of her books are in some way "European books" since they are situated (she says herself: "I am a writer of place after all," and again, "Trust the place to form the voice") in Ireland or in England . It is the case with The Liberties , with Melville's Marginalia , with Eikon Basilike , while other books are really American, like Thorow or My Emily Dickinson (a little, if one likes, like the "German films" of Straub & Huillet, and their "Italian films"). The way in which her oeuvre is woven through, with, and on historical materials has always seemed to us very close to the work of the historian as Walter Benjamin conceived it, for instance, in his work of 1940, On the Concept of History .

Only after many years did it occur to us that a large number of books we were publishing were elegies! Almost all of the Susan Howe's books are elegies, and even the collection of letters that Benjamin published in exile and from which we translated a volume into French, Allemands , is one. But this is fairly normal for a book written in exile, isn't it? Philippe Beck, who revisits the genres, wrote Élegies Hé , which we will publish next year.

We returned to Olson because his influence on the work of Susan Howe is often mentioned, which we wanted to look at more closely. Yet it is something else again that one finds: the influence of the German and English Romantics and "Naturphilosophie" on the transcendentalists of New England and on the universities of the East coast at the beginning of the century, which were Olson's own origins. If Cummings often insists on his proximity to Thoreau and Emerson, this is not the case with Olson, even though . . . "Polis is/eyes," "violets on all sides" . . .

Ultimately, it is the differences within semblance that interest us. Perhaps that's what tradition is. The American poets we have published are of different generations but all come from New England . Even Oppen, a New York Jew, was turned into a New Englander by his love for the sea; since Melville and Thoreau, water-expanses of water-are everywhere in this literature.

Aside from the rain there is no water here, it is a "Karst" where we live; one could hardly be farther from the sea! Susan Howe says that what differentiates Melville from Emily Dickinson (apart from gender!) is that one originally comes from one side of the Connecticut river , while the other comes from the opposite bank.

Modestly, with limited means, we do an archaeological work, an archaeology of the elegy for instance, from Goethe's sketch of The Marienbad Elegy to Susan Howe's book on Thoreau. And all this happens through forms, not only forms in the sense of poetic genres but also forms of authors' manuscripts, manuscripts from which we work whenever possible. When we don't have access to the manuscripts we go to check the first editions. The xerox of the original edition of Discrete Series alas got to us too late, we had already started to print, hence the mistakes in our edition repeated from the Collected Poems of New Directions.

You are doing real work to expose contemporary American poetry (one thinks of the books of Susan Howe that you have translated and published). What is your impression of the reception of these works? Is there interest for contemporary American poetry in France ?

The American publisher Ed Foster with whom I've done an interview (, issue 3), makes grave observations about the publication and the diffusion of poetry in the United States, especially of poetry in translation, outside of the conventional poetry published by the large publishing houses (Knopf, Random House . . .). Would you make the same observation for both French and foreign poetry in France ?

One should be able to say there is interest in contemporary American poetry in France since it is published and American poets get invited to read here. But the figures from the book sales we produce lead us to believe the contrary. We are no doubt not a very telling example, as a self-distributed small publishing house; one might suppose that our books don't find their public because of a lack of distribution. But I believe that Michael Palmer's Sun , magnificently translated by Emmanuel Hocquard, has sold very little . . . and that P.O.L. has not published American poets since 1996, or only if they write directly in French. It seems that it is impossible to touch a public a little larger than the two or three hundred professionals or part-professionals of the profession. The work of Un Bureau sur l'Atlantique/Format américain has more success, because it puts poets from here in contact with poets from there, and kindles new generations of translators; the books they publish are also better adapted to the public concerned, judging from the number of subscriptions, for example, and then their work is infinitely more systematic. We have only, after all, published seven books of American poetry. To put books in bookstores as we do, without advance publicity, is near suicide. Too often we have the impression that our books reach nobody. Thorow , which came out in bookstores last September, sold 40 copies! Maybe our translations are really bad and we are the only ones not to know it. The only article written on the book did not imbue one with a particular desire to read it. It was certainly an informative article, as is often the case now, even in journals. One informs a public that does not in any case have time to read, just a bit of time to get informed. The article curiously ends with "to be continued!" We have published three of Susan Howe's books, all of which sold very little; how, even with the greatest selflessness, could there be a continuation? Perhaps there is simply no need for translations now, as everyone knows English well enough, which one realizes when reading articles in which the author does not agree with the translation of the title, does not agree with this, or with that. It is very easy to order books in the original from Amazon.

We are not "Dichter der Dichter" (word for word) and as a result do not make American poems in French as Emmanuel Hocquard wished. But he eventually gave up this Stefan Georgian conception of translation, perhaps after reading The Task of the Translator , or Paul de Man's commentary on it.

In any case, a book we publish by a French poet will sell in the same period of time five or six times better than a book in translation. But the number of sales of poetry books in the French language is, as everyone knows, negligible.

In 1964/65 Denis Roche was already translating Olson, and the poets of the New York School who were in the same generation as he was, or nearly. Thirty-five years later, do people know O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, Ashbery, outside of a small circle of initiates? As Serge Fauchereau once said, since 1962 (when the first French edition of Call Me Ishmael came out at Gallimard), every ten years, a publisher-each time smaller-tries to make Olson known here, and each time with the same perfect non-success. The reception of Olson in France is always: yes, but . . .Fauchereau had already in 1971 suggests that Olson is a better theoretician than poet. If one looks at the two first editions of Maximus , those published in his lifetime, one is stunned, it is absolutely extraordinary, the first was published in Germany , the second in London , it is a constant of books of American poetry, since Pound and G. Stein until the 60s, that they were very often published in Europe . Oppen had Discrete Series published in Toulon and Creeley published Olson's first books in Majorca . When we did Commencements we said to ourselves that if the book achieved a minimal audience we would do a second book, a selection of Maximus ; but the book did not sell at all! There are other American poets we would like to publish, James Schuyler, Norma Cole, Chet Wiener, Spicer's lectures . . . but to live amid boxes of unsold books is a little dispiriting after awhile.

In an interview you gave to CIPM, you spoke of a "chain of choices" in the process of publishing a book. You spoke notably of the last choice that comes with getting the book from the publishing house to bookstores. How do you distribute your books? Are you satisfied with this choice, which you say is the only one that escapes you?

We must have been unclear, the question was about the book getting from the bookstore into the pocket of the buyer. The distribution of our books is at once good and bad, provided the nature of what we publish. With the bookstores in Paris we work on consignment, except with the largest who order a fixed number of books but who demand greater discounts. Consignment is difficult to manage, requires close attention, but has the advantage that the bookstores will more likely restock the books that they do not have to pay for upfront. In this way the books go to the stock, when there still is one, and sell some copies all year long. It is always better than having the books put back in boxes for good once they have left the new release tables. Because we ourselves print some of what we publish it is not easy to accept the return of unsold books, which are invariably bound for the garbage, as one can hardly give them away. Consignment is more difficult to do outside of Paris , and our books are only sent there, with the exception of three or four bookstores, on requests by bookbuyers. There are not a lot, but a few more each year. At the sight of an annual balance sheet, anybody would stop doing what we're doing. Not to put you through another round of "not good for anything else," but well . . .

The chain of choices that you describe in this interview seems to begin anew for each book. This method of proceeding which excludes the idea of a series or of single format is a little bit like that of Steve Clay, the publisher of Granary Books, for whom each book births a new project, which means not only a new text, but a new form, printed with new characters, a new collaboration in which a painter or artist is invited to participate in the book. When you speak of your book as an object, it strikes me that your conception of publishing resembles that of Steve Clay (who also has published Susan Howe): do you put "everything" in question with each new publication?

We have read your interview with Steve Clay, and yes, there is some of that, even as he is a better entrepreneur than us. The American market (?) is in any case more vast, there are the other English language countries. But on numerous points we are in agreement with him.

We don't put "everything" in question with each publication, but we read the texts a lot before deciding which ones we are going to do. We tell ourselves sometimes that it is fairly presumptuous to claim to give each text its proper form, the form we think it calls for, but the satisfaction of the authors when they receive the book encourages us to continue in this vein. It seems on the other hand that the forms that we give to the books don't make them particularly desirable to buyers in the bookstores.

The contradictions are everywhere, are they not? We like books in pocket editions, of which there exist or have existed well-made examples, and we make soft cover books that distance themselves in every way from pocket editions! For many of these texts it is their first appearance (none of the books of Susan Howe that we have published exist as such in the U.S.A. ; their making in each case was decided with the author), it is very likely that they will never sell enough to be republished in pocket editions. We try to clothe them for the big city: if they are successful on their trip so much the better, if not we try to console them once they come back home.