Jacques Darras












RD: – Jacques Darras, you are one of the most authentic voices of contemporary French poetry. Academic, multiple-prize-winning writer, translator of Whitman and Pound, review founder and director, president of a Brussels festival, publisher, essayist, philologist, painter, multilingual performer, creator of unforgettable lyrical subversions, amazing traveller, dear Jacques Darras, you have had an astonishing life and career. At first glance, you seem like a Neoplatonist philosopher. When we read you, your appearance and your way of speaking change. The philosopher becomes a linguist gladiator, meditation becomes a spear, a trident, a bow and arrow, a curved or straight sword. Where does this need for hustle and bustle, this energy that upsets your « all around » come from?





JD: – The energy is given. My legacy comes from a couple, my parents, who were as physical as they were intellectual. They gave me a love for physical exercise, playing with the rhythm of a ball (basketball, at which I excelled) as well as playing with words, ideas, convictions. We were emerging from that great mutilation, the war, and were finding pleasure in the stretching and extension of limbs that had been confined by uniforms and imprisonment. The beach, sea and sand were the daily entertainments since I was born practically on the seashore. I acquired the maritime energy of the shore and the meaning of the cosmos. I held on to them. I hear the sounds of the waves behind and in front of me, everywhere I go. I feel the « surge. »


RD: – Compared to other introverted contemporary poets, with their hollow lyricism, minstrels of their souls, you write to gain independence. At an accelerated and sharpened rhythm on both sides. You think the best of freedom in poetry and you push it beyond its limits. Are you conscious of this?


JD: – It follows from what I just said about an acute sense of liberty. For me, it’s the cardinal virtue of the republican trinity, far ahead of fraternity and equality, which have caused so much devastation in the 20th century. Not so much free, then as « free from…. » Freedom, above all, to disagree with those who claim to be returning to standards. Thus, in literature, the rejection of classicism as the French model, as well as the most shameless textualism. I can’t stand models. Distance and casualness, I live on the margins of humour. But like Laurence Sterne I also mean that humour makes fun of humour.





RD: – How do you live your poetry, outside of its pores and metaphors?


JD: – I live « my » poetry as a task and as a rhythm. A « task » to be performed that would be a little like punctuation on my life (infinite parentheses and suspension points), poetry gave me the ridiculously illusory and eminently pleasant feeling of being immortal. As for rhythm, it is the work of punctuation itself, that is, support on the ground, the wake of the sentence, blocking and interruption of the line. For me the line is a fragment of (athletic) rhythmic breath to which my breath is submitted.


RD: – Since when has this vocation of language been poetically told? The poet who lives in you had, I believe, a childhood, an education and a maturation. Were there particular moments, touching memories, joys and pain that come back to him/you from time to time?


JD: – I have never quite left the childhood in which I already felt very adult. Very involved in the deadly game of life itself. The game promised to be long, to require training and patience. It did. These were separations of all kinds that caused me suffering. Each time I experienced death in miniature. Is a poem a concise, abbreviated suffering? Hence no doubt my very developed and very flexible feeling of connection. Because I feel we are all connected but most often incapable of overcoming our separations. In short I would like us to be more poetic than novelistic.


RD: – Why poet rather than novelist, when your poems are true events of the soul?


JD: – I have to say I was anticipating that question. For me the event is the poem. It connects and it separates, at the same time. It does not claim, like the novel, to bind back together beings and stories. In addition, it leaves the reader a wide range not only for imagination but above all for interpretation. The poem is a teacher of the time of life. Take, he said, (I’m parodying the mass) this is my body, my rhythm, my breath, my appearance. This being said, I have to acknowledge, however, that I’ve organized my poems in their different books, according to an architecture. Echoes, bridges, symmetries are revealed there that give to the whole the appearance of a construction. While composing my singular poems I was composing the « novel of my poem, » as I alluded to in Tout à coup je ne suis plus seul. Roman chanté compté [Suddenly I am no more alone. Novel sung counted] (Gallimard/L’Arbalète 2006)




RD: – To write do you use the senses of your emotions or the emotions of your senses?


JD: – For me the answer is simple: both, of course. Emotion is the encounter with a being, a place, a thing, a memory, the meaning of which makes a sign to me and a sign to itself, therefore it is a matter of explaining myself to myself. And vice versa. And I don’t believe that we have never gone much farther than William Wordsworth’s definition of poetry, « emotion recollected in tranquillity. » Not very romantic, in appearance, and yet all of romanticism is there! Although, for me, we are perhaps more provocateurs of meaning, experimenters without too much concern for tranquillity.


RD: – What is changing in you, poet Jacques Darras? What would you be without your pen?


JD: – It has become so inconceivable that I can barely imagine it. Immodestly, I could imagine myself in another life as a painter, a Flemish painter inspired by the colour, the fringes of the sea, the lunar festivals among the dunes, in the movements of Ensor, Spilliaert or Nolde. Another possible profession, theatre actor (I turned down a serious offer when I was 20) or basketball player for ten short years followed by retirement as a coach. I’d rather not think about it.




RD: – How, when, for whom do you write?


JD: – I write every morning for about four hours or more at my table (9 o’clock to 1 o’clock, on average), I walk in the afternoon (the fields, the big city, the sea), read (not very much) in the evening and watch travel documentaries, political debates, sports news or variety shows on TV in the evening.


RD: -What do you like in the current world of poetry?


JD: – You say the « world of poetry » and I would like to turn around your expression and say the « poetry of the world. » I’m fascinated by the different traditions in which I immerse myself. Thus, very recently, the Spanish-language poetry (Spain) as seemed to me in its singularity so different from French poetry both in its subjects and its forms. Likewise I find contemporary Chinese poetry (several of us are working on a substantial anthology of it) striking in what it says about the upheavals in Chinese society. Ditto for today’s very rich British poetry in all its components after Larkin, Hughes and Bunting. In fact for me poetry is the best barometer of the political and social mores of a country.



RD: – Of all the passions you have, which one demands of you the most social involvement?


JD: – Strangely and without it ever being to my advantage, I cannot conceive of the practice of poetry without involving myself in the landscape itself to the extent of striving to organize it. It’s madness! I would do better to refrain, but my other parental legacy induces me to involve myself with others. To which (and the rebel part of my own heritage includes them) I am absolutely not grateful, believing in I- don’t-know-what ambition for power.





RD: – You associate poetry and painting. With talent. Your pictorial visions have something mystic, they contain a kind of antidote to the sensuality generated in the soul of the creator, while your poetic visions begin in the mystic and finish in politics, as Péguy could have suggest to you. Very few poets know how to paint or draw decently. Does your choice to paint have an original history and lineage?



JD: – A distant part of my father’s family (a young Grand Prix de Rome winner, dead at 20 of cholera at the end of the nineteenth century) explains this tropism. My father drew and painted and very early awakened me to painting. And I spontaneously chose to love Flemish and Dutch painting. To excess. I am a great devourer of Museums and Art books. I began to paint very young (17 years old), then I put everything on hold. The recurrence surprised me twenty years ago on my contact with the light of the Channel, in Calais, on the seashore. A matter of luminous latitude and an apartment perched very high in the sky. I started again with gouache, which suited me well, the thickness of the oil and application in layers. I draw directly in the paint. The 18 gouaches of Irruption de la Manche brought a mute counterpoint to the parallelism of my waves of verses. For me silence is not in the typographical blanks, it is in the solar reserve of colours. Within reach of a more intense mimicry than language. I’ll do it again. Without too much concern for professional aesthetic disapproval.


RD: – In 2004, you received the Prix Apollinaire and in 2006, the Prix de l’Académie française, for your body of work. It is a characteristic of the French to create more and more literary prizes and talk rarely about them on TV and radio. Fortunately you have important awards that boost the morale and reputation of an author. What happened afterwards? Better sales? A change of style? A change of publisher? More readers?





JD: – My spirit of independence combined with the typical size of my books has put me from the start in a difficult position for publishing. Poetry books are around 100 to 150 pages on average. My thinnest one runs to 250 pages. I haven’t made the job easy for them. But that wasn’t my objective, and I never compromised. I was happy to find the original collection L’Arbalète/Gallimard founded by André Velter in 2001 where I published three books that were distributed more widely than ever before! Thus becoming visible, I reaped awards. Which didn’t appreciably increase my readership (between 500 and 700 readers) though perhaps it did my respectability. Which is certainly not the final goal of the poet, I agree, even though it enhances the esteem (and jealousy) of his peers. We should aim for something else!





RD: Apollinaire has always been considered a modern poet in search of the past. What connects you to that French author of Polish origin?


JD: – The Apollinaire of Zone, which relaunched poetry in the great city of Parisian through contact with posters and journals, at an unacknowledged distance from Walt Whitman, fascinates me. The critical intelligence of Mallarmé (that narrow-minded sophisticate) attacking Hugo finds itself suddenly overtaken, caught wrong-footed. I love it, in sports, that catching your opponent wrong-footed is the favourite weapon of major players. I also love the inventor of words such as « cubism » or « sur- realism » of improvised unfailing fortune. I love much less the libellous homophobe Walt Whitman with his gossip (cf. my Europe issue on the subject). But here I am, facing what fascinates me, the natural child of Europe that was that product of a cross between Italy and Poland, nurtured in the rural Rhineland like no other French poet before or after him, Hugo nor even Nerval. But then, what can we say about his obtuse patriotism in 14-18? Which would perish through the helmeted seat of stubbornness. A tangle of contradictions, Apollinaire, ultimately, who would redouble Aragon through song, that true lie. True to what extent?


RD: Just like Apollinaire, you love drawings, words games and journeys to the Land of Orpheus. You travel, for your lectures and recitals, to defend multiculturalism, in which sciences, arts and poetry form an ecosystem that care for and saves those who enter it. Please talk to us about your journeys and interdisciplinary projects.





JD: – The effects of jet lag caught up with me and made me fear for my life very recently. I’m gradually getting used to Europe again, on short flights of less than two hours, Berlin, Dublin, Seville. I, who swelled myself to the circumference of the earthly sphere, I had to release a few grams of air, relaxed Bibendum. Moreover it’s Europe that worries me deeply with its scars and economic stitches in fragile white thread, like a weakened Frankenstein monster although always haunted by its destructive nocturnal escapades. Work relentlessly at the boundaries of Europe, stirring them with remembering, grafting them to the memory of the young generations, treating them with soft prophylactic poetic medicines is unceasing work. We are the laboratory of humanity’s future, I’m sure of it, but we don’t really know how to go about it. Our protocols are poorly written. The poets should be the constitutionalists. So what are they doing? Where are they? They are ineffective through indifference to close reality.


RD: – Maxim Gorky declared that: « Writers build castles in the sky, readers live in them, and publishers collect the rent. » Do you agree?


JD: – Certainly, but just when publishing is entering a new perilous phase, we lack the criteria for the new type of publishing. The Internet has freed energies and perhaps even boosted them, but at the risk of bringing in an almost inevitable period of transition and confusion. You’d have to be pretty shrewd to be able to predict the outcome. As for the old publishing (books) it has abandoned the principles of applied critical reading to such an extent that the general skill level has been drastically reduced. Unspeakable things are occurring in terms of regression in the last decade. So it is best to hold on, in the middle of this debacle. Combining rigour with listening, strictness with humanity seems to me to be the only course of action possible. (To be continued, as they used to say in the serials).


RD: – There are many anecdotes circulating about the « theatre of the book and of literature. » Céline accused the publishers of his time of being « vultures. » And you, Jacques Darras, would you have any criticisms to make about today’s publishing world?


JD: – I think just now I gave two answers in one. You have to have acquired a healthy dose of independence and resilience as I have done over the decades to show a minimum of equanimity toward publishers in general, and publishers of poetry in particular. It is especially important when you have been educated through literary experience, that the possibility of travel and the circulation of texts be preserved. The poem has until now always travelled quickly and briskly through space, for a long time and in a roundabout way over time. I don’t see what could change there.











Translator: HOWARD SCOTT, MONTREAL, Canada
REPORTER: Rodica Draghincescu (France)



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