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Ivy Writers – Marilyn Hacker and Habib Tengour

Review by Lucy Binnersley for Paris Lit Up.

At Ivy Writers this month we listened to the superb Marilyn Hacker and Habib Tengour. Both are world-renowned for jumping around in two, sometimes even three, languages while formulating poems that speak for all. For someone like myself who struggles to use one language effectively, it was with both trepidation and anticipation that I went along. Without a French -English dictionary. Or access to Google Translate. Bon courage.

The lived experiences of exile was the theme of the evening How fitting – having only arrived for pre-poetry drinks fifteen minutes earlier, I had already spoken to two Americans, a Canadian and a British expat. Thus it was a theme that many of us in the audience could, on some level, identify with.

Photography by Alison Harris

First up was Marilyn Hacker. Her poems have a real contemporary relevance. ‘The Country of War’ is a poem on the invasion of Iraq. That the“women and men are crushed beneath it’s weight” was a powerful motif – not only are they victims of war, but they are also suffering at the hands of their own country. The repetition of the phrase “my country” perfectly emphasised the often dialectic relationship between country and individual, the we and the I. “How final and brief it would be to disappear from this place” and “the silence that lasted for decades, years, hours, will one day be broken. You’ll hear from this country” echoed this theme. While there is a desire to detach yourself through exile, this physical distance creates a silence that can only be broken by the eagerness to explore the cultural impact of your place of birth.

Marilyn has recently translated five of Habib Tengour‘s poems into English, and these are shortly due to be published in a collection titled “Crossings”. While Habib read the initial French version of his poem.‘Conversation with Mohammed”, Marilyn then re-read it in it’s translated form. The identity of a poem in translation is also like a person in exile. It can take on different identities, but essentially it is moulded around it’s beginnings. It was also rather ironic that Marilyn had earlier recited the line “I can translate better than I speak.” 

Habib’s poetry is alive with lavish colours and the energy of life and movement. He intertwines lives with events without relegating either to be a mere backdrop. His poetry is laden with beautiful philosophy, “All I hear is disarray and helplessness. An agony. Exile is sterile. Where is life? It is here. When the poem is said and the sentence falls.” With “… the end of his assiduous retreat to learn from the mouth of the stars and the wind, the one who alone has recognized his gift to say”, Tengour emphasises that exile is not always physical – poets are often in cultural exile as they cut themselves off from the “we” in order to understand the “we”.

He uses his poetry as a tool to describe the “the slow throbbing of a life” often burdened by the heritage and history of where we come from. But he encourages us to understand them. As otherwise we are all in exile from ourselves.

Authors Bios:

BIOS AND PHOTOS COURTESY OF IVY WRITERS PARIS AND THE AUTHORS, for more information or to follow this reading series please see their blog here, their facebook group here or email your info for their readings emailings at
Marilyn Hacker  is an American poet, author of twelve books of poetry includingNames  (Norton, 2010), Essays on Departure  (Carcanet Press, 2006) andDesesperanto  (Norton, 2003) and a collection of essays, Unauthorized Voices  ( University of Michigan Press, 2010). Twelve volumes of translations from French to U.S. include King of a Hundred Horsement  (Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2008) Marie Etienne, who received the American PEN Award for Poetry in Translation in 2009, He and I  (Oberlin College Press , 2010), Emmanuel Moses, and Tales of a Severed Head  (Yale University Press, 2012), Rachida Madani. His translation of Habib Tengour appear soon. In his own handwriting, Marilyn Hacker received the Lenore Marshall Award for Winter Numbers , the Poets’ Prize for Selected Poems , the National Book Award for Presentation Piece , an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004, the American PEN Voelcker Award for Poetry in 2010 and the Argana International Poetry Prize discerned by you Bayt Sh’ir (House of Poetry) in Morocco in 2011. She is Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She lives in Paris and participates in the editorial Century 21.

Habib Tengour is an Algerian writer, poet and anthropologist born in Mostaganam in 1947. He cam to France in 1958 with his father, an Arabic teacher and militant nationalist who left Algeria to escape persecution from the police. Habib Grew up in the political turmoil of the Algerian War, emigration, and the French Left.He continued his studies in Paris, purpose, Effective HAVING graduated with a degree in Sociology, he returned to Algeria in order to do his national service in the military first and then as a Civilian teaching at Constantine University, Where he finished his PhD thesis and continued to teach. Since then, he split his time HAS Between Algeria and France, and Between his academic and literary pursuits. Beginning with his first story-poem,  Tapapakitaques, poetry-island  (Paris, 1976), Habib Tengour Developed a style That Moves entre le surreal and the lyric-epic of the Arab poetic tradition. A playful and lyric poet, cemented his reputation Habib Tengour as a major author Among the new generation of North African French-language writers in the early ’80s with the publication of  The  Old Man of the Mountain  (Sindbad, Paris, 1983) and Sultan Galiev or stockouts  (Sindbad, Paris, 1985).  written several books He Has of prose:  The Old Man of the Mountain ,  Sultan Galiev or stockouts ,  The Ordeal of the arc  (1990),  People of Mosta  ( 1997 / ADELF price),  Le Poisson Moses  (2001) as well as poetry:  The Arc and the scar  (ENAL, 1983),  then this Tatar  (2002), Paper 2 (2002), Cross (2002),  States thing  followed  Patras  and the sandal Empedocles  (2003).  His latest books are prose of  The Master of Time  (Editions de la Difference, 2008) and  in the Uprising. Returns and Algeria  (Editions de la Difference, 2012). His latest collection of poetry is  The Ancestor cinephile  (Editions de la Difference, 2010).

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