An interview with Philippe Tancelin, by Nina Zivancevic

Philippe Tancelin, born in 1948, is a poet and a philosopher. He published numerous books which transgender and defy the ‘gender’ of poetry, thus entering the philosophical reflections on genre in a rather ancient French literary style and tradition. He is also a university teacher, activist, specialist in Aesthetics, but also he is one of the founders of the legendary l’Université Paris VIII, Université de Vincennes which is the cradle of French Theory.

He used to teach Aesthetics there and was also the head of the Contemporary Theatre department. As a researcher in the History of Poetics he tries to examine the relationship between the witness and the event. As he has been always interested in the Poetics of orality and in Politics he has directed numerous laboratories and creative workshops of the Transdisciplinary Poetry.

The dialogue here was recorded recently, during the final stages of the lockdown and has a flavor of those traditional meditations “on life and death”.

Read his poem Moon is Lucky.

Nina Zivancevic: You have not only worked with a lot of poets, as an editor at Harmattan, but you yourself have also written a lot of poetry and said a lot of things about poetry – so, in two words can you sum it up now- what is poetry?

Philippe Tancelin: Well, first of all – poetry is something (for me at least) which you cannot define, because all the definitions of poetry sort of kill it and reduce to zero. If I were to evoke it, I would often think of it in the form of two figures, a man and a woman standing before one another and not really belonging to this world but giving a certain testimony of it. So if we call them witnesses of the situation in this world, we would see them not only as two witnesses but also characters whose duty is to recount, to put into words what they see and what is perhaps not to be seen by all other people. And that’s the precise moment when so called poetry intervenes…

NZ: Can we say that it’s the precise moment when your activism or the interest in Other comes in? Or is it the moment when the so called political action, activity comes in?

PT: You see, these two things are not of the separate origins… if the poetical posture is there to witness in the realm which is not visible – we are already in the realm of the political.

NZ: So, would you call your engagement there political? I know that you had taught at the university and so on…

PT: Yes, there was a very specific political engagement in 1968 – Genevieve (Clancy) and I were members of the Association which was called “People’s cause”- that was in the beginning a review started and edited by Jean Paul Sartre; it became then an organization which had a Maoist profile, and Genevieve and I were members of that organization from 1968 through 1972. At these times we founded something which was called “the living rights of the Immigrant workers”. We founded the committee in it which consisted of the members of the extreme left as well as the other members of the left-oriented parties. But by the end of 1972, by the end of our hunger strike, we detached ourselves from that organization.

NZ: Yes, but if I’m not mistaken, at the same time you were interested in the so-called “poet’s theatre”, right? I find the action which was started by Jerome Rothenberg in the US, that is, the attempt to fuse the contemporary poetic expression with the ancient ethno-poetic traditional verse – the same kind of attempt and action which you described on your side here in France in your book “Poetics of Shadow” (the work of Abdellatif Idrissi for “A different reading of Coran”[1] ). In this text you characterize “Coran” as the book of prayer, or the collection of the original primordial songs. Does this type of work -collecting original prayers and oral tradition songs – does it bring us right away to the notions of theater and theatricality?

PT: Yes, it brings us to theatre in terms of the very theatrical representations but it brings us more to the idea of the theatricality and theatrics of annunciation than to the notion of theatre itself as a certain activity in the “city” or polis where there emerged this eruption of events which cause a certain astonishment and curiosity, in the Brechtian sense of this term, which means, first of all – the interruption of the familiar, as it also means the opening of all our senses, even the sixth one… to yet another feeling of the world… This work brings us closer, not so much to the relationship between the theatre and the poetry, but more to the relationship between the theatricality of the writing and the poetics which encompasses the Event. That’s why I pay so much attention to the Orality and the oral approach to poetry, and that’s why I’m so much interested from the beginning of my work until now – to the prophecy brought by a poem.

NZ: That is exactly the moment which we find in the work of all priests in all religions and in all given temples, churches or mosques around the world – they all try to liberate the word through sound… I remember my work with the Living Theatre who insisted on these two points: the liberation of the word  through the sound and through the body. Isn’t it the main reason why the religious people gather together in a mass for their Shabbat or in a church for the Sunday mass?

PT: Yes, absolutely – here the elements of the repetition and the ritual are very important and in my own writing of poetry this oral element in a poem is very important. In the very legibility of my own poem resides this necessity for the theatrical. I see the scope of a single page of a poem like a certain theatrical space, it is a sort of a stage for me. It is a space for a certain scenography, and here I don’t mean that I see the words of my poem in terms of characters, but I see the words as entities which form certain relationships as they enter the situation of a certain dialogue with one another.

Sometimes they enter the amorous relationship. Sometimes their relationship is conflictual, but they are certainly the elements which enter certain relationships and these relationships require a certain space among them, they require certain spatial distribution among them on a given page. All this will become fully visible in my next poetry collection where this “distribution of space” between some twenty poems is quite prominent.

I call this process, in fact, the “transverse” of double verticality, which means that you can read the same texts sometimes transversally and sometimes vertically, as if we were reading two different poems. In fact even three poems, as the two vertical readings would make for the third poem – and as I am explaining this somewhat complex logistics of my poems I would just like to highlight the point that in such a way or manner of placing signs and words on the page – you create certain scenography of the page. This process comes close to the theatre indeed.

What I mean here is that for a reader, the page will resemble a certain proscenium or a stage where a real action between the words is taking place. So, in order to arrive at this feeling of inner theatricality, not only the page would have its own scenography but the words in there have to be endowed with the quality of dramaturgy which is subsequently fill out that scenography… I don’t know if I am clear enough here..?

NZ: Oh yes, absolutely! It is lovely how you conceived your poetry visually and structurally on the page – the way you see it, I would say, really renders your work to interpretation, that is, to the art of the dramatic interpreting and that’s exactly what you’ve tried to do in theater as well, n’est-ce-pas? Also, it makes one’s poetry really layered and rich in texture in general – you remember the American poet John Ashbery who has had ten different translators into Serbian (my mother tongue); all of these translators had translated one poem of his in ten different ways each leading to a new meaning of that poem – but all of them were right in accomplishing their good work- it’s just that Ashbery’s work is so dense in meaning(s)!

PT: Yes, of course, and as we are talking about all this, I am about to return to the initial point of our debate: what is poetry? And I said that’s something that you cannot “situate” easily, it’s something without the message, without a pre-coined message or sense, but rather something where a certain meaning jumps in all of a sudden. It is something which Rene Char described as an inter-value or an interval between the signifier and the signified. So, a translator’s task is not to respect the literal meaning of the original but to welcome the sense in him or in her produced by the original during that particular reading of a poem.

NZ: Oh, yeah, it is quite a nicer task for a translator to be inspired by the original than the one of the original text ordering him what to translate…

PT: Yes, we are more with Mallarme here with this idea that poetry is not the given product that someone buys but rather something that produces a certain sense in a reader that he is the poet himself or herself with an open choice of possibilities…

NZ: As you happen to mention Mallarme – is he the poet that influenced your readings the most?

PT: No, the poet who influenced me the most is Rene Char. And above all the work he’s accomplished in the field of aphorisms, because aphorism is the literary form where you have to make the sense out of it, the sense is not just given to you on the plate. And, Rene Char is very precise here when he says that the aphoristic work consists of breaking the elements down into pieces and of tearing the images apart.

As the image serves as a sort of something which stops us in the process of making sense, it is a “sense fixed” or established for a certain representation and here I will also invoke the luminous presence of Artaud who asked once the following question: “when are we going to stop seeing the world as a fixed ready-made representation which had been previously given to us?”

This subject was a part of the big debate which took place with a number of contemporary poets- whether poetry is to make images, it does not, it should not do it. If it proposes an image, it reduces it and becomes reductionist in its effort to do so. And both Mallarme and then Char had arrived at this idea-that we have to break the frozen image – as well as many other poets who started working in language and with their language…

NZ: I love Char because he is to many a poet who gives encouragement, he has the optimistic playful note in his poems which bring us back to life, he’s a sunny poet somewhat in the lineage of Mayakovsky’s.

PT: Oh yeah, I remember when I went to Moscow in 1980s, I went to Mayakovsky’s museum – you know, it’s a sort of building completely inclined, a sort of clinamen, so that was the building where he used to live, he had a small room on the seventh floor where he “committed suicide”, so imagine that everything else in this building was broken down and the building completely emptied of all other floors…

In other words the building looks like an empty parking lot with a serpentine spiral staircase which climbs up, climbs high to his small room but all of the universe which belonged to Mayakovsky, all objects that belonged to the poet are steeply inclined, the chest where he kept his clothes also, everything is inclined. This all looks very beautiful, a sort of a magic world, everything is a sort of clinamen but the interior of his small room is somewhat intact – there is his bed and the coal heater next to his bed, really amazing, and in the end when you descend this building you arrive to a sort of bookstore where they sell books on Mayakovsky… I bought a book there, a bilingual French-Russian edition which I brought to Paris and which clearly stated that Mayakovsky did not commit suicide but was assassinated instead!

NZ: Yes, I have heard this valid assumption several times during my long literary career, but let us go back now to your own verse which in my view is also quite sunny and full of fresh air- do you think in fragments or particular word-units which you assemble later?

PT: No, I work in two different ways – the first one I apply when I am especially moved in an emotional state, when I go through emotions when something particular has happened in the world – that is the moment when I start writing and I go on writing, nothing would stop me in my creative and spontaneous process, and there is another way of writing, when I think up a certain sense, meaning and then I break it, I tend to break every sense of that preconceived meaning.

It’s like I have a stone and I break it into thousands of chips, I break every aspect of that sense. This process started very early with me, age six, when I was at school and I was getting bored- I was not the worst student in the back of the class, but I was getting terribly bored, you know… However, I was listening to the school master or a school mistress, I was not ignoring them, I was listening to them carefully while writing down certain words which they were saying and I considered important to be written down. And in the ultimate encounter of these chosen words I would look for some meaning or the sense of these verbalized utterances.

NZ: Was this some sort of the Dadaist practice on your side?

PT: Yes, a little bit, and this sort of practice in my writing started very early in that primary school. I started playing rather with these words which would relate to one another, and their encounter – in the Brechtian sense of the term – was a surprising and almost an astonishing encounter, as these words could have been astonished to find one another standing there next to each other. But the real source of my creative writing at that stage was boredom, that type of boredom which comes from feeling obliged to listen to something which came to us as a package, a sort of a cooked meal which was destined to be swallowed by the students very fast.

NZ: So does the action or rather your method of “breaking the meaning” violently into pieces in your own writing – does the same impulse bring you today to your active activist engagement of working with the rebels such as the Yellow Vests? Or is it a process that was rather related to Praxiteles who was breaking stone to get t into a beautiful sculpture?

PT: Well, I’m ok with that practice of the Yellow Vests who break the politics, break institutions, organizations that are governmental ruled by the folks in power, break everything which is constituted as an ‘order’ or command, and by breaking such phenomena you arrive at… astonishment, curiosity, a completely new sense. That is also a new form of life in the city, as you see, every Saturday you have these huge marches, walks that represent a new form of urban life – at the same time these are huge exterior gatherings, these walks, but they also project a brand new interior concept of the city. So their idea of marching through the city is really beyond that old notion of the procession that we’ve had before in different workers’ protests – here we see their protest unfolding transversally in the cities…

NZ: I see them as new Robin Hoods reacting against the evil Sheriffs of Nottingham,

Oh, and also they are just people- who had had enough of the abusive power of their king… now I’m thinking of Karl Marx’s 8th chapter when he described the peasants’ expropriation of the King’s hunting grounds, otherwise called “the Digger’s revolution’… The people who say ‘enough is enough’…

PT: Yes, all these events we call “unpredictable”, like three days ago (June 2, 2020 in Paris), there were 40,000 people who walked through the streets in protest against racism, and this is not something simple to understand – we cannot say that there were just suddenly 40,000 new-borns who hate racism, there was another protest against the brutal death of Traoré here in Paris – 5,000 people were marching against police brutality eight days ago. And these marches were totally unpredictable, such as events after two months of Lockdown. And this is what I mean here by politics: this unpredictability of events, I call it politics.

NZ: Didn’t we get a bit away from our original subject theme “what is poetry”?

PT: Not at all, poetry is just here in this unpredictability of event which opens the new prospects that are yet to be defined!! However, what I’d like to do personally right now in this period of my life – I would like to be as close to myself as I could, the closest to that one that I’d always wanted to be, but surrounded with multitudes.. And for me personally and also for Genevieve (Clancy), that process implies the chiseling of words (as you chisel a stone), reducing words to an utmost economy.

Here I don’t think only of words but I imply also an economy of thoughts, reflections… during the lockdown I wrote a lot, and not only poetry, but I kept a public chronicle as well because I thought- what could I give, during the lockdown, to the multitude, to the crowds who are oppressed as they cannot go out and express themselves…

However, a week ago I stopped writing as everyone tries to express themselves in an ugly “consensus” of opinion – there are ready-made preconceived questions and answers to this crisis, as well as the preconceived and unified reactionary opposition to such speech. Petite conceptual egos have entered the dialogue here and everywhere and this situation was probably produced by the prolonged lockdown.

[1] Tancelin, Ph. :, (avec Idrissi .A.) Poethique de l’ombre, l’Harmattan, Paris 2017.

Nina Zivancevic is with Philippe Tancelin
The day of June 5, 2020, just after the historic Lockdown in Paris.