L'Abri Tipton is an American poet, writer, and translator living in Lille, France. She has self-published two collections of poems, Something Else or the Nothing (2008) and Living Blue and Green (2009), and one collection of translations, Photograms by Victor Martinez (2014). Her work has appeared in Descant and collaborations with the Enemies Project in London. She occasionally blogs at sandhill crane and is currently working on a creative project in the "jungle" refugee camp in Calais.
Interview by Jack Little (Mexico)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 47
1. What made you want to become a poet?
I can’t say there’s ever been a moment when I wanted to become a poet. It’s kind of who I’ve always been. Since I could talk, I’ve played with language. As soon as I could read, I was extremely excited to learn to write and haven’t really stopped. I grew up in a spiritual and belief-system based household where memorizing Bible verses was a thing. So from an early age, I was absorbing ancient poetic forms as well as an extremely heightened use of language and narrative structure tying cosmology to daily life (and there were some misguided beliefs thrown in there too...).
Maybe for me, being a poet is more of an orientation to the world, an orientation that is everything all at once in no particular order: social, political, spiritual, sexual, intellectual, physical, emotional, etc.
There are a couple poets whose work has served as a guide in my journey to understand this orientation I possess or that possesses me. Gary Snyder in particular comes to mind. I've always loved his collection Turtle Island (indigenous term for North America) for its depiction of America in the context of Native American cosmologies. I wouldn’t claim Snyder to be America’s best poet but certainly the one I like the most, the person and the work. His writing is imbued with a social and environmental consciousness of the “now” at the same time that it holds a space for long term vision and the prophetic. I want my poems, at the bare minimum, to start in a place with this kind of sensitivity and sensibility.
2. You recently travelled to Calais in France. What was the purpose of your trip?
Yes, I travelled to Calais at the beginning of March to spend time volunteering in the "jungle," the refugee camp there that has grown to 6,000 residents over the winter months. Refugees and migrants have been using Calais as a point of departure to get to England for a couple of decades now, but this is the first time the inhabitants of the port city have been faced with such a large number of refugees and migrants in their midst.
I made the decision to go there are as a poet who wants to start some sort of creative project that uses the "jungle" as a point of departure. The project has been on my mind for about a year. I grew up in the nation that has been involved in visible or invisible (carried out by drones) conflicts in most of the countries the refugees have fled from: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria... After the Paris attacks, back in November, I felt like I needed to see some of this fallout that my tax dollars subsidize.
This initial trip was purely for investigative purposes. I also wanted to help out the volunteers. Some dropped everything and showed up last August or October and haven't left. They’re exhausted. I wanted to sit with the reality of the camp itself and meet some of the residents and begin to collect poetic data, if you will: sights, smells, sounds, what people say when they’re just saying it to each other, what it feels like to be in the camp, what affects are floating around, what’s hiding itself, what’s revealing itself, what will never be said.
Honestly, the poems or the project might not come for another 10 years, and I know this.
In the meantime, I'm translating from French to English all the spoken parts of a book called Ceux Qui Passent (“Those who cross over”) by a journalist for Liberation (French newspaper), Haydée Sabaren. The book came out in 2012. Sabaren has covered migrant narratives in Calais since 2000, and the book she wrote includes a lot of interviews. I want to use these translated voices to create poems in English. I might play with the text of the quotations to make poems in French as well. Sort of a found text project.
3. How did the trip impact upon your writing?
Most importantly the trip gave me a renewed sense of purpose and understanding of my work and my tendency to follow my intuition and not reason. I was doing physical labor all day - making food bags, filling food orders for camp residents, sorting distributions. Physical activity is necessary to my writing. I didn't read or write most of the week. But when I got back to my place in Lille (1.5 hours by train from Calais), so much poured out of me.
I was a little nervous to go there as a poet. Photographers and documentary film makers seemed to have specific roles to play, and I felt sort of naked with just my body ready to witness a humanitarian crisis playing itself out quietly day in and day out.
What I took away is that my creative work is closely tied to my physical actions and experiences. I've also started to think about how writing, be it poetry or some other form, might be a type of humanitarian activism or work. And this trip also made me realize I need to read aloud in front of people whatever work comes out of this.
4. Do you believe that poetry can “make a difference”?
I do. I mentioned the belief-system based home I grew up in, and some of the results of that childhood is that I don't just have a tendency towards belief, I actually have faith. That is, despite all evidence to the contrary, I will go on believing. In this case, I'll place my bet on poetry. It's an ancient art and a high art that can stand up against injustice and can stand in for the voiceless. If there wasn't such a "danger" of poetry making a difference or inciting change within a society on a fundamental level, I don't think poets in politically unstable countries would find themselves jailed or silenced.
5. What projects are you working on at the moment?
Well, I'm trying to figure out what my project will be with the "jungle." I'd really wanted to walk into the camp and ask people about the moment they made their decision to leave their home country or ask them what they brought with them. Just being there made me quickly understand that this, while extremely well intended, didn't quite fit into such a world of immediate worries a world of figuratively and literally putting out fires that is the Calais "jungle."
I have other projects underway that are a bit lighter in subject matter. A friend of mine and I are collaborating on a project with the working title "Manual of Me." She and I both feel that potential friends or partners, even family, need a "user's manual" to help move along the process of getting to know us. The manual is currently a list explaining things like, "Some people go clubbing. I'm more into tubbing. Often my idea of Friday night fun is enjoying a glass of wine while having a bath and reading H.D. out loud to myself."
6. To what extent is writing a solitary process?
This question made me think of Adrienne Riche's poem "Diving into the Wreck." Writing is diving into the wreck. We get to surface and drink heavily and chitchat with the other divers (writers/artists) about what we saw and what we're processing, but the journey to one's own voice or writing is ours alone to make. My philosophy on this is tied to the ritual of the vision quest. The adolescent individual is sent out into the wilderness on a quest and hopefully comes back an adult with their vision and understanding of who they are apart from and what they will and can contribute to their community. I think writing is solitary to the extent that it is a vision quest that demands solitude (see “tubbing” comment in #5). However, the purpose of writing's solitary side is tightly linked to a community. In my experience, I've needed to understand the writing "wilderness" and return to that wilderness and even incorporate small pockets of that wilderness into my daily life in order to correspond and collaborate and connect deeply with other writers and artists doing the work.
Here's Adrienne on the subject:
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
from "Diving into the Wreck"
Adrienne Riche (1973)