Paris literary studio 5: Jean Kent

Jean Kent, Paris 1995

Jean Kent, Paris 1995

Award-winning poet Jean Kent has been lucky enough to have been awarded two residencies at the Keesing Studio, and in this interview, she looks at both experiences.

When were you resident in the Keesing studio? And why did you decide to apply?

I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune of being in the Keesing Studio twice. The first time was in 1994, from the beginning of August, to the end of January, 1995. Then, the second time, I was there in 2011, for the six months from February till July.

Apart from the fact that I’d always wanted to live in Paris, there were several reasons related to my writing that prompted me to apply. I’d fallen in love with the French language when I was first learning it as a teenager in rural Queensland, and that was when my love of so much about French culture also began … the impressionist painters … composers like Debussy and Satie … and French style generally …

But suddenly, twenty-five years had passed, and that dream of living in Paris hadn’t happened! I think I was rather hoping to find the ghost of my younger self back in Paris, and perhaps to also understand better why a girl growing up in semi-tropical Queensland would imagine that Paris could be another home for her.

As well, I’d married into a family with a very different cultural background from my own Australian one. My husband’s father was Lithuanian and his mother came from Germany. I’d started trying to write about their experiences as migrants here after the Second World War. Going to Paris struck me as a possible way of understanding better what that might have been like for them. It would be a temporary reverse migration, albeit a short one.

After the 1994 residency, I brought home kilos and kilos of notes, which I hoped would eventually turn into poems or some other writing. I did finish a lot of that, but I also had a great deal of unfinished work which had become quite foreign to me, and I hoped that being back in Paris would re-immerse me in the sensual and emotional environments where the poems had begun, so that I’d be able to work on them in a less forced way. I also had another project in a very early stage that I wanted to research, retracing the steps of my grandmother, who had been in Paris in 1916.

What were your first impressions of the studio, and its neighbourhood, and how did that evolve over your residency?

Keesing Studio Sept 1994

Keesing Studio Sept 1994

In 1994, my first sight of the studio was of an utterly bare, green linoleumed space, with only one single bed jammed against the far wall, one big table and two chairs. The administrative staff at the Cité Internationale des Arts were not very welcoming either! There were jackhammers going full blast at the construction site opposite, and I have to admit that after travelling for thirty-six hours to reach this, I did have a momentary desire to turn around and fly straight home again. By the time we’d sorted out another bed for my husband and ventured down to the local shopping area for baguette and pate and brie and vodka, it was a warm, velvety twilight, the street outside was relatively quiet, and everything started to feel a lot better. The fact that we were right in the centre of Paris, with so many little shops and galleries and fascinating buildings just outside our door, plus the beauty of the islands and the open sky over the Seine so close by, was a great compensation for any hardships of the studio.

By 2011, there had been great improvements in the attitudes of the Cité des Arts to its residents. It was a much friendlier place, and the studio was more comfortable as well. We’d bought bedspreads and potted plants and pictures and some extra things for the kitchen to try to make it cheerier in 1994, but we were sternly advised that any of these things could not be left there, so they were all passed on to other residents before we left. This regulation had apparently gone by 2011, which meant that within a day or so of unpacking all the goodies left by previous residents in the storeroom, the studio was pleasantly homey. It was better equipped, with two tables, chairs, and oh yes, the sofa … the envy of everyone else at the Cité  who visited … The noise of the builders had been replaced by the noise of the Dance Studio they’d been constructing on the other side of the street, back in 1994 … it did feel more claustrophobic without the view that used to be there, through to the fairy tale sight of the Hotel de Sens, but the Studio itself was much more pleasant.

The biggest shock in 2011 was the number of homeless people who called the area outside the main building ‘home’. There had been occasional lost souls walking nearby in 1994, but mostly they’d stayed in the shopping area around rue St-Antoine.

Jean at Keesing Studio 2011

Jean at Keesing Studio 2011

Because this was my second time there, I was familiar with the local neighbourhood, and in fact it felt like home. I loved to walk around the network of little streets each afternoon (just as I’d do back at Lake Macquarie) seeing what was flowering in people’s window boxes and in the little parks tucked between the apartment blocks. I was always being surprised by the details, and by what changed even over six months – shops and cafes gutted and rebuilt, for instance. There were some things I never quite got used to: e.g. the regular appearance of armed police (often because of events at the Shoah Memorial next door), but I was aware that there was a need for surveillance at those times, and for every disturbing event there were other surprise disruptions that were wonderful, like film crews in the street and sudden invasions of dignitaries and guards on horses.

What were you working on when you were there, and did your original vision for it change over the course of your residency?

In 1994, I took a manuscript of poems I was already working on, as well as my notebooks for future projects. The work-in-progress was based on a sequence of poems set in a fictional Hunter Valley town, and I always thought of it as a back-up project rather than something I’d be focused on in Paris. I quickly realized that I couldn’t think about it at all. I started doing drafts of poems in response to being in Paris instead, and although I managed to get some of them close to a finished state, I also eventually realized that there was just too much I wanted to record about my daily Paris life, so I concentrated on that, and waited until I was home in Australia again to try to make sense of the work for a book. My vision for all my writing changed while I was there, I think – I became more acutely aware of how differently we live in Australia and the shock of coming back to our different landscape and climate also had a huge impact on my work.

In 2011, it worked the other way round. I took the Ms of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks, which had been in a very nearly finished state for a few years. These were poems which had begun as notes in Paris – they were full of the experiences of my time at the residency in 1994, and although most of them had been published in magazines and some had even won prizes, I wasn’t really happy with them, and I could not work out how to assemble them into a coherent collection. After being back in the studio for a month, all the niggling parts of the poems that I thought were wrong became very obvious. I sat at the table overlooking rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, with the sounds of the bells of Notre Dame coming in the window and just that narrow slice of sky over the attic roofs, and Paris seeped back into the poems.

Were you there alone, or with a partner? In either case, what were your favourite things about living in Paris for six months, and your least favourite things?

I was there with my husband, Martin. He is a very visual person, and passionate about painting, so that made for good connections with other residents at the Cité  who were artists. He also spoke no French at all … which led to some interesting times, especially with the Cité  admin staff who refused to admit in 1994 that they knew any English, and with a dentist who was needed urgently after Martin lost a crown.

August 94 View from Keesing Studio

View from Keesing Studio, August 1994

My favourite things? I will probably be writing books for the rest of my life about this! I love the beauty of Paris – the light, the architecture, the parks and gardens (large and small), the constant surprises and stimulation.  The food, even from the supermarket, was fantastic … the breads, cheeses and terrines and pates …  and we liked to go to the market near Hotel de Ville every week for fruit and vegetables and flowers (gorgeous flowers, especially the peonies), and roast pork. As for the cakes … I think we had a different one (shared between us) nearly every day we were there (both times) and we still didn’t get through all the possibilities or stop marveling at how delicious and exquisitely constructed they were.

My least favourite things were the noise, the crowds and French bureaucracy. Getting visas for the six months was a nightmare.

I live in a very bushy suburb of Lake Macquarie, with trees all around the house and a large garden made noisy by birds rather than traffic, so although I relished the inner-city experience of Paris while I was there, I doubt that I could survive it fulltime. I did miss silence … and a big sky full of stars at night.

What was it like as a writing/ideas environment?

As a place for actual daily writing, the studio was a challenge. I did find the noise from the builders in 1994 and the Dance Studio opposite in 2011 difficult and when I needed more quiet for good concentrated work rather than just doing diary or journal jottings, eventually I sought refuge in the little storeroom, where I set up a mini office closed off from the rest of the world. But as an environment for gathering ideas and stimulation, Paris was brilliant.  Just being there was a sensory tonic, and also stirred up memories and ideas for me. Apart from Paris itself, I found the Cité des Arts a very beneficial place for creative excitement as well. I loved the regular concerts and open studios and exhibitions of work done by the other artists in residence. There was one other writer there in 2011, Rolf Hermann, a poet from Switzerland, and we collaborated on some translations of one another’s poems. I made good friends with other residents, including some Australians, and those connections continue to be very important to me.

Tell us about your favourite places in Paris–sites, culture,food.

One of my absolute favourite places in all the world is the Orangerie, with its two rooms of Monet’s waterlily paintings curved around the walls. I loved to go there for the paintings, but also to watch the other people, who would just stop and sit there for ages, looking.

I’d make a very long list if I mentioned all the other places that are very special to me, so here are just a few.

For its extraordinary contemporary architecture, including a wall of metal irises that open and close according to the sunlight, making lacy patterns of shadows over the floors inside, as well as for its

Jean at Institut du monde Arabe, March 2011

Jean at Institut du monde Arabe, March 2011

Arabian food and views over Paris from the roof: the Institut du Monde Arabe.

For its art (especially the impressionists and Art Nouveau), as well as its restaurant with over-the-top gilt, relaxed waiters and easy to order meals: the Musée d’Orsay.

For their stained glass cupolas and Art Nouveau style balconies and their theatrical certainty that fashion and shopping matter (even if I’m too overwhelmed by how much merchandise they have to actually buy anything), les grands magasins, especially Printemps and Galeries Lafayette.

For its ethereal atmosphere: Sainte Chapelle. I went to a sunset concert of mediaeval music here on my 35th birthday (during my very first two-day visit to Paris), and the voices of the singers seemed to hang in the air with the lozenges of coloured light through the stained glass windows. It was so magical I’ve never dared go back there.

For the fact that they were always there, beside the river and I walked over to them so often under the great stretch of Paris sky: Ile St-Louis and Ile de la Cité . I loved their little holes-in-wall for icecream and sorbet, the musicians playing there on the bridges in the summer twilight, and the view of the Eiffel Tower, lit up and sparkling on the hour.

What experiences stand out for you during the residency?

I’ve sometimes described my times in Paris as a mixture of bliss and horror, with those two extremes regularly happening several times on the same day.

One afternoon in 1994 we went to visit the Luxembourg Gardens. It was August, late summer, deep shade under the horse chestnut trees, big beds of flowers everywhere – marigolds and salvias and cosmos and dahlias … old men playing chess, children sailing boats, tourists everywhere, the statues white in the sun. Utterly idyllic. We spent hours there, until our cameras ran out of film, then walked home happily across the Left Bank.

When we reached Notre Dame, we discovered the entire area between there and the studio was blocked by police guards. Huge crowds were queueing along the footpaths and no one was being allowed through. I saw other people from the Cité des Arts showing their passports and the police shaking their heads. It looked hopeless. In hesitant French, I said, as politely as I could, that we lived ‘in that building over there’.  The policeman remained absolutely silent and stern, but he did open the barricade a fraction and let us through.

The celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation of Paris were on that night, just around the block at Hotel de Ville. That was why security was so tight. Shortly afterwards, there was a cavalcade of official cars along Quai de l’Hotel de Ville, and later that night there was much rumbling of tanks and army vehicles – sounds that were frightening even in their celebratory context – but also the music of Jean-Michel Jarre booming out and young people dressed as Resistance Fighters or liberating Americans dancing along the same route, followed by a display of fireworks. We were able to go to a window on the first floor of the old part of the Cité des Arts and look out at the spectacle.

It was so typical of the collision of the everyday and the extraordinary that I came to regard as normal in Paris. There were reminders of history everywhere, and so many celebrations with Paris itself as a beautiful backdrop. We never knew what would happen each day, and although that could be unnerving, it was also fantastically exciting.

Another experience which affected me greatly was being ill with shingles. This meant that I was confined to the studio for most of my time over a few weeks, and perversely, I could do nothing except sleep, look out the window at the world passing by, think about Paris, read books, write a little, and watch children’s TV. We had been cramming so much into our time there that I probably did need a rest! It was good to just slow down and let some of what I’d already seen and felt about Paris settle.

Has the residency had a continuing impact on your work, and if so, in what way?

Since my residency in 1994, I tend to think of my life as Before Paris and After Paris. That applies to my writing as well. There was a much greater respect for literature, and poetry especially, in Paris, than I’ve ever been aware of in Australia, and that has helped me to persevere with what has sometimes felt like an odd way of life.

I came home that first time believing that I would continue to write about the experience for ten years at least …I was certainly still haunted by it nearly twenty years later, when I went back the second time. And now I have another store of experiences to write about …

So far, there have been poems for a third of one book, The Satin Bowerbird, and for another complete collection, Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks.  After coming home from Paris each time I’ve felt as if I were seeing my usual environment with my eyes peeled, and that is been a huge influence on the poems for my most recent book, The Hour of Silvered Mullet. Even though it’s mostly about Australia, and especially the Hunter Valley, I think that experience of being jolted away from my usual home and then returning with a slightly more European sensibility was crucial to the writing. There are more new Paris poems based on my notebooks in 2011 in progress too, as well as a memoir … so I feel sure my residencies are going to remain a very dominant presence in everything I write for a long while.

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