Books & readings in Paris, with a short essay on the French Connection

This posting will find me in Paris, where a series of readings has been scheduled in celebration of three books newly translated into French:


Secouer la Citrouille (Shaking the Pumpkin), translation by Anne Talvaz, Presses Universitaires de Rouen et du Havre


Journal Seneca (A Seneca Journal), translation by Didier Pemerle, Editions Jose Corti


Un Champ sur Mars (A Field on Mars): Poems 2000-2015, translation by Anne-Laure Tissut, Presses Universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, with a separate edition in English


The planned readings include the following:


Reading & launch, Musée de Quai Branly, Paris, Salon de Lecture J. Kerchache, 4:00 p.m., March 6.


Reading, Poets Live, at Berkeley Books, 8, rue Casimir Delavigne, Paris 75006, 7:30 p.m., March 8.


Reading, Librairie les Oiseaux Rares, 1 rue Vulpian, Paris 75013, métro Corvisart, 7:30 p.m., March 12


Readings & talk in a conference on “Responsabilités de la Poésie" at Université de Rouen et du Havre, 10:15 a.m. & 3:00 p.m., March 14.


Reading, Librairie la Lucarne des Ecrivains, 115 rue de l’Ourcq, Paris 75019, 7:30 p.m., March 15.


An important corollary to all this is the strong connection that many of us have felt between what we used to call “the new American poetry” & modernist traditions in France & elsewhere going back to the sources of experimental modernism & postmodernism in the century before this.  In connection with this I was commissioned in 2002 to write a short essay on “the French connection” for Kader el-Janabi’s short-lived magazine Arapoetica, then being published in Paris.  While the essay was never published before the magazine’s demise, I’m including it below, as an indication of the international/intercultural view of poetry & poetics that I’ve tried to promote both then & now, there & here. (J.R.)


For Kader El-Janabi: The French Connection

into my own dark sunday light approaches like the moon through feathers that’s no sooner seen than sunk by blindness & the thought that everyone is dead around a city that’s about to vanish as it has before sucked down an empty pocket oversized & with a smell of earth the bright adventurers of 1910 whose streets these were sharing a common grave with those who followed reaching even to the place where you and I are waiting with the friends who drop out one by one like cybermonkeys flying into mindless space


dans mon sombre dimanche à moi la lumière s’approche comme la lune à travers des plumes ce qui à peine vue sombre coulée par l’aveuglement & la pensée que tout le monde est mort autour d’une ville sur le point de disparaître tout comme elle l’a fait auparavant engloutie dans une poche vide et démesurée & avec  une odeur de terre les lumineux aventuriers de 1910 dont c’étaient les rues partageaient une tombe commune avec ceux qui ont suivi atteignant même l’endroit où toi et moi attendons en compagnie des amis partis un à un comme des cybersinges s’envolant dans l’espace insouciant

     – the opening of “Trois Élégies Parisiennes” (Three Paris Elegies)

      translated into French by Jean Portante]


For myself, writing and living in late-twentieth-century America, there was a sense that all of us, as poets, shared a past and future with forerunners and contemporaries across a startling range of times and places.  This came at a time when we were discovering ourselves also as American poets with a new language in which to write and a new perspective – a series of new perspectives – that we could write from.  If the thrill of the moment led some into an easy jingoism or a more interesting localism, for others it opened the possibility of an experience of poetry and life that could truly push against the boundaries of languages and cultures. 

            For those of us who meant to proceed by new means, modern means – to be “absolutely modern” in Rimbaud’s phrase – the memory and presence of Paris and France loomed large.  Never mind that at the same time we were discovering America or that we were determined dwellers in our own cities (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago).  Paris as city and vortex (Pound’s word) was with us in our imagination as poets – even for those of us who had never set foot there.  There were exceptions of course – poets who felt themselves to be more exclusively American or were themselves distanced from the great cities of America and Europe; Snyder and Olson, say, among the really good ones.  But for myself again, Paris, once I had found it, was a place I could inhabit, not the physical city so much as the world of experimental and radical modernism that the city had once come to represent.  Post-modernism, for myself and my companions, was no more than the transfer – often contentious – of the older modernist impulse into a new terrain and time.

            I have lived almost my whole life on the two coasts of North America – New York first and California later.  From both of these Europe was less than a single day’s travel, and because that travel became increasingly possible (starting for me in the late 1960s), I came to think of myself as inhabiting two continents.  In 1997 I spent four months in Paris, and there have been several other extended visits since then.  At the time of the 1997 trip I had initiated, with Pierre Joris, a translation project that would extend over the next few years and would form a part as well of the Poems for the Millennium series that we had inaugurated a year or two earlier.  What we had chosen to do was to translate the collected poetry of Picasso into English, Pierre to focus on the French and I on the Spanish.  So I brought Picasso with me to Paris, or in another sense, I found him there: Picasso and other ghosts in a Paris that had long since dissolved into history and myth, leaving their names on houses and streets or, for some, etched onto tombstones in the city’s great cemeteries.

            I began in that sense to think of Paris as a cemetery city, a city filled with ghosts – both its ghosts and ours.  The presence of the dead was then particularly strong for me, because of a number of friends who had died over the preceding year.  These mingled with the ghosts of that early avant-garde whose place had been there and whose work we had been determined – some of us – to reach and to surpass.  But more than that of course, there was the actual city as it existed in the summer and autumn of 1997 – an evidently threatened economy that made for an increased number of beggars, some curiously well-dressed I thought, in the streets where we were living.  That was in a space between La République and the Canal, where in the square itself one afternoon we saw what seemed to be a large soup kitchen for the unemployed and homeless.  And whatever I saw there fused quite naturally with Picasso’s words as we had brought them over into English:


the blockhead who stretching out his hand asks them for a little alms sitting alone on the ground in the middle of the plaza


and again:


over the beggar’s hand

only adorned with blossoms

alms collected through those worlds

he pulls along


All this to form another continuity.

            The poem “Three Paris Elegies,” translated in its entirety by Jean Portante, is not only a lament for the dead and the living, but a celebration of my own French connection as it appeared to me in 1997.  The first of the elegies, quoted above, is derived from Picasso’s favored form, a block of prose absent all punctuation, and the second, not shown here, is the account of an event, a minor existential crisis, in the Pyrenees.  It is in the third, however, that the fusion takes place – of past and present, dream and waking life – and leads me to the realization of a world in which time loses its meaning in a simultaneous present which isn’t time at all.  If this can travel from my own place and language into yours, Kader, then it’s likely that another connection will have taken place.


Jerome Rothenberg


November 2002