Year abroad student Lauren Sneath on Cole Swensen’s poetry reading in Parisian bookshop
Amid teetering stacks of dusty books, crammed into the warren-like upstairs of Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the bank of the Seine, around 40 people waited for Cole Swensen to begin her reading. Ink drawings of scenes from Alice in Wonderland were scribbled on the sections of wall which peeked between bookshelves. The shop had a beautifully cosy air, contrasting with the rainy Parisian evening I fought against to get there. This was the first event I attended here in Paris, at its most famous English bookshop, as I complete a placement here as part of my year abroad.
I didn’t know much about the poet before arriving, so it was with relatively fresh eyes and objective ears that I watched and listened to her work. Swensen is native to California, and currently a literary arts professor at Brown University, though she splits her time between America and Paris. She founded a small poetry translation company called La Presse, which translates contemporary poetry from French to English. She has been a finalist for the US National Book Award and has won Sun & Moon’s New American Writing Award and the San Francisco State Poetry Center Book Award, among others.
I was as struck by their attention to factual detail and sheer volume of classic, informative content
She read from several of her new, unpublished works, as well as some earlier oeuvres, about which I could run away on tangents for hours, but the most intriguing to me was her ‘essay slash poems’, centred mostly around artists. Her friend Atel Ednan, who was supposed to also be in attendance but couldn’t make it, was the feature of the first, and the second focused on Agnes Varda, a documentary realist French filmmaker. The last hybrid took as its subject Joan Jonas, a performance artist, and her 1974 piece Merlot.
As she read these pieces, I was as struck by their attention to factual detail and sheer volume of classic, informative content as I was by the expressive, descriptive language and the lyrical way in which they were read. Swensen’s soft, American voice lilted and lifted educative elements to rhapsodic planes, and the creative language, rather than taking from the information, instead made it more accessible and served to really do justice to the excellent women she chose as her muses.
Swensen’s hybrids were a perfect example of why we should transgress, should combine, should imagine new ways to inform and illuminate
The poetic essay is a form of literature I really love. As the creative world grows ever more progressive, writers are more able to blur the boundaries between forms in order to convey more clearly their creative point of view. It can be so hard to control work- my essays so often wander off and trip and skip like naughty children into the realm of poetry- something my university professors haven’t so far appreciated. Reigning work in to fit into a box created by society and history did always seem necessary, but Swensen’s hybrids were a perfect example of why we should transgress, should combine, should imagine new ways to inform and illuminate.
I could say so much more about her use of sound, her mixing of languages and her newer works which focus on the Palace of Versailles. I would especially recommend reading her essay from the book Noise That Stays Noise and listening to recordings of her work online (Penn Sound is a good resource that she recommended) as my ideas around her work were altered after having listened to it aloud. Her rhythm, tone of voice and fusing of the lilting and the staccato imbibed her poetry with music, which added so much for me. I very much enjoyed the reading, and look forward to now becoming more deeply acquainted with her work. In fact, I’m going to find Ednan’s artwork, watch a film by Varda and further research Jonas.