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While my taste in anglophone poetry has always been contemporary, my taste in francophone poetry has always been decidedly more 19th and early 20th century. My reasons for this are potentially nostalgic, in spite of spending two of my adult years in Paris, I more readily associate France and its literature with my childhood and tweens, when romantic and fin-de-siècle literature was a school and college staple, and England with my growing into adulthood and discovering the contemporary poetry scene.
Yet, I have been making a concerted effort in the last few years to find francophone poetry that engages me. Being bilingual is my USP to many publications and I have reviewed my fair share of translated contemporary poets, but these have rarely excited me in the same way that, say, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Clare Pollard, or W.N. Herbert might (to choose three very different voices). This, I should add, was not through lack of persistence; I have yet to find a French bookshop with a good selection of poetry. A few, thank goodness go beyond Gallimard and its promotion of said dead white poets, and if you have any recommendations (of either bookshops or poets), I’d love to hear about them.
When I was asked by Oxford Brookes to design a semester-long module of textual commentary of French texts, my immediate fall back was to return to the authors that I love in some sort of nostalgia-fest: Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Edmond de Rostand,… It quickly became apparent to me however, that they were a) men b) white and c) dead. These are three things that I try to avoid in my ‘poetry’ life, or at least balance out as much as possible, so why wasn’t I doing the same thing here?
I did an emergency twitter call out for people’s favourite non-male and/or non-white, contemporary francophones, and got an amazing array of suggestions, though mostly of fiction and non-fiction. Accompanying this, I reinstated my subscription to the wonderful Modern Poetry in Translation and scoured the Printemps des poètes for gems.
Here are some favourite poets that emerged from this search:
Libanese-born Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s poetry spoke to me from the start. I fell on her by chance, clicking her name on the Printemps des Poètes, and her highlighted poem was like a lightning bolt. It features a father whose anger is so strong that it has overturned the house, where life is described as a straight line of noises, where the dead grow old like paper…. I brought it to my students and it got an uncharacteristically warm reception:
il y a très longtemps
la colère du père renversait la maison
nous nous cachions derrière les dunes pour émietter ses cris
la Méditerranée tournait autour de nous comme chien autour d’un mendiant
la mère nous appelait jusqu’au couchant
ça devait être beau et ce n’était que triste
les jardins trépassaient plus lentement que les hommes
nous mangions notre chagrin jusqu’à la dernière miette
puis le rotions échardes à la face du soleil
She’s been translated by Marylin Hacker many times, you can find one of her translations here alongside a fairly comprehensive biography.
I recommend Nettles, which is the work I bought, in which you can see the French and English side by side.
I stumbled upon Haitian-writer Frankétienne in my copy of MPT, which I then found on the Poetry Translation website, also translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely:
Chaque jour, j’emploie le dialecte des cyclones fous.
Je dis la folie des vents contraires.
Chaque soir, j’utilise le patois des pluies furieuses.
Je dis la furie des eaux en débordement.
Chaque nuit, je parle aux îles Caraïbes le langage des tempêtes hystériques. Je dis l’hystérie de la mer en rut.
Dialecte des cyclones. Patois des pluies. Langage des tempêtes. Déroulement de la vie en spirale.
To me, there is something wonderfully muscular to this poem, it’s visceral in a way that feels earned. I would even venture that there is something a bit Ted Hughesque about the way Frankétienne is content to let everything hang out.
Tahar Ben Jelloun
Another Printemps des poètes discovery, whose take on what makes a town speaks to my own aesthetics:
Il ne suffit pas d’un tas de maisons pour faire une ville
Il faut des visages et des cerises
Des hirondelles bleues et des danseuses frêles
Un écran et des images qui racontent des histoires
Il n’est de ruines qu’un ciel mâché par des nuages
Une avenue et des aigles peints sur des arbres
Des pierres et des statues qui traquent la lumière
Et un cirque qui perd ses musiciens
Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Morocco, and like Vénus, eventually found his way to France. What I love about this pile up of images of what makes a city is the way that they are alternatively fragile, surrealist, and moving.
While I was trying to avoid dead white men, I hadn’t set out to find poetry written by folk born outside of France and yet, these are the voices that spoke to me, perhaps because I myself am the product of uprooting. There is something vibrant about all three poets, even though none of them are in their first youth (born 1937, 1936, and 1944, respectively). I see much of contemporary French poetry as either over-intellectualized or soaked under water by spleen and its abstract nouns. Compared to the minimalism so favoured by many of their peers, their bright jagged lines and surrealism are a breath of fresh air. I look forward to discovering more of their ilk.