Conducted on April 25, 2002 by Lionel Cuillé and Benoît Auclerc

Born in 1946, Jean-Marie Gleize is a professor of French literature at the École Normale Supérieure of Letters and Social Sciences. Writer, Series Director ("Niok,” Al Dante), Founder and Director of the review Nioque, from Al Dante Editions, he has published many books of poetry, including Etats de la main mémoire (1979), Donnant lieu (Lettres de casse, 1982), Instances (Collodion, 1985), Léman, Le principe de nudité intégrale, and Les chiens noirs de la prose (Seuil, “Fiction et Cie,” 1990, 1995 and 1999 respectively). He is also the author of several essays, including Poésie et Figuration (Seuil, 1983) and A noir: Poésie et littéralité (Seuil, 1992).

Lionel Cuillé and Benoît Auclerc: Your work is often referred to in terms of its privileged expressions: “the bay-trees are cut,” “the poetry, not.” Do you worry that these expressions might conceal the inspiration behind them?

Jean-Marie Gleize: The risk is only at the level of reception, that the reception might stop evolving with the expression itself. For me, these expressions are only springboards to other expressions: they are conduits or ties. There are also simply more of them than the expressions we’re used to remembering, those whose meanings are relatively transparent and whose status as metapoetic slogans is immediately recognizable. Some of the expressions have core meanings that are still developing and could easily explode and scatter in thousands of directions. For example: “I ate a fish from the spring” [J’ai mangé un poisson de source]. It’s considerably more enigmatic and indecipherable than some, but I consider it to be just as obvious and metapoetic.

This phenomenon affects all writers. In the tetralogy of Claude Royet-Journoud, why does everyone always quote, “Will we escape the analogy?” as if it were the key to the whole text? “Poetry is inadmissible” worked that way for Denis Roche, and he never denied it, ultimately giving this title to his complete works.

The work of many writers may consist of trying to evoke such constructs—but there are many constructs, and they are not all alike. Some seem immediately intelligible, whereas others are much more enigmatic, so much so that they are completely irreducible. This is the biggest concern for the writer who uses and manipulates them.

L.C and B.A: In Instances, you mention a hand that brought “formulas to bear on each individual object.” Does this sense of the “formula” come directly from Rimbaud?

J-M. G: Yes. Even if I do not know exactly what “the place” or “the formula” means, or if there is a connection between the two. If either is ever found, do we stop, or do we go on?

In any case, these words have considerable importance for me. Place has always been crucial to my work.

L.C and B.A: Indeed. Your first book is entitled, Donnant lieu. Might you be referring to Mallarmé here?

J-M. G: Lieu is a double reference: it refers back to Mallarmé and also to Rimbaud. But personally, I have always felt much closer to Rimbaud. Mallarmé remains, in spite of everything, much more abstract. Rimbaud has a more immediate sensitivity to things and is more inspiring.

L.C and B.A: But what of the polemical aspect of these constructs? Your books are hauntingly invested with a sense of “place,” but at the same time, they always return to “s’évaluer-situer” (Poésie et Figuration).

J-M. G: Ah, yes, the old idea of situation—but not in the Sartrian sense, even if political self-situation interests me.

Quite simply, in life, I have this feeling about myself, as many of us have: I think I have no sense of direction. I never really know where I am. I take a very long time to get my bearings when I’m in a building or city. I don’t know how it all works. For me, writing is intimately linked to questions of orientation. I always consider myself a little lost—from this comes the idea of “being situated.” “To be situated,” in a social context, is also to be situated politically, poetically. I always thought of literature as a more or less violent assertion, a perpetually inappropriate proposal. This proposal must be asserted. Within the framework of art, to propose is to impose. Both constructively and as a means of counteraction. To my mind, any artistic project is megalomaniacal: it is exorbitantly ambitious to believe that one can propose something wholly individual and singular. Regardless of this, every artist thinks that his work decisively cancels or completes all that came before it. How ludicrous it is to assume that daring to do something persistently is to act in opposition to all other gestures. There is an inherent element of opposition, of imposition, in the act of attempting creation.

As far as polemics are concerned, I was raised at the beginning of the last avant-garde movement of the seventies and was given the impression that literature was a battlefield. Afterwards, considering literary history—be it the Romantic or Surrealist period—I saw that literary modes or theories always clash. The writer, who is crucially alone, is also part of a group. He must work to create a space for his own work, wherein lie alliances, conflicts, wars, and strategies for occupation of territory. All of that is deeply polemical; that’s the way I see it, and that’s how I experience it in my daily life. In the constructs we mentioned before, I claim that there can be a polemical dimension of assertion. The “phrase” is a productive core for the writing, deeply poetic. At the same time, it is directed outward, it is polemical, it excludes certain things and presupposes others, etc.

L.C. and B.A: You have used the word “riot” [émeute]. In one of your first pieces, you write, “Each line its own riot ... ”

J-M. G: The word “riot” [émeute] has a subversive and revolutionary dimension. It embodies the emotion, the moment, and the fact that the construct intends to disrupt order, make things move, break them apart, make them burst, cause them to rearrange themselves differently. There is a “riotous” dimension in all writing.

L.C and B.A: How do you see the progression from Donnant lieu (1982) to Non (Al Dante, 1990)? How do you see these works, looking back on them?

J-M. G: I do not see them. I never re-read my books. I do not wish to re-read them.

I forget the past, thus allowing another kind of memory, one that sanctions a certain number of repetitions or reprises with slightly shifted meanings, because a particular question has not been sufficiently answered. What I do is fairly simple: I work outward from cores of incomprehension, enigmas, dark nodes. The word “enigma,” which I don’t use often, is as significant for me as the word “riot.”

You could examine or reconsider these nodes forever: I write the same book over and over again, each time taking different paths, changing its form, bringing different sides of the experiment into play. But I often return to the same initial experiments. They remain unelucidated, unsettling, and always likely to be reworked by the writing itself.

L.C. and B.A: If the repetitions and reprises are visible to the reader, there is also, notably in the triptych (Léman, Le Principe de nudité intégrale, Les chiens noirs de la prose), a sort of path. This path was seen in Les chiens noirs: the body put to sleep, the body exposed, the body that burns.

J-M. G: Part of what I write about is how life is a succession of losses. If life is a succession of such losses, there is a certain positioning, a moment when you have nothing left to lose because you have exhausted the capacity to lose anything. Then you arrive at the final loss. From Léman to Les chiens noirs de la prose, this dynamic of loss is implicit in the work. There is something in the work that we cannot see and cannot identify, the concept of slowing down, ce ralenti c’est la guerre. This works within us and will have the last word.

That’s the reason I chose this title: Quelque chose contraint quelqu’un (Al Dante, 2000). The writing is linked to constraint; it has nothing to do with the work of OULIPO or with the journal Formules—that has no relevance for me. By contrast, an indefinable but extremely present constraint weighs on my writing. This obliges me to write one thing and not another. And this quelqu’ un signifies that in terms of constraint, the subject can no longer define himself in a stable or simple manner. In fact, he barely knows himself.

For example: in Léman, a character has progressive paralysis. It attacks someone close to me. I do not know then that the disease has settled in his body. In the years that follow, this disease works upon him, showing itself only slightly at first but gradually more aggressively. This process takes a long time, proceeding as if in slow motion. I was a party to something, invisible at first and unnamed for many years. But once named, the problem did not become clearer, nor did its progress become any more predictable. This is what I mean by an invisible constraint.

Another example: Ce ralenti c’est la guerre. I’m referring to the war of 1940. It has personal significance for me because my father was a prisoner. He was married right before the war and then spent five years in a prison camp. He returned five years later, completely transformed, almost mute, a different man. He had two children very soon thereafter. These children obviously carried within them “the Bavarian night,” which found its way into their bodies without their knowing, shrouded in silence. The father did not speak, and then he left, and then he died. Although it took him a long time to die, he had already died in his heart before his children were born. Death’s work is, in a sense, anticipatory. Prior, interior and invisible, it is transmitted, transfused.

The last example is that of “the square” on which I continue to work obsessively. This square is the garden (the screen). In this square lies the axis of time. Nobody sees it; it escapes time but can be simultaneously reconceived by the last person there, who is often the youngest person. Three generations coexist here: at the right bottom corner lies “the father’s father, motionless and reading,” then there is the father, who is painting, and his son, in the center of the garden. Only a synthetic square remains, with the child in the middle of the garden, staring into the darkness under the terraces.

Something passes invisibly, silently, slowly, from the “father’s father” to the father to the son, and beyond the son the axis continues. In fact, the “father’s father” reads the Bible, which is essential for his religious nature. He passes on this text effortlessly; he passes on this word, the Word, to those after him who are unaware that he is giving it to them. The father does not become a priest, against the wishes of his father. The son is even more atheistic, even more distant from the text read by the “father’s father,” which is a type of Urtext. But perhaps the child’s son, separated from the square, finds this text a long time afterwards, as if text and belief had passed invisibly through this Bavarian night. Something invisible happens as the Rhône passes under Léman to reappear on the other side: the river runs within the seemingly motionless lake.


Translated by Lisa Lubasch and Max Winter