With a backpack, a journalist's keen eye for telling detail and a poet's love of language, Paris writer Anna Polonyi set off on the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Wayword, her stunning new book of poetry, is the result.
Laurel Zuckerman: Which came first for you, poetry or journalism? Is there a link?
Anna Polonyi: Poetry came first, as a teenager, with lots of bad rhymes (in French) and lines like: “Pourquoi // ne m’aimes tu pas?” Journalism came a bit later, in college.
The link, I suppose, is that I am a reporter at heart, in the literal sense of the term: it’s by observing and documenting the world that I find my place in it. I have been told that my poetry feels reported in that sense: it’s fairly visual, concrete and draws on daily scenes.
What inspired you to write this book of poetry? What is Wayword about?
I had just finished journalism school in Paris, and was freelancing for various newsrooms here, generally doing what news reporters do: racing against the clock to deliver news as fast as possible. Time for me started to be measured differently: 3 seconds is the average length of a shot in a newsreel; 20 seconds the preferred length of a soundbite; 7-10 minutes the time it takes to interview someone with basic “who, what, where” questions, an hour and a half the amount of time you have to prepare in the early morning before going on air.
Space too started to feel warped in the news agency: we were getting live footage from the other side of the world and exchanging emails with offices in Hong Kong or Washington or London on a daily basis. Distance came to be defined by travel costs, time zones and the quality of the phone line.
I felt the need to reconnect with the reality of time and space the way it has felt for many, many centuries to many, many people: how it feels in the body. The Camino, Europe’s most ancient pilgrimage route dating back to pre-Christian times, seemed like a good place to do that. I left my smartphone at home. I wrote a gleeful auto-response for my email, explaining why I was going off the grid for 4 weeks. And I came back with these poems. They’re about the need for idleness, empathy, embodiment; about pilgrimage, solitude, walking.
How did you decide which language to write in?
I’ve always written in English, despite growing up in France in a Hungarian-speaking household. It was important to my parents that we preserve the English we had picked up at an early age in the United States, and so most of our books and movies at home were in English.
What is your writing/revision process?
I tend to write a lot in one go. And then pare down and rewrite and tinker and polish. The collection of poems as it is being published by Finishing Line Press is in its 19th version. You can (kind of) do that with poetry. But I can only hope, as I keep doing this, that I won’t have to write 19 versions of a novel before feeling ready to share it with the world.
Are there authors or artists who inspire or influence your work?
In college, we were made to do imitations of Brian Teare’s poetry, which plays a lot with white spaces on the page. That’s when I realized “Oh, you can be experimental without being obnoxious” and I’ve been going back to him ever since.
I recently started reading Svetlana Alexievich - I was astounded by how she takes herself out of what she’s reporting on: it’s beautiful and moving, and you feel grateful for her for having done all that work, without standing in the way of it, saying: “Hey, look at all this work I’ve done.”
Of all the places you've lived, where are you the most creative, and why?
My old neighborhood in the 18th, la Goutte d’Or. It was not necessarily great to live in (there’s a lot of petty crime and male aggression and police and crowds) but it was bubbling with creativity: you could go out on the street and stand still for two minutes and something was bound to happen that would be worth writing about later.
You had to cover the Nov 2015 attack as a journalist. Can you speak about this?
Sure. I was working for the New York Times at the time, though not in a reporting capacity. When the attacks happened, they needed every hand on deck. So I volunteered to do the rounds of the hospitals: we were trying to find victims or victims’ families to speak to. It was still too early to even know how many victims there had been and who they were. I met people who had been going from hospital to hospital all night, trying to find their friend or daughter or lover. Most people didn’t want to talk, but those who did, you could feel that they really needed to.
If you could be anything you wanted, just by clicking your fingers, what would that be?
Fungus. Wouldn’t it be nuts to inhabit the conscience of a vast, telepathic, underground network? (As long as I get to click my fingers again and not be stuck as fungus forever, that is).
What is your favorite place in Paris?
The Jardin des Plantes. There’s a statue there with a secret.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel based on a true story about a man-eating creature from rural 18th century France. Yes, that’s right: true story. Check it out: La Bete du unsettlingGevaudan.
(photo: Richard Beban)
Anna Polonyi is a Franco-American-Hungarian writer based in Paris. Her first collection of poems, Wayword, is forthcoming with Finishing Line Press in February 2017. She is the former recipient of a Fulbright fellowship and the 2015 Sylvia Beach Short Fiction Prize. As a freelance journalist, she has previously worked with the International New York Times, Radio France Internationale, the French news agency AFP and other outlets.
The drop that makes the vase overflow. The straw that breaks the camel's back. The beyond words disgusting terrorist attack in Nice is just the latest in a long and painful series of massacres fueled by the unchecked spread of radical Islam in France. In Nice, grief-stricken and furious mourners joined together for a minute of silence. The Prime Minister of France was booed. Unheard of. Incredible. And yet, completely understandable.
France is angry. Deeply, profoundly angry. Four years after the massacre of little children in Toulouse, 18 months after the slaughter of satirical cartoonists in the center of Paris, seven months after the Bataclan and other atrocities, a violent and perverse Tunisian with criminal convictions and a residency permit, plotted the murder of families enjoying the summer evening of July 14th in Nice. There were a half dozen ways this attack could have been prevented, but it was not.
And President François Hollande thinks he's doing ok.
The French trusted their government to put serious measures into place to fight the spreading menace of radicalized Islamists. And it is now dawning on everyone that this trust has been tragically misplaced.
Deploying a level of cynicism unlike any that I have ever seen in thirty years in France, François Hollande deliberately hamstrung his own ministers, in a Machiavellian play of divide and conquer, that ensured that nothing would be done, other than to exhaust the police, kept running by an army of repeat offenders who should not have been out on the streets at all, thanks to the unparalleled incompetence of the government and its failure to enact coherent policy of any kind.
There is, to this day, no policy concerning jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq. No solution of the 10,000+ people referenced as security risks - a number too high to keep track of. No new prisons to hold the petty criminals, like the killer of Nice, who blend into the massive crowd of other petty criminals. No sustained policy of expulsion of foreign nationals convicted of crimes. No review of family reunification (regroupement familiale) as the main source of immigration. No change in the grotesque laxity in sentencing of recidivist criminals. No real strengthening of the intelligence community. And on and on. Instead there is a permanent State of Emergency in which constitutional rights are suspended while CGT activists block roads with impunity, casseurs abuse the police and terrorists roam free.
After the tearful solidarity that brought masses into the street following the shock of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, France is experiencing an unprecedented swell of anger which threatens to become a tsunami if no vessel is found that can contain or channel it.
La goutte d'eau qui fait déborder le vase.
NEW: Major French newspapers including Le Monde, Libération and Le Figaro are reporting that the French government lied about the security arrangements. After published reports saying that only one municipal police car - and no National Police - blocked the entrance to the Promenade des Anglais, the Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, officially opened an inquiry by the "Police of the Police" into the security arrangements.
NEW: In the week since this post was written, Europe has seen five more murderous attacks. Wuerzberg (axe on a train: Afghan or Pakistani), Ansbach (bomb in backpack: Syrian), Munich (gun: German-Iranian), Reutlingen (machete: Syrian); and today, Saint Etienne de Rouvray (knife beheading of priest: French on terror watchlist)
Once again, French high school students have launched a petition to protest the content of the English test on the French BAC high school leaving exam. This time (2016) the problem is the use of the word Manhattan. The testers assumed that all students would know that it belongs in New York, but many did not, and felt that it was unfair to base their English language results on trivia known to some but not to others. The petition immediately gathered more than 12,000 signatures.
All this reminds me of last year's debate, when the petition (which gathered even more signatures) concerned questions that were also criticized as unclear, even to native English speakers (not that that matters, mind you).
I wrote about it at the time, but then didn't publish thinking "well, this will never happen again!"
So, only a year late, here's an essay on last year's petition against the English exam.
Politics aside, the situation of the migrants in Calais is catastrophic.
Writer Christine Buckley is helping to organize a fundraising party and auction today at Chez Grace, 46 rue des Abbesses, Paris 75018, from 2pm until late, with music and entertainment. The goal is to collect funds to help two of the associations that provide humanitarian aid to the people caught in the no man's land of Calais.
The European Union is struggling with the gravest crisis since its founding. Opinions differ not only about what to do but on the scope and nature of the challenge. Where to get information? PWN looks at data sources for analyzing - or at least trying to understand - the European refugee crisis. Number 1: EUROSTAT
What is EUROSTAT? It's the EU's official statistical office. It's mission? "to be the leading provider of high quality statistics on Europe."
Countries collect and verify the data before sending it to Eurostat which consolidates it using normalized methodology.
Eurostat publishes data on many subjects: demographics, economics, industry, trade and much more (see list here). Among its publications are detailed data on asylum applicants to EU countries. The data is presented and graphed. Some of it can be downloaded directly into Excel files. Anyone who wants to report on the refugee/asylum/migrant/immigration question can only improve the accuracy of their reporting by consulting the data of Eurostat.
With Eurostat data, a curious journalist (or citizen) can see not only the global stats, but specifically what is happening in each of the individual countries (spoiler alert: the structure of immigration/asylum in Italy is completely different from that in Germany).
The Eurostat reports on Asylum requests are updated quarterly. This means it's possible to get up-to-date stats as the situation evolves. Compare this to oft-cited census information which is ten years old and pretty much useless in describing the current situation. (How many times have I read articles in the "best publications" that rely on data collected from long before this crisis began!)
The residents of the aptly named Sun City commandeer the main road for better uses, one day in 1963. Could sun-seeking Arizona seniors have provided the inspiration for Paris Plages? (photo: The Arizona Republic)
In November 2013, French terrorism expert Marc Trévidic, head examining magistrate in charge of France's anti-terrorism unit and author of numerous books about Islamists in France, spoke with Dominique Godrèche about the evolution of Islamist terrorism in France and the world, which he examines in his book Terrorists: The Seven Pillars of Unreason . The original interview was published in French. In light of the attacks on Paris this Friday, we republish excerpts from the Trévidic-Godrèche interview here in English.
Marc Trévidic, French terrorism expert, interview by Dominique Godreche
for Paris Writers News
Marc Trévidic is a French "juge d’instruction" or examining magistrate at the anti-terrorist unit of the Paris "Tribunal de Grande Instance". His book, "Terroristes, les 7 piliers de la déraison" (Terrorists: the seven pillars of unreason") describes the psychological profiles of Islamist terrorists. Blending essay, document, and novel, Trévidic draws a portrait of a disoriented youth, in search of a “righter ” ideology, drawn into a deadly system, and he decodes the mental processes underlying the terrorist’s path towards violence. After the publication of “Au Coeur de l’antiterrorisme” (In the Heart of Anti-terrorism) in 2010, Trévidic continues his description of “geo societal” complexities, and the consequences of the identity crisis, while analyzing the violence and the dangers of its propagation, in the Internet era.