Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Michele Vassal Interview

previously published in Outsider Writer's Collective:
an interview of French poet, M. Vassal by nadine sellers

Somewhere in the South of France, a lady sits with white kitten on lap. She holds a cup of chicorée and lifts her pensive eyes toward the fading autumnal fog. This is the writer, Michèle Vassal, sitting at an old garden table the color of sky, lost on the Causses du Quercy. She feeds off the vibrancy of her fuschia robe, presently preferring a screeching palette to the " bien-sèance of cream and beige; though she does yearn for a white embroidered djellaba.

Her life, a poetic triptych, she collates the multilingual pages on a mystical journey, verse by verse. To quote her accomplishments would diminish the sensual quality of her sensitive vision; a fine sculpture which allows sparse lines and precise cuts to show the essential nature of a subject. This is where we find the selected daughter of Irish literature.

"Spat out on the shores of night
A girl like a shell"

Michèle Vassal takes us on a languid journey through languages and serves the polymorphous muses of past and present on a tapestry of elegance and passion. I enjoy the side trips which ultimately lead to a more accurate vision of the writer than any preconceived question. That's why i will not call them questions, but conversation.. The interplay between mood and mind. Brief phrases are not static, it's a virtual salon happening, not the great inquisition between us.

MV: I feel that my writing is born of exiles. That could be a starting point I guess.This is exciting! I believe that i would like to begin with cultural and linguistic background. I am so used to speaking my life through metaphor, paring down, condensing sentences.

NS: Michele, do you remember when your native language came to life for you as nascent poetry.

MV: Languages are the weft around which my life wove itself, from the guttural Algerian that is the backdrop for my earliest memories, to the Hiberno-English that I so love.
French, for me, was primarily the language of reading and by Gosh did I devour books, but it was also that of communication, of emotions and for what seemed a very long time,
those were mostly painful, which is why, I guess, I abandoned it so willingly.
When did the language come to life? It’s very difficult to pinpoint, honestly I don’t know, it is, hopefully, still an ongoing process. I remember age 7 or so, making little books, whose pages I bound with a red cotton stitch and on which I wrote poems which I also illustrated: invariably they were about stars, bleeding sunsets and princesses - I am not sure I have evolved that much since!

NS: Reading has formed a solid base under your movable spirit.

Gradually I fell in love with certain authors, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Colette, Materlinck whose writings accompanied me from childhood to teenage. But my first real contact with poetry ( I exclude the compulsory learning of Lafontaine Fables at school) was with Rudyard Kipling’s IF regularly recited - in English- and translated my father when ever I indulged in unseemly emotional displays (usually around school report time). And so I grew up to the dictate “ you’ll be a man my son”, not only did I survive it but I even got to like it :-)
Then sometime around the age of thirteen, I read le Dormeur du Val and fell in love at first read with Rimbaud’s words, his style and of course ...himself. As the door to the secret garden of Poetry slowly opened, I ran in aiming of course for the more forbidden fruits of the “poêtes damnés” and never looked back.

NS: Can you relate to how the literature informed adaptability in your early travels?

MV: I am not sure it did!
I traveled from a such a very early age. Adaptability, I guess, came from my family on my father’s side who were a rather intrepid lot - particularly the women. My grand-aunt Blanche, who partly reared me, pirogued down the Niger river, between hypos and crocodiles, all the way to Timbuktu to retrieve a straying husband. And I certainly owe my father, my attraction towards the English language. He was a pilot who had served in Britain during WWII, and I spent some beautiful time beside him, in the felted atmosphere of the cockpit, silent and immobile, amongst constellations of green dials, listening to arcane words answering disembodied voices.

The first word I memorized was “Roger”. I took it then, to be the name of some omnipresent guiding entity and thus, English for me, became the language of stars and angels.

"I am a woman dancing
Amber Kompolois
Around plane trees
Spiraling Betelgueuse
Under an appled moon"

Our nomadic path took us from Algiers to Benghazi via Nairobi and Phnom Penh and I collected words like some collect butterflies, pinning them in my, then, perfectly retentive mind, and used them like small spells, to make people smiIe and love me - I was a needy child - but words are divine and powerful. I always felt exiled and that feeling attracted me later to writers such as Camus but also to Pagnol because he spoke simply and passionately, of a land and a people, I desperately wanted to belong to.
Then of course came Ireland...

NS: You occasionally approach the subject of selfishness as perceived hedonism; individuals have been asked to stifle the self for the good of society, for too long now. Do you believe that anyone would benefit from subverting their innate love for fine poetry in order to please others?. Would it improve the condition of man to choose to spend time away from book and pen, just to dig more potatoes or shine the buffet one more time this week?

MV: In my case it certainly would. I am beyond untidy and hate housework - the buffet has never been shone. I am the archetypal ‘bordélique’, yet I yearn in vain, for order and minimalism in my life. But to answer you seriously: I am attracted by both Hedonism and Epicureanism which are not the philosophies of excesses they are often perceived to be, but quite the opposite. Hedonism comes from the Greek word for delight, and I think most of us, delight in a certain amount of altruism; so really, the notion of pleasure need not equate with selfishness. I believe the ‘good of society’ is intrinsically linked with that of the individual. I try in on a very small scale to live by Gandhi’s phrase “be the change you want to see in the world” and for me, that means an artistic way of life on one hand, and a more ecologically responsible attitude on the other.

NS: Anma is the given name of your old home which is in a state of retrofitting at present; can you place us in your wonderful hedonism and sense of ecology here.

MV: I am not a fundamentalist of either cause and do not want to proselytise (though I am tempted to do so here and to mention dry and composting toilets! 5 gallons per flush, 4.8 billion gallons per year in the US alone. It’s madness - Water is life!). In my youth, which unravelled under the long shadow of May 68, I believed Rousseau’s take on society - the good savage, man is good - society is rotten etc...I am not so sure anymore. But I do think that the Christian notions of sacrifice and guilt, instilled in us, particularly in us women, are destructive and dangerous, stopping individual fulfillment and denying us the happiness which should be our natural state. I feel strongly that religions and atheism à la Dawkins, are part of the tools of manipulations of the Powers that be, the goal being keeping us in fear. It’s so much easier to govern AND to sell, to terrified masses.
NS: From this salon of thoughts, I perceive evolving awareness; the natural conclusion of a life of observation, internal and external. What do Rousseau and Gandhi have in common? Their effect on the moral individual.

MV: Despite their different backgrounds and perspective, I find a lot of similarities between Gandhi and Rousseau such as their common view that scientific/technological progress is the bane of society and that progress corrupts human minds. They had similar thoughts on democracy as well. Sadly Rousseau’s philosophy was hijacked by the French revolution, in my mind , the most ugly and destructive period of French history. Gandhi’s pacific liberation of India on the other hand, is a wonderful example of what can really be achieved with non violent ways.

NS: The hedonistic artist may inspire joy in the fearful, but pleasure has so long been relegated to the basement of feelings by a repressed society, your poetry shows the way through the impenetrable mesh of social constructs. Let us swim in your sensuous waters for awhile.

MV: But back to pleasure. For me, it has a very definite spiritual dimension. Pleasure equates love and beauty or at least it should, and beauty, I see as the link that ties us to the rest of the universe. I perceive it as some common energy present in all things and all beings. Maybe its power is why 'it has been relegated to the basement' by social constructs. I have to admit that I am often governed by my senses if not always and that I generally give them a free rein. I need to touch, to breathe, to taste what I write, to find the essence of emotions, to translate the experience into words.

NS: Michele, you talk of pleasure and poetry in one long breath, we can hear the discourse flowing along all senses. Would you take us on a vicarious voyage through the surroundings which affect your daily life as woman, as writer.

MV: I am not an intellectual poet, more a tactile one, if that makes any sense. When I read poetry I want to feel first and foremost. And feel pleasure, I should add. Pleasure at the beauty of the emotions stirred ( the whole scale of emotions not just the happy fluffy ones) and that of the words, the images. I dislike ugly poetry. And I have to admit it that Charles Bukowski and his minions, don’t do it for me. Poetry for me, is like cooking, I expect the result to be intensely flavoured without losing the essence of the ingredients whilst still remaining simple and nourishing to the soul. I made a tomato sauce recently which was a perfect poem :-) - huge “coeur de boeuf” tomatoes, bought on a warm September morning, from an old woman at the Saint-Antonin’s market. It had a story, a richness of colour and undercurrents of southern herbs, garlic and olive oil. I made it with love and we ate it with love. And you know, it might sound silly but I came out “agrandie”, “improved by its creation.

NS: You offer a glimpse of your ancient home, of the aroma and taste. Your websites draw the reader into visual imagery of such character, that they provide a landscape for your sound and poetry . You live your art.

MV: We would gladly forget convenience to be able to scratch the dirt to find a truffle or watch deer graze nearby, such connection has been buried by cemented progress, and our essential alma has lost its strength in the process.

"I am a woman dancing
Under a panther sky
That scrawls shadows
on the hips of hills.

NS: Again we lapse into essential French, a natural ease. “Parfait, les truffes, les pierres, complet, comme je t' envie, ou bien comme je suis heureuse de te savoir sous l' aile de ton alma," Anma" cette ancienne maison dans le sud de la France.

MV: Je suis ravie que nous ayons eu cette conversation.

"I am a woman
My way home"

Michèle Vassal' s collection of poetry "Sandgames"was published by Salmon Publishing in 2000 in Ireland.
Nourished by the strife of exile on a background of sexual and religious metaphor, her poetry "chronicles a sensual and cruel reality". Earthbound: her upcoming collection is slated to be published by Salmon.

Here is where to find examples of Michéle's works:
The Cork Literary Review (issues 4,5,6) Podium 3, Samhlaich Chairrri, Cùm, The Stinging Fly, Books Ireland, The Kerry Anthology, Poets for the Millenium, The Sunday Tribune ( New Irish Writing), Leaves, Cosmos Review,The Café review (Portland USA) A Journey in Poetry (Salmon Anthology) Poetry Monthly International.
She received 1st prize at the Listowel's Writers Week( Poetry) and was short listed for the Hennessy/Tribune awards, New Irish Writing. Short listed in French at" La Fureur du Noir Lamballe, France) and in English (Fish crime fiction) for some dark and criminally minded short stories.

I am plugged into her MySpace site "EARTHBOUND" as i conclude this pleasant interlude. Michèle Vassal's voice carries mystical concepts beyond the foggy scapes, between dream and reality, to the mellifluous sound of the original compositions of Brendan Ring playing hypnotic Uilleann pipes and harp.

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