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Mind the Gap: An Interview with Gilles Ortlieb

17th September 2020

Clare Roberts interviews French poet Gilles Ortlieb on his upbringing in Morocco, his creative process, and the way in which he chose to respond to Goethe’s “Book of Wisdom” for Gingko’s A New Divan.

  1. You were born in Ksar Es Souk in Morocco. What was your early life like, and what made you want to write? Did your birthplace in any way influence your later decisions to travel and spend time abroad – particularly in Mediterranean countries – as well as your writing?

In response to this question, it may be best to attach some lines from a text I have just sent to The New French Review, on the theme of lost paradises:

There were also the lantan trees which, without protesting, lose their colour entirely during the afternoon, the rustling smell of eucalyptus trees offering a bunch of kids their trunks to peel and high look-out posts, there were grilled corn on the cob and orange ice-creams that we bought from the corner of the street for next to nothing, the first notes of Apache by “The Shadows” resounding below “Tahiti” pool in Casablanca, boarding in Tangier and crossing to Spain in a Peugeot 403 with overheated leather seats, counting the Osborne bulls that stood out here and there along the hills, teachers in double-breasted coats, little-known neighbourhoods inhabited by men in djellabas, the exuberance of a vegetation untouched by the changing seasons, soaking up the years, the way honey drenches an Arab pastry. At the very end of the 1950s, and shortly before the earthquake in Agadir – in other words, when the world was still fairly stable, overflowing like a swimming pool, as resonant and fragrant as a city’s old-town. While things (by which I mean people, others and words) were slowly seeking and finding their own place, the relationship to the world had first consisted of wanting to hold them there, in place, without ceasing to witness, day after day, that they were not staying in place.

It’s important to take into account idealisation and the “magnifying effect” that amplifies small details and gives a garden the dimensions of a park, or a building the height of a skyscraper. It goes without saying that all these stored impressions have been, therefore, our own doing, and that we probably spend much of our lives trying to rediscover them. So yes, you are right, a kind of Mediterranean tropism is at stake, which allows, on each trip, to find a little of this “light”, a little of the vegetation, the heat and the smells that went with it. Regarding my relationship to writing, my first attempts and early poems dating back to my college years, when I had already left Morocco, I would associate them more (beyond adolescent rebellion) to discoveries that I made at that age: reading, self-discovery and infinite questioning.

2. How did you feel when you were approached by Bill Swainson about writing a poem for A New Divan? How was your relationship with Goethe and his West-Eastern Divan before working on this project? And what was your reaction to his Book of Wisdom – the book to which you have responded – in particular?

After the initial surprise, (“Gosh, how did Bill Swainson find me…?”), I believe my first reaction was one of caution, and that I responded to Bill, telling him I did not feel up to dealing with the subject of East-West dialogue in all its magnitude. I have found my response to him (dated March 2017… computers have a better memory than us), in which I proposed that I link the subject to a beloved country which could be considered a gateway to the East: “I have looked into Goethe’s Divan, to realise (I had forgotten) how polymorphic the book is, with thousands of entrances – and as many exits. My response was therefore, “My contribution to your New Divan will undoubtedly be based, among other things, on a personal, intimate relationship between the “Western” France and the “Eastern” Greece. Do you think this is suitable?”. Beyond the highly-concentrated Book of Wisdom, what impressed me most about Goethe’s Divan was the enthusiasm and the youthful spirit displayed by the seventy year old to his counterpart Hafiz.

3. The poem you wrote for A New Divan, “Mind the Gap” is at the same time strikingly vivid, starting with the return to Athens by plane, with its depictions of the intense heat when arriving off the plane and the cacophony that is a square in modern-day Athens, but also very aphoristic. The poem quotes Epicurus (“He who doesn’t find a little enough, will find nothing enough”), it speaks of the wisdom that comes with poverty (Theocritus, Antiphanes), and of the “gap” not only between carriage and platform on the train to Piraeus, but also between the Other and the Self, East and West, the Greek of Homer or Sappho and that of the rude interjections all around in contemporary Athens. In short, a beautiful poem! Can you tell me about the process of writing it? How did you approach it, and what does the poem mean to you?

As is often the case, the poem was born from scattered notes (in particular, the arrival at the airport), and then nourished by ‘live’ observations, gleaned in the streets of the country which was at that time going through a deep financial crisis, before finally building in a few proverbs and maxims collected in small anthologies of popular wisdom that I got hold of locally. Hence a kind of user manual that I attached to the poem, for the attention of the translator. Aside from the sentence you quoted from Epicurus, the poem ‘recycles’ several sayings from ancient and present-day Greece, none of which have lost their pertinence: Even with an onion, we would set the table (“Poverty does not destroy virtue”), “Poverty teaches manners”, “Poverty devises skills” etc. The significance of this poem, for me, lies in the way it puts in black and white a sort of ancient wonder, heralding back to my first trips to this country, when I marvelled to discover that a strong thirty year old today could still bear the first names Plato, Homer or Sophocles, to hear a language that had certainly developed but had not fundamentally altered in nearly two millennia. The River Illisos, which I mention in the poem, no longer flows through the centre of Athens, but we can still guess its course, and just about make out the shores on which Socrates conversed with his friends. It was a matter of finding a balance between East and West, but also of trying to put a bridge between the Antiquity that we have come to know from books and a ‘revised’ present, which is still probably somewhat haunted by that very Antiquity.

4. In “Mind the Gap” you write that “this is a matter less of speech than of listening and looking”. I feel like this represents your approach towards poetry more generally. It has even been said of you that “il préfère nous donner à voir ce que l’homme pressé ne voit plus, ces petits riens du quotidien qui en sont toute la poésie”, and “il s’amuse malicieusement de ces pépites qui condensent les travers de notre époque”. You take the time to stop and watch what is going on around you, to notice little details. I recently read your Le train des jours and enjoyed this aspect of your writing very much. Seeing the profound in the mundane, finding the humour in the every-day, teasing history out of a scene of daily life, seems to be your forte. How would you describe your own style of writing?

Ah, how do I respond…? I think now about the response that Paul Valéry gave to the surrealist inquiry during the interwar period, Why do you write? “Because we are not wood…”, replied Valéry, and I would gladly borrow this graceful evasion too. Most of the little things that come with observing everyday life, as they say, go unnoticed, but some – in spite of everything – prevail. That might be because they carry irony (sometimes a bitter one), or brutality, or invisible gentleness. In doing this, I am aware that my approach is the opposite to that of a novelist, who arranges different elements to make a larger whole with the meaning that he or she chooses to give to it. In Le train de jours, as in my other volumes of notes, the fragments remain fragments, detached from a whole to which it does not try (with the rare exceptions) to belong or make sense. This is the limit of the genre – and it is not necessarily able to counterbalance its supposed precision. It may be a lot (too much?) to ask the reader to fill in the gaps between the different fragments. But this is the method I’ve chosen, for lack of a better one, and I tell myself that this way of seeing things may provoke a response among some readers. Which kind of comes back, I know, to offering a working material as a finished product – and that might be criticised, for sure. Let’s say that, all in all, I prefer the unfinished (and the potential that it sometimes offers) to the “too” finished product. Let’s say so…

5. You have translated lots of poetry from Greek (also from German and English), including the poetry of Constantin Cavafy. In many ways you are a rather like Cavafy yourself, having spent much of your life traversing the Mediterranean and studying and reflecting, through your writing, on the region. What is the significance, to you, of cross-cultural and multilingual literary and translation projects traversing the Mediterranean and trying to bridge the gap between the Middle East and the “West” in today’s world such as Gingko’s A New Divan?

When I was working for the European Union in Luxembourg, I remember often feeling a terrible sense of waste when seeing those around me, so full of talent, expertise and competence, at the exclusive service of a wooden language dominating the interactions between MEPs. That’s when I decided to devote at least some of my time to literary translation, which offered a healthy counterweight to the bureaucratic humdrum. And as difficult as this could sometimes be, I never regretted this choice. True dialogue between cultures has more of a chance, I tell myself, from encounters with works of spirit emanating from one culture or other than economic or financial considerations, even when coated in the best of intentions. Sure, it is always approximative, rounded up, in the same way that we cannot hope to render a poem in all its totality, not to mention all the unspoken elements it carries with it. Some claim that true poetry is precisely what cannot pass through the filter of translation. Personally, I tend to believe that something passes through in spite of everything, and that what passes through is better than nothing at all.

6. It feels as if there are more and more “gaps” emerging all the time, especially from this viewpoint on the increasingly inward-looking island that is contemporary Great Britain. It is hard not to feel despondent about some of these widening chasms. What role, if any, can poetry plan in bridging these “gaps”?

I’m going to respond very indirectly, with the poem of an English friend, Stephen Romer, written a few months before Brexit took place (and soon, perhaps, Brovid..?) It is at once the most direct response that I can think of and the proof that poetry is perhaps the most suitable, in its powerlessness, to bridge those very gaps…

If We Leave…

If we leave, will the white sun fall

quite in this way

shining on stone and the dormant vine

mon petit coin sous les vignes 

in the eerie heat of an English February?

Now, is a grey fug fallen back

to occlude the subtler influence,

the tendering sun,

that had touched at last

our blockish utilitarian shore.

Traces might remain, the geometry

of coffee-cup and glass and sunlight

on a rickety marble-topped

tripod:  still life with Thought,

and yellow Reclam Notizbuch.

(Stephen Romer)

Click here to read Gilles Ortlieb’s contribution to A New Divan.

You can hear a recording of Gilles reading the poem here.