Paul Stephenson Reads at Paris Lit Up

Just off the Rue de Belleville, in a bar called Culture Rapide, Paris’ young, anglophone writers try out their work in the city where Mavis Gallant, John Glassco, and Morley Callaghan came to make their careers. The tiny, colourful Culture Rapide looks more like a Kensington bar than anything else in Paris, and every Thursday night it hosts Paris Lit Up, an English language open mic and reading series. The reading also lends its name to a magazine whose second issue launched last week. The event ran from 8:30 until about midnight with a “read until we drop policy.” Fortunately, no one cared if you ordered another drink between breaks.

I happened upon PLU on September 18. Steve Dalachinsky, a New York spoken word poet recently nominated for an Oakland PEN Award, was headlining. Despite the length of his half-hour performance, Dalachinsky kept the audience compelled. His poems were all anchored in lyric refrains, allowing him to deviate without losing anyone’s attention. He opened with a poem written by a deceased friend, but his first original piece was called “Giverny.” He related his working class upbringing to the world of high art tourism, arguing that “being ignorant is not the same as being stupid.” Between lamenting the commute out of Paris and his relationship with his partner, he recognized the role his mother played in giving him an education in high art without having one herself. As much as he made fun of tourism and his own tourist position, his day trip to Monet’s house in Giverny was more of an opportunity to ruminate on how he relates to art than to France.

The rest of the readings were fairly predictable for an open mic format, although there were some genuine surprises. Paris appears to be the place to go to study and write under the influence of international modernism, from Borges to Breton. One reader brought his own translation of a French LANGUAGE poet, whose name this reviewer missed. A performing duo delivered three Surrealist pieces to a carnivalesque back track. The third round of readings went late into the night and took a variety show aspect as these two Surrealists were followed up by a whistling act and a stand-up comedian who could have used some further preparation. Opening up to all genres is the biggest mistake a literary open mic can make. Nobody wants to hear poetry on metal night, and I think the same rules apply on the literary scene.


Jason Freure`s Notebook

Fortunately, PLU’s organizer scheduled some welcome reprieves back into the realm of poetry. One recently transplanted French-American citizen recited Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg.” Hugo’s poem about an economically depressed Montana town was a plain-spoken relief after the phantasmagoria it followed. Others brought original French poetry, and it was a surprise how many of the attendees were French. They seemed to be there by choice rather than necessity.

I doubt that Paris Lit Up would be much lauded in Toronto. However, the organizers make do with what they have, and a reading headlining someone like Dalachisnky would not be one to miss anywhere. PLU occurs weekly, as does the city’s other English open mic, Au Chat Noir. Like many Canadian readings, PLU appeals as a chance to meet other writers, though in Paris it is only as one passes through. Many of the people I spoke with were living in Paris for contract jobs or on temporary work visas, and few of them planned to stay long. The French government offers grants to translators producing English versions of French literature, but readings like Paris Lit Up operate on little to no budget. Headline readers are either touring authors, or the organizers recruit from the small pool of local talent. Richer funding opportunities in anglophone cities like Toronto may be the incentive that keeps up-and-coming writers from joining the literary scene in Paris’s Belleville.

Whatever the legends say, Paris is no place for a young anglophone writer.

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