Two Days in Paris
By Toh Hsien Min
I've never really been much of a fan of big cities. When I was studying in the UK, I resisted as much as possible that two-hour coach ride to London. Over the course of numerous backpacking trips, I found only two cities I could be enthusiastic about, namely Rome and Barcelona. Since then, Stockholm has picked up an honourable mention, but some of my friends have been surprised that Paris hasn't been on this very short list. My take was that there were things to like in Paris (Maison Berthillon coming first to mind), but as a whole the city was for me a mix of tourist trap and dour exception.
This past June, I fell for Paris. Preparing for the 31e Festival franco-anglais de poésie, I thought I would schedule only a little bit of time for a city whose biggest hits I had already been to, but once I got there I found myself wishing I had twice as many days there. This trip had clear differences of course; I now have enough of a facility in the language as to have no need of a phrasebook, and not having to jostle with crowds at the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre changes the complexion of the trip. I strolled through the Cimetière du Montparnasse (having been twice to the Père Lachaise), enjoyed multiple scoops of Berthillon's glaces, popped into Dalloyau, chatted with George Whitman at Shakespeare & Co., played the flâneur in the Quartier Latin, mulled over the daring cuisine of Pierre Gagnaire and had a nostalgia trip at the old Corsican brasserie I used to go to, and, not least, took in the jaw-droppingly well-attended Marché de la poésie at the Place Saint-Sulpice.
I have never seen so many people gathered in one place shopping for poetry. It felt like an Orchard Road mall on a Saturday. This was despite the prices being très cher, for there were slim collections priced at 25 euros; or maybe this was the wrong end of the stick and the prices were so because there was actually demand. All the same, this vision of what the marketplace for poetry could be was as much of a revelation as suddenly realising I rather liked Paris, and I wished my wholly English book - I didn't see another among the eighty-odd stalls - was wholly French.
If that swop couldn't have happened, another did. Back in April, Kai Chai suggested that he edited poetry for one issue while I edited short stories. I readily agreed, in part because I thought it would be nice to refresh our respective sections, as well as our own editing practice. I found that editing short stories took a somewhat more sustained effort compared to the little bursts of activity I had around poetry; Kai Chai on the other hand said his main challenge was coping with an unexpectedly large number of poems.
I'm not sure if the difference is noticeable; perhaps only our readers can tell. While I didn't read many of the poems, I thought that Kai Chai's selections were reasonably safe, with only Adam Aitken's poetry coming close to his own style. He did put in four Italian poets at one go, but I'd have been tempted to do the same. Mind you, I found that the stories that I picked selected themselves. Michael Fessler's short story was so engaging I lost track of the time just reading it. The late Brazilian writer Roberto Drummond (translated by past contributor Peter Vaudry-Brown) presented a different challenge; one of his short stories was an elliptical labyrinth of words and scenes, and absorbing in the extreme, but I had to hold on that to allow some minor bugs to be worked out. Instead, I chose a short story that echoes a T.S. Eliot line also quoted in Fessler's story, and this one could be described as being halfway on the road to poetry. I'm told this is only Drummond's second publication in English, and I must say I look forward to more. Jean Tan's essay on English is punctuated by lots of football, which in my book is a good thing, while Adeline Koh takes a more serious look at Pranav Joshi's Behind a Cultural Cage. The theatre reviews in Extra Media are supplemented by Amy Lai's photo-travelogue, and Cyril receives the baton of the Acid Tongue back from me. I hope you can find something in this issue to fall for.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 3 Jul 2008
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