If you love Paris and would like to enjoy a bitter-sweet and highly personal collection of poems, I'll once again recommend Suzanne's collection,The Paris Poems, wholeheartedly. That's with the whole of my heart, not just part of it!
You can read the story of the book, and my small part in it (the cover pic) by checking out the review I did a while back - click the book cover just below. I've also included a few excerpts to give you a feel for her work.
And now here I'm delighted to present a little interview with Suzanne herself. Her answers to my questions are full, honest and revealing and I'm sure you'll enjoy reading them as much as I did.
What she has accomplished, with this little collection, is something which both inspires and comforts me. She's had the guts to write with feeling about something important to her, which is what I try to do every day in my pieces on Paris, so I sense a kindred spirit speaking through her words, although from a totally different angle, as it should and must be. Thanks Suzanne, and see you in Paris soon! Next time, the photos of you will be mine :-D
Suzanne Burns: Americans see Paris as the ideal city in which to experience romantic love, to meet and fall deeply in love with that handsome or beautiful stranger who has been waiting on the other side of the world for them their entire life.
Americans almost see Paris as the ideal lover, the personification of an aesthetic beauty we cannot grasp. Paris pleased me for what it is as much as what it isn’t. It is beautiful and stunning in places, dark and rough in others. It is full of parks and cobbled streets and luscious food covered in glistening gravy and pastry, God the pastry…but it also has tourists and McDonald’s and traffic and exhaust.
It is at times almost, dare I say, normal, until the next perfect monument is revealed, the next bookstall along the Seine, the next crepe, the next postcard perfect moment. Yes, Paris pleases me to no end. My loyalty to Paris is immortal.
PIYP: What is your favourite place in the city?
SB: Montmarte because of the winding streets and the hills and the view of the Eiffel Tower at the base of Sacre Coeur. I almost couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to be a woman who grew up in Oregon in the middle of nowhere surrounded by forest and mountains and for one afternoon I had the privilege of staring at the Eiffel Tower peeking out of the low clouds like something even a perfect dream couldn’t believe it was having. Plus I walked up and down Brassai’s fabled steps and ate a four-course lunch at the Moulin de la Galette, where I experienced my first taste of foie gras. Indescribable.
PIYP: Why does Paris inspire you so much poetically?
SB: Paris inspires me because of its inherent slowness. For all the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan city, Parisians take their time. Even a cup of coffee becomes a ritual, with the adding of cream, the tiny spoon next to the large saucer to stir in a packet of sugar, the dark chocolate waiting on the saucer for that one perfect sweet bite.
This type of purpose to enjoy pleasure without hurry is the ideal situation for not only writing poems in but writing poems about. Plus there is so much beauty in the city, when I first saw the Eiffel Tower I actually cried, and Pere Lachaise and macarons in the window at Ladurée and the French men with their impeccable suits flouncing down the Champs-Elysees.
Paris is gorgeous; it is impossible for poets not to want to dedicate their lives to capturing her. But her kind of beauty can never really be captured.
PIYP: A lot of your poems seem bitter-sweet. Is that true?
SB: I am a bittersweet person by nature. Combine my love of literature with my Irish melancholy and a healthy dose of sentimentality and you have a poet who not only is intensely aware of the beauty in the world, but also painfully aware that it is fleeting. I don’t believe true love ever ends, but I do understand that one of the beloved in each relationship, be it lovers or best friends or parent to child, will die first, and that life is crafted around the ability to love and suffer. There is such sweetness in the good times, like being in Paris for two weeks in October, and there is such bitterness in knowing that I had to leave.
PIYP: Have you ever thought of living in Paris?
SB: I think about living in Paris every single day, buying bread and cheese and reading Proust under a tree and walking up and down every street and pretending to be Hemingway strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens each evening after a good day of honest work…but I do love America for its humor and its friendliness, so I am torn. My ideal would be to live in Paris every year for one season at a time, and rotate those seasons. Money is of course a factor…but if I had it I would book a flight and find an apartment tomorrow to spend April in Paris, like the song says.
PIYP: There is a large cast of characters in The Paris Poems, but Paul Newman is mentioned several times - why's that?
SB: Paul Newman is the consummate American actor, and he died while I was in the city, steps from Notre Dame, where I lit a candle for him. I am a very lapsed Catholic, and though I felt not much in the way of a spiritual communion in the church, I felt compelled to honor someone who brought so much joy to the world of movies. I was also very surprised that some of the stores taped hand-drawn signs with Newman’s birth and death date in their windows. It made me feel a little homesick, but the sentiment also filled my heart and helped me feel safe being so far from home.
PIYP: Do you have a special Paris moment you can share?
SB: My favorite moment in Paris took place in Père Lachaise. With such an extreme language barrier my husband and I felt so alone and almost lonely walking the streets without being able to read the signs or understand any of the conversations for days.
When we arrived at Père Lachaise everything changed as we made our way to Jim Morrison’s grave. A group of young Spaniards dressed in bohemian clothes, complete with gold aviator sunglasses, was standing by Jim’s grave swigging on a bottle of red wine they passed to us without blinking. We tried to make small talk, which was also lost in translation, until one of the men held out his iPod and played one of Jim’s recordings of Awake for the whole crowd to hear.
At the end we all cheered, some of us cried, and we embraced each other, heads so close they almost touched, strange bodies becoming, for that one isolated moment, friends. The experience made me simultaneously realize how large and small the world really is.
PIYP: What is poetry, for you?
SB: Poetry is elevating language so it makes a reader feel a certain way without being coerced or manipulated. Poetry is writing at its most sincere. Poetry is never overly sentimental or overtly cruel. Poetry can make a reader laugh and cry within a few lines.
PIYP: What have you got lined up next?
SB: I am still working on a novel and writing the occasional overly sentimental love poem now and then.
PIYP: What's your philosophy on life, if you have one?
SB: My philosophy on life is that it is very very short so you better pay attention to everything you can, love hard and sincerely, eat something chocolate every single day and be kind to yourself.
PIYP: Something that never ceases to intrigue me, if you would, Suzanne: 'Why are American women So Obsessed with Macaro(o)ns?!'
SB: American women are obsessed with miniature cupcakes and diet pills. I am obsessed with French macarons, which is how we spell it over here to differentiate them from the coconut macaroons they sell in American bakeries, because they are so beautiful. The colors are vibrant and whimsical, almost like the colors of my favorite childhood board game, Candyland, yet at the same time, the taste is very adult, creamy, tantalizing, decadent.
I love French macarons because I remember walking along the Seine and eating a pistachio one, walking through the Latin Quarter while sinking my teeth into a pink framboise macaron, sitting at a café close to the Place de la Concorde and savoring a macron de chocolat. The whole concept of something so rich it almost seems dangerous appeals to me. My lust for the French macaron is profound. Plus I firmly believe they are best shared with the person you love feeding one to you on a slow afternoon when the rest of the world kind of disappears.
Note: Thanks so much to Suzanne, not only for answering the questions, but also for the whole friendly exchange we have had so far, from your tentative approach about using my photo for the book cover to the great news that the book had finally come out and receiving my signed copy! I'm proud of that lovely little volume of Paris Poems, I can tell you, though they're not even mine!
I see that a lot of people have already written some pretty in-depth reviews of this book, which makes me wonder what I could have to add.
But then I remember - silly me - that they are not me, and that you probably haven't read them, and that a lot of people have also set up blogs and written about Paris and typed at keyboards, but that doesn't mean that I can't too.
And so it came to pass, that in my life-long search for the perfect Paris book, or at least an attempt to read as many of them as I can, Mr. Robb's chunky pavé crossed my sweaty palms.
Pavé can mean paving stone or cobblestone, and you'll see the significance of that in a minute, but I also notice that it can be used pejoratively in French about a book or thesis, and that certainly wouldn't be the case here. I was simply trying to be as clever as Graham Robb actually is, and failing miserably.
So has he, then, managed to write a book which is explicitly about this great and much-written-of city which breaks the mould for once? And can I write a review about it which is worth reading? Yes I think so, and I hope so, respectively.
What he's done is write a series of chapters, or more properly vignettes, of various events over the last couple of centuries as seen through the eyes of key personages enacting them. Although there isn't that much dialogue like in real fictional stories, we are made to get under the skin of many of the main characters, as seen through their own eyes or thoughts, or those of a close observer. And he claims they are all true.
And it works, for me at least. In a nutshell, you've got chapters on subjects as diverse as Hitler's early morning jaunt around Paris, and a guy who saved it from literally collapsing; a famous writer's wife's trials and tribulations (Zola), and a famous detective's unorthodox ways of conducting criminal investigations (Vidocq); a French war hero's almost miraculous assassination escapes (de Gaulle), and the gory deaths of two youths from the banlieue (suburbs) in an electricity compound, allegedly chased there by the police. As well as the epoch-defining student protests of May '68, complete with passionate pavé tossing and all the intricate threads laid bare for us to pick over. Great for someone like me, who needs their history to be heftily human.
For most of the book, to be honest, I was simply in awe of the detail, and the scope of the work, as well as getting quite engrossed in each of the individual stories, which did crisscross each other from time to time to keep a certain coherence in the narrative.
Robb's approach is daring, backed up by the success and confidence of a bunch of other accomplished works in the same field (France itself, Balzac, Hugo, Rimbaud..), and although I'm right at the start of my French history reading adventures, I can appreciate the skill with which he's woven a ton of historical facts and stories together in this original way. My biggest fear is that the more straightforward histories sitting on my shelves waiting to be read will seem rather pedestrian in comparison.
If I were to be picky, I'd have to say that two or three of the chapters were a little bit of a struggle, due mainly to sudden switches in style which threw my Very Little Brain somewhat.
Among the rather more leftfield items are an imaginary screenplay recounting the existentialists of the mid 20th century (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Gréco..) which was a bit hard to get my head around, a slow-starting piece about Haussmann's monumental changes to the city, and a attempt at a Dan Brown-style symbols-and-superstitions tale about alchemy and stuff which had me completely lost for the first few pages. But full marks to Robb for going for it, and my interest certainly seldom faltered despite my own difficulties along the way. He obviously need a change and tried it out, and he really can write too, superbly. I'm surprised he hasn't already gone into fiction. Maybe that'll his next step. And I really did enjoy the challenge of this book, on a topic which I have, after all, determined to fill my head with from whatever sources I can find, including those which require a bit of intellectual effort.
Oh, I should also mention that there are two sections of colour photos in the book, and some frightfully serious looking references to all his research material, and a far more interesting (for me) chronological list of Big Paris Happenings - nice one, just what I need to get everything in context. It's also a bit of a relief for a slacker like me to be able to take a sneak at the back of the book and realise you don't have to read the last 40 pages or so. Don't worry, there are over 400 you do need to read so don't get complacent!
In the end I'm just terribly jealous that our Graham found a great new way to cover a tired old subject. So that's another possibility I can cross off my list for my own 'Sunday Times Bestseller' of my dreams... (sigh)
There, I think, for once, I'm not going to ramble and leave it at that. I thoroughly enjoyed the author's approach and to quite an extent felt that I was following him on his adventure around Paris. I particularly enjoyed the short introduction and the closing pieces, which had Robb telling a personal story of his own about the city and his search for the soul of the suburbs, and an elusive col, between the Montmartre and Butte Chaumont hills which the cyclist in him wanted to officialise. This added a nice personal touch, rarely present in the heavy historical tomes of this genre, I suspect, and which is just what I needed to finish off a very satisfying read.
"Once upon a time there were two Londoners who wound up sitting opposite each other in a Menilmontant café. Despite never having met before they soon realised they both felt as small as earwigs and as fidgety as ferrets as they waited for Paris to notice them."
Thus begins the little book of poems and pictures entitled'Mademoiselle London Y Paris (quelquefois) (sometimes)' dreamt up by the same two Londoners, and whom I met in, would you believe it, a Menilmontant café a couple of weeks back.
I think it would be fair to say that Paris has now noticed them, thanks to the off-beat adventures of their literary creation, being "The graphic and poetic exploits of a boozy London girl lost in Paris" and it was a pleasure to meet them both. Here's what they had to say for themselves...
Mademoiselle London: Paaaareeeees. Yes, it please us beaucoup. Little things.....The word Mademoiselle on our bank cards. Tiny windmills in flower boxes. A massive pig’s head in a butcher’s shop. Curly wooden stairs in apartment buildings. Curly haired sexy men in tabacs. Cheese that smells like someone farted in your fridge. School children greeting each other by kissing on both cheeks. (Instead of stabbing each other like they do in Peckham.) You know....the usual gubbins.
PIYP: How dare you produce a fully-fledged, raved-about, fancy-pants, cutesy-pootsy, proper little poetry-and-pics book-thingy in a matter of months, when other struggling artists take years to make a name for themselves?
ML: Nike’s motto is “Just do it.” Mademoiselle London’s motto is “Just fucking do it and stop hanging around in bars whinging about it.”
PIYP: The poetic slant notwithstanding, your take on relationships and drinking and stuff is sometimes pretty raw. Brits know where you're coming from, I guess, but are the French ready for that level of gritty reality?
ML: They’re ready. They’ve been ready for about six centuries. The French love a bit of sex and booze. They don’t make a big song and dance about it because it’s essential to their way of life. But they seem to have taken us to their hearts because we sing and dance about those things like a mad aunty at a wedding who’s rocking out to Boney M after a bucketful of sherry – we don’t care if we embarrass ourselves, we just hope we entertain you.
PIYP: What are the nicest and nastiest things people have said about your book, and do you care?
ML: We thank our lucky stars every day because the press reaction we’ve got for the book so far has been really positive. But our proudest moment was getting a fan letter from a couple of girls in Strasbourg. They were colleagues, one was French and the other English. They emailed us saying how they had read the book together and laughed together and related to everything in it but in different ways. That made us a bit teary-eyed because it was then that we realised we were touching total strangers miles away who were sort of bonding over our work. We couldn’t ask for anything more than that.
On the flip-side, the only slightly snidey comment we got was a blogger who said the poems were “on the naval-gazing side”. We laughed that one off because some of the world’s most famous poets have been very intimate with their belly button fluff. Funnily enough, that’s one of the reasons we created the Mademoiselle London character – to avoid using those self-obsessed words “I” and “me” in every poem. Some poems need the intimacy of “I” but for all the naughty stuff we use Mademoiselle London.
PIYP: Why do you only love Paris sometimes (as it says on the cover of your book)?
ML: Have you experienced Parisian customer service?
PIYP: What's the biggest difference between French men and English men?
ML: Hair. They have much more of it here. It must be something in the water.
PIYP: Same as above, for women.
ML: If you say so. I guess they’re pretty hairy too.
Joking aside....everyone talks about the great British reserve but actually French women are far more reserved than us. Just visit any British high street on a Saturday night where the tits-out-vomiting-in-handbags-shagging-in-toilets brigade is out in full force.
British girls aren’t known for their shy and retiring nature after a few pints. But maybe that’s why the French women like a bit of Mademoiselle London – we can get away with doing all the stuff they would secretly love to do because “It is not zeer fault. Zay are Eeeeengliiish.”
PIYP: How has Mademoiselle London changed things for you?
ML: She gave us a voice. A reason to be in the city. She’s made us belong, made us get out there and meet new people. We are connecting much more with French people, and with the translation of the poems and publicity we are connecting more with the French language every day. And if we’re feeling lazy, she kicks us out of bed in the morning and demands that we are creative.
PIYP: What's in the pipeline - Mademoiselle London 2, or something else?
ML: We’re bringing out some T-shirts designed with phrases from the poems. The T-shirts will be bilingual and reversible so depending on your mood and who you want to communicate with, you can either wear the English on the front or the French translation.
Plus we’re working on the second book in the series – a graphic novel charting one riotous Parisian night with Mademoiselle London. We’ve had so many incredible nights in Paris that only a graphic novel could accurately contain all those bizarre and outlandish adventures.
PIYP: What's your philosophy on life, if you have one? (another of my standard questions)
ML: The answer to question 2 pretty much covers it. But the other philosophy we subscribe to is celebrating all that you have and not obsessing over what you lack.
PIYP: Macaroons or Marmite?
ML: Marmite. Smells like bum but you can’t beat it on toast with a mug of PG Tips at three in the morning when you’ve had a skinful and “danced your legs down to the knees” (to quote the worshipful master Morrissey)
PIYP: Stilettoes or Doc Martins?
ML: Stilettos when you’re on the pull and Doc Martins when you’re on the run.
PIYP: 7th or 20th?
ML: Most definitely the 20th. Who wouldn’t want Jim Morrison for a neighbour? (Granted, he’s a bit quieter these days)
PIYP: Naive or cynical?
ML: I could pretend to be naive but that would just be cynical.
PIYP: London or Paris?!
ML: For now it’s Paris, but we need our little heroin-fixes of London every few months or else we get a bit up our own arses. London grounds us and Paris lifts us up.....
PIYP: (And seeing as you mentioned the Most Mozzed One) Morrissey or Madonna?
ML: Morrissey when you're feeling low and Madonna when you're feeling high, although Morrissey's song 'Frankly Mr Shankly' always makes me laugh, especially when he sings "I didn't realise that you wrote poetry/I didn't realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry...".
As one of Paris' biggest quirks (see photos..), I feel well qualified to write on this topic. Here's the idea. It's...
PARIS: 20 QUARTERS / 20 QUIRKS ~ Mini e-mail series ~ ~ One Paris quarter chosen ~ ~ One Paris quirk featured ~
~ 20 Articles in all ~
~ Completely free ~
My problem is that I have too much of Paris to share, and not enough ways or time to get it all out there. So this is an attempt to offer you some great new Paris content in a fun and easy way.
So concretely, I'm going to produce a series of little articles on some of the amazing curiosities and factoids out there about the city which we all love hearing about but don't always come across as often as we would like. And so was born my latest idea:
PARIS: 20 QUARTERS / 20 QUIRKS
This is how it works:
You enter your First Name and your E-mail Address in the box at the top of the right-hand column on any page (see the example here on the right).
You look for the confirmation e-mail in your inbox and click on the link to confirm.
You will receive a regular series of... did you guess? 20 Paris Quirks in 20 Paris Quarters.
You will also receive my new Weekly Newsletter which shows you all the latest Paris stuff in one place.
That's it. As simple as I could make it.
I'll still be publishing plenty of articles on other Paris quirks of one sort or another, as well as lots more Paris Photo Quizzes, which end up as articles here anyway, once a few people have had a go at guessing the answer!
If, like me, you are fascinated by all the little quirks and curios this wonderful city is full of (and I know you are), then I'm sure you're going to love my "Paris: 20 Quarters / 20 Quirks" series!
On the other hand, I won't hide from you that this material is eventually going to go towards some material I'm planning on selling, so if you want to get it for free, don't hesitate to sign up now!
In fact, I'd like to build up a base of loyal Paris enthusiasts I can offer my new Paris material to and get your reaction on before commercialising it. I have quite a few other projects in the pipeline, which I will also be offering exclusively to people who have signed up in the form at the top of this page.
Some examples of similar series I've got in mind are:
20 Sectors / 20 Secrets
20 Churches / 20 Charms
20 Bridges / 20 Browraisers
20 Statues / 20 Surprises
20 Parks / 20 Peeks
Do let me know if you can think of another category which would fit in nicely with the above.
In any case, there's so much material to get through where Paris is concerned, that as soon as I've offered it once for free I might not be able to do so again, so please don't miss out if you'd like it by signing up now.
I would also really appreciate your feedback in order to make these articles as good as possible.
There will probably be one main photo and maybe a supplimentary one, along with a few paragraphs of text explaining just what it is that makes the thing in the photo curious or noteworthy, be it an odd statue, an obscure inscription, an architectural anomaly or an unexpectedly subversive element popping up where you would least expect it. Believe me, Paris has them all, and I can't wait to share them with you!