Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Lively Quiet

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A Lively Quiet

In April, Sue Chenette (Slender Human Weight, Guernica Editions, 2009) read at The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris. She reports on the experience and gives an overview of the richness of the English-language poetry scene in Paris.

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In The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris, no space is wasted. Books lie across the tops of books standing side by side. More are stacked atop the highest shelves in piles that reach between the roof beams, still more on the table that fills the center of the room. When I stood behind that table to read from my new book of poetry, Slender Human Weight, I felt floated on a sea of words.

It’s easy to feel this way in Paris. The French love words. Go to the basement of BHV, the big department store across from Hotel de Ville. Make your way to the hardware section, and look for a salesperson to help you find the hammer or paint brush you need. He will be involved in a lengthy discussion with a customer buying a lock for her door. They are considering three models. The advantages and disadvantages of each are put forth, point by point, in a kind of logical thrust and parry carried on between customer and salesperson in the best Cartesian manner. “Discuter,” my years-ago conversation teacher at Alliance Française called it. Quite different, she pointed out, from “disputer.” We were meant to discuss — not dispute — controversial topics, and, so the theory went, when we were engaged in a subject that stirred our feelings, our words would find their way more fluently. Which actually did work. What I’m thinking now — looking back on this and on the conversations you can observe any evening in a café, or the long, reasoned examinations of the subject at hand that take place at ticket windows and in store aisles — is that the French are prompted to discuter not only because by tradition and education they are good disciples of Descartes, but because it is a kind of raison d’etre for words — the pleasure of shaping the air with consonants and vowels.

Another French teacher, longer ago in my attempts at a workable command of the language, explained elision — those run-together, non-stop French sentences — as a desire to keep breath and words flowing; a need, roused centuries back, to maintain the momentum of language in the face of their world’s harsh landscape. (Keep pedaling your bicycle, they might have said if they’d had bicycles back then. If you don’t, you’ll fall over.) When I add this to my musings, I think of the French love of words as their recognition of the need to continually reinvent the world with speech, words opening perspectives and possibilities.

Of course, that’s French. My poems are in English, and most of the people who came to The Red Wheelbarrow to listen to readings by myself and South African/Parisian Denis Hirson were English speakers. Many were ex-pats. Still, I think this valuing of the word is in the air in Paris. Contagious. Perhaps, coming here, we catch some of it from the French. Or it’s part of what we come for in the first place, part of the Paris ethos that has drawn English speaking writers over the decades: Emerson, Twain, Beckett, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Callaghan — to name a very few.

It’s a tradition that continues. The April installment of Paris Readings & Events lists twenty book talks or readings by English language writers, along with notices for launches and readings in French. There’s a used book sale at the American Library, play readings and a conference on translation. If I hadn’t been reading myself on the evening of April 15, I could have gone to hear poet Adam Zagajewski at the American University in Paris, or novelist Yiyun Li at Shakespeare & Co. (Fortunately, the audience for English-language writing in Paris is large enough to go around!) If I’d been in Paris in January, I could have heard Marilyn Hacker read from her new book; in March I could have attended an international conference on John Ashbery.

Their names suggest something of the range of English-language poetry in Paris. Hacker is a formalist, albeit one whose inventive use of the vernacular brings sestinas and sonnets alive in an entirely new way. And Ashbery, of course, is Ashbery, his poems collaged into what critic Helen Vendler has described as “the Ashberian associative complex.” When it works, she writes, “the mind is delighted by its unexpectedness.”

Upstairs at Duroc is a literary review edited by American/Parisian Barbara Beck and published since 1999 under the auspices of WICE, a non-profit association that offers courses and programs for anglophones. Marilyn Hacker, Alice Notley and Cole Swensen have all appeared in the journal’s pages, along with poets whose names are not yet so readily recognized. Leafing through an issue offers insight into the direction of English-language poetry being written in Paris. You’ll find many more “experimental” poems than traditional, though there is still room for a fine lyric, a well-crafted narrative. (A WICE footnote: they also organize the Paris Writers Workshop, a week-long session held each summer.)

The experimental spirit is clearly in evidence on Rewords, a poetry blog hosted by American/Parisian poet Jennifer K. Dick. Rewords is a virtual space where poets come together to play with words, the emphasis being on play rather than achieving finished poems. New posts riff on previously posted poems, working with their images, moods, structures or vocabulary, turning them in a variety of directions. I recommend it for loosening up the imagination on a slow day.

Spoken word poetry has established a presence, and on any Monday evening you can go to Spoken Word in Paris, a friendly open mic stage where each reader presents five minutes of poetry, slam, story or song.

Translation — both ways — is another important part of the Paris literary scene. At the Librairie Le Comptoir des Mots, I found a seat on one of the wooden benches lined up for the audience who had come to hear three translations from English to French, among them Frédéric Forte’s of Michelle Noteboom=s “Uncaged” (“Hors-cage.”) I should say here that my French allowed only an occasional caught phrase out of the music of the words (“les abeilles ironiques,” I’ve jotted in my notes) — a different, but satisfying, way of listening. I’ve had this same experience at the city’s two continuing bilingual series, Ivy Writers and Double Change, both devoted to increasing the interplay between different languages and poetic practices.

Librairie Le Comptoir des Mots is one of the many small independent bookstores, both French and English, that still thrive in Paris in part because of the loi sur le prix unique du livre – the French law which prevents large corporations like Amazon or the French FNAC from undercutting the price of a book. These small shops are wonderful places. I’ve browsed, attended readings, and bought books in many of them: Tea and Tattered Pages, Village Voice, Shakespeare and Company, Abbey Bookshop, Berkeley Books of Paris. The Red Wheelbarrow, owned and managed by Canadian Penelope Le Masson, is where I had the good fortune to give my reading. Folding chairs for the audience were fitted between shelves and table, a bottle of wine was open on the front counter. The room was full of that fine, attentive quiet that makes a reader feel lucky.

In the week before my own reading I went to two others. Both were in small book stores, both for audiences of about thirty. There too, a lively quiet filled in the room, and afterwards, questions from the listeners, about subject matter, about craft. A sense of something shared, hovering, all of us keeping it afloat together, like a balloon gently bounced into the air, sashaying down to be bounced up again by someone else.

I have a theory about this lively quiet. Parisians have a long tradition of shared life, an inclination to imagine and invent, together, things that solace and restore them, lift their spirits, and in doing so open perspectives on ways forward. You can see it in their public gardens: small squares and spacious parcs, full of tulips, primroses, forget-me-nots. This same spirit extends, I think, to the word — to what we can build sharing syllables and dream. It makes for quiet in the room where someone is reading; it makes reading in Paris a joy.

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Sue Chenette is the author of three chapbooks: The Time Between Us, A Transport of Grief and Solitude in Cloud and Sun. Slender Human Weight (Guernica Editions) is her first full length collection.

7 comments

Thanks to Sue Chenette, opener of windows in Slender Human Weight, for opening this window on Paris. Much needed. I will climb through now, follow the links.

Guy Ewing

A friend and I had the good fortune to be at the reading at the Red Wheelbarrow in April. I had just arrived in Paris that morning, and was jet-lagged, yet the lively quiet of the event sustained my interest fully. We were particularly entranced by the first poem Sue read, about a notebook she had found at the Porte de Vanves flea market, and her musings about the woman who had written it. Altogether a memorable evening! And Sue's description of the English writing scene in Paris inspires us to seek out more such events on our next visit.

Thank you for this delightful and informative article. I think it is excellent that your poetry is being shared with audiences in Canada, the USA and Paris, France!

You have transported me into the Paris of my childhood. "Discussions" abound: in cafes, housewives meeting in the open air market; the concierge downstairs always had an opinion...and so much more. Lively, always. I just savored a madeleine! Thank you.
Dorota Stypkowski Bussey

Oh, how lovely and informative. I feel as though I have one foot in my New Hampshire spring (black flies among other things!) and the other in the Paris literary scene. Couldn't be better. Thanks, and congrats on your full length collection. I can't wait to see it.

"A Lively Quiet" --- a guidebook for the soul of an American in Paris. Reminds us to consider our "Slender Human Weight" and the words by which our lives are metered.

Einar77

Thank you for this eloquent survey of the Paris literary scene, Sue. How fortunate for you to have been able to enjoy "Paris in the spring time" with your lovely first full collection of poems.

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