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Interview with Pascale Gouverneur
Published in Erbacce Poetry Journal, July 2019
Pascale: Hy Scott and welcome to the erbacce journal. Your poetry strikes me as meditative, where ‘the words for an instant steep in silence’ and where there is a ‘dance till words twist from their skin’. We will explore this further, but first though, for the sake of our readers, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Scott: I was born in California but have spent most of my life in France and now live in Auvergne taking care of my three children. As a young man I aimlessly attended university then lived for some years as street musician in Paris and London before training and working as a mime artist in France and Portugal. Afterwards, I took religious vows and went into strict retreat for twelve years in a nearby Buddhist hermitage. Eventually leaving this and the monastery, too, I married a French potter and rebuilt a house here in the countryside. We had three children and I guess it was, in part, the jolt of our separation about six years ago that initiated my writing poetry and composing songs.
Pascale: Street musician, mime artist, monk, and father; from sound to silence to clamor. Could you tell us a little more about that journey from music to mime to ‘disappearance’? What is the life of a street musician? What does it involve exactly to train and work as a mime artist - Marcel Marceau was a well-known mime artist in France who fascinated me -, then become a Buddhist monk?
Scott: As a young busker I was naive and, as such, for the most part, fearless. It was an easy life, butterfly-like, seeking and cherishing beauty. In that little walk-up-to-the-sixth-floor maid’s room in Paris I discovered Dostoyevsky, Malory, Plath, classical music, chess, and so much more. The streets offered a variety of performers and I spent time on the road. A few years later, in Mexico City, on a whim, I took a course in pantomime. This led, again, to Paris where the best of teachers could be found. I studied with Marceau’s first wife, Ella Jaroszewicz, and his own teacher, Etienne Decroux, as well as modern and classical dance. The days were full and night was for performing on the streets to pay for classes and rent. This, too, was an easy life. The people around me were impassioned, and the hours and years of training were sheer delight. Afterwards, came the stage… yes!
Life seems full of undercurrents. One of them pulled me like an insistent child might pull on one’s sleeve. Intellectually, a taste of zen in the early days, then aikido with Noro, and yoga with a beautiful young lady. All of these led to an opening of one’s hand and heart to something else, ‘soul searching’, I guess they would say. Portugal was the turning. The rest naturally flowed. I wanted to go to the end but the end kept slipping away.
Pascale: La bohème and the early nourishments; apologies for the crystallization; then an inspired whim into pantomime and embodiment, the art of silence and movement. The multiple allusions to dancing in your poems, almost a tightrope dance forever seeking balance and fighting gravity - both meanings – seem to suggest suspension. Also, would you say that pantomime is the art of silence that awakens all the voices in us? Or does it guide us into total surprise at the world as the French poet Jules Laforgue formulates in Complainte de Lord Pierrot: Tiens ! L’Univers/ Est à l’envers…? Something, someone is ‘à l’envers’ in your poems, upset, upside down, and the last line often expresses puzzlement, or relief, or abandonment…
Scott: In fact, pantomime, revived from the 19th century, seemed too wordy for my taste. ‘Classical mime’ proposed by Etienne Decroux was more abstract and relatively pure; dance, perhaps, even more so. Yes, I’m sometimes haunted with a feeling of ‘suspension’ in time and space, of ever being on the edge of the beat of a metronome, of a space opening or closing, ever falling and trying to make something of the fall as one might work with a false note, attempting to give it just enough context to ring true with the rest. Maybe this comes through in the poems, and maybe rather than ‘à l’envers’ one might say of them ‘de travers’, meaning not quite right, a little out of step and focus. Silence, the unsaid, the unexpected pause, seems, indeed, to be an integral and essential part of the whole. Yes, too, both for the writer and reader, one is invited to walk the fine line between obscurity and a fresh view or feeling of the world. This has been for me, at least up until now, an uncomfortable but seemingly inevitable experience, a little like being lost in a forest. However, I have a feeling that there’s room for change.
Pascale: The passage from mime artist, and aikido and yoga as well, to strict retreat in a Buddhist hermitage seems like extending the pursuit of embodiment even deeper; the body is actually the main instrument, ‘the inevitable experience’, the ultimate sage, where the thoughts are relentlessly brought back to ‘nothing but this’. Does that make sense, or am I just rambling? It seems the words in your poems hover, then haul us back to one instant to be integrated: ‘something terribly more’; ‘she meant war’; ‘you sensed that something was wrong’; ‘as if all were fine’…
Scott: Yes, as mentioned, I was idealistic and wanted to go to the end of things. As a young man I literally aspired to embody beauty itself through creative performance, to be the pigment in the painting, the very notes flowing from a piano or from my own throat. This, of course, naturally brought disillusionment, a life of deaths and rebirths both in the artistic and spiritual spheres of activity. However, somehow, like the woman portrayed in an old Fellini film ‘The Nights of Cabiria’, life itself ever provides inspiration, and in spite of it all, I seem to be ready as ever for the next dance, perhaps, this time, a little more tender with myself and others. This morning I went walking in the forest and felt, as one might, a beautiful and beneficial presence. I touched my forehead and palms to an oak with no longer the desire to embody or fuse, but simply to be open and fully there in that moment together. No, Pascale, for me, you’re not rambling. ‘Nothing but this’, ‘now, and again, now’, is pertinent to me and my writing. The ending lines you’ve cited are maybe simply my own resonance of the apocalyptic era into which we seem to be entering.
Pascale: You wanted to go to the end, but the end kept slipping away; that kind of dis-illusionment must be very liberating in a way, when there is sort of nothing left to hold on to, and we are back to the heart of matter with a totally fresh perspective. Is that one of the moments when poetry came into play, to give silence a voice and to resonate with the world?
Scott: Well, no. There’s a time between death and a new beginning. Writing seems to be inspired or propelled by both. Grief is a hard one to brush away. Satori is a flash of insight, but just a flash. Tendencies run deep and can’t be washed away as easy as that. At least, this is my experience of the beast. So, as such, much of my writing has dealt with the former and my debut collection was entitled ‘Part of the Dark’. The new manuscript seems to be even darker, yet somehow may suggest the faint light of an exit sign like one might see in movie house.
Pascale: A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud wells up here: ‘Un soir, j’ai assis la Beauté sur mes genoux. –Et je l’ai trouvée amère’ (‘One night, I sat Beauty on my lap. –And I found her bitter’). Rimbaud has been with me for as far as I remember. You mentioned Plath earlier; which poets or poems most inspired you, made you think along the way?
Scott: Hmm, Rimbaud, yes, and, for me, Baudelaire was an inspiration. As a child I had a problem with the written word and was pulled back a year for not being able to read. This made studies difficult. In high school I connected with little other than ‘The Raven’, ‘To Helen’ and ‘The Highwayman’. At university, ever behind in the required reading, I took some amphetamines the night before an exam and came across a poem of Wordsworth that knocked me over. The rest came during the years after formal studies. Briefly, I’ve been inspired by many, going back to Donne, Blake, Shakespeare, etc., then Plath, Eliot, Dickinson, Strand, Duffy, Oswald, and a host of other contemporary British and Irish poets. I began seriously writing around 2012 and fell upon Beth Bachmann’s first collection ‘Temper’. Afterwards, I couldn’t write for, at least, nine months till a part of her world seemed to have been integrated into my own. Then the poems began to flow.
Pascale: You hinted at the apocalyptic era which we seem to be entering. Would you say that poetry should be read today more than ever, that the poem is literally a field of action?
Scott: It’s hard to generalize because there seem to be so many exceptions, but, from my own experience poetry is rather a field of reaction, a crafted response to a wave or breeze of unconscious, fears, yearnings, visions, whatever, that wells up and overflows into one’s morning or evening. This seems to involve an opening, be it only a crack, to that intuitive and feminine part of one’s own being and of humanity itself, repressed, over, as some may say, a couple of thousand years or more. One doesn’t need satellite or microscopic photos to know that something’s not right. Instinct, itself, is a fine instrument, and it’s within us all, sending messages from moment to moment. I’ve never felt so akin to a spider, butterfly, or whatever creature comes my way.
Pascale: The words in your poems are fine instruments. I perceive a soft musicality and rhythm, a flowing chant, that contrasts with the often sharp content. Then, we haven’t discussed this yet, but you are a musician. How does it influence your writing?
Scott: The editing of my poems seems to turn as much around how the words ring together as what they may mean as a whole. One might say the same of writing lyrics but in a song the melody usually demands a more ridged adherence to rhythm and rhyme. While in a song melody and lyrics are interdependent, offering each other strength and beauty, the words of a poem must stand alone. For me, when listening to a song, as a child or an adult, it’s always the melody that has drawn my attention. Poems have no melody but certainly can sing through meter, line breaks and the like. I have never studied poetry but work, as I may, through intuition and a sense of what makes a belle courbe. The same might be said of my words and expressions. At times, I feel I’m working with scraps and more than admire those eloquent voices of both today and yesterday. Yet, to each of us a unique garden to cherish and cultivate.
Pascale: A poem is lyrical, maybe not singing to the lyre, but certainly singing in tune with the heart. That’s how I read your poetry. We are almost reaching the end of this interview Scott; what is it that you would want to share with the readers before we conclude?
Scott: Hmm, a poem is lyrical, yes, and even more, a sort of miracle, as life itself. Often upon finishing a poem I wonder if it be the last, but let me tell you a story. Once in the doldrums I plucked the low E string of a guitar and listened closely. I heard, of course, the tone E but felt there was something behind, then, plucked a harmonic and listened for that through the sound of the dominant E and heard it clearly. Then another and another, and, in the end, heard all the harmonics. Finally, I listened for a song based on simple harmonic notes: ‘Frère Jacques’ and it came again and again until the E note stopped vibrating. This to say that all is there, all the time, and we only need to drop our fears and dive.
Pascale: I wonder too about the history behind that well-known nursery rhyme… Also I think of vigilance and the heralding nature of poetry. But yes, let’s end with that particularly subtle note: the vibrating quality of life. Before we dive into your poems though, it has become a tradition at erbacce for the invited poet to choose a colour for the weed on the cover. What is it going to be?
Scott: Blue, cornflower blue.
Pascale: Wild blue it is. Thank you Scott for sharing your honest and enlightening responses. It’s been a delight. Now to your poems…
Three Audio Recordings: https://www.iambapoet.com/scott-elder