Jérôme Melançon is grateful to be here. He writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. These poems are perhaps part of that larger project. With above/ground he also published the bilingual Coup (2020) and the newly-released Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022). His most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He is also the author of two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018) and a bunch of stuff in journals and books nobody reads. He’s on Twitter and Instagram at @lethejerome and sometimes there’s poetry happening on the latter. He looks forward to hearing from you.
His poems “On driving to the airport with my father” and “On driving to a place my father once called home with my father” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “On driving to the airport with my father” and “On driving to a place my father once called home with my father.”
A: When I go back to Ottawa I depend on my father for transportation. Or on public transit, but we all know just how well OC Transpo and the STO work. A few times I've gone back by myself, and spent time with him, much like we used to when I was a child. His radio station, the routes he favours. On road trips, the places where he likes to stop. I don't mind giving up decision-making in that way, and there's something comforting in being driven to these places. That’s the main feeling I wanted to convey in these two poems. But they carry different weights. One is an early morning scene, and is focused on departure – my father driving me to the airport, I can't recall after what occasion now –, and so on change, transition, an epochal shift maybe. The other, about home, has me in the back seat, a cousin of my father’s in the passenger seat in front of me, on that long stretch of Canadian Shield leading up to Mattawa from Ottawa. I didn’t know this cousin, I barely even knew of him. I’ve spent a lot of time in that seat, although in other vehicles, at a diagonal from my father, on that same road going up to Témiscamingue. But there's a sense of deep sadness and loss I wanted to immobilize, not for myself. No, a sense of loss, but for my father, given that we were driving to attend his sister's funeral.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: They're quite akin in tone and theme to a series of poems I'll be publishing as a chapbook with above/ground press, Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright. These two poems are older, although I can’t remember writing them – it must have been quite some time ago, although the only trace I could find was in the file I created in the fall of 2020 when I typed them up. I’ve been reworking them over time, I can’t be sure now how much is left of what I must have written when I last flew out to Ottawa. I do remember that the mood is perhaps their most important aspect, what I tried to get across most clearly. And there’s quite a bit of reflection about family ties, about places I associate with family. Retrospectively all these poems appear as reflection on my own fatherhood, my own family, through my family of origin (and extended family in the chapbook). They deal with the presence of the past, its reappearance – and the chapbook is built around ten years of abandoned poems in English, my going through my notebooks, picking out the best lines and images and writing new poems to salvage them through a new whole. I’ve done something similar for another project in French where I translated and transformed a whole series of poems about the Prairies originally written in English over the same period. I’ve run out of steam on that project, so I’m letting it sit in a binder for now.
In the attempt to grasp a collapsing of past and present at easily identifiable, eventful moments where distancing and dissociation are understandable reactions to my grief and that of others, these two poems are entirely different from what I’m working on at the moment. I think the whole exercise, publishing these two, and putting the chapbook together, helped me put many things to rest, ideas I knew I’d have to get back to, a form I wanted to send out into the world. I could then move on to taking myself seriously as an English-speaking poet, trust myself to really attempt something different and new, unlike anything else I had written. There's a thread to my new work, but only in the sense that a broken necklace dangling and spreading stones or whatever has a thread. There's little form and there's little freedom. It's guided by my response to such enormous works, tied to convictions, in no way autobiographical. So – again quite retrospectively – these two poems mark the beginning of the last part of a cycle in my writing.
Q: Have you noticed a difference in how you approach your work since starting to put together chapbook-length manuscripts? Are you someone who composes poems, or groupings of poems? And is there a difference?
A: As far as I know, chapbooks aren’t very common in French-language poetry circles. There are also far fewer poetry journals. There are zines, but for the most part poetry is a book affair. I have a thing for the Book. So I began by writing books. My first two published collections were in fact written as one longer manuscript, which I split into two separate, mirror image entities. Since then most of my more traditional writing has worked the same: I write a few poems, and the stronger ones end up creating a path for more poems, an approach to themes and topics imposes itself, and I fall in that direction. For En d’sous d’la langue I had about eight or nine solid poems that ended up defining a relatively narrow field of possibilities. This way I can go quite far in one direction, really explore an idea.
I discovered chapbooks quite late in the game, even though I’ve been reading poetry in English regularly since I've been out West. And it didn’t occur to me to write or compose a chapbook. I only came up with the idea of my first chapbook, Coup, once I got negative feedback on a collection. There just wasn’t enough material for a full collection, but I did want to put it out there because I liked the form of the poems so much, so I whittled the book down and rewrote quite a bit, and sent it off. After that, messing around with responses to other people’s poems, I wrote one poem, then another, and before long I thought I might have enough for a chapbook... except that once I put the work together I was already halfway to a book, so I kept going. Thinking about a chapbook early on made it possible for me to goof around and end up with something serious, and seriously different, whereas I wouldn't have bothered to look down this way for one poem or for a whole book. Now I think that’s just one long poem anyway, I may have decided on the title speechletting, we’ll see if I stick to that.
I still write one-off poems, but it’s rare that I don't have a sense of connection between the poems. So it’s difficult for me to pick some to send by themselves to be published in reviews because I feel many only really work well as part of a whole. That's something I’ve tried to work on, to give individual poems their autonomy. Tomorrow... is like that. Each poem very much has its own life. So that’s new, and again it’s aiming for a chapbook that allowed me to try something out without worrying so much about the overall effect.
Q: I remember having conversations with Louis Patrick Leroux in the early 1990s, when he mentioned that French-language writing in Canada had fewer possibilities for journal publication, suggesting that they weren’t leaning their poems into journal-publishable lengths; how poets in French Canada (at least in his awareness) were publishing younger, and full collections comprised as long poems, whereas their English-language contemporaries were publishing collections of shorter poems after working a few years through the system of literary journals. Given you work in and through both languages, do you see a shift in approach between your English and French writing? How does one language impact upon the other?
A: That’s still very much the case! The balance is easy to feel: with Estuaire and Exit being the only two major journals dedicated to poetry and only a handful of other journals publishing poetry alongside other genres, the proliferation of small presses and medium-size publishers that put out full collections definitely occupy the centre of the poetry scene in Québec. Outside Quebec, it’s even harder to publish individual poems. À ciel ouvert [https://acielouvert.ca/] out West and Ancrages [https://ancrages.ca/] in Acadie both publish poetry, but even the very small French-language presses like Éditions de la Nouvelle plume in Saskatchewan will publish a book of poetry now and then, and we have Éditions du Blé, Éditions Perce-Neige, and of course Prise de Parole, which have very strong and long-standing poetry collections. There might be more venues – I published my first poems in Ottawa U’s student literary journal, Textures – but I haven’t made that inventory. So it’s expected that emerging poets – and often young poets – will publish a full collection before anyone even hears about them at all as poets. I published my first collection before I ever did a poetry reading! And that first reading was with Dany Laferrière!
Also there isn’t the prize institution. That’s how I first began writing in English: I submitted to all these prizes. The upshot is that I got subscriptions to so. many. journals. The downside is that I got quite discouraged, of course, because there, and shortly after, in submitting individual poems, I wasn’t aiming for venues based on style – I had no grasp of the scene at all. The idea of selling a poem, of poetry markets, or even getting paid for a publication is still odd to me. And there are no blurbs on books in French. All that means that writing is a lot more individualistic, until you get it out there. Instead, networks form around live events and around specific publishers, that’s where you get recognition as part of something greater.
I do want to get to your actual questions though, they’re very good, only they’re very difficult to answer. So maybe I’ll just offer a few thoughts without trying to be linear. This is such a huge question, I’ll probably go on for a bit.
I've had to allow myself the right to write in English. There’s enormous pressure to speak French, to breathe French, to be French all the time, to address people in French wherever you go. It’s creating legitimacy for French; it’s claiming the territory as bilingual here or as French in Québec. This linguistic nationalism is a form of resistance against the omnipresence of the English language, but it will allow for separation, resentment, and hatred, or simply disappointment when people who could speak French speak English instead. Thankfully there are people who have always rejected this – Rose Després is a great example – and it’s less of an issue now than it used to be, at least outside Québec. Writing in a second language is also extremely difficult, as anyone who’s tried has experienced firsthand. Because I had already published a book, when I first decided to try writing in English I went ahead and submitted right away, which simply did not work. What I’ve realized since then is that I needed to grow as an English-language poet first, just as I had written so many poems in French, for some time, before anything good came out of it. But there are still things I can’t do, like do anything with accentuation in English – I don’t quite get it, even now.
I’ve brought a lot of elements of French poetry to my writing in English – the French sonnet form, my love for the alexandrine, but also less formally the tone found in Québécois poetry over the last 15 years or so, an irreverent, slang-y, rough diction. And likewise my first two books were full of devices I borrowed from Ginsburg, Kerouac, and Cummings, especially as far as rhythm and placement on the page go. I suppose I have more tools for being familiar with so many more traditions of writing. If I were a more deliberate writer I could do a lot with that.
I think in both languages, so that’s the main reason why I end up writing in one language or the other – unless I’m deliberately continuing on a project I’ve already set out to complete in one language. I like to mess around with bilingual writing, which led to my chapbook Coup, some visual poetry I'm playing with at the moment, French words I’m slipping into my English writing. There’s a kind of easy code-switching in my everyday life I’d like to be able to bring into my writing, and for that I’d need to stop caring whether readers understand the whole poem. Then again, Coup did get published!
In spite of that, I think there are things I can say better in one language or in another. My writing in English tends to be introspective, it’s taken me toward reflections on my family, things I haven’t dared to approach in French, things that are maybe too close to me.
And there’s a question of who I’m writing for. I’ve made my way into English-language poetry networks since the pandemic began, it’s been really wonderful, and it’s allowed me to say new things because I got a sense of who might be reading me. The same goes for becoming acquainted with the Francophone arts scene outside Québec. That's probably where my approach to writing changes the most. I still write for myself, but I also have a general understanding of my potential public.
Q: Given the traditions are so different in each language and culture, how do you see the two sides of your writing co-existing? Talking to Christine McNair recently about American poet Rosmarie Waldrop, I’ve had a far better sense of how deeply Waldrop’s syntax through her English-language poetry is rooted in the diction of her first language, German. Is there crossover between the two sides, or does each side of your language-thinking remain in its own individual camp?
A: I hope my writing in both languages brings together the traditions I draw from. There are proximities: I discovered bpNichol only recently, but I’ve been reading Oulipo work since I first became interested in poetry. The idea of playing seriously and writing expansively is very dear to me; this is something they share, along with the tendency to alternate between traditional and long poems. Likewise I’ve always drawn from revolutionary texts, which themselves often have similar points of reference beyond the language they’re written in. But then again, there are important differences between these parallel traditions and languages.
I don't know much about Waldrop, other than what I just read: a couple of poems from Split Infinities I found online, and your own 20 question interview. Looking at it, there’s a personal language, it’s striking. Perhaps it has to do with working with a language we weren’t born into. I’d like to look further into poets who wrote in an additional language. I was looking at Spanish-speaking American poets for a while, I still have a stack of photocopies somewhere and a few books, I keep meaning to go back to that project. The idea originally was to look into bilingual writing, but your questions are pushing me to think more about the tension between the languages, and whether as someone who learned a second language as a teenager I can ever find myself within English, rather than approach it through French. I don’t think my writing in English goes through French; it certainly comes directly into English, and I rarely have a word in French for which I seek an equivalent. Maybe my writing settles into one language based on the words that impose themselves upon me, the words that come to me. I usually begin a poem with a line, or a few words that are pulling at each other. My notebooks and note apps are full of lines and sentences or groups of words like that. I just have to follow them, the language is already given to me in a way. If I’m ever read with any closeness by bilingual readers, maybe they’ll be able to answer your question better than I can. But if my prepositions are ever odd, that's just me not mastering this language.
I live in both languages, I go to work in both languages, and I’m constantly code-switching even with certain people around me. And I write, and talk, so much, in both languages, that I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how I do it. I can’t even really think of English and French as only two languages. Raymond Queneau, the French novelist and poet, talks about how written and spoken French are already two different languages. It’s not just that no one would ever speak like people write; it’s that there is a translation of spoken French into written French that people need to learn to do. There’s learning to read and write words and sentences, which school teaches, and then there’s learning written French, which school does more or less well, and mostly for reading knowledge than for writing knowledge. The French I used when I wrote my latest book is not the French I used for the two earlier books of poetry, nor the one I use when I speak to my children, nor the one I use in the classroom, nor the one I use when taking meeting notes, nor the one I use when I write philosophy, nor the one I use when I write op-eds or columns, nor the one I use when I write more sociological work... It’s tone, it’s diction, it’s syntax, it’s vocabulary, it’s grammar... when that much changes, do you even have the same language?
Q: Have you explored much in the way of writings by poets who compose through multiple languages, especially within the same texts? I’m thinking of contemporaries such as Nathanaël, Erín Moure or Oana Avasilichioaei. As you are writing, how do you decide which language best suits your thinking at that particular moment?
A: I’m aware of their work, yes, but I must confess I haven’t looked closely at it. I’ve read some of their essays and translations, and the odd poem. Enough to place them on a list for me to obsess over in the near future. And I’ve been paying close attention to Klara Du Plessis, who is doing some of the most enthralling work I’m aware of at the moment. Plurilingual composition is something I’m keenly aware of, yes, something I’ve sought out too.
When I was working through the project that became Coup I was invited to do a reading at an event during a literature conference in Saint John, so I put together a paper too, looking at bilingual writing as a kind of formal or constrained writing. I’m not sure I still agree with the basic idea, but the exploration was a great thing for me. That paper included a look at Rose Després’ Vraisemblable, one of my favourite books of poetry. It’s so angry, it sets fire somewhere in me every time I read it. It’s one of the few books I go back to regularly. She slips English in here and there, repeating the rhythm of code-switching among Francophones outside Quebec, who can safely assume that everyone around them also speaks English.
The main piece for that paper is Patrice Desbiens’ L’homme invisible/The invisible man, which is a classic of Franco-Ontarian writing. It’s made up of prose poems in two versions, French and English, on opposite pages; for the most part there’s a rather strict translation, but here and there the two languages say different things. We hide in languages at times, we let things come out only in one or say things only to those who are part of the same linguistic group, hide things from the others. We don’t live quite in the same way in each language. At least that’s what Desbiens suggests; I can’t say that’s how the two languages work for me.
Much of the time I don’t choose the language I write in. It depends on whether I begin with words, a line, a rhythm that strikes me – in that case the language is already decided upon – or with feeling, an idea, a scene. Because I think in terms of projects I often end up writing in the language of the project the idea would best fit into. As I mentioned there’s a whole series of poems I wrote in English ten years ago that I rewrote in French before the pandemic, because they needed to be transformed and never really worked, but also so that they fit with a newer project that only made sense for a French-reading public. For the most part it’s a question of publics then, of whom I’m speaking to, but sometimes it has to do with the possibilities one language affords. I’m not a natural at languages, so I’m really envious of people who have either the resolve or a facility with languages. The ideal poem would be a movement across languages and forms.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Rose Després and Phyllis Webb are two poets whose work constantly feeds me anger and indignation as well as love and hope. Until recently – I picked up Peacock Blue for a project I might start working on – I only owned one of their books, and even that’s been enough to gather strength and bring me focus. Dionne Brand is another poet whose work is inexhaustible – inépuisable in French, a well from which I’m never done drawing. Every sentence is an occasion to feel more deeply and add layers to my experiences. What all three have in common is their capacity to help me get into a very active meditative state, where emotions are clear and where I’m full of care for others, either around me or at the greatest distance.
The one writer I go back to the most, the one writer I’ll read over and over or just pick up, knowing I won’t be disappointed, is Raymond Queneau. I get a different kind of energy from his writing: there’s so much work, you can’t necessarily see it right there, which makes it magical, but the thought, the planning, the development, the references to history and literature, the inventivity in the forms, the wordplay, all this work is so expansive. And often it ends on a light note, as if the ending is going to be a disappointment anyway, the ultimate constraint, the one constraint that can’t be broken and that can’t be made up or taken up, and so he might as well just have fun. I’ve taken up some of the forms he’s used, like the elementary morality which shows up alongside (French) sonnets in my first two books. Reading him makes me want to write, and lets me think I can do it. It was reading him, and much of Oulipo, that made me believe it at first, and that often carries me when I just can’t seem to get words in any kind of decent order. I get to decide the order, and I get to decide how I decide on the order. It’s fun.