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Rosalind's poetry in Spring 2002

Poets In Marseille


by Rosalind Brackenbury




      One morning in January, I received an invitation by e-mail to join something called “Le Scriptorium” that was to take place in Marseille in May — an international get-together of poets, who would discuss what significance poetry has in the contemporary world from the points of view of our different countries. “Poesie hors frontieres” (poetry without frontiers, beyond frontiers) was the phrase used by Dominique Sorrente, whose idea this was, and who had been nursing it for a couple of years.
      “In these times in which private property battles with the idea of sharing, the Scriptorium proposes a breath of fresh air.” A recent article in Le Monde accused French poets of being arrogant, individualistic and career-minded, but it was long before this that Sorrente, a teacher and writer, Marseillais to the core, had had his idea. “Poetry without frontiers, because those who write in different geographies come together, made allies by language.” (My rough translation.) We were to have no “ivory towers in our baggage” and no dreams of personal fame, or at least no visible ones This was to be a collective enterprise. Collective enterprises in France are probably as hard to bring off as they are in the US, but for different reasons. In France, everyone has the theory of collectivism at their finger-tips, but is basically reared to be individualistic and combative. In the US, collectivism is a dirty word, redolent of communism, yet everybody knows how to behave in groups. So in France, the theory; in the US, the practice — or at least, this is how I saw it, and I was getting into the French habit of formulating theories at the drop of a hat, by the time the Scriptorium was under way.
      So here I was in Marseille with a group of poets, all of us invited both for our poems, which had been solicited over the internet and duly translated, and for our commitment to the collective of international poetry.
      The first evening was social, with wine and pizza and slices of quiche and little bits of smoked salmon on toast. I noticed how poets are always hungry, and how we love to meet each other. With poets, there's this other kind of hunger too — to come out of isolation and meet up with other weird people who do this compulsive thing without any hope of ever making any money. We like each other. It's different from meeting as novelists, who are wary animals, don't want to give things like agents' names and sizes of advance away. Poets don't have agents or advances, on the whole. Our baggage, as Dominique requested, did not contain ivory towers. Come from Canada, Switzerland, England, the US and Haute Savoie in France, we visitors began quickly to feel at home.
      The three days of the seminar were intense, beginning at 9 am. The Canadian poet Douglas Burnet Smith, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, commiserated with me over our jet lag. The two Swiss poets had driven from Lausanne, and Jean-Yves Vallat, who lives on a mountain in Savoy, had come by car too. There were twelve of us, including two translators and the Marseillais poets.
      I couldn't help wondering how ideas suggested here would compare with those of the Key West literary seminar (featured in Spring 2002) for next year, which will be on poetry. Being in French, the discussions were high-powered and tended to be theoretical, but first we each had a chance to speak to the others on what we considered the importance of poetry to be in the world today. Douglas, Tony Baker the Englishman and I both sounded more pragmatic than the others, speaking about what we saw happening in our respective countries; but there were definite points of connection in everything that was said. Poetry as the opposite of “le monde marchand”, the world of money, advertising; poetry as a way of linking people, especially after major distresses like September 11; poetry as expressing the voice of a people, as does the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Poetry as a way of speaking of the private and public, the solitary and the shared, at the same time. Poetry as the opposite of globalised cliche. Poetry as the rescuer of language. Poetry as action, not contemplation. Poetry hijacked by the media, used in advertising as music and art both are. Poetry as resistance. And so on. The discussion ran deep; sometimes I thought, there are things you can say in French that would just sound pretentious in English, but never mind, it's fun being pretentious from time to time with nobody demanding, “What the hell do you mean?”
     We worked hard, talked hard, thought hard, and then magically it was time for lunch, which was waiting for us down at Chez Jeannot, with Jeannot who looked about a hundred, surveying things while his son and daughter in law ran the place. Serious thought gave way to serious eating and much contemplation of wine lists, another thing poets seem to enjoy wherever they come from. After the feast, we went on a “Marche Poetique” to read poetry, our own and others', perched on rocks by the Mediterranean, with the Chateau d'If on view; and some of us made it to Rimbaud's memorial, where Dominique quoted Rimbaud from memory and children came round to stare at us where we camped on the grass.
      It was all great fun, but two things struck me particularly: that on the evening of the second day we were able to put on a poetry reading, or poetry show, with music and poetry in two languages, with the minimal of rehearsal time and with people we'd only just met. A large crowd of Marseillais came to it - about 70 people, a good crowd for poetry anywhere - and it was amazing that this worked the way it did. The other surprise was that on the third morning we were invited to envisage a book, which was to come out next winter. Our contributions would be in by the end of the summer, so that a grant could be applied for. The topics were laid out, we had our homework, our thoughts and our poems would be expected to arrive by e-mail, and the Marseille team would edit it. Just like that. And I believe it will happen, and that we'll do what we were asked; because of the peculiar spell of the time, and our strange sudden commitment to each other, under Dominique's persuasive, charming but very determined eye. His nickname, “Capitaine Metaphore” (Captain Metaphor) makes him sound more airy than he is.
      “Poetry has a role, and it's always the same. To open up the imagination. It's an offering which one should make every day.” He quoted Breton to us, “l'imaginaire, c'est ce qui nous invite a la reelle.” ( it's what invites us into reality) and reminded us of Rimbaud's phrase, “les voleurs du feu” (thiefs of fire, stealers of fire). It was a little like being handed the Olympic flame, thinking of fire. What can you do but run with it?
      So we worked out “l'architecture du livre” and how we'd make it, and we had one last delicious lunch, and a last coffee down by the water, and group photographs, and it was time to write down e-mail addresses and say goodbye.
      Till next time, in Marseille.

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Rosalind BrackenburyRosalind Brackenbury was born in England and has published both fiction and poetry in the UK. She now lives in Key West, Florida with her American husband. Recent works are The Beautiful Routes Of The West (Fithian Press, Daniel & Daniel, CA), a collection of poems, and a novel Seas Outside The Reef. She has a short story collection, Between Man and Woman Keys coming out in May, and has just signed the contract for another novel, The House In Morocco with Toby Press. A new collection of poems, Yellow Swing is in the works and looking for a publisher. She will lead The Gaia Workshop, focusing on the connection between ourselves and the earth at the Island Muse Writer's Retreats and Workshops featured in this issue. Her poetry appeared in Spring 2002.