Poets Live – Zoe Skoulding and Victor
Review by Annie Brechin.
This evening was an exercise in duality, split between poetry and music, English and French. We kicked off with Zoe Skoulding, former editor of Poetry Wales who is in town for a three-month residency. Zoe translates from French and has many links with French writers. Victor, our performer in the second part, helpfully read the French versions of her poems as we went along. Zoe’s work is very focused on the correlations between landscapes and bodyscapes. She started by describing the Sacre Coeur as “a beached white whale”, and throughout her reading her structures segued between streets and arteries, forest and bone. In her new book, The Museum of Disappearing Sounds, she is also interested by soundscapes. I loved the “exhibits” of the title poem – I can imagine on a dusty shelf the “stammer of ringtones” sitting next to “dark and interrupted light”. She read finally from a sequence of what she jokingly termed “almost sonnets” based around hotel rooms, inspired by their bizarre numbering system. Her apt description of their deliberate nonentity – “repeating the distance from door to bed” – convinced me to buy the book at the break!
After a short break we heard from Victor, stalwart of the PLU scene and other venues in Paris. His interesting performance was drawn from a long narrative poem in English interspersed every few lines with French chansons, whose history he traced. As he told us at the beginning “On connait la chanson” = we know the drill, and indeed most of the audience knew most of the songs, and many were singing along by the end, aided by his superb skills on the guitar. Personally I was delighted with the preponderance of Gainsbourg, and it was amusing to be introduced to some examples of French new romanticism such as Adamo (it seems they have no more to be proud of than us when it comes to that particular musical movement!). The cute quotes at the beginning of each chapter were a nice touch, although the one which I remember best is John Lennon’s succinct comment “French rock is like English wine”. Happily the performance refuted that dreary sentiment and proved even Johnny Halliday when written by Aznavour has his place.
Zoë Skoulding is a poet, translator, editor and critic. She has published four collections of poetry, most recently The Museum of Disappearing Sounds (Seren, 2013) and Remains of a Future City (Seren, 2008), poems from which have been widely translated. Her own translations include a collection by the Luxembourgish poet Jean Portante, In Reality (Seren, 2013). From 2009 to 2011 she was, in partnership with Literature Across Frontiers, director of Metropoetica, a collaborative project on translation, gender and city space. Her critical work includes Contemporary Women’s Poetry and Urban Space: Experimental Cities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). She is a member of the collective Parking Non-Stop, whose CD Species Corridor, combining experimental soundscape with poetry and song, was released in 2008. She is Senior Lecturer in the School of English at Bangor University, and has been editor of the international quarterly Poetry Wales since 2008. She is currently living in Paris for a three-month residency at Les Récollets.
Currently finishing a PhD in art history that led him to live between Paris and Berlin, Victor is also a clandestine pop culture amateur. As a self-taught guitar player and former member of several jazz bands, Victor performs regularly in Paris’ English poetry scenes, covering calypso songs from the 1930s and constantly digging for musical diamonds in the recorded heritage of the 20th century. For Poets Live, Victor will perform excerpts from his Des Yoyos aux Yéyés: A Brief History of Postwar French Popular Music, which is a cultural studies lecture in verse. Framed as a poem in tight English alexandrines, it is punctuated with live French renditions of the referenced songs. The audience can expect a subjective, somewhat insolent and completely out-of-the-box analysis of the French musical tradition; a sweeping portrait from the underground scene in the cellars of Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the contemporary music industry. The poem is an homage to the vibrant, multi-faceted musical heritage known as la chanson française, a heritage intimately tied to the French language itself and covers a tight selection of songs from the linguistic gymnastics of Boris Vian to France’s Anglo-Saxon pop-star wannabes, by way of Dick Annegarn’s fantastical themes and the fully-rounded, delectable work of Serge Gainsbourg (whose legacy represents the backbone of the series). This night of academic sing-along is an entry ticket into the world of French pop-culture in all its double-edged glory.