Like most, my understanding of French poetry had not really gone beyond the Mallarmés, Rimbauds, or Baudelaires of its “golden age” in the 19th century, ironically, an age that is also representative of the majority's perception of French poetry today. My engagement with contemporary French poetry, meanwhile, had been mediated by a small group of its linguistically innovative and intellectually dense proponents, luminaries such as Michel Deguy, Emmanuel Hocqard, Jean-Jaques Roubaud or Joseph Guglielmi, to name a few.
Spending a few weeks in Paris, the first port on a ride towards Budapest and Prague, changed all this. But not without a bit of effort.
As my plane touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport on a drizzly winter evening, I realised that I had completely overlooked the need to organise accommodation. Likewise, I had failed to contact any poets, nor indeed, had I succeeded in gaining any knowledge of French poetry beyond what had previously been fed to me.
In the end, though, despite a half-hour walk in cold rain, I found a warm if somewhat over-priced hostel and, eventually, after hours rummaging through bookshops around the city, four editor/poets with four very different views of poetry and poetics.
Interview (1) Jean Orizet: The problem of distribution
A major figure in French poetry since the 60s, Jean Orizet is a founding director of Le Cherche Midi, one of France's largest independent publishers. He is also a founding editor of the quarterly poetry magazine Poésie 1. He has over 16 individual collections of poetry and prose to his name, has received numerous awards, and was included in the Anthologie de la poésie française du XXe siècle (Gallimard).
In commercial terms, poetry in France, it appears, has much the same problem as in Australia: it doesn't make money. It is also quite proficient at draining the coffers of those who publish it. This is the underlying, but not overriding, experience of Jean Orizet.
I meet Orizet on a typically grey Paris morning in a small courtyard, ringed by 19th century six-storey apartment blocks. In one of these blocks are the headquarters of Le Cherche Midi Editeur, of which he is a founding Director. He greets me. He's in his mid- sixties with a refined crop of pure white hair on his head. I'm struck at how tiny the offices are.
'Yes, they weren't built to be offices,' says Orizet, referring to their former incarnation as habitation, then settles down behind the black desk that occupies the majority of his workspace. The wall behind me is covered floor-to-ceiling with books.
Orizet first entered the publishing world in the late 60s when Paris was abuzz with activism, both literary and social. In 1969, he co-founded Poésie 1, which was symbolically priced at 1 franc (hence the title), the price of a metro ticket at the time.
His aim with the magazine was simple: to introduce as many people as possible to poetry. And he appears to have succeeded. The magazine is now distributed nationally, at 7,000 copies per issue. It's a small pocket-sized affair of about 120 pages that is stocked by independent and chain bookshops, and, surprisingly, by newsagents too.
But achieving such a wide distribution network has been a long process.
'My business partner and I have lost lots of money on poetry over the years,' he says with a slight smile. Po?¬Æsie 1 once went out of print for that reason before being revived in a slightly different format, in much the same way as Ivor Indyk's journal HEAT here in Australia. On the other hand, he points out, 'we have developed one of the most important collections of contemporary titles.'
Le Cherche Midi has published some 100 individual collections of poetry over the past three decades, in print-runs of 500 to 800 copies, an amount will only sell over the course of two to four years.
Orizet agonises over the paradox of this situation. He publishes individual poets to keep their work alive, part of the cultural field. But how can he keep down the price of a book of poetry when the overheads for such a small print-run are so high? It's a zero-sum game: you price your books so that you can recoup your money, which puts them above the acceptable price range for most. You lower your costs, sell a few more copies, but at a loss.
To counterbalance this conundrum Le Cherche Midi ventured into the world of anthologies.
I came across a few of these in a bookshop. With titles such as Les Plus Beaux Po?¬Æmes pour les enfants (The Most Beautiful Poems for children) or Les Cent Plus Beaux Po?¬Æmes de la langue fran??üaise (The 100 Most Beautiful Poems of the French language), they struck me as decidedly populist. And that, it turns out, is the whole point.
Unlike individual collections, the anthologies are printed in runs of up to 5,000 copies. If a title makes it onto the school curriculum, re-runs can carry this number to 30,000 copies.
There are around 40 titles in the series that have sold over 100,000 copies. They represent an invaluable source of income and a way to address, as Jean puts it, 'the problem of as wide a distribution of poetry as possible.'
The anthologies include “the classics” of French poetry, which helps to ensure that they are included on school lists. Importantly, they also feature a selection of contemporary French poetry; Orizet notes that, even in France, people's notion of contemporary poetry tends to stop at Paul Eluard and regards the anthologies as a tool for counteracting this perception; a way to slip the new in with the more renowned old.
'That's why when I do the magazine or the anthologies. What interests me is that poetry not be reserved to a “happy few”, some intellos or academics. – I have never lived in the ivory tower.'
'Poetry,' he continues, 'has made a lot of progress since 30 or 40 years ago when it remained something exclusive to the academic realm – The public has an access to it that didn't exist previously. There is a sort of desire to know, to understand.'
Stylistically, the poetry that Orizet writes himself, and publishes, is not that of a Michel Deguy, tempered by a heavy intellectualism that can leave, he argues, a poem as dry as a skeleton. Such poets have notoriety, yes, but Jean underlines that 'there has never ceased to be poets [in France] whose lyricism and sensitivity retains its full impact.'
He cites the examples of Richard Rognet, Gilles Sicard, Jean Joubert and Annie Salager whose almost romantic lyrical tendencies he compares to Irish poets such as Heaney and Yeats, and Latin American poets the likes of Paz and Neruda. 'And Borges?' I ask.
Jean happily recounts how he met the by-then-blind Borges years ago, adding that his is 'the most refined, intellectual poetry, yet, which retains its connection to the real.'
Beyond the office window, the building's concierge is sweeping the courtyard. The phone rings and Jean picks up the receiver. He gestures me to stop the recording on my MD walkman, and talks wine with a voice the other side of the telecom link. 'About 40 bottles? Yes, that should be enough.' Oh so French.
He hangs up the phone, and we continue, but really, what better way to end a conversation in France than with the mention of wine?