Sunday, May 15, 2011

Where Are All the Afro-Caribbean Surrealist Women Poets When You Need Them?

You're probably wondering where all the Afro-Caribbean francophone surrealist women poets of the mid-twentieth century are when you need them.  Well, at least one of them, Lucie Thésée, appears in the pages of the June issue of Poetry, in my translation.  She's a bit of an enigma, but what we do know about her is fascinating, and the poems are very strong in the original French.  I only hope I've done justice to her.

Here's part of a brief note I wrote about her, which is included along with the poems:

In 1941, his writings banned by the Vichy government and looking for any safe harbor, André Breton found himself in Martinique.  Fine weather notwithstanding, he might almost have been at home in Paris: the place was buzzing with Surrealist activity. Aimé Césaire and his circle were just launching Tropiques, a literary review dedicated to Surrealism, Négritude, and anti-colonialism.  Martiniquean Surrealism was primarily a game for men, despite Suzanne Césaire's theoretical contributions to the journal. But the poetry of an almost completely unknown schoolteacher, Lucie Thésée, appeared in many issues of Tropiques, and eventually made its way into the larger Francophone world.

Despite the anthologizing of her work in various collections devoted to writing from the French colonies, and praise from the critic Léon Damas, we still know surprisingly little about Thésée. Certainly this has nothing to do with any shrinking-violet quality on her part: Thésée was a courageous woman, even to the point of recklessness. With Martinique under Vichy rule, Tropiques was singled out for persecution. The military government accused the journal of being "racial and sectarian," a vehicle of hatred and division. A letter was sent back to the military officials, saying:

"Racists," "sectarians," "revolutionaries," "ingrates and traitors to the country," "poisoners of souls," none of these epithets really repulses us. "Poisoners of Souls," like Racine…"Ingrates and traitors to our good Country," like Zola... "Revolutionaries," like the Hugo of "Chatiments." "Sectarians," passionately, like Rimbaud and Lautreamont. Racists, yes. Of the racism of Toussaint Louverture, of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes against that of Drumont and Hitler. As to the rest of it, don't expect for us to plead our case, nor make recriminations, nor hold discussion. We do not speak the same language.

Lucie Thésée's name appears beneath these courageous phrases, near Aimé Césaire's.


In other news, there's a new review of The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing (a book I co-edited with Steve Tomasula and Davis Schneiderman) in the American Book Review.