Pierre Joris: Extracts from two new books, just published by Contra Mundum Press
'Interglacial Narrows' and 'Always the Many, Never the One'
1/ Interglacial Narrows (poems)
From publisher’s site: Interglacial Narrows as published by Contra Mundum Press gathers a range of Pierre Joris’s poems written between 2015 and 2021, including an extended version of the Book of U / Le livre des cormorans by Joris and Nicole Peyrafitte, initially published by Galerie Simoncini in Luxembourg in 2017.
Both central to the book and opening up its timelines is the section “Homage to P.C.” Put together in 2020 to celebrate Paul Celan’s one hundredth birth-year, it gathers poems, the earliest of which dates from 1969, and the most recent from November 23, 2020, the day Celan would have turned one hundred years old. All of these poems address Joris’s relationship to the Bukovinian poet and his work. Core to this section is “The Book of Luap Nalec,” which dates from the later ’70s, was published as a now lost chapbook in 1982, and was included in Breccia (Editions PHI) in 1987.
The final section of the book is a diaristic sequence of poems and notes started during the spring of 2020, i.e. at the moment the COVID crisis hit NYC the hardest.
Back cover: “Pierre Joris is a word-wizard who shines light on the soul itself. His poems are precious jewels — compact, crystalline structures — each containing their own unique secrets, guiding you to undiscovered places, feelings, images, and ideas. It’s impossible to read his work and come away unmoved. Magically inspiring!” — John Zorn
to Cnaphalocrocis which eventually
lands me on the genus
medinalis, the rice leaf roller
a species of moth of
the Crambidae family
found in south-east Asia,
if you want to know more check
Wikipedia I’m sending you there
as I have to go out now
to make sure the blue
of the sky is still holding
up those beech trees, & the
others whose names I don’t
know & who may therefore
be standing up on their own
or possibly under different names
as it is only what we can name
that we can knock down
why do you think those people
painted all those animals
in the caves of prehistory —
it was a school, not a pit
or shaft, & the little ones
didn’t giggle (as ours would)
pointing to the dots naming
the rhino turds but all to-
gether in their languages made up
— that is, intoned —
the names of the living
creatures we call lion, bison, bear,
shaman, & have
not only named but
called so often & killed
when they came now
nothing or nearly nothing
left & the children
of our children will have to
relearn the names of the stones
or whatever else may be left.
So what is there left
except for the light
of a watery sun slanting
some cars, some runners
all wearing masks except
for those three in a circle
(what is a circle of three?)
(( there is
no way of
squaring that one
except as the four-line
stanza, come in without asking
& now broken up))
based on 6 feet distance
who are smoking in concert
and that 5-kid family of
orthodox Jews rushing toward
the pier and maybe the water
will part and they can
escape the plagues of New York
— no pharaoh will chase them to
2/ Pierre Joris and Florent Toniello
from Always the Many, Never the One (conversations and interviews)
Publisher’s info: With a starting point on July 14, 2021, when the Centre national de littérature in Luxembourg hosted Pierre Joris’s seventy-fifth birthday celebration, Always the Many, Never the One, published by Contra Mundum Press, builds upon the initial interview by Florent Toniello that took place that day to go deeper into a major Luxembourg-American poet’s reflections on literature, philosophy, and life. Throughout this book Joris develops a core concept of his thinking and writing, ‘in-betweenness,’ using both literary examples and life anecdotes, some never shared in Joris’s vast bibliography so far.
The form is representative of the “in-between” concept: while it comprises the initial oral interview at the CNL plus seven subsequent interviews conducted virtually, the whole text was reworked in order to complete the thoughts and add necessary or relevant references, thus transforming it also into a literary essay; but the interview-tone remains, making for lively and stimulating reading. Beyond discussing the “in-betweenness” concept, Joris shares his views on a range of subjects related to poetry, translation, music, and the arts while linking his work to the theoretical thinking and craft of leading past and present philosophers and writers/poets, in a dazzling literary world tour-de-force.
To complement this first (and major) part of the book, two “bonuses” follow: a reprint of the interview Joris gave for a recent book by Florent Toniello, Mélusine au gasoil (in line with Contra Mundum’s multilingual ethos, this is provided in the original French version), and the speech Joris gave at the award ceremony for the Batty Weber prize, to also make this talk-essay available to a wider audience.
Writes Rachel Blau DuPlessis in summary:
“This generous and engaging book is an album of conversations, including Pierre Joris’s speech in his first country, Luxembourg (‘a portable small country’), upon winning its major literary prize. Joris (with Florent Toniello) assembles witty, ranging, informed, and passionate insights on the vectors of contemporary poetics. From translation to nomadism, from “the between” to the scintillation of borders, from his critique of toxic gender/race myths to lively riffs on genre (particularly epic and long poem), Joris’s convictions are telling, and his aphorisms are generative. Always the Many, Never the One is a defining overview of a distinctive poetic career.”
The conversations gathered here, like Joris’s poems and writings overall, bring a whole world into view, many worlds in fact, in the best tradition of a new American and new World poetry as it has come to him in his lifetime and ours. And like the poetry itself, it is the voice, always, of a man talking and self-exploring, with a casualness of tone amid a loaded plethora of knowledges and day-by-day observations and protocols: the presence too of a comic temperament that’s as serious as it gets — from a master of multiple languages and of language-secrets that he freely shares with us. Much to our enlightenment and downright pleasure.
Joris and Toniello in this extract from the book itself:
F. T.: […] the first thing — or almost the first thing — you ever said to me, during our first interview for my newspaper, was: “The novel is dead.” I do remember that very well. And yet, in Justifying the Margins, you feature essays about Arabic writers that you praise for their novels, because they write in French, conveying with the language of the oppressor what they have to express. Is that the exception for you, the margins justified?
P. J.: Absolutely. When I went to Paris, I went to medical school, dropped out in my second year, and decided to become a writer in English because the poetry in this language was the most alive, interesting, honest, groundbreaking (add whatever adjective you want!) I had come across. Not that some prose wasn’t great: I already mentioned Kerouac whose “spontaneous jazz-bebop prose” had seduced me when I was a teenager, but now in Paris I also fell for the prose (the novels, but I soon switched to the essays, which I keep reading and rereading to this day) of James Baldwin. My roommate at Shakespeare & Company — my dad had cut me off financially because of my dropping out — turned out to be a Moroccan writer called Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine. He showed me early Moroccan avant-garde writing, both poetry and prose — the work of the Souffles group, primarily, to which he belonged with Abdellatif Laâbi — and turned me on to the Algerian novelist Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma.Here was a writing that was at boiling point in terms of language, with an intensity that simply did away with those formal genre borders of “poetry” or “prose.” This was “writing writing” as Gertrude Stein would have said! Writing by someone who wasn’t French but who used French in ways the French had never thought of using it. As Kateb Yacine said when he was asked after Algerian independence was won, whether he was henceforth going to write in Arabic: “No, we won the war. We’re keeping French as the spoils of war. And we do with it what we want.” In that sense, he invented a new poly-lyrical (yes, “political” sounds along here) language, as Habib Tengour does too. [Turns to Habib Tengour in the audience.] That made a difference, compared to the Parisian “ron-ron” of that big laundry basket of novels that come out every fall — actually, the best, if not the cheapest sleeping pills I know of.
and/or the following:
F. T.: I understand that, for you, genres are not fixed and can be intertwined, but is there one that we haven’t touched upon and that you also find relevant for the twenty-first century?
P. J.: I think that the twenty-first century will have to invent its own genre, and it will come into being without anybody knowing what it is, what it will be, beforehand. Everybody will be thinking that they’re doing something new but all of a sudden someone will turn around and point at some specific thing and exclaim: “Ah! That’s a twenty-first-century work.” I’m imagining, early in the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein sitting down and beginning to write her portraits and somehow realizing she had to change the prose away from Flaubert’s. And so in the process of trying to get to what she saw happening around her, the portraits evolved into Gertrude Stein’s prose genre. This is however a process. As primarily a poet, I may be accused by some of a certain arrogance and entitlement, as I like to claim that the genre of poetry is the most capacious one into which you can put everything. What the twentieth century did magnificently with poetry was to explode it qua genre so that you can not only have a Baudelairian prose poem in it, but you have “actual” prose in a poem. You can play with that. Why not have drawings in a poem? Why not have bits of dialogue? A musical score? Why not have philosophy? Or scientific discourse? In that sense, the long poem to me seems to be the great advance in the second part of the twentieth century. Away from the notion of the epic — I already mentioned that in our first conversation. When you get through Pound (“through” in both senses of that word) to Charles Olson, when you get to Louis Zukofsky, the long poem, or the serial poem, whatever you want to call it, as an American genre is really a tremendous advance. My sense is that this may be expanded even more, into what Robert Duncan called the “grand collage” — also mentioned earlier — that is the imaginative formal structure with which I, as a twentieth-century person but riding the two centuries, can try to make sense of what I should be doing for the years I’ve got left. We have major examples of such works, from the great long works by Rachel Blau DuPlessis or Alice Notley to those of Nathaniel Mackey or Will Alexander. And younger poets and artists will find their own ways to expand on these matters so as to get into poetry what they need to make or at least help to make their, our world, cohere.