Short form interviews with Les Figues authors, playful and provocative, smart and beautiful.
Chris Tysh’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, part of the Trench Art: Logistics Series, is a transcreation of Jean Genet’s 1943 novel Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs. It follows the characters of Genet’s prose—Our Lady, Mignon-Dainty-Feet, Divine and others—into the forbidden blue hours of the Parisian underworld, exploring the tensions of gender identity, community, violence, and incarceration through the magnifying glass of verse and with the modern touch of American slang. The queens’ experiences of otherness and social inequality as well as their sense of sainthood within the inverse context of this underworld are tenderly and fiercely situated into new stanza echoes, opening a fresh transcultural dialogue between story and reader.
Les Figues intern Crystal Salas interviewed Tysh via email over the course of a month.
Crystal Salas: What about Genet’s novel first sparked an interest in translating Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, not only at the language level, but also as a transcreation of time and form?
Chris Tysh: For my Kresge Foundation grant I had embarked on a three-book project, Hotel des Archives, which was to consist of a verse recasting of three French novels. The first became Molloy: The Flip Side, published by BlazeVOX in 2012.
I knew from the get-go that I wanted to follow it with a Genet text. Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs is a novel that I have always admired and cherished for its uncanny beauty and the topsy-turvy reversals which endow the lowest of the hoods and pimps with a saintly halo, where a drag queen sips her tea like a countess and the whole Parisian underworld is bathed in the downy light of the blue hour. The names alone—Our Lady, Mimosa, Mignon-Dainty-Feet, Divine, Archangel—form a cortège that drives me deep inside a bewitching tale that Jean Genet writes in the solitude of his cell at the Fresnes Prison, on brown paper bags while German bombers fly over Europe.
The other aspect of Our Lady turns around the notion of gender and its corset of expectations, which Genet seems to understand with an eerie consciousness, especially where it pertains to women. Humiliation, inequity, injustice and all the obligatory variants of phallocratic logic are trotted out, as if a legend on Divine’s coat of arms:
She drops her kitchen rag
And is back in the crawlspace
Of the human race, but one day
She’s had enough…
Since the beginning of this project, I had been very much taken with Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of altermodernity, which puts both relationality and translation at its core. Hotel des Archives is a translation extended toward what we might call a transcreation, or a transcultural dialogue, a communication between continents, languages, and temporalities. At first, I naively thought that I was inventing a terminology, proper to my current undertaking, until Charles Bernstein hipped me to Haroldo de Campos, the Brazilian poet who had used the very same neologism for his practice of translation.
CS: You commented a bit on your interest in Genet’s particular treatment/understanding/consciousness of gender as being something that compelled you to work with this text. Has your own understanding/consciousness of Genet and/or the text changed in the transcreation process? What has been the most surprising revelation?
CT: Any act of translation is based on a prolonged and intense cohabitation with the tongue of the other. We’re definitely not talking about one-night stands. Consequently, this lolling in bed together, this hanging on each other’s lips, this endless striptease down to the smallest interstice of skin between words only intensifies that knowledge, makes it material and specific. Hence, the extraordinary images with which Genet constructs Divine—whether it be the drunken queen singing Veni Creator in front of a wedding party, or using her dental plate as a tiara, or simply bending to the gas flame to light a cig—take on a canonical value, like Molloy’s sucking stones, become imprints, a shorthand for the narrative.
What surprised me is the ease with which I could dress Divine, né Lou Culafroy, hands in pockets, a hint of leg, as she sits on a park bench. Whether I give her a Tour de France yellow jersey, the steel coupé of a cop’s handcuffs, or a season of tears; call her a space cadet or a hustler, I know she’ll make the scene. I’m trying to say that even if I mix palette, periods, and styles, I will not betray Genet’s characters and their inner logic. Having transformed, for a second, Divine into Andromeda chained naked at the rock, while Mignon plows into her like the sea monster, I have the courtesy to improvise their gestures intrinsic to their subjectivities, not that they’re etched in stone, since both of us, if I may be so bold, are draping those as we go: Jean, “powerful masturbator,” as Glück says, “for the enchantment of his cell,” and I, to toss a line from him to you, dear reader.
What Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs makes abundantly clear and what my transcreation only echoes is that Genet uses the culture at large to construct his queens and macs in terms of an implacable gender grammar; i.e. who goes where. Arms and legs, thighs and torsos, boy to girl, an endless catalogue to choose from in this slow apprenticeship of body parts and roles. When Divine falls for Our Lady’s gorgeous flower mug, she rehearses “masculinity” like others practice piano. “Striking a pose, she builds/Like a puzzle…”
CS: Could you speak a little about your process of curating—which parts of the original made the echo and which were swallowed/lost? How does the absence speak in the reading? How does it create?
CT: I love the word “curating” in your question, as if I were standing in a white room, giving directions to art handlers…
Indeed, there is that undeniable plasticity to the signifier that I frame and highlight, careful to let the vocabs preen and sparkle without losing their daggers, their crystal spikes, their erectile stems, as Derrida says.
But to speak to your query more directly, I would answer that while I do follow the diegetic arc of the novel, what little of it there is, since let’s not forget we are here within the masturbatory logic of this composition, I remain like that proverbial farmer, who, having bought a she-goat, a cabbage, and a wolf, now needs to ferry them home but his boat won’t fit more than one of his purchases. Who and what gets swallowed, eaten or left behind on the shore? If Genet evokes Mignon-Dainty-Feet, he enfolds him in the garb of a gigolo, an Indian raja drinking pearls, a magician whose blond youth recalls tropical grasslands and the fleur-de-lis tattoo of a hoodlum. On his tongue he will deposit the most delicious argot: “I’ve got/ a cigar at the tip of my lips.” His sentence? Reduced for snitching. I keep the cigar and the business of ratting out his pals:
Stool pigeon that’s me! Mignon
Walks down Rue Dancourt high on his own
Abjection lest its intensity kill him
Like a linguist who has done field work on native speech patterns, Genet offers a most trenchant discourse pertaining to the gendered aspect of slang, which, here in this Parisian demi-monde, belongs to pimps (“intrinsic rights of a warrior/ his crest and spurs…”). They have the means to articulate it: apparently arms, hips, legs, eyes, all male, are needed. When a fairy dares to wander in on that turf, there’s a rumble, a threat and knitted brows: “Broad acting tough,” someone spits “Bit of tobacco caught between his lips.” Every time Genet touches on this power grid and its inequities, I’m called to bring out the syllables of those conventions. I wouldn’t dream of leaving that goat behind.
Since I have recast into verse the entire novel, it would be too tedious to map out the whole score of deletions and grafts. Suffice it to say that I stick to the quintessential scenes which light up the phantoms that Genet projects on the screen of his private cell: young Lou, not yet Divine, asked to touch a basket of vipers by Alberto, the snake charmer; the titular assassin, Our Lady of the Flowers, strangling the old man and walking out into the night, frozen for eternity; the unforgettable and sublime tableau vivant featuring Divine and Our Lady in full drag at a nightclub. A riot of tulle, muslin and silk, wine and dance, only to end with the queen’s being the third man out, once more.
Divine could cry with rage
A dragon or better yet a vampire
Strange how no one sees
Her front teeth lengthen nor the bony
Fingers scrape as on a chalkboard
But all nights come to an end.
And of course, the final courtroom scene where Our Lady awaits judgment in his gray flannel suit, flanked by republican guards, red drapes and ermine robes. Divine, Mimosa, 1st Communion, Our Lady come to the stand and swear to tell the truth and nothing but, with banal French surnames, which sound more baffling and impossible than a book of riddles: René Hirsch? Antoine Berthollet? Louis Culafroy? Adrien Baillon?
And so our little faggots
From Blanche to Pigalle
Are stripped of their frills
Like a paper flower
In a dancer’s hand
What doesn’t make the cut, so to speak, is the rich soil of Divine’s childhood and its nocturnal garden where Lou learns to dance on tippy toes in his black woolen slippers; the thousand-and-one stories about convict fauna; the one who killed his wife and then walled her up in the shape of a bench; the little paper cones of coarse salt that prisoners get on New Year’s Eve; Divine coming undone at the seams, having touched bottom, the ultimate infamy of paying for sex; and then, the narrator’s perverse ode to the penitentiary’s mal-odorant elements, and we mean that in its most literal sense, latrine and all. These losses and absences, as you call them, allow me to keep the weave ever so tight, to pass from Lou’s little sovereign child self to Divine’s chagrined face and powdered wrinkles, like a panning shot or slow fade. No need to explain or add the plastered hair, the excessive thinness. We get it. The queen is blue.
CS: However unconventional and dark it may be, there is a surprising sense of community in this poem, even if witnessed through sneak peeks. There might be a culture of individuation and disregard among the characters, but at the same time there exists an interdependence between them. When one queen goes out, the rest fall, too. What do you think this paradox says about community?
CT: Verily and doubly. On the first tier, there exists the community of felons, social pariahs, murderers, whose portraits, like that of Weidmann, appear in the morning edition, and that the narrator will later cut out to add to his clandestine shrine:
Out of chewed bread I make glue
For my cutouts—some I pin with brass wire
That inmates use for funeral wreaths
Now star-shaped frames for the criminal
Interestingly, he places this DIY homage on the back of the cell’s regulations and, come night, yields to their savage hold. I can’t resist pointing out that all of Genet’s ideological arsenal is already in place and prefigures what’s to follow, down to the law’s cutting blade, and the heterological doubling and inversion of the good and upright with the fallen and debauched. And that this community of outlaws functions as the liberatory erotics for the prisoner, only dramatizes the abyss that separates him from the rest of the world, the place where he touches the rough grain of the other.
The second meaning of community has to do with the gay subculture of fags and fairies who swarm the Parisian streets, with their flower names and dainty step: Mimosa, Régine, 1st Communion, Castagnette, Angela, and Divine.
All the queens, boys and girls
Are there knotted together chattering
And tweeting, pearl tiaras on their heads
I have kept the camp vocabulary of the ’40s to echo the historical bias and gender assumptions that particular language illuminates. What model of community are we to derive from such representations? Eons would not suffice to clearly account for the complex unwritten laws and verdicts governing this social formation. If it is abundantly clear that their opposition to heteronormative values is stitched onto their very bodies (“a thousand little jabs with a fine needle”) that they signal through their distinctive manner of clothing and speech (“Aura of scorn for all square things, bonds, etc.”), then the Byzantine tables of precedence, who goes where, is a matter that would demand a lengthy examination. Let us at least agree to state that this inner world is deeply cleaved and inequitable in a most tangible way:
In the bar the girls sink to their knees
Only the men stand…
Genet’s keen awareness of this ruthless gender logic, which pits teen pimps against hustling queens, plays out the vaster social antagonisms which carve up the social body.
What remains to be said in response to your interrogation regarding this push and pull between the need for community and the intense subjectivism that the Genetian subject experiences has to do with the bare facts of incarceration, on one hand, and the act of writing, on the other. In the eyes of the law, he is a convict and, as such, lives out his sentence, both connected to the other offenders—whether still in lockdown or not—and utterly severed, alone in box 426 (“not even a stony arm to catch me”). From the depths of that solitude, a book emerges to cheat his despair (“to shatter the walls of my prison”). And it is from Divine’s borrowed interiority, which itself is a fictitious assemblage of drives, cathexes, dreams, and follies—the whole nine yards of subjectivity—that, like a frenzied boatman, Genet plies between opposite shores, self and other, the one and the numerous, condemned and free.
CS: There are several beautiful instances in this poem where the “big picture” is not entirely clear to me, where the time/setting and even sometimes the characters are cloudy. But, in the absence of that clarity, emerge magnificently intense details waiting to be encountered which bring about a sort of acute understanding of situation through image and the insertion of fleeting feelings instead. Do you think verse lends to this new kind of understanding/focus? Are there elements of the story that are allowed to come out clearer because of verse?
CT: What does Roland Barthes say in Writing Degree Zero? That écriture is always deracinated, emptied out “and this void is necessary for the density of the word to rise out of a magic vacuum, like a sound devoid of background, like ‘fury and mystery’.” Poetry’s capacity to inscribe the world in its aching materiality, and yet not be indebted to conventional modes of communication, grants it a coveted status, a field of possibilities, that elusive elsewhere the young Rimbaud dreams about. You are touching here on the lyric’s unique powers to reach us at the place where our attention is drawn, fenced around the signifying chain through the sheer interplay of melos and image.
I’m perfectly aware of the fact that the reader might not always “follow” the various actants, time and place in this performance of social heterogeneity, where we switch genders and contexts with alarming abandon. Whether Divine is shuttered in her attic pad or still a boy wearing blue serge pants; whether she’s talking to Archangel—”We’ll sketch him/Later when he stands off to the side/ Of our story”—or as Lou, planning a fugue from juvie in a nun’s habit, has less to do with a sense of continuity and coherence and mapping out in our mind’s eye the secret passages of that territory than effecting a durée for the time of this encounter with language’s operations. None of this is very new. Since Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, on through Stein, Spicer, and generally speaking all of 20th century avant-garde poetics has accustomed us with defamiliarizing techniques and diminished referentiality.
And it is precisely for the reason that the late lyric’s reader is so adept at encountering a verse shorn of its mimetic attributes that I can enlist her as an ally in my project:
Gentle reader forgive me
If I skip the nightly mise-en-scène
Of their bodies pressed tight
At the gate of desire where D’s
Cheeks admit entrance to tramps
Bandits and mercenaries without
Once asking “Who goes there?”
I’m not sure that my verse recasting brings out anything “clearer” as per your question, but rather that I am able to materialize the erotic game that animates this text with a degree of condensation which makes up for the leaps across the chasms which swallow up the unities of action, time and place. In addition, the poetic license to borrow from contemporary porn metaphors lets me translate the queen’s amours into a lover’s discourse that is an unadulterated ode to the phallus:
But for Divine he’s everything
Her joystick, little pony, love missile
Jesus in the manger, baby brother
An object of pure luxury that she decks
Out with ribbons and flowers
In the final analysis, it is the turn toward the word’s spark, its irrepressible flicker that prosody tenders, one signifier after another.
CS: Many of the things that can be heard in this echo are descriptions of characters in situations of incarceration as well as death. This is particularly vivid during Divine’s death, where in the process of dying, she is stripped away of her physical self only to be dressed up again after her passing, by the waiting Ernestine. What roles do imprisonment/entrapment and death play in the gender performativity of the characters?
CT: If we agree with Judith Butler that gender is an impersonation, a drag show, “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (Gender Trouble 33), then we understand the degree to which Divine’s performance is constructed. Whether masculine or feminine, her identity will cite the very gestures necessary to a sex/gendered legibility. As mentioned earlier in our interview, this notion of constructedness is always doubled here, since in addition to the performative subject that the character named Lou-Divine enacts, in response to dominant ideology’s figurations, there is also the narrator’s own fictional construct, which he stages according to the demands of his text and the inexorable conditions of his captivity. When Divine dies, we witness that detachment “from the human column.”
And there she is the Quite-Dead
White sheets like sails on a vessel
Drifting toward infinity
Ernestine, the French Catholic mother, who has come for the final hour, will dress her in a man’s suit, reinscribing the son’s “proper” gender in the eyes of God. This charade further echoes the notion of performativity and its never-ending patriarchal script. The funeral rite must be performed with fitting costume—here “worsted suit of English cut”—and correct personal pronoun: “‘He’s leaving,’ she says to herself.”
What roles do imprisonment and death play? The Divinaria that Genet composes, a sort of exalted hagiography, becomes a map of gendered bodies in French society of the ’40s. It is well to remember that eighty years ago, Divine’s sisters had very limited options. The criminal milieu evoked in Our Lady of the Flowers gives us a measure of the inevitable ghettoization such sublime creatures suffered from. Of course, bourgeois non-conformists could contravene the law, protected by class and race privilege. The macs, dope dealers, snitches, hustlers and queens play out their gender assignations as if they’d been drummed into their heads since childhood, like abc’s or cursive writing. From deep inside his own entrapment, Genet both mimes these crystallized conventions and allows us to see the threads that hold the puppets in the air. In limit-situations, such as death or capital sentencing, our characters are confronted with a merciless hegemony that literally undresses Divine or Our Lady and returns them to the gender they sought to trouble:
Had she been a woman only
Little would she care but Divine
is also a man
CS: This is part two of your three-part Hotel des Archives project. Could you tell us a bit about what’s next with your concluding transcreation of Marguerite Duras’ Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein?
CT: Ravished is the closing section of my triptych. Duras’ 1964 novel about female voyeurism is the source text for this final act of transcreation. Needless to say, it will have been the most challenging of the three as what she dubbed her écriture courante is already poetic. We are in the presence of a writing which flows on the crest of words without insistence, without explanation, light as sea-foam (I’m paraphrasing the author’s own description). My regeneration, which is here rendered in couplets, allows me to retain that sense of textual economy, lending the language an extremely sparse and denuded quality, yet keeping the lyricism and that always libidinal shadow which traces her lines. Incidentally, I have noticed that a number of readers mistake that deliberate thinness for a lack of flash, too simple, too poor in special effects.
Ultimately, this type of deterritorialized literary translation signals to both the first text and its afterlife, the graft that lives on under a new set of linguistic and formal conditions.
in tune with his step
she tails at a distance
intent on placing her feet
in the same black prints
as if stitching a sheet
with big hasty needles