Sunday 15 January 2017

From Mary Reilly

30 Oct - 2016 - 15 Jan 2017

     In August 2016, I received an email from Cole Swensen. A friend of hers was starting a poetry residence in Paris and had asked her to recommend an inaugural poet for the program: a stay (free) of up to three months in an artist’s garret in the Montparnasse district of Paris. There would be nothing asked of the resident, no proposal required, except that she use the time to further her practice. Was I interested?
     Bedazzled, ecstatic, I couldn’t believe the offer.
     Having just returned from a summer in the city, I was eager for the chance to go back. I spent June and July of 2016 working on the preliminary aspects of a translation project - funded by the Beesen fellowship - investigating the work of female French poets yet to have their poems rendered in English. I passed the time attending readings, engaging with Paris’s international poetry community, and studying the work emerging from the many brilliant, accomplished poets that form that crowd. This brilliance is not limited to poems produced, but rather permeates the very nature of the poets and makers I encountered (including Cole Swensen, Eleni Sikelianos, Sarah Riggs, Lily-Robert Foley, Kevin Holden and many more)   and the warmth of the welcome they extended.
     So, I put my New York life back on hold, packed up my things and booked a flight.I arrived November 1st a bit dazed from the flight, but full of hope and eager to begin work. Elizabeth’s husband met me at the courtyard entry, inviting me in and graciously carrying my luggage inside.
     The apartment is just lovely. Like a jeweled nest, it sits at the top of a grand, ornate Haussmann-style building on the Rue des Rennes. Each aspect of the studio is carefully curated with everything a person could need to live happily and a poet could need to write happily: from spatulas to extra sponges to paper clips and pens.
     I remember feeling overwhelmed by the generosity and care of the offering. What faith must Nina and Elizabeth have in art and artists to make such a gift. Humbled by this faith, this generosity, I was determined to honor it with work.
     I woke up each day and sat, drinking tea, at the kitchen table, looking out the garret's large window and watching the early morning activity along the set of small alleys that wind behind the Rue des Rennes. Inspired, for once having enough time to myself and no external pressure, I set out to render a small collection of poems, my first chapbook. Again, I don’t remember a more hopeful or happy week of my life.
     The U.S. election was, of course, on my mind. I had been watching, with horror and deep pain, as each week a new Trump scandal unfolded. But I was sure that sanity would prevail and, backed up by the information provided by every major media outlet, that Hillary Clinton would be my president. My horror turned to fear as Comey made his infamous statement about re-opening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. But still the polls predicted a clear win for the Clinton-Kaine ticket.
     I went to sleep early on Monday the seventh, wearing a Hillary Clinton t-shirt and my dad’s old donkey pin for good luck.
     I woke up on the eighth to a text from a close friend. He was so very sorry I had to wake up to this all alone in Paris. He didn’t write either candidate’s name or announce a winner. He didn’t have to. The whole world caved in on me, darkness and weight everywhere. I began to cry.
     The neighbor from next door, also an American, heard me and came over. We sat in one another’s arms in the small attic hallway and cried.
     The next few weeks are a blur. I cried everywhere, on the street, in the Monoprix, out for drinks with friends. Dazed and desperate, I could barely eat or hold a pen.
     I spoke with friends in New York. How could we let this happen? What can we do now?
     The French were only kind. I had been here during the Iraq War a dozen years ago and did not meet any such sympathy. At that time, every American was an emblem of illegal war, a representative of George W. Bush himself.
     After Brexit and now Trump, with the Austrian elections looming and LePen rising in the polls, there was a sense in the city that we were in this together.
     I don’t know what happened. Nothing got better. I didn’t get used to it.
     But I began writing again. What else was there to do?
     I wrote a poem about the election, about my willful ignorance and my complicity in Trump’s election,

     That everyone should seem at ease, 
     take comfort in, might feel the least 
     discomfited by these precious 

     poets being clever, being cute,
     hip in hats, living elsewhere: 
     Vermont, Paris- places to be pure in 
     when the world is just too much

     and all there is: poetry, a neatening.
     In England’s Middle Ages, when everyone was an idiot and a slob 
     and dying, to reconcile life with God
     the poetry was really weird (brushing broadly) 

     darkness, frailty in grendels and green men, 
     monsters mourning, babies dead
     demons adroit outside as in
     at tricking fair hero and audience to sin.

     Meantime, nowadays,

     an article in the paper of record 
     written in the style of Sam Shepherd 
     told of poor whites in some raw place, 
     colorful people but full of hate,

     who spend welfare checks on flags and guns 
     and blame their lives on Blacks and Clintons- 
     the “downwardly mobile” among us, 
     unskilled (useless), hopeless, toothless

     Boogeymen of my liberal white dreams, 
     of course, they fuck us.

     Thank God for writing and for the time and space to process this disaster.
     And thank God for community.
     I began exchanging emails with Jennifer K. Dick, a friend of the residency and something of a legend in the poetry community. Founder of the Ivy Writers reading series, the second longest-running bilingual poetry reading series in Paris, Dick offered me the opportunity to translate the work of Manual Duall for the series anthology. Dick also invited me to contribute to a brief talk on poetry-translation with two other poet-translators at Berkely Books.
     At around the same time, author, performance artist and friend of Trelex Anne Marsella invited me to take part in a feminist salon at her home. A wonderful night, six women, of different disciplines and philosophies, joined together to create a night of poetry, music and performance art. Anne’s living room was packed with people, an enthusiastic audience of Parisian intellectuals, journalists, makers and critics. The party after was a blast.
     Later that night, I returned to the garret to take part in, via skype, a reading in New York. Hosted by artist Katrina del Mar to celebrate the opening of her show  Feral Women: Filmed Portraits  at the Leslie+Lohman Prince Street Project, I joined an all-star line up that included poets Eileen Myles, Pamela Sneed, Ml Elberg, and del Mar herself, followed by musical performances by Karyn Kuhl, Genny Slag, Kaki King and Fiona Silver.
     January 15th arrived too soon.
     Living in New York, survival is a scramble. One must work so hard just to live. Writing poems can feel like an indulgence. The further I move from a consistent practice, the more hopeless, foolish even, the entire enterprise comes to seem. What even is a poet? And who, especially now, needs poems? In my time at Trelex, Paris, I remembered. Me.
     Once, in my twenties, I didn’t leave the five boroughs of New York City for three years- the stretch only broken by a friend’s invitation to housesit for her upstate. Arriving at the Woodstock bus stop, I felt gutted, emptied out, as though, in breathing fresh air and seeing uninterrupted sky, my soul could finally acknowledge the experiential poverty of the years prior. That week, swimming in fresh water, walking barefoot in soil, I remembered how deeply I am bound with nature, how it fills me, how there I live.
     An image that comes to mind is that of the English Bulldog, who, inbred through generations in conformity to an unnatural standard ,  can not breathe adequately. This accounts for breed members’ characteristic wheeze and sluggishness. Hooked up to oxygen, a slobbery, lethargic bulldog will become energetic, lively, itself, as it breathes fully for perhaps the first time in its life.
     My time at Trelex was not unlike this. In the time and space the garret provided, I could write; writing, I could breath.
     Showing up to my desk everyday, for hours at a stretch, I was able to push past, through continuous attention, problems that have blocked me for years, problems that I was unable to solve in the hours here-and-there on evenings and weekends that normally form my writing schedule.
     After days of sitting - writing, erasing, getting nothing done - the poem would appear out of nowhere, in a kind of ghost-form, a shapely brain vapor. And so, I would come to know, suddenly, what needed to be. However, without that initial time and attention, often a tendious, desperate affair, this all-of-the-sudden-ness would never have occurred, would not have been allowed to occur. In the days, weeks, months, (often frustrating, even painful) that follow this initial intuition, I would then try to find out just how to manifest it.
     And so I made poems. And when I did it right, they were true.
     Six months after my stay at Elizabeth’s, I remain homesick for that alcove in the rooftops of Montparnasse where I became a writer again.
     Speaking last night with Kevin Holden, the garrett's current resident, at a poetry reading at Reid Hall, I acknowledged my awe of Elizabeth and Nina. I remain humbled by these women, the force of their commitment and their generosity.
     Thank you, Trelex team. You are a gift and a wonder.

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