Tuesday, November 18, 2008


... an uninspiring topic for Spoken Word?

I have exactly one poem about work, but instead of also reading one or two off-topic pieces--I like the big picture a theme can bring to the evening--I decided to search my bookshelf for someone else's words on the subject.

It's no secret that I haven't done a whole lotta "work" since finishing my MFA last spring, but I try to make up for it at home: laundry, dishes, all the daily straightening I can stomach, the mundane and unpaid rituals performed by most women. I don't know if Naomi Wolf occurred to me before or after I thought of that, but one thing's for sure: I hate to miss a chance to share The Beauty Myth. This passage comes from the first chapter aptly titled "Work:"

"'While women represent 50 percent of the world population, they perform nearly two-thirds of all working hours, receive only one-tenth of the world income and own less than 1 percent of world property.' The 'Report of the World Conference for the United Nations Decade for Women' agrees: When housework is accounted for, 'women around the world end up working twice as many hours as men.'

Women work harder than men whether they are Eastern or Western, housewives or jobholders. A Pakistani woman spends sixty-three hours a week on domestic work alone, while a Western housewife, despite her modern appliances, works just six hours less. 'Housework's modern status,' writes Ann Oakley, 'is non-work.' A recent study shows that if housework done by married women were paid, family income would rise by 60 percent. Housework totals forty billion hours of France's labor power. Women's volunteer work in the United States amounts to $18 billion a year. The economics of industrialized countries would collapse if women didn't do the work they do for free: According to economist Marilyn Waring, throughout the West it generates between 25 and 40 percent of the gross national product.

What about the New Woman, with her responsible full-time job? Economist Nancy Barrett says that 'there is no evidence of sweeping changes in the division of labor within households coincident with women's increasing labor force participation.' Or: though a woman does full-time paid work, she still does all or nearly all the unpaid work that she used to. In the United States, partners of employed women give them less help than do partners of housewives: Husbands of full-time homemakers help out for an hour and fifteen minutes a day, while husbands of women with full-time jobs help less than half as long--thirty-six minutes. Ninety percent of wives and 85 percent of husbands in the United States say the woman does 'all or most' of the household chores. Professional women in the United States fare little better. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild found that the women in two-career couples came home to do 75 percent of household work. Married American men do only 10 percent more domestic work than they did twenty years ago. The work week of American women is twenty-one hours longer than that of men; economist Heidi Hartmann demonstrates that 'men actually demand eight hours more service per week than they contribute.' In Italy, 85 percent of mothers with children and full-time paid jobs are married to men who share no work in the home at all. The average European woman with a paid job has 33 percent less leisure than her husband. In Kenya, given unequal agricultural resources, women's harvests equaled men's; given equal resources, they produced bigger harvests more efficiently.

Chase Manhattan Bank estimated that American women worked each week for 99.6 hours. In the West, where paid labor centers on a forty-hour week, the unavoidable fact to confront the power structure is that women newcomers came from a group used to working more than twice as hard and long as men. And not only for less pay; for none."

I did get my usual jitters, the shaky voice and fumbling hands. It may even have been worse than usual because I was reading such a notoriously feminist text with an academic tone at an event meant to delight and dazzle. The last thing I wanted to be was a downer or heavy handed. But I pushed through it, replacing the citations with "blabiddy blabiddy blah," some nervous smiling and giggling. I even let my hair down to appear more feminine. Choosing to read such a passage at Spoken Word was a risk, but I also think I underestimated my audience. A few people thanked me for the enlightening reminders. One woman, French I think, even came over to my table before she left and asked for the name and author, wrote down Shakespeare when I told her I bought the book at the famous English bookstore, at which point I couldn't help but think, "My work here is done!"

It was only slightly easier to read my own words. I wonder what Naomi Wolf would have to say about my one poem about work. In any case, it's a published prize winner--California Quarterly's annual contest last year--so I can share it here... with you. If you'd like a copy of the magazine in which it appeared, (vol 33.4) click here and contact Julian Palley via email for ordering info. Be sure and tell them I sent you! (Note to self: Send more poems to CQ!)

Keep Them All

When you wait tables or teach, you don’t quit
one job for another. You keep them both,
keep them all because you need the money.

You skip a lot of meals because you're broke
or busy. You eat a lot of fast food and feel guilty
when you wait tables or teach. You don't quit

believing it will get better. You don't quit
drinking either. You drink and save up bottles,
keep them all because you need the money.

And you say you do it for the environment—
all that saving, reusing—you do it with people too.
When you wait tables or teach, you don’t quit

stockpiling lovers who ask nothing of you,
lovers you never leave and you never ask to stay.
Keep them all because you need the money.

Let them buy you dinner. Meet them for lunch.
Have sex. Keep living. Keep believing that
when you wait tables or teach, you don’t quit.
Keep them all because you need the money.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Boo Hoo...

The other shoe...

Amidst all the hope and celebration that last week's election inspired, and apart from the fact that the Electoral College seems once again unable to accurately represent the popular vote, there is one significant disappointment:

“…Bush’s one secure legacy will be [his] demagogic exploitation of homophobia. The success of the four state initiatives banning either same-sex marriage or same-sex adoptions was the sole retro trend on Tuesday. And Obama, who largely soft-pedaled the issue this year, was little help. In California, where other races split more or less evenly on a same-sex marriage ban, some 70 percent of black voters contributed to its narrow victory.” Frank Rich, New York Times

Now if that's not irony...

Why would a group of marginalized individuals vote to further marginalize another group of individuals? And maybe now I understand why Barack went soft on gay rights... to keep the black vote?

Granted, it took a lot more than just the black vote to approve the ban on gay marriage. It wouldn't have made the difference if other groups were less divided on the issue. I can only hope that "President Elect Barack Obama" will finally step up to the plate and remind his supporters that no group of individuals, no individual can be denied their constitutional rights. All (wo)men are created equal... blah, blah, blah.

I once heard the phrase "as goes California, so goes the U.S. and as goes the U.S. so goes the world." But many parts of the world are way ahead of us on this one. In France, there is already such a contract in place... the very one I entered into with my partner last December. It's a sort of civil union called a PACS. There was no white dress, though I guess there could have been... no bridal party, no table piled high with all the gifts we could want from any corporate store, no band, no cake, no crowd of witnesses pretending to believe in the sanctity of one of the modern world's most failing institutions.

I've never been a fan of marriage (click here to see, in action, the battle to define it)... for lots of reasons, and even a civil union seems like a ridiculous formality to me. I even said so much the last time I went to see the authorities about my work permit, which, I'm sure, didn't help my case any. Why do we need a legal contract to love each other? I wish the world would adopt Sweden's ways... no extra benefits for married people. In other words, equal benefits for all, regardless of categorical labels like marital status, sexual orientation, or race.

Marriage might be more successful if people were actually free to do it for other than legal reasons. But probably not. Monogamy itself is little more than social myth, and any governance based on myth is bound to fail... even if we call it love.

I dearly love my gay friends. I have two who are currently in different hemispheres because the U.S. won't acknowledge their relationship... They will probably end up living in the other one, far away from me. And haven't you heard about the gay brain drain calling so many educated, same-sex couples to Canada?
There is the occasional happy ending... my oldest and closest friend and his partner own a successful business and participate actively in their communities, hosting and attending charity fundraisers and offering scholarship programs to University students. They joke that they're so legally (i.e. financially) linked that they could never get divorced. I read a poem for their commitment ceremony several years ago--you see, with enough money and smarts, there are ways around the limitations of the law. At best--and as usual--we're dealing with a class issue.

So now the legal red tape unfurls once again as the fight for gay rights continues, and I have no doubt that one day, gays will be afforded equal rights on all fronts, whether it be legalized marriage or simply some other recognized contract... again, I'm not really sure what they want with our failing hetero institution and all its religious jargon anyway. But whatever they want, I'm on board... boo, hoo!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Woo hoo!

A few initial thoughts on Barack's election.

I've decided, just now as I'm writing this, to call him by his first name. It was so easy with Hillary. And yes, I was rooting for HER, knowing that I would vote for him too. But when Sarkozy and the French media so warmly embraced him, I started to realize what his election could mean on a global level. Could his can-do attitude actually make people like us again?

Being liked is very important to me. I want to say that it "has always been" very important to me, but the present perfect seems to hint at reform, the potential for change, and I highly suspect that wanting to be liked may well be the death of me someday... my Achilles heel and all that. I try to be a good ambassador, but when I'm not busy projecting my neuroses on my pets, I naturally project them on my country: My country needs to be liked. This balancing act is the essence of ex patriotism! (And on some days, narcissism--If people like my country more, they will like me more ;)

Some say that being liked isn't important, that respect is maybe more important. (I'm trying to think of someone I've respected but not liked.) Of course the U.S. hasn't had much respect in a while either. Now I should probably reread Kant before I go throwing the "L" word around "like this" (hehe!) but it's hard not to like Barack. And it's good finally to have a president elected by something other than corporations, fear, or hanging chads.

True, the "throngs" of supporters at the celebration in Grant Park did cast a pseudo rock star effect... The bullet proof panels on his stage--transparent reminders of the cultural divides in the United States. Just never mind how different that scene was from McCain's garden party! Barack clearly speaks to, and now FOR the next generation. This wasn't a black thing, or a class thing, or a gender thing. If any thing, it was an age thing... Babies of baby boomers taking the reigns.

Here's the thing about change: Change is inevitable, like pennies... and fall.

So the pessimist calls it waiting for the other shoe to drop. The romantic calls it hope, faith. Ultimately, the pragmatist in me wins out: It is what it is... Let's just hope those frat boys don't burn the house down between now and January 20th!

Spoken Word in Paris

a new home...

To say that the Culture Rapide Cabaret Populare is small would almost be an understatement. It was standing room only and the windows steamed up after just a few readers, right around the time we closed the door on the pickpocket who had been casing the joint. Nevertheless, this home of French slam—poetry, not the Denny’s delight—is booked every night of the week. The drinks are c-h-e-a-p and the décor keeps the conversation going… as if this were a problem for the French! From rue de Belleville, you can’t miss the giant mural on the side of the building—complete with dummy sign hangers…

“Be wary of words.”

Belleville is just ten minutes from our apartment, direct on line 11. This is the latest home of Spoken Word in Paris. I often go alone, but at the last minute, I asked him to go with me. The theme was furniture and I knew I had plenty of things to read, but it has been a season now since the last time I went in July, so I was feeling especially nervous.

He says I read better than some, worse than others. My voice shakes—and the poems in my hands do too, and I never know how to stand. I hate microphones, though I don’t always feel strong enough to project as I should… I haven’t considered myself a performer since back in my high school dance concert days, and THAT wasn’t about my voice.

Since graduation, I’ve been in wallflower mode. It’s easy here… so many characters and talented writers—sometimes one in the same—so many languages and cultural differences, and certainly Spoken Word is the richer for them. But we mostly notice the strange and telling similarities—like how we write more about beds than other pieces of furniture.

There’s music too. Musicians always make me feel inadequate, but the female songwriters are usually my favorite moments of the evening… nimble fingers on their acoustic guitars and velvety voices—instruments themselves stretching across the scale. We left at the break so I didn’t get to hear Erica—long time regular at David’s Spoken Word events, but I did get to hear someone new. She told me she liked the “piggy bank fattened/for April in Paris” in my poem, “Writing Desk.” Nice of her to say so. Hope to see her again…

The next topic is work. I don’t think I have a single work related poem… unless you consider poetry to be a kind of work. I guess that will have to be my angle. My horoscope says that I will soon have some very interesting job offers. Seems like reason enough to send out some resumes… see what falls into place and in which corner of the world.

And the next time you’re in Paris on a Monday… click here.

The Important Things

It’s Election Day in the states and I’m watching Barack Obama and Michelle vote, live on Euronews—where I can choose to listen to English instead of the ever-annoying French voice over. There are looped segments explaining the Electoral College. Reporters connect the election dots in all directions—foreclosures, health care, and the recession. (We are calling it that now, aren’t we?) Sharply edited interviews with Iraqi citizens reveal mixed opinions, a nation currently overwhelmed with change. The “no comment” segment shows the long line of Kenyans in Kisumu waiting to cast their hand-written votes into a cardboard box. Notice there are two boxes and only one line.

Though we have plans to keep track via the continuing coverage—over couscous and Scrabble—I’ve just gotten word of an all-night election party to watch the results come in and to celebrate Obama’s victory. “Barack Obagels and cream cheese beginning at 3 AM… a Sarah Palin pinata which will be filled, naturally, with hot air. This event is open to non-Americans and even Republicans (we can hope that they see the error of their ways).”

I do hope the results are as positive as anticipated. It would be nice to have a president that “most” of us want… “for a change!” (Sorry. Had to say it ;)

Don’t worry! I did send off my vote-by-mail ballot before I left. Meanwhile, the biggest change I’m experiencing is the weather. One week back in town and I'm finally not aching at the mere thought of the cold. Morning temperatures were near freezing just after I arrived, but then the rains came—and they were lovely—and now the sun, fallen leaves, intermittent clouds. Two days of UV rays and comfortable evenings is sooooo good for this Californian fresh off the latest heatwave!

Whatever the supposedly unusual weather, no matter the home I’m in, it’s awe inspiring how fall flies by. As a student, I became aware of the slow awakening that happens in the first few weeks of the fall, then the downhill spiral to Christmas before winter really sinks in her teeth. This year I’m learning that fall is also a pretty busy time in the publishing industry.

I have officially sent out several copies of two manuscripts to contests of various scope and prize, and though many of the poems—especially those in the longer collection—need some tweaking, it feels really good to just get them bundled and sent away. I always wait until the last minute thinking that I’ll finally get around to those final revisions! And there are plenty of poetry contests in the fall.

The most recent batch of submission was postmarked not long after midnight on October 31st… at the only 24 hour post office in Paris. We took the dog. It was only slightly raining.

Bring on the rejection letters!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

De Ma Fenêtre

La Rentrée

It’s noon, and a group of newly arrived students trickles out of the Hôtel Châtelet Victoria and gathers on the sidewalk where they are briefed by their older and presumably wiser instructor before being led away towards the Place du Châtelet and on to who-knows-where—Notre Dame, Saint Michele, Cluny, La Sorbonne, all patiently waiting to impress. The shortest (girl) and tallest (guy) walk together, bringing up the rear.

Up the rear… “Up yours!”—“Enculée!” (On-que-lay) I want to yell at this terrible city. Leave it to the tourists and wide-eyed exchange students. Just as everyone comes flooding back after summer break and long August vacations, I am packing my bags. Will I miss the noise of the sirens and motorcycles and busses and delivery trucks on the streets below? No. The wandering, screaming, sometimes singing drunks in the middle of the night? No. The piss at our door? The homeless woman who sleeps on the metro vent across the street and doesn’t accept food? The Italian landlord who never returns our calls? No, no and no. And I certainly won’t miss the public service clerks telling me “No.” Will I miss the scolding—in restaurants, stores, the metro, and at the markets? No. At least I hope not.

The pets are all cleared for their long voyage back to the states—two days of paperwork and visits to Dr. Payancé for health examinations and rabies vaccinations. We spent Saturday chasing around the suburbs looking at three-story houses with yards. Three stories… his, mine, and ours. He needs rooms where he can breathe easier, rooms off-limits to the animals, doors to close to keep out the allergens, windows that open onto green. The house in the quaintest town was too far from the city, too many trains to his work. The nicest house was just 100 meters from the train station—a station on the most direct line for traversing the city each morning and night—in a big, small town with little charm, though it boasts a chateau at the end of the wide main street and a forest on the other side of the tracks. But at the end of the day, we couldn’t decide to move out of the city we love.

So with only this day left before leaving, I have manuscripts to polish and post. If I wait until I get “home,” friends and family will vie for my attention, and I fear that the work won’t get done. There are, after all, the proverbial i’s to dot and t’s to cross—words to revise, deadlines to meet, checks to write, envelopes to address. I’ll take Filou out. We’ll walk to BHV for paper, binder clips, and big envelopes to carry my work away. I suppose I could put them all in my suitcase to mail from California, but I want traces of Paris on these packages… to match the subject matter printed on the pages.

I’m looking forward to being “home…” at least for a while. He’s going home, too… to Tunisia for the end of Ramadan, but only for a week. I suspect the weeks without the animals and me will be harder on him than the time away will be on me. I’ll miss the autumn sun slanting through the windowpanes. I will miss our dinners together—at home and in our favorite restaurants. I will miss walking… and walking, drinking wine and cappuccinos in cafés and watching the myriad Parisians pass. I will miss Saturdays at Shakespeare & Company, and David… his Spoken Word nights. I’ll miss Alexa’s frank and saucy tales. I will miss Ellise… our freakishly parallel lives spilled over salads and Gamay in Montmartre. But I’ll be back… at least for a while. I always imagined a bi-continental life. Maybe all these complications are just the universe at work making the decisions I haven’t been able to make for myself.

Last week’s flowers on the dining table are pretty much dead, ready to go out with the last bag of trash. I smoke a cigarette in the bathroom where the last load of laundry turns in the machine. It’s taken me a year to find the smoothest setting, having always used the “E” cycles which make the machine jump and clatter on the white-hard tile. I loose myself in the whir of the non-economical spin. The air is cold and the sun moves further away. I hang my wet clothes on the rack by the bedroom window and hope they’ll be dry by tomorrow.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


a wish for tranquility

He bought me this beautiful bouquet as a peace offering after last weekend’s fight—something about my snapping at him when he was trying to teach me some auto-formatting tricks on Word—which went from an insignificant quibble to “it’s over” in record time. He spares no expense in making each bouquet full and dense, perfectly balanced in color and fragrance, and consequently has a good relationship with the flower vendor in the Metro here at Châtelet. Usually, the flowers are just because. I remember the days when he brought me more modest arrangements, single roses before simple dinners at my place in the fifteenth.

Our first date was up there in the clouds… He said he could make my television receive more than one channel, and he did. He loves the idea that I might have used my TV as a ploy to get him to my apartment. Now we have too many channels, most with nothing worth watching, but we do anyway. The apartment we share is twice the size of either one of our studios was back then, but some days it feels just too close, especially now that he’s been diagnosed with pet allergies… a big problem with two cats, a Shih Tzu and only 250 square feet. They haven't been allowed on the bed in months.

Tomorrow marks one year since I left California to pursue life and love in the City of Light, and I have to admit: The year is coming to a rather disappointing close. Let my try to sum up its lessons: French red tape is endless and incredibly sticky; Long distance friendships are tricky and new ones are hard to come by—especially in my small circle of writers and expats who are forever coming… and going; And love is elusive, especially, to put it bluntly, when you’re someone’s bitch—at turns and in all senses of the word.

Next week, Filou, the cats and I are headed for Los Angeles. I will attend my twenty-year class reunion and spend a lot of time with family and friends. I do have a return ticket and fully intend to use it, but having been shut down yet one more time by French government clerks, I don’t know quite how I'll go forward in this inhospitable land of far-fetched dreams and close quarters. Something's got to give, and I may very well end up back in California teaching for the spring semester. This season of turning leaves is bittersweet, to say the least.

For now, I have a few months of reflection and reminiscing to look forward to, so I will try to be more religious about my blogging. For the past year, I’ve had nothing but time. Not needing or wanting to chase down under-the-table tutoring gigs left me free to do so many things, but it always felt like there would be another endless lot of days to use wisely. Now, pondering the potentially numbered days I may have left here, I can only hope that the old “emotion recollected in tranquility” will lead to some fruitful writing, if not on this blog, then on some page somewhere.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Grace Kelly

at the Hotel de Ville

I think it was the hottest day (so far) this summer, and I was feeling anything but graceful... all sweaty and exhausted from Wednesday's running around. But I had been meaning for weeks to visit the much publicized Grace Kelly exhibit at the Hotel de Ville, so I took a break from my errands and joined the cue in the afternoon shadow of the impressive building. The wait was about 45 minutes followed by a quick pass though the metal detector, my small purse through the x-ray machine.

Now I don't pretend to be a great fan... Until Wednesday, all I knew about the princess was that she was one--and that Madonna names her in "Vogue." Since visiting the exhibit, I know only a little more, but enough... for now. These photos come from the Taschen book I bought on my way out. Admission to the exhibit is free, so the book seemed requisite, especially since no photos are allowed.

As an American film star, she made 10 movies in the 3 1/2 years (before she met His Serene Highness Prince Albert Rainier III of Monaco in 1956,) three of which were Alfred Hitchcock films. The exhibit had letters and telegrams on display spanning the length of her whirlwind career, many from Hitchcock himself who seems to have been one of her biggest fans. These photos come from her work on Dial M for Murder in which her character's husband hires someone to kill her.

What I find most fascinating about these photos is Francois Truffaut's observation that "Hitchcock filmed scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder and scenes of murder as if they were scenes of love." Though fascinating, this is not exactly groundbreaking art... I observed the same thing at the Musee D'Orsay and wrote a poem about it, "An Hour with Madame Sabatier:" "How death can look like pleasure/on a woman..."

Film footage projected on the walls of the salon shows segments from her movies and her life. But my favorite aspect of the exhibit was the generous spattering of costumes and dresses placed around the rooms. This one is platinum colored satin with a matching shawl. She wore it to the Oscars in 1955 where she won Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama for her roll in The Country Girl. Of course, there's nothing country girl about the dress!

She wore another gorgeous dress on screen in a film I might have seen while channel surfing back in California--Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. I love to see the designers' sketches... what a production to dress such an icon!

At the far end of the salon is her royal wedding dress, silk, I think. I have no pictures of her in that lovely gown, but I love this pre-wedding photo of her with Louis Armstrong, taken more to show off her giant rock-of-a-ring than to prove her interest in jazz!

After seeing her invitations, seating plans, and photographs from the big event, you climb a few steps to a long corridor lined with some of the ball gowns she wore as Her Serene Highness, Princess of Monaco. I wonder if my mother and grandmother thought of Princess Grace as I did/do Princess Di... My grandma even shared her name, though she always used her middle name instead.

The couple were married twenty-six years before she died after a car crash due to a stroke. She was almost fifty-three. She lived a charmed life which ended tragically as do so many charmed lives... Reportedly, Princess Di was the only funeral attendee from the English Royal Palace.

Grace Kelly once said that her success came too easily for her to truly appreciate it. Isn't this the case for so many beauties? She has been remembered as a vixen dressed as an angel... at once expressive and repressed... but these easy juxtapositions are too typically feminine.

In any case, I think that her legacy is her passionate spirit outfitted in pure grace.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Paris Plages

The last time I wrote, the spring leaves were just opening, waxy and bright green. Now they are beginning to fall. But the gay mayor of gay Paris has a grand way to celebrate these dog days of summer... From July 21 to August 21 the city of Paris closes the right-bank access road stretching the length of the two isles and installs beach style amusements. It's (not quite) like we have a beachfront apartment! This is a little recount of my morning walk...

Pss) I will have to look into formatting options for future posts as the quality of this one leaves a lot to be desired.

I love Pink Martini's affinity for parody... despite the festive tone of this song, it's about a woman burnt out on her scene: "My bedroom is like a cage... the sun reaches in the windows... I've known the smell of love... now, a single flower among my entourage makes me sick." And the repeated chorus translates to, "I don't want to work, I don't want to lunch, I only want to forget... so I smoke..."

You might also like to check out their crazy rendition of "Que Sera, Sera!" It should make a girl think twice about that old adage!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

De Ma Fenêtre II

(From My Window II)

He forgot his cell phone this morning when he left for work. I knew it as soon as he shut the door. He slipped out so quietly. So he hasn’t called today, and it’s either because our home phone isn’t working and he doesn’t have my cell phone number memorized OR he just needed an excuse not to call me today.

I spent the morning taking Filou to the vet. It was raining and he just had a bath two days ago, so he didn’t get to run free, and he’s gotten so big—5.7kg—that he’s heavy in his cage. (I wonder how much of it is hair.) But we braved the metro and he howled in the trains. All the Frenchies were scowling at me.

Filou likes Dr. Payancé, probably because he plucks the hair from his ears. Turns out he has an infection—Filou, not Dr. Payancé—too gross to get into here, so he has some antibiotics and other treatments to tolerate for the next two weeks. I guess so do I. Dr. Payancé says that as soon as Filou starts lifting his leg to piddle like a big boy, I should bring him in for the ol’ snip snip.

I like Dr. Payancé, too. We met him at Porte de Clignancourt where we bought a couple of storage pieces from his space at the flea market—his weekend hobby, though I don’t know if hobby is the right word. When he was delivering our furniture, he met Filou, so he gave us his Dr. card. He says he has been stocking up on decorative objects, carafes and crystal. Maybe we’ll go to the flea market this weekend.

I just got back from lunch at the crêperie downstairs and will probably do some phase of the laundry and the dishes before the man gets home. I don’t know what we’ll do for dinner tonight. It’s my sister’s birthday… sure do miss her.

The parking patrol officers are combing the streets… One man argues, or tries to, but she just goes on writing the ticket. A delivery man—parked on the sidewalk on Avenue Victoria—just lets her write it and leave, takes it from the window and slips it into his jacket pocket, goes on loading his hatchback.

Police on horseback clatter up the street, and the clamor of recess creeps around the corner, gets tangled in the tree branches. I can’t believe it’s taken me until now to realize that THIS is the tree lined street Shaun saw in my cards last summer… signifying happiness. Where are the mirrors, the man with the gold-framed glasses?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Le Renard

A man’s hand smoothing a dead girl’s eyes shut, a wedding ring gleaming. An exotic dancer still costumed, dead in her bathtub only half full of water, her wrists scarred, no blood…

A wife reports her husband missing, two days and Gerd, the detective, tells the wife that no news is good news and she should call him if she hears any. When the husband finally calls his wife, he asks her to meet him in their usual place…

Now someone else is in the dead girl’s house, someone who knows where the safe is, in the stairwell behind the innocuous art…

Phone booths and gloves, people following people in cars, lurking in shrubs, money changing hands at the men’s club…

She was asking too much of him, wanted him to divorce his wife. He tried to make it look like suicide.

“Make it look like:” Maquiller—to make up, as with make-up… invent… but I digress.

It’s called Le Renard, or The Fox. France 2, a public television station, runs two episodes back to back each afternoon. The series is German voiced over in French, and the last line of every show is “Monsieur so-and-so or Madame/Mademoiselle, you’re under arrest for the murder of M. so-and-so.” Then the camera stops rolling on a final image, usually the accused being led away or handcuffed—the background for the closing credits with good German names like Helmut, Eberhard, Rolf (at least two,) Johannes, Jutta, Gunter, Helga, Hermann, and Claus (again, at least two of them.)

The main character is never addressed as Renard. His name is Leo Kress, Commissioner Kress. He’s balding, with sparse, white hair and thick, almost round wire-rimmed glasses that make his blue eyes look just a little too close together, or maybe they are. He has a sturdy nose with one of those short, narrow moustaches, not wider than his lip, and three inspectors in his équipe: Werner—the young, efficient evidence collector… his glasses are like mini versions of le Renard’s; Axel Richter—an awkward, lightly black man who has a lot to learn from the Renard. Axel does most of the driving and usually works in tandem with the third—Gerd, whose name I was able to hear only after I had seen it in the credits, a younger Renard, no moustache, usually tan. If I pay very close attention, I can almost grasp their witty banter. There’s also the coroner who arrives first on the scene—ready, when the detectives arrive, with his preliminary estimates of time and cause of death. He emphasizes their inexactitude.

Most of the stories involve a love triangle, or other polygon, older men and younger women, drugs and cash, and family businesses with feuding spouses, parents and siblings vying for control. Often there is a pair of murders, or a second one—always one of the suspects. Everyone is a suspect. Consequently, the list of standard alibis is long: “I was drunk, passed out, I don’t remember anything.” “I was in my car.” “I was at home, alone,” or they say they were with a spouse who may or may not agree to confirm the lie. This alone rarely indicates the murderer.

The detectives uncover large amounts of cash which might equate to hired hits, drugs, or bribes—in French, faire chanter, “someone making someone else sing.” Cell phone calls are researched, fingerprints dusted, passports are confiscated, and agendas—calendars and motives—are considered, but mostly there is a lot of questioning. The usual “Last night, where were you?” features prominently in the promo and in various versions throughout the drama: “Where were you last night between ten and midnight?... Where were you this morning between three and five?” They say they are obligated to ask this question, but they never start with it. They work up to it.

Eyes shift, hands fumble, and the camera captures the inspectors catching it all, informing their instincts. They exchange knowing glances, and roll their eyes behind the backs of the liars they interrogate, and everybody lies for all sorts of reasons: secretaries claiming not to have had sexual relations with their dead bosses, husbands—or wives—claiming not to have known about their dead spouses’ affairs, parents protecting—and implicating—children. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember the Renard ever finding himself in the difficult situation of having to charge a child with murder, but the violations against them—and the ones against women—never go unpunished.

Like with many stories, it’s not so much what’s said or shown as what’s not. The answers are always in what’s missing… that is until all the pieces come together just before the arrest. A few murderers evade the Renard by committing suicide—jumping from a window, a noose, a shot to the head with the murder weapon.

The opening credits appear over a series of segments from the ensuing episode—the story’s characters—suspects or victims—each in various moments of stress, pivotal moments you will soon be able to contextualize. Thanks to these almost previews, you know from the beginning if you’ve seen the episode before, so at first it’s confusing when there is an actor who has played a character in another episode. Does s/he make a good criminal? Was s/he the culprit last time? I can never remember. On very rare occasion, they play reoccurring characters. Maybe I should try to guess from the opening scenes who the murderer is. Only sometimes is it the most obvious choice—the unidentified man smoothing the dead girl’s eyes shut, the missing husband.

De Ma Fenêtre I

(From My Window I)

It’s Sunday morning and he’s sleeping late. Filou is snuggled against my left leg on the sofa and Buddy stakes out the space to my right. Sophia is, as is often the case, perched on the breakfast bar by the open kitchen window. Outside, intermittent drizzle drifts between the buildings like aspiring snow. Someone once told me that it’s always a little bit warmer just before it snows.

On the sidewalk below, people line up around the Théâtre du Châtelet for a matinee of something. The access road along the Seine is closed to traffic, but the bicyclists and pedestrians haven’t taken to it yet. A crowd of demonstrators descends upon the Hotel de Ville where a few early-bird ice skaters make their circles in the temporary rink. If there were any leaves on the trees lining Avenue Victoria, I wouldn’t even know about the demonstration; though from here, I have no idea what they’re marching for. Pigeons. Sirens.

I’d take pictures for you, but I can’t find my camera. He asked for it yesterday when he was working on the printer and he doesn’t know where it is. Anyway, I have a long list of things to do today… Laundry is waiting in the bath room, unfinished crafts are piled up on the table. I want to make a fruit salad for brunch, maybe a goat cheese omelet and some toast with orange marmalade. There will be dishes. We’re too late for the Sunday marchée, so we will certainly make the trip up rue Saint Denis—past the closed store fronts and daylight hookers—for the week’s produce and kosher meats. I want to paint my nails… and then there’s the Salon d’Agriculture at the exposition center.

I like the days he’s home. It’s nice to have someone to do things with… for. While we’re out, I gather images, keep them until they burn a (w)hole. I’ve got a few poems in the air, on my virtual desktop, but I probably won’t get to them today… unless he’s content to stay a while in bed and watch TV. (He likes the science and society documentaries, and there’s always a few worth rewatching on PersoTV—a cable channel devoted to client generated footage and films.) If not, there’s always the solitude of his work week…

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Taste for Translation

I've been sick in bed all week, so I decided to recycle an article that I wrote last January for Kate Ozbirn at California Quarterly. She wanted something that discussed the pleasures and challenges of literary translation for a general audience, and so I think it might just be appropriate to share here and now.

At the time I wrote the article, I had just finished two translations for The Translator's French Quarter... one of my own poems into French, which required more than editorial assistance, and an English translation of a short story by one of my favorite contemporary French writers, Hélène Cixous. I was in Paris for the winter break thinking only of my thesis and trying to take some time off before my last semester of grad school. Much to my surprise, Kate received the article without hesitation and published it in her "Poetry Letter & Literary Review" with minimal revisions not reflected below. Thanks to her quick work, it was my first publication.

I have since had the honor of receiving a prize in their annual poetry contest this past summer and the poem has been published in their recent volume, 33.4. For a copy, send a note explaining your request, and a check for $7.50 to: Membership Chair, 21 Whitman Court, Irvine, CA 92617.

Thanks for reading!

A Taste for Translation

Tonight the Paris rain falls—not in “ropes” like the French idiom says it does and like it does in August, but in tiny droplets that would make weightless snowflakes if it were February instead of January—nothing to catch a cold over, but enough to turn the streets wet and dark like Ezra Pound’s black boughs; and so the word “rain” does not suffice. I find a heated terrace and duck in with my groceries, “command” a cup of tea, and pick up a menu waiting on the table next to me for the dinner crowd.
Montmartre is a tourist friendly quartier, so each item on the menu is translated into English: The Pave de Rumsteck becomes a “Rumpsteak Paving Stone,” the Cote de Boeuf is an “Ox Coast” instead of a “side of beef,” or “spare ribs,” or whatever it is, and under Tartine de Maison the translator has written “Pot House.” Given the context, these are amusing mistakes that a native English speaker could not make, but as a second language learner myself, I admire the restaurant owner’s courage—though some would say haste or simply inexperience—to sit down with a dictionary and put such literality to print.

Because to translate into a second language often results in such folly, most of us stick to the target languages we know best—our native ones, but levels of fluency in source languages vary widely. Many translators maintain a certain distance from the original text hoping to most naturally replicate it by working in collaboration with others who have more instinctive facility with the source language—like Pound did, and like the owner of the restaurant should have. They may not even care to learn the source language. Others prefer to go it alone, dictionaries, thesaurus, and all their own interpretations on the table like the ingredients of a family recipe to be sampled and measured together until it tastes the way it is remembered. The main difference between the two extremes is that those who do speak the languages they translate may be more obviously under the influence of the source language than those who do not. This serves to stretch the boundaries of the target language. Furthermore, the more sharply the translator’s own voice is honed, the more likely it is to infiltrate the resulting translation.

To pretend that a translation is, can or should be free of such influence is also folly, because whatever aesthetics the translator assumes, there is always collaboration in translation, even if only between the author of the original text and the translator. Sounds of the language and their effects, the breaths and lengths of the lines, and the subtle implications of word choice and order are initially lost forcing the translator into inventions and manipulations that beg permission from the original authors. The art of translations is a process, an attempt to reconstruct the images and impressions of the source text in a language that did not give birth to them to begin with. This communication with another writer is the literary translator’s driving force, the raison d’être, the passion for slowly transforming a text’s every word, and it is as tantalizing to the poet translator as a Tartine de Maison would be to someone with the munchies.

More importantly, this exchange makes the process of translation an inevitably regenerative exercise that teaches us, word by word, the possibilities and limitations of our own languages. We must decide what strangeness can be stretched and still understood and what will take our readers too far away from the original, especially those readers who cannot penetrate the text as we can by having an understanding of both languages. We revel in the multitudinous gains and losses before deciding how best to recast the text to keep meaning from being lost or even only refracted taking the reader to places never implied while the meaning and music of the poem slip and slide between languages, cultures, and epochs. For example, the French word vrai divides itself into two English ones: “true” and “real.” How the translator chooses one or the other should have as much to do with the sounds and rhythms of the surrounding words as it will with theoretical debates about the differences between the two. The translator must look forward into the minds of the readers and back into the mind of the author being channeled, and the older the source text, the more complicated the questions.

Despite all this reader-writer-text interplay, ultimately, like an archer shooting arrows at a bull’s eye, the translator pursues the target language alone word by word finding it sometimes easy to hit the mark, sometimes impossible. If, for example, a native French speaker were to read this article, the image of a duck—perhaps dunking its head into a lake after tiny bits of food—would be evoked by my ducking into the café terrace. The verb “to duck” does not translate, but the resulting image is almost appropriate. On the other hand, the menu’s implication that a choice cut of meat is a paving stone is hardly a desirable one in a town so chock full of competing restaurants.

Still, I decide not to report the menu’s miscommunications to the server, pay for my tea, and head off into the evening. Perhaps the absurd connections will inspire some non-Franglais speakers to reconsider the assumptions of their relationships with English. Besides, the slight rain has stopped and the clouds are clearing. By the time I reach my apartment, I will have a different sky above me and a whole new batch of questions to try to answer. I will be up late tonight for there is much to be said, and re-said.

Unfortunately, not all poems can be translated, but we continue to try, to search for ways of conveying what can be said in other languages. After all, the main reason we translate is to share the foreign texts we so enjoy with others who do not speak the language, and, as with any collaboration, there will be compromises, but we believe the rewards of such gifts to be greater than the costs.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Smoke Free Paris

In case you haven't heard by now, on January 2 the ever-rumored no-smoking law was passed in France; and while I am generally in favor of smoking prohibition, I have discovered a few, shall we say "problems" with its Parisian application...

1. Sometimes, especially at night, the sidewalks in front of certain bars are so packed with banished smokers that it's easier to take your chances and walk past in the street...

The weather has been unseasonably mild, so this isn't as uncomfortable as it will be soon enough. This small crowd is nothing to compared to others I've pushed my way through.

2. This fact and increased outdoor smoking in general lead to other obvious problems...

... though at least one bar has created this simple solution...

"Would you please put your butts here."

3. Apparently, police officers are still free to smoke in their patrol cars and paddy wagons. This doesn't seem fair, does it? (I'd love to show you a picture of this, but I have yet to be quick enough, let alone brave enough, to capture it.)

4. Hookah bars all over town have gone out of business. C'mon! Even in California we allow hookah smoking, don't we? And if I want to get political, this fact alone could be seen as an intentional side effect aimed at Arab establishments... but no one seems to be going there over here.

5. Last but not least, the problem I see as saddest is a certain change in lifestyle that this regulation has put into motion. Smoking--more specifically the required lingering associated with it--is at the core of Parisian culture... not that all Parisians smoke, but the ones that do have always set a sort of pace, a counterbalance to the frenzied city life so many Parisians live.

As you can imagine, this has been a hot topic on the news and in cafes and bars. Some establishments are already reporting reduced profits, and interviews show smoker after smoker talking about how their coffee breaks (pause cafe) and their famous conversations have become much shorter, even less frequent.

In the long run, people will adapt. Most are glad to have smoke free meals, and most of the smokers I've ever known even like the excuse to excuse themselves from social situations at certain intervals. I'm curious to see what the regulation does to cigarette sales. The line at our neighborhood tabac doesn't seem any shorter, but you know... change takes time.

At any rate, here's hoping the weather stays agreeable.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Every once in a while, I make it to The Other Writers' Group held upstairs at Shakespeare and Company on Saturday afternoons. Last week the room was packed... people occupying every inch of bench that circles the room beneath the bookcases... English speakers from every corner of the globe, men, women, old, young... poetry and fiction writers with varying degrees of experience--in writing and in life. This particular Saturday started with a short story about a young man feeling glum after coming to Paris who was fascinated by another young man who seemed better acclimated to the foreign experience. One was dressed all in white, the other in mostly black... I bet you can guess which was which. This seemed to me most cliché, the black and whiteness of the characters and their attitudes, but ultimately, the scene got me thinking...

One member of the group asked why he should care about these characters. I took a more compassionate, yet still critical approach: "This is clearly YOUR story..." the young author was having trouble adjusting to what was supposed to be an idyllic experience abroad. I know this dilemma intimately. "Why don't you try drafting out more of the images and emotions in first person..." a suggestion more than a question. His desire to separate himself from his troubled protagonist by using the third person only served to elevate the tried and tired nature of the narrative. I wanted to be closer... to someone, anyone... closer than third person, closer than the unbelievability of black and white allows. I continued, of course: "For me, the grey in Paris has always been a challenge. Look outside. Nothing is black and white here. Everything is grey, and that can be depressing, but I think if you explore the greys in your story, your characters will have more depth, if this is what you want..."

Sometimes the bells of Notre Dame or a passing ambulance siren reminds me to gaze out the window of the famous bookstore. I always feel lucky to be there, even when the scene is grey and wet and chaotic along the busy quai... and I'm sure this view has its effect on my listening...

Another guy read a section from his novel in progress about gay angst and the difficulties discerning between love and sex, reality and virtuality in his evolving world, again from the safe distance allowed by the third person. The critic asked again why he should care, and another older member of the group reacted strongly to the almost graphic references to gay sex. I, on the other hand, wanted to be sitting at that table in that bar, perhaps in the Marais, with those three gay lovers, not just passing by on the street hearing some supposedly omniscient recount of their exchange: "I think your intentions are noble, but in my experience, the lines between sex and love are not so easily drawn." I returned to the idea of grey and applied it also to his search for the real in the virtual. "True and false, real and virtual are just words." He asked me if the first person might help him as well, and I had to say it probably would.

Real or virtual?

This building just off the Champs Elysees is under construction... not because it's melting. Turns out that's just a giant canvas made to trick the eyes of passers by.

Even indoors, some of my favorite scenes are in shades of grey... like this sculpture of Sappho at the Musée d'Orsay.

... and speaking of women poets, one read at our workshop, or rather she recited... a very moving poem she wrote with the new year in mind. She hadn't written it down... but she read so lyrically and went on so long that we all fell into a sort of zone, rivers and bridges and breezes taking over our thoughts. Many were bothered by her repeating images and lines, but to me, they seemed essential to the poem's trajectory... cycles and community and the dependability of movement and change. But what troubled me was a phrase that came early in the poem... something like "You can hang a bridge on a single breath if your spirit is strong and true." What is a spirit anyway? And how do I know if I have one, and if it's strong and true? These abstractions seemed terribly exclusive, making this listener feel as if her lack of understanding was some sort of spiritual defect. When I mentioned it, she was disappointed. She had, of course, chosen those words specifically. Does this make them the best words for the poem? Did my reaction to her abstractions reveal too much about me? What does it mean when "true" means nothing?

I've spent the last week waiting for perfectly grey days to photograph, but the truth is, (hehe) as grey as Paris is in January, there is always color here. The khaki Seine, the warm beige buildings like the paths in the parks, the patchy sky... especially in the morning and at at night. I think the French have done an exceptional job of working with the landscape's light.

In Color Theory, I learned that white is the absence of all color... black, the presence of all colors fully saturated. In life, I have learned that all days, even grey days are only in between. Even what we are inclined to describe as black is only some dark grey, and anyone who's painted anything ever is only vaguely familiar with the endless spectrum of whites.

Maybe all this talk of grey is a result of my visit to the colorful Pompidou Center last week. I resisted its modern exterior for so long, but have come to love it best of all the museums I've visited. Its permanent collection is already a bit text book, but on Level 4, the exhibits are always changing. This last time, I was drawn to the black and white watercolors...

I especially like the way the art is changed simply by photographing it... the reflections in the glass add another element, record the interaction.

The contours and relief of this white "cave" have all been traced in black and you can walk around inside... you don't have to take off your shoes, but flash photography is still strictly prohibited...

And there is the usual dose of black and white photography. Who doesn't love black and white photography, right? But the term seems inadequate now... BLACK AND WHITE... noir et blanc, rain or shine, right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, good and bad, happy... sad. It is possible, maybe even necessary to be both. The human "spirit," like its landscape, is not so easily divided; it is simultaneously strong and weak, for even strength can be a weakness, and weakness a strength; it is both true and false, even if only misguided. Sex is rarely either making love or simply sex; desire is friend and foe; hunger is passion and lack and too many other things to list.

I'm sure I could go on and on, but the city streets are calling...

It's rainy and windy and very grey out, but Cole Swensen is lecturing tonight in the Marais as one of her collections has just been translated into French. For me, she is the the Pompidou of poetry... a sort of theory in verse. I look forward to the brain stretch. Coincidentally, her recent publication, The Glass Age, works out connections between art, life, and industry... especially the meaning of reflections, fragility and transparency. I may have to pick up later where I left off... thanks for listening.