Between the Museum and the Zoo: Sébastien Smirou

Sébastien Smirou emerged in 1993 with the publication of his “La quoi?” in Action Poétique, followed by the appearance of “Bubble” in the second number of Revue de Littérature Générale, a massive 1996 magazine/anthology edited by Olivier Cadiot and Pierre Alferi that forced the collective gaze in contemporary French poetry toward new aesthetics and revised ambitions. Less metaphysical or purely lyrical in orientation, experimental French poetics of the past decade and a half has been propelled by pop culture, a vertiginous shuttling between theoryspeak and speakeasy slang, the liberties afforded by mathematical and other constraints, suspicions of all self-proclaimed official discourses, including formal grammar, and a global splay of signifiers and languages, identities and politics. Alongside further publications in BOBOBO, Nioques, and IF, Smirou released a chapbook, Simon aime Anna, in 1998. A couple of his poems, translated by Erin Mouré and by Stacy Doris, appeared in the American journals Raddle Moon (#16: Modern French Poetry in Translation) and Double Change several years ago.

Mon Laurent, his first full-length volume, appeared in 2003 from Éditions P.O.L., the leading Parisian experimental poetry house. Divided into eight distinct sections, each containing sixteen quatrains, Mon Laurent is an elegant, funny, often sad meditation on the fifteenth-century Italian statesman, art patron, and poet Lorenzo de Medici. Obliquely and eccentrically narrated, as concerned with physical arrangement and fractal symmetry as it is with high-voltage linguistic ambiguity and ruminations on matters philosophical, political, and sentimental, Mon Laurent is striking visually not least for the full justification of its stanzas. Reading the book is quite intentionally akin to touring the Uffizi, its Renaissance paintings hung meticulously along otherwise adamantly blank walls, and the book itself, its width measuring twice its height, is purposefully tableau-like in dimension and shape. Smirou is obsessively attentive even to the spacing between individual words: insisting that the type be set in Gill Sans, he stipulates that the gaps separating words, inevitably variant on account of the strict margins, be nonetheless as regular and inconspicuous as possible.

A blatant logic governs this conceptual layout, while a legitimate lineage is also at play. Pierre Alferi’s Kub Or (1994), to take one example, is split into seven sections of seven poems, with each poem containing seven lines, each line seven syllables. Similarly, though written in prose, Suzanne Doppelt’s Quelque chose cloche (2004) fractures into eight segments, each containing ten photographs, which are themselves reprised in a ninth chapter, or “résumé,” of eight large and eight smaller images culled from earlier sections. Both of these works—published in France by P.O.L. and in English translation in the United States by Burning Deck—can, in turn, be traced to a pair of earlier books written according to numerical constraints. One is Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers (1978), in which all eighty poems break into octets, with five words to the line; the other is Jacques Roubaud’s Trente et un au cube (Gallimard, 1973): thirty-one poems of thirty-one lines of thirty-one syllables.

The amazing mélange of traditional form (or format) with an unapologetically modern idiom accounts, in part, for why Mon Laurent was so well received, garnering reviews and author interviews in Action Poétique, in Regards, in Cahier Critique de Poésie (organ of the Centre international de poésie in Marseille), and on numerous radio shows.

Smirou’s second full-length book, Beau voir, was published last year by P.O.L. Like its predecessor, Beau voir is divided into eight sections, each containing as many poems, with each poem comprising an octave of lines. Moreover, the last line, or a portion of it, is repeated in each poem within a chapter, if not verbatim then with a ghazal’s variegated reiterations. All eight sections of “The giraffe,” for instance, conclude, “si tu vois ce que je veux dire” (“if you see what I mean”), a phrase that, in addition to highlighting Smirou’s impish desire to marry seeing and saying, happens to be the title of his blog. The title Beau voir itself, of course, contains eight letters—no inadvertent or contingent detail.

Subtitled “Bestiaire,” with a pencil sketch by celebrated artist François Matton of an unfinished beast on its cover, Beau voir contains chapters that each address a different animal: lion, giraffe, chamois, cow, cat, turtle, glowworm, and dodo. In this context, one may hear the title as an echo of mirabile visu, “wonderful to behold,” with the reading experience figured like a day spent wandering around a somewhat unusual zoo: the animals here are hardly in captivity, few zoos feature glowworms or, for that matter, cats, and the dodo, of course, is extinct. On the other hand, “beau voir” is also a set expression in French, indicating cynicism: “oh really? I’d like to see that,” or even, “oh yeah, we’ll see about that.” Poised between exhibition and exhibitionism, between inventory and invention, Beau voir is a kind of kids’ book for grownups, those featherless bipeds who live behind figurative bars but are sometimes freed by rhyme, or nonsense, a run-on sentence, a sing-along. Reading it, one might keep in mind that bête is not only a noun for “creature”—it can also be an adjective meaning “stupid,” even “silly.” Just as “vache” is an adjective for “nasty,” while “La vache,” the title of Smirou’s fourth chapter, is a cow—but “la vache!” an exclamation of surprise.

Smirou published the chapbook Ma girafe in 2006 with Contrat maint, who have just released his latest work, Je voudrais entrer dans la légende. The latter has been translated into English by Jean-Jacques Poucel and was published as part of this summer’s binational FACE (Franco-American Cultural Exchange) program. Smirou visited Connecticut for a week in June to participate in that festival along with six other prominent French poets, including Anne Portugal and Michele Métail.

In the late 90s, Smirou founded and directed éditions rup&rud (the press name an inversion of dur&pur, or “hard and pure”), which published seven authors, including American poet Peter Gizzi (in Smirou’s translation), over as many years. In a spirit of noncommercial circulation, rup&rud printed twenty-five handmade copies of each booklet, designed in cooperation with its author. The chapbooks were presented to readers of the writers’ own choice, as a way of “inverting the cycle of reading by choosing its destination,” as Smirou put it, “to truly write for.” Recently, the complete series has been reprinted in a single volume by Éditions de l’Attente as rup&rud: l’intégrale, 1999-2004.

Smirou was born in 1972 in Niort, France. After earning his undergraduate degree from the École Supérieure de Journalisme in Paris, he studied at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where he enrolled in Roubaud’s course in formal poetics. He received a “Bourse de découverte” from the Centre national du Livre in 2007. The following year, Smirou benefited from a writers’ residence sponsored by the Conseil Régional d’Ile de France, and in 2009, with the support of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, he traveled to Pamplona, Spain, as part of the “Mission Stendhal,” to attend the bullfights that serve as the subject of his latest writings. Smirou is a psychoanalyst, with a specialization in working with troubled children. He lives in Montrouge, on the outskirts of Paris.

—Andrew Zawacki

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Editor's Note: Because of the typographical specifications of the poems, we've decided to publish these translations as PDFs. View them directly below or download from Scribd.



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