I grew up in one of the most deprived parts of France, North-eastern Picardy, where young people struggle to pass high school exams, where many gifted people end up as cashiers in shabby supermarkets to make a living. A place where culture is only oriented towards World War I tourism. Even if I have nothing against it, it built a gloomy atmosphere in the neighborhood. Yet, I had the good fortune to be a daughter of an archaeologist specialized in the Merovingian period, and a teacher of classical and modern languages and literature. They were not famous. They only cared about knowledge, its dissemination, and the welfare of their kids. So my mother taught me, among other things, how to read Ancient Greek and Latin, and that taught me how to live for two months a year in a Spartan country house, crowded with at least fifteen depressed archaeologists from all over the world, digging nothing but mud all day long, but happy to just be together (to be fair, they found some great material, especially fibulas that are quite famous when one refers to Merovingian artefacts).
Then I went to Paris to study. In France, even if you come from the North, you say “monter à Paris.” It means, literally, “climbing to Paris.” Like an Aliyah, you know. So I went to Paris, I studied for eight years and I – finally - started working for several French institutions. I met the Le Printemps des Poètes’ team in 2012. Until then, I hadn’t really known much about poetry, and especially modern poetry. I studied Keats’ complete works, Lowell’s, Hugo’s, Aragon’s, etc. but I had never attended any event dedicated to poetry “officially.” I was afraid I would spend one hour with coughing and nodding old people and/or bad actors with red noses, whose note of intent would say something like “de-dramatizing poetry through laughter and a glass of good cheer…”
Poetry readings are very different from prose readings. They are far more obscure, intimate and sometimes disturbing. They are like the first posthole you excavate. You are excited or afraid just looking at the thing, whether it is a flyer or a dark stain in the soil. You don’t know how long it will last, how long it will take you to understand and feel the limits of its depth. I’ll always remember the first poetry reading I attended, as an intern for Le Printemps des Poètes. My colleague told me she was organizing and going to a reading at the First Arrondissement’s town hall. She said it was a “Slovenian poetry evening.” She said there would be awesome poets, like Tomaž Šalamun, Barbara Pogačnik, and Emmanuel Moses, poet and translator… To anyone else but a real poetry readings-addict, it may sound like “Hey man, let’s go to this Dark Ages event, there will be this cool guy who owns the identical reproduction of Sutton Hoo’s helmet, and the blacksmith who wrote this great article about damascened scramasaxes!” Doesn’t it sound exciting?
In the end, I realized I liked poetry readings, because they felt like home. I mean, my parents never wore a red nose, but the atmosphere in a poetry reading is quite similar to the one I experienced when I was young, in this simple country house, with all these people from many different places and backgrounds. Those people, on stage and in the audience, do not care about what they look like, they are only there to have a good time together, and to share. I think that now there is something specific to poetry readings. I worked with great actors, especially comedians from the Comédie-Française, which is one of the oldest and most famous theatrical troupes in France. And even with them, preparing a poetry reading seemed so simple, so casual. It doesn’t mean people take it lightly. I guess it is, in fact, the opposite. Actors, and authors who read their own texts, know and feel they cannot play a role. They have to be themselves and fade behind the text. They cannot cheat, because they know they do not own it anymore. The same way archaeologists do not own the treasures they excavate.
When you start working on an excavation site, the first thing a good lad will tell you is “Take this piece of foam and put it under your knees.” In the beginning, you refuse. You are a tough guy, you don’t need anything. At the end of the day, your knees are bleeding like Christ’s feet, and you ask God why he has forsaken you. So you realize that this little piece of foam is exactly what you were waiting for, and you can’t work without it. In the end, poetry readings are the same.
I still have some difficulties with bad actors wearing red noses. But I guess all we need is art, poetry, and many glasses of good cheer.