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José-Flore Tappy and poems from a country within a country.

A Conversation.


Note: This interview was broadcast on Trafika Europe, Europe’s literary radio station, as part of the “French Forays” series, on 18 April 2021. John Taylor has translated José-Flore Tappy’s answers, which were given in French for the interview.

John Taylor: I am very happy to introduce English-language listeners to you and your poetry. Let me begin by giving a few facts about your life and work. You were born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1954. You work as an editor and scholar at the Centre de Recherches sur les Lettres Romandes at the University of Lausanne, in other words as a researcher in the field of Swiss Francophone literature, with a special interest in the works of the novelist Catherine Colomb and the poet Philippe Jaccottet. You are also a translator who, in collaboration with our mutual friend Marion Graf, has rendered the Russian poetry of Anna Akhmatova and the Swiss German-language poetry of Erika Burkart, as well as, recently, by yourself, the Spanish poetry of the Costa Rican poet Laureano Albán. But now let’s turn to what has brought us together for this interview: your own poetry. You are the author of seven books of poems: Wandering Mortal (Errer mortelle), Flint (Pierre à feu), Beaten Earth (Terre battue), Lunar Poems (Lunaires), Sheds (Hangars), Tombeau (Tombeau), and, most recently, Trás-os-Montes, which was published in 2018 and which was awarded in 2019 the highest Swiss literary distinction, the Prix Suisse de Littérature. I have had the challenge and the deep joy of translating all of your books, the first six of which appeared together as a single volume at The Bitter Oleander Press as Sheds: Collected Poems 1983-2013, a book reviewed by Peter Riley in The Fortnightly Review. Your seventh and most recent book, Trás-os-Montes, has now appeared in English at The MadHat Press—and, indeed, one of its sections was first published also in The Fortnightly Review. Before focusing on that book, which will be our main topic, tell us a little about your poetic background. How did you begin writing? What were the essential sources?


Poets from Spain such as Alberti, Jimenez, Machado, Pedro Salinas, Lorca, Jorge Guillén have joined those from Latin America, on my desk, and have never left me.

José-Flore Tappy: In high school, one of our teachers had us do some creative writing. I adored this assignment and I wrote one or two tales back then. Nothing came of them, of course, but this is probably how my intimate dialogue with words began. I began to maintain a personal relationship with language. I appropriated not only others’ words, but also my own. And then later, in the 1980s, I became friends with a few Latin American political refugees in Lausanne. With them, I founded the annual review Condor, of which three issues were published. This is when I began to read and discover the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Octavio Paz, Borgès. . . South American poetry left its mark on me—and lastingly, for twelve years later I started translating Laureano Albán, the great poetic voice of Costa Rica, upon his request, once we had met through the review Condor. This translation remained unfinished for a long time, because of the vagaries of life, but I was at last able to work on it again and take it all the way to the end. It has now appeared bilingually at the Editions Calligrammes in Rennes, France, as Psaumes pour conjurer la guerre (Psalms to Ward Off War), and it is probably, for me, the most accomplished result of this long dialogue with otherness. The Spanish language, which I have never fully mastered yet which has become familiar over the years, has therefore accompanied me, from the onset, in my personal writing. Poets from Spain such as Alberti, Jimenez, Machado, Pedro Salinas, Lorca, Jorge Guillén have joined those from Latin America, on my desk, and have never left me.

J. T.: These Spanish and South American poets have nourished you. You are Swiss. What “Hispanic” or—to expand our focus—“southern European” elements can be perceived in your poetry? Perhaps elements relating to imagery or to themes?

José-Flore Tappy: It’s difficult for me to respond. . . Surely natural elements in all their intensity: the Mediterranean, the arid lands, the most deserted landscapes, or the poorest landscapes. This is where my imagination goes and where I recover my roots. I have spent many moments of my life on one of the Balearic islands, and I came of age in the midst of an environment that was at once solar and maritime — and very harsh, where sunlight can be hostile, the vegetation overgrown and inhospitable, where the violence of nature demands a strong existential response from a human being. The southern European landscapes and their inhabitants, the harshness of their daily lives, have always accompanied me: Spain, but also Sicily, Greece, and Portugal.

J. T.: This leads us to Trás-os-Montes, your latest book of poems. Let me cite two poems that indeed evoke landscape:

Like a piece of string, the dirt road
winding around the hill
prevents us from slipping
down to the sea, barely fastening us
in the rising wind

a hand shifts the tables,
the chairs, shutting one by one
each door

In this brambly wasteland
shines a strange eye
like stagnant water
of a well open to the sky
or, more ominously,
of an empty gaze. Murky water,
black water, from which only a few
scattered sheep
dare to drink

As the title Trás-os-Montes indicates, the poems in this book, that is, in its first section, are set in a remote region of northern Portugal. “Trás-os-Montes” means “on the other side of the mountains.” This isolated province is known for its poverty, sparse population, and relative primitiveness in regard to the comforts of many European regions. We are very far from Lausanne. . .

José-Flore Tappy: This also an important part of my life. . . For personal reasons, I have gone many times to this northern part of Portugal, bordering on Castille. And as its name—“on the other side of the mountains”—indicates, it is a disinherited region, nearly forgotten by the authorities. To give an example of this neglect: when there are national elections, it can happen that the inhabitants don’t receive their ballot paper. It is a country within a country, consisting of small communities gathered together into villages or small towns, which are today getting old and which have no future, communities that are confined by their poverty, by their ancestral mores as well as by brutal conflicts with tenacious roots. This land has spoken deeply to me. I wanted to recover a little of the grandeur of this remote part of Portugal with its coarse beauty, the places where I have walked, lived, and which shaped me in later years. It was like a debt that I had to honor. An intimate debt, without my understanding all the secrets.

J. T.: One of the ways in which you honor this “intimate debt” to this Portuguese region is to evoke the people who live there. In the first part (titled “Before the Night”) of your book, there is indeed a kind of main character, a village woman who takes care of her vegetable patch, performs countless daily chores, helps others, all the while sometimes measuring “an old dream from a distance, / visiting it with her fingertips.”

José-Flore Tappy: Yes, she is a very real person, whom I know and who represents for me much more than herself: a universal humanity. I wanted to lend my voice to someone who is apparently insignificant, to her gestures, to her everyday chores. This is because her ordinary existence, of which she is not really aware, has something—for me—that is fundamental, almost heroic. I have thus tried to write down a kind of everyday epic. Behind the character of Maria (to whom I indeed devote the first part of the book), it’s daily life that I question—mine, yours. This book does not draw her portrait, nor address her (she will obviously never read me!). It’s actually the opposite that happens. . . Without her knowing so, this discreet hardworking woman holds out a mirror to me, and in this mirror I look at myself. This woman is a lamp for me. She illumines me and helps me to think, to think about myself.

J. T.: Here is how you evoke her in one poem:

She has always known these places
with their noises, their worries,
a leaking water pipe, the laundry
to fold and the pungent
smell of the kitchen,
her hands even know how to calm
the invectives

for every hour its routine,
a gesture she alone
keeps alive

To recall this brings me peace
when I rinse the lettuce
under the fern of the water
before getting the meal ready
as usual

with her I silently shift
the knives and forks

The reader gradually understands that you, as the poet-narrator, sometimes blend with this woman, that sometimes when she is speaking or thinking, it is in fact you who are speaking or thinking as well. Is this portrait of the Portuguese peasant woman thus also a fragmentary self-portrait?

José-Flore Tappy: This is indeed paradoxical. Among my poetry collections, this new volume is probably the one that most stands at one remove: I use another person to express myself. At the same time, it is my most personal book, as if I had needed this detour to dare to sketch, in a few pages, a kind of fragmentary self-portrait. Through Maria, I tell my story. . . And because of this transfer, as if fortified by this projection of myself into another person, I can reach the other shore: the second part of the collection, which is even more intimate.

J. T.: Here is another poem in which this fragmentary self-portrait is visible. You evoke the woman’s vegetable patch, and at the end of the poem you evoke words, a way of conceiving poetry:

On a canvas tarp she places
her stones one after the other,
wedges them in, arranges
more solid ones, every inch
of her ground, every plant
deserves her hand

cabbages, turnips, tomatoes,
lettuces, she spells them out,
secures them to her words

ramparts of voice
against the wind

Let’s linger a moment on this issue of intimacy and autobiography, on the use of “I” and various “detours.” In American poetry, the “I” is often immediate: “This is me!” as it were. In European poetry such as yours, the “I” as a subject is often more complex, subtle, even problematical. How do you view “I” in literature, even philosophically?

José-Flore Tappy: It’s difficult to speak about poetry in general. To restrict myself to my own poetry, this “I” is an “augmented I,” as it were, composed of personal experiences but also of projections of my imagination. This is surely something very ordinary, and many poets could say the same thing. This lyric “I” carries my voice, my silhouette of words, onto the pages and enables my voice to progress, to unfold. It is indeed I who speak, but only to get myself underway, not to describe myself. Or to put it differently: I do not tell the story of myself. When I finish writing a book, the woman who I am in reality has joined this lyrical “I”, and this “poetic” work on myself has enabled me to gather myself. By writing, I get myself going on a path, towards a deeper, renewed self.

J. T.: An example of what you are saying is this poem:

Thin as a handkerchief
my page I scrub and clean
down to the darkness that destroys it
and is stronger than words

while she awakens early, like a nail
boring into the cold, braving it,
moving forward,
all her thoughts gathered
into a silent point,
a single point that hurts

The “scrubbing” and “cleaning” bring us back to the theme of everyday life, an important aspect of Trás-os-Montes. Several poems evoke the social environment of this remote Portuguese village: we see, for example, not only the woman-hero but also some of the neighbors now and then. In one poem, we find some workers. At the same time, as in your previous books, there is an important emphasis given to existential solitude. How is this existential solitude informed by the social circumstances? What is the relationship between the particulars of the quotidian and the inner world—the woman’s, yours? Or, as I suspect, is this solitude actually not all that dependent on social factors?

José-Flore Tappy: Solitude is not to be equated with isolation. Solitude is experienced in a deeper manner, as a state of mind, a perception of self. Here, solitude is experienced among other people, in a human community that is perhaps small in size yet that is organized socially. This solitude is an inner position, a viewpoint more than a factual state. Daily events and acts, the presence of neighbors, the life of others neither mitigates this solitude nor creates a distraction. In fact, the opposite is true. Daily events increase this impression of a gap that one can sense and that is made up of empathy for those around one as well as of dissociation, like the two sides of a same perceptible adhesion. The more others take on body and life in the book, the more, in contrast, this existential solitude deepens. I am “with” and “at a distance” at the same time.

J. T.: What you have just said make me think of these two short poems:

Up to daybreak, up to the milky crack
of dawn, up to the edge of our lips,
a whole land draws near behind the night
and with an eager tongue
licks our hands, gives back life
to dead shades

I cross the threshold and slip outside,
long splinter in the black night

first the street with its dirty papers
lying about, then the trail
with its sinuous course, more sinuous
than my peeled sentences
clutching to the page

trail so spindly between the stones,
I reassure it with my feet

The two poems provide us with a transition. You mentioned earlier in our discussion that the second part of your book, titled “The Blank Hour,” was even more intimate, that is, that the “projection” of yourself into the Portuguese woman enabled you to confront still deeper personal questions. This second part is no longer set specifically in the remote Portuguese region, but rather—at least implicitly—on the Balearic island that you have known for a very long time. Two aspects of this second part strike me in comparison to the first part of the book. In this second part, you describe the landscape more explicitly, with each detail fully participating in the emotion of the poem. There is less domestic imagery and more landscape. Secondly, you use the first person plural form—we, our—more frequently than in the first part; to be specific, in the several opening poems of this second part. Is this “we” a universal “we” or are you referring to you and another person, a man, a man whom you have loved? You are characteristically very discreet, but a short poem stands out and seems to suggest amorous relationship that has ended:

What remains of your passage
through my entire life
is this mere flimsy cigarette
lit in the black night
like a tear trembling
and burning at the same time

José-Flore Tappy: Yes, it is the evocation of a person whom I loved and who has passed away, a person that these places and notably his house, deserted after his death, keep recalling. I wrote this sequence of poems in an attempt to reconcile myself with this absence. To express the painful loss, but also the extraordinary presence of those who have disappeared, when one genuinely listens to a place. The last poem, written like a litany, a song or a lullaby, seeks to express an appeasement. As is magnificently expressed by the poet Antonio Porchia, whose lines I use as an epigraph: “Everything I carry attached inside me, somewhere is free.” This epigraph is discreet in the book, but it carries much weight for me. The key that opens the door to a book is often found in very small details. “During the night,” a night without fear or nightmares, I find again the man whom death has taken away but whose sleeping heart keeps giving rhythm to mine, through his sleep.

John Taylor is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For the Odd Volumes series, he has translated Philippe Jaccottet’s Truinas, the latter’s memoir of his friendship with the poet André du Bouchet. Also in the Odd Volumes series is A Notebook of Clouds and A Notebook of Ridges, a double book co-authored by Taylor and the late Swiss poet Pierre Chappuis. Taylor’s first two books of short prose, The Presence of Things Past (1992) and Mysteries of the Body and the Mind (1998), have recently been republished by Red Hen Press. Among his many collections of poetry and short prose is also Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (The Bitter Oleander Press).


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