I met a fellow French poet a few nights ago, and we quickly fell into sharing our horror stories at what our accident of nationality had brought us. ‘Have you ever seen poems where French is used by non-speakers in a really strange way?’ ‘Oh yes!’ she gushed, ‘there was this bigshot poet who came here, lots of books to his name, with a poem full of French words, and it was so clear he didn’t know what they really meant’. I thought of the number of times I’ve wanted to take a red pen to misspelled French words in an English poem. I thought of the number of times I’ve laughed at what were meant to be serious earnest poems hiring out some French words, like a clown to a funeral.
In a way, it seems like a sensible recipe if you’re finding your poem too bland: add a dash of salt to it and hope for the best. It doesn’t always have to be that way though –a mixture of languages in a poem can be done respectfully and intriguingly. When used with specificity in mind: a place-name, a dish, a technical term, the title of a work, and so forth, it’s not an issue. Likewise, when a poem explores linguistic confusion, or cultural clashes, perhaps, then different languages can be judiciously put to use. Having a native speaker check your work is a good idea generally if you’re going to go down that route.
I scratched my brain that evening looking into my own work for any examples where I might have pasted French words into a poem and, outside of place-names, came up blank. I did remember a poem where I used Breton words. I think that’s a good equivalent, as I am unfortunately not fluent in Breton. On the other hand, I am Breton and it is a large part of my culture, where Breton words are regularly integrated into our French, so it’s not completely strange for me to draw on that language.
Soles tramp on the dampened land,
no one comes willingly to this mattress
of heather and gorse, but the sea
tapped Morse on the chewed cliff
and requested our presence.
Perhaps it was that year’s Ankou who called
for us, a bombard to a bagpipe, to raise sweaty faces
to the salt and turn ankles to granite.
We dance the kost ar c’hoad seven times
afraid to raise our ankles above the knees.
A crab cut in two doesn’t halt its decay
and your long brown hair turns to white.
(Notes: Fest Noz: Breton night party; Ankou: Death; Kos tar c’hoad: a type of Breton dance)
It puzzled me that, on the one hand, monoglots (mostly) would have no qualms peppering their poems with French, leading to what I call ‘postcard poems’, and on the other, that I, and my fellow French poet, should resist it. I think it comes down to an almost unconscious decision to not want to be categorised as a ‘French poet’ even when the poetry world wants to encourage that definition.
I once performed at a festival a few years ago where, after my set was over, the host asked me to perform a French poem, as he’d heard Roddy Lumsden perform in Scots the other day, and wanted some more foreigness. As I’d not been pre-warned, I didn’t have any French poems at hand, and said so. This did not to deter the host, who insisted that I just ‘say some stuff in French’ for the crowd.
Suffice to say, it was an embarrassing moment that I still think of from time to time. When it came to writing 100 poems in a day for Refuge, I asked for prompts, and my friend Michael Scott, who saw the reading, asked me to write one titled ‘Go on, say something in French’, I happily obliged, my tongue firmly in my cheek:
‘Go on say something in French’
A propos, faux bric-a-brac is à la mode.
Your petite cerise chef d’œuvre is so chic,
and your crème brûlée coiffure, (while gauche
and déjà vu), has such joie de vivre,
that it is dernier cri. Plus ça change,
chère protégée… RSVP-moi to your soirée,
I adore your vol-au-vents. Adieu!
I do feel this pressure at certain events, to be more French, whatever that really means (Parisian, I suspect). I have no French accent when speaking English, my dress sense is more messy-eccentric than chic (a reviewer at the festival described above complained that my tights had holes in them for instance…), and I’m unlikely to give you a rose-tinted account of Paris. In those senses, I disappoint, though my writing does often centre around Brittany and my Celtic culture.
In many ways, I can’t help but draw parallels with my French upbringing. As far as I remember, I have always been bilingual, and would interpret frequently to visitors to our house. My sisters and I each went through a ritual in kindergarten of going up before the class and translating their words into English. Being under the age of 6, our vocabulary was fairly limited, leading to some improvisations that have stayed in the family’s vocabulary ever since. My sister failed to find the English word for bin, for instance, so simply said poubelle in an English accent, which we’ve adopted.
Sometimes it feels as if I am still in that class, being asked to perform. We humans will always be attracted to what is different, shiny, new. The thing is though, my dual-nationality isn’t a performance, it’s me.
Using another language as a garnish, or to make yourself look learned, without engaging with it is just rude. Invite it in for a cup of tea first, yeah?
Claire Trévien is the Anglo-Breton author of Low-Tide Lottery (Salt, 2011), and The Shipwrecked House (Penned in the Margins, 2013), which was the reader’s choice in the Guardian First Book Awards. Her next book, Asteronymes, will be published by Penned in the Margins next year. She founded Sabotage Reviews and its annual Saboteur Awards. http://clairetrevien.co.uk