jubilat Interview

Franck André Jamme lives and works in Paris and North Burgundy, France. He has published fourteen volumes of poetry and fragments, as well as numerous limited editions illustrated by artists such as Zao Wou-Ki, Achary Vyakui, Jan Voss, and Jaume Plensa. His poetry is included in The New French Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 1996) and The Yale Book of French Poetry (Yale University Press, 2004). In 2005 he was awarded the Grand Prix de Poésie de la Société des Gens de Lettres for his life's work. Black Square editions has published two of his books in English: The Recitation of Forgetting (translated by John Ashbery) and Extracts from the Life of a Beetle (translated by Michael Tweed). Two more of Jamme's books, New Exercises and Another Silent Attack, will be published in English in 2006. He has translated works by John Ashbery, Lokenath Bhattacharya, and Udayan Vajpeyi into French. He is also an independent curator focusing on contemporary Indian art, especially tantric, brut, and tribal works. In 2005, the Drawing Center published Field of Color: Tantra Drawings from India, in conjunction with the exhibition Jamme curated. Jen Bervin and Christian Hawkey interviewed Franck André Jamme in October 2005, in New York, and edited the interview collaboratively with Robert Casper.

How did you first get your start as a poet?

I began to write when I was young, and two or three years later (I was then twenty years old) I discovered that what I had done was barely nothing. I had written two books, not very big, but two real books. I had even published extracts of them, under a pseudonym, in a new magazine at Gallimard's. Well, you know, you are young, you are quite talented—I can say that because I have no special reverence for talent. The work was contemporary and free and a bit mad, sometimes with columns and quotations and short lines of music and little drawings. It was just a gifted and clever and funny little formal game. But I think I already knew secretly that they were not so interesting. And when I discovered it, well, I became really sick. [laughter] No, this is true. Psychologically, I was very sick. A severe nervous breakdown—hospital, heavy medical treatment. It lasted at least three years. Horrible.

What followed that period?

I stopped writing. I couldn't do it; I couldn't go in there anymore. I became a music journalist specializing in contemporary jazz.

And when I was something like thirty or thirty-two, I began to write again. Very suddenly. I had a nice old friend who came over to my place for very simple dinners. Usually she came with a bottle of wine, but that day she couldn't find any—I don't know why. I was living in the Fifth in Paris; the river was on her route. On a special bank of the river there are many pet shops, so passing by she bought a little aquarium, a small round one, and a fish in a little bag of water. She said to me, "Well, I didn't find wine, but I found this if you like it." We had our dinner, and the following morning I found this very strange item. It was a beautiful Siamese fighting fish with something like eight wings, and it would fly in the water. I wrote something during the day, a sort of suite—not very long, but sweet and in prose. I called it "Flame in Water" and sent it to René Char, whom I didn't know at all. He liked it and helped me publish it. Somebody in Paris made a chapbook of it, and special copies featured engravings by a well-known painter: Zao Wou-Ki, a friend of Char.

After this I never stopped. But I can spend one year without writing a line. I'm not an everyday writer. Even when I tried to do it—because we do get a bit crazy—when I said to myself, "Now you must wake up every morning at seven and do two hours of writing," its result was always bad.  

Do you ever feel haunted by the years you weren't able to write poems? Like it will come back somehow?

Rarely. From time to time, yes, on bad days, blue days. But I don't think . . . no, it's too late now. I presume that with the long silence, I paid my tribute. To what? I don't know.

Do you still have that fish?

No. She died quite tragically some months after the book was published. They don't have so long a life. Well, things wear down. It was perhaps the fact of printing "Flame in Water" that really signed the page. I didn't need another fish.

What is your writing process like? Do you revise?

First it's quite rapid. The less I control, the better it is. I'm used to doing things quickly. And afterward, I have a look and I correct, but not that much. There is even a short book I wrote in nine hours, a complete night. It's called Un diamant sans étonnement, which translates as A Flawless Diamond. However the title in French is Un diamant sans étonnement (astonishment). This last word is from the peculiar language of jewelers: astonishment in French means a fault, a mistake in the stone. But it also means astonishment, which is beautiful. I would like to find a little word in English that captures these meanings—I don't like flawless so much. If you know some old jewelers . . . I wrote this book with a sensation—of course, it was not true—that I myself was not writing. It is a woman who speaks and even tells things that I couldn't say myself. It's extremely feminine and totally open—which I'm not, unfortunately.

Another book, The Recitation of Forgetting, came about because I had a bus accident in India. I came back home and wrote Recitation in my bed, where I had to stay for many months. I would sleep for three hours and be awake for three hours. I asked for little pieces of paper, and very often when I awoke I noted little things down. The book came like that. You can't do that often—I mean, you can't have an accident every year, thank God!

How did your work come to be translated into English?

It began in England. I had a close friend at Trinity College in Cambridge, David Kelley, who translated Moon Wood. After that, it all happened in America. A young translator, Michael Tweed, worked on Another Silent Attack, Extracts from the Life of Beetles, and A Flawless Diamond; Mary Ann Caws on Proliferation of Breaches and Obstacles; Charles Borkhuis on New Exercises. And five or six years ago I gave a reading at Bard College. John Ashbery was there. Afterward we had a great dinner together, and at the end of the dinner he told me in French (in fact, the entire dinner had been in French), "I'd like very much to translate something." I sent him a short book, The Recitation of Forgetting. He did it quickly, and he sent me in turn a ton of his books. I wanted to return his generosity, and suddenly in one of the books I saw, Three Poems . . . I read the beginning, and I found it incredibly beautiful. So I wrote him and said could I try to translate it, and he said, "Yes, go ahead." But this book is so difficult to translate. I'm taking my time, but I will do it. Fortunately—and this is extremely important when you translate—I am in contact with the author so he can have a look and correct. This book is particularly difficult to translate because it has an enigmatic flow, like breathing. You must find the good sound. You have to swim in the water of the poem you're translating.

There is in your work a willingness to enlarge and magnify perception to include many different layers of consciousness, or a larger sense of consciousness, but at the same time there is a real respect for organisms, for particulars, for everything that is not human consciousness. Part of the pleasure of your poems is to feel multiple worlds brushing up against each other; finally, no one world is privileged over another.

The respect and the reverence for everything is total. But all of this is going through the filter of your perception. We don't always stop to describe the strange connections and movements and dances that appear in our minds.

At some level it's a reverence for perception, and to acknowledge this is to further respect what's being observed.

Yes, but if you just have the respect and the reverence for the thing without the free, open, frank filter of perception, art quickly becomes a bit dry. This filter is incredible, isn't it? When you hear, for example, John Coltrane, or when you read Rimbaud.

Has Henri Michaux been an influence on your work?

What I would call a real influence is something visible in the work, and I don't see Michaux's presence in this way in my own work. More than an influence I have a kind of an operative admiration for Michaux and his fairly magical thought. I like his way of changing styles from one book to another. He constantly clouds the issue. I knew him a bit; he was rather mysterious and fascinating. And also, he was an artist.

What writers have influenced you in a more invisible way?

When I think about Lewis Carroll I immediately feel better. [laughs] You know, they are so many: Nietzsche, Montaigne, Borges, Scutenaire, Porchia, Heraclitus, Bashō, and Chuang Tzu. I forget now so many other ones. So there are texts like that, books like that, which help you, in a totally tangible way, to live—and of course, if you are a writer, to write. But first of all to live.

You've mentioned René Char before—when you were younger you were his assistant. Did this experience shape your work at all?

Oh, I just helped Char edit his complete works, choose the variants. He didn't want to have some big professor do it; he preferred to have a young poet assist him in this task. He was very generous, quite unpredictable, sometimes unfair. I admired him of course, but I was not really a fan because there were two René Chars. One was a bit aphoristic, mysterious and clear at the same time. I loved this one. But there was another Char, one who was a bit baroque and used too many adjectives and complicated his lines. Some texts were totally great. But some of them—well, I didn't like them so much. But we were friends. Perhaps you don't need to like all the work of somebody in order to be his friend and to work with him.

What, in your mind, is particularly French about your work?

In French literature there has always been this adherence to a kind of speculative rhetoric. I am not a philosopher, because I have no system to build, nor any rejection of system to develop. But I have an inclination for thinking which is a bit French.

Your books, even in sections, are typically written as one continuous poem. Why do you choose this?

I like to really compose a book, count a book like an exhibition, or a long piece of music with a beginning and an end. It is not at all a fiction but in fact a kind of mind story, you know, and you can't change the order of things. I like to read a book and not a collection of poems. It's not that I discourage that, but it is my soft corner, my preference, my "favorite thing." I noticed American poetry books, even if they are excellent, keep the old habit of discrete poems. Even the young poets do it. You write one poem, the second one, the third one, the fourth one. Well, one is like this, one is in prose, one is, etc. And when you have sixty pieces, okay, it's a book—you put on a title, and it goes to the publisher. So many people in France do the same. It is not the subtle solution for publishing a book.

Does it have to do with duration or time?

Mainly with time. Time is the king. But with space, too. Because before I write a book I like to see the general face, the profile of the thing, the silhouette, even if I don't know what I am going to put inside.

Your poems encompass so many voices, particularly female voices.

I think there have always been female characters, female presences in my books. It came naturally. I couldn't think about an existence, and about an activity in this existence, without these presences. So generous, so unpredictable, so moving, enigmatic. Near the unknowable root of things, near the beginning, if you prefer. It's funny—I use the same words as Char, who was sort of macho [laughs]. It also introduces a kind of dialogue in the pages. Between a man and a woman. Between me and a woman. Between me and me, perhaps. I don't know. I like that, too, because poems can be very solitary. You have the page and you yourself write something—why not create a kind of conversation with a character, with yourself, with the reader? In my last book, Extract from the Life of Beetles, there is a dialogue between two friends. One of them is certainly younger—or if he's not younger he's less experienced—than the other. He is not the one ruling the situation, but he is trying to understand it a bit more.

Can you elaborate on the peacock that moves through that poem?

That is from memories of India—because peacocks are everywhere in the parks—and also of London. There is a park in London with peacocks where I think the Rolling Stones composed a well-known song. I think it's Holland Park; the song has the cry of a peacock in it. It's a strange, unreal bird, because its size is not normal—it's too big, and it can't walk properly. It's embarrassed, you know, by its long tail; it's too beautiful, too much. It's pompous, even ridiculous—a sort of kingdom of the ridiculous. Yet quite touching at the same time, because it looks so defenseless.

There's a line in The Recitation of Forgetting, "'Did you find yourself, child? / Did you lose yourself?'"

It's a question without any answer. I wanted that line to mean we search our entire lives, and perhaps the only thing we find is our incredible existence and the beauty of our search. That's all; that's enough.

Can you discuss your work as a curator of art?

I was one of the freelance curators for an exhibition called Magiciens de la Terre, in 1989. It was groundbreaking because we decided to mix contemporary art, art from the Australian aborigines, Tantric art from India, and many others from Africa—some of which had never exhibited before. I showed this brut Indian painter called Acharya Vyakul alongside Clemente, and the funny thing is that some years before Clemente had lived in India and bought pieces by Vyakul.

How did you first learn about the Indian Tantric drawings you now collect?

Through literature. A long time ago in a secondhand bookshop in Paris, I found a small Tantra catalogue with a few poor black-and-white 90 〈 jubilat reproductions. In the catalog there were two essays—one by Octavio Paz and one by Henri Michaux, which is why I bought the thing. But in it I discovered this centuries-old tradition in India that was totally abstract. I was glad to discover that one invents roughly nothing. Nothing against Agnes Martin—she's great—but what she was doing was not specifically occidental. Take, for example, Japanese haiku. There are some regions in Africa, I think it is in Mali, where their way of not writing but saying proverbs is very similar to the haiku form. For centuries in India there was a small writing school in Orissa in which they wrote in fact a kind of haiku. This sort of thing makes me happy, because I think we are all the same, and if you really search you will find so many of the same things in different places, like yodeling in Switzerland and in North Vietnam. It's amazing.

When you're traveling and collecting drawings in India, does your writing mirror that search?

The writing is very separate. I never went in any ashram or things like that, but I love the country, I love the people, I love the extreme contradictions of this nation, because it is at once meditative and violent. And of course I was impressed to find these totally abstract Tantric drawings in so baroque a civilization.

Going back to your accident, I feel like sometimes your poems insist on the solidity of things, or the presence of the body. Picasso once said something like, "It's amazing we do not dissolve in the bathtub."

Yes, that's true, exactly. I sign it.

What were you doing in India at the time of your accident?

I was searching. It was my first voyage in order to try to find some traces of Tantric art, and the accident took place a few days after I arrived. After, I didn't want to go back to India. I was totally in shock. But two and a half years later the shock was digested, and I said to myself, "You must go again; otherwise it will haunt you." I was scared when I went back to India. Extremely scared. A friend told me "Well, first you could go and see Mr. So-and-So." He was a mix of the kind of people you can find in India: a bit of an astrologist, a bit of a soothsayer, a bit of a guru. I told him, "I have this big problem: I would like to continue my research, but I'm very scared." He came out with a big bowl of sand and said, "You have just one thing to do: wash your hands in the sand, and after don't touch it." So I did this, and he read the sand, and he said, "Okay, you have paid your tribute to the goddess"—in Tantrism the god is a goddess—"and you can go ahead. You must do it secretly, though. To the people you meet you just introduce the human being you love, so it will be a secret." He was very kind; he gave me two addresses of families where they still practiced Tantric art. And it began like that.

Can you describe a drawing and how it works?

One piece looks a Parisian underground ticket. It is a long, quite long, rectangle, and the base is more or less a wide yellow or beige—these kind of colors. It is a kind of bar coming from one side to the other, and the meaning is . . . well, it is energy crossing the world. It is very simple.

Is this a tradition that is handed down within specific families, or can anyone pick up this practice?

Those who do not come from a Tantric family do not touch it because they are a bit scared. Well, I myself experienced it with this strange accident.

Since these drawings were made as and for Tantric meditation, was it strange buying them, you know, changing over their system of value, currency?

First these pieces were made for meditation, but even in India, even centuries ago, there were collectors—some people had small collections of these things because they found them beautiful and loved them. So it always existed, but very discretely for the simple reason that the "production" is so fine, is so small.

When you're going out to find drawings, what do you look for?

Really beautiful pieces, as far as my taste is concerned. But at this moment, my taste is no more my taste. It's like with African Masks: when a mask is good, the mask is good. When the little Tantra is good, you feel it—the vibration is right. Even with monochromes, you can feel that.

Do you think poems are the same?

Yes, definitely. Forever.

You've done numerous collaborative creative projects with contemporary artists. How do these begin?

Quite often they are friends, so it's not demanding—it's just a new branch in the friendship. But from time to time I like the work of somebody, and I approach him or her. For example, there is an artist in France named Philippe Favier whose work I like very much, especially his engravings. So I asked him. I didn't know him at all, and I didn't know anybody who knew him. I just had his address through a gallery. I sent a text, and he said okay. It's quite clear like that. Most of the time I send a text to the artist, and he or she works around it as he or she wants. I began with some French artists: Zao Wou-Ki, Olivier Debré, Marc Couturier, Monique Frydman, Valérie-Catherine Richez, François Bouillon. And with some foreigners: James Brown, Jaume Plensa, Suzan Frecon.

Who haven't you worked with that you'd like to?

The dream of the dream would be Cy Twombly. He is deep, light, and great. Just a dream. There are not many others I would like to work with, but a few: Christian Boltanski, Giuseppe Penone, Pierre Soulagus, and of course some American painters. One of these days I will put my shyness under my shoes.

Do you make art as well?

Not really. Some years I began to send friends poems written on reflective things like the gold foil that chocolate comes wrapped in. I sent one written on a mirror, and suddenly I decided to do an entire book on mirrors and show them in a gallery, the Agnès B Gallery in Paris. The show was composed of eighty-one mirrors displayed in a very long line—something like twenty meters. You can read the book, and in fact when you read something in the mirror, the mirror disappears. You just read, and you can't see yourself anymore. It makes the world slower.

Why the mirrors? Why the disappearances?

I have a kind of gratitude for the most feeble and less advanced people; they are really the mirror for me. If you have a sharp and strong look to yourself, well, it's okay, but it could be so much more . . . blue, for example. Anything could be finally something present, like a color.