Posted on:Thursday 17th March, 2022
The sixth in a series of essays reflecting on the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s experiences in the arts
The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (‘R&V’) was formally launched in 2014 at a special event held in a grand building overlooking Place Vendôme in Paris, with many French guests in attendance, including a representative of the Mayor of Paris. As an arts organisation inspired by two French 19th century poets R&V was from the start committed to international partnerships and collaborations. At the beginning R&V made a rather elementary mistake. We had always regarded the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine as being inspiring figures in the arts well beyond the boundaries of French literature. But we had nevertheless assumed wrongly that R&V would have a narrowly Franco-British focus. However, it very quickly became apparent that recognition of the two poets was already global, and that they were acting as an inspiration for artists and creatives from all over Europe, the US, Latin America, Africa and Asia. We quickly adapted our focus to encompass the impact of the poets and of the Decadence Movement of which they were a part across the whole world. This reinforced our belief that R&V was a truly international arts brand, as appealing in Japan or Romania as it is in the UK or France. There is nothing parochial about Rimbaud and Verlaine. In his own lifetime Rimbaud travelled to the edges of the known world in Java and Ethiopia, and both poets, through their work in translation, quickly became important cultural icons in many different countries.
You might think that it was unfortunate for R&V to come into existence right on the cusp of BREXIT and a wave of nativism and populism, but it was also born out of a strong desire to push back against that trend and to celebrate and preserve international cultural exchange and a shared sense of European culture. So, in that sense, its timing could not have been better. This essay will explore R&V’s attempts to cultivate this exchange at a time of great trauma and upheaval in international affairs.
Connecting with a world of Decadence studies
It is also worth noting that cultural exchange lay at the heart of the Decadent Movement, which pioneered the translation and re-presentation of writings and works of art from all over the world. Indeed the work of many leading Decadent figures actually featured the translation of texts from other languages. Not only were the works of Rimbaud and Verlaine and others translated into English by the 1890s but many Decadent artists saw themselves as internationalists, and took a lead in translating literature and in championing art forms, from around the world. For instance, Decadent figures like Judith Gautier (in France) and Lafcadio Hearn (in Japan) played central roles in popularising the literature and arts of China and Japan. R&V was able to give practical expression to this aspect of its identity by becoming a founding member of the Decadence and Translation Network in 2018, a collaborative project run by Oxford and Glasgow Universities and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This network helped R&V to connect with a whole world of Decadent studies, and with academics and universities across Europe and beyond. On behalf of R&V I attended conferences in Oxford, London, Glasgow, Strasbourg and Paris between 2016 and 2020, the last of these taking place just days before the first COVID lockdown. In February 2019 R&V hosted the network’s London conference in partnership with the Institute for Advanced Studies at Senate House, and programmed a public event featuring poetry and music (The Arts of Decadence).
More importantly the network allowed R&V as an arts organisation to connect with the exciting and diverse world of Decadent studies, something that was immediately reflected in the quality and range of R&V event programming. It is perhaps a good example of how an SME arts organisation can greatly enhance the quality of its output and the impact of its work by collaboration with cutting-edge academic research. In return, R&V has been able to bring some of the amazing content and rich ideas from the Decadent studies to a much larger audience and help its university partners to achieve a wider social impact. Amongst other things R&V’s participation in the network has resulted in a formal partnership between the arts organisation and the Decadent Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London, where some of the most exciting academic research into the Decadent Movement is taking place. Throughout it all, the names of the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine have recurred constantly, both confirming the extent of their cultural influence and also demonstrating their part in a much wider movement of ideas in the arts and literature. As well as being fascinating and rewarding, these connections have brought out the intense and sometimes uncomfortable topicality of Decadence in an era of climate change, pandemic and cultural anxiety.
Commissioning international work
The emphasis on cultural exchange and translation has directly influenced the kind of original artistic work which R&V has commissioned. For instance, in 2016 it commissioned the Romanian Jazz star Sorin Zlat to compose a new Jazz suite inspired by the poets and the time they spent in Camden in the 1870s (Jazz From the Playing Card Factory). Amongst other things this piece celebrated the love the poets had for modern technology (their house was next door to the world’s biggest playing card factory) and was a poignant reminder of the experience of immigrants and asylum seekers today. In the same year R&V commissioned seven of the most talented up-and-coming playwrights from all over Europe to create 15-minute mini-plays about poets and their houses (Poetry House Live). Written for theatre in the round presentation these mini-plays combined to make a full-length portfolio theatre show, telling a much larger story about the relationship of poets not only to their houses but to creativity, misbehaviour, and politics, and their responses to society, oppression and imminent death. The resulting show was much more than the sum of its parts and was performed successfully at Kings Place and at the Cockpit Theatre in Camden. It was also the basis of an important translation project. All of the plays (except for one) had to be translated into English at a high level of quality and consistency for the purposes of the UK performances. Thanks to some EU Cultural Funding the whole show was subsequently translated into all of the other six languages of the participating playwrights (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Lithuanian and Icelandic). It is a good example of how international work can be genuinely based on cultural exchange. As a piece of theatre it was both worthwhile and artistically rewarding, and demonstrated the communality of our cultural experiences and our shared common humanity.
Kindred spirits – an international poetry house network
R&V was able to reach out to talented playwrights in so many different countries because it had already established a network of seven ‘poetry house’ partners all over Europe. Its partners were all arts or cultural organisations or literary house museums brought together by a common commitment to cultural exchange and the network was aptly named ‘Kindred Spirits’. It included the La Residencia (Spain), La Maison de la Poésie (France), Musée Rimbaud (France), Keats-Shelley House (Italy), National Museum of Literature (Romania), Druskininski Poetic Fall (Lithuania) and Haldor Laxness House (Iceland). The main driver in bringing together the partnership was a joint application for EU Cultural Funding, designed to support the costs of a whole raft of cultural exchange activities and collaborations between the seven partners. Anyone who has experience of EU funding will know that applications are very detailed and complicated, that they require a lot of administration, and that they involve close cooperation with partners from the start.
To facilitate the application R&V took the lead in organising a conference in Bucharest in 2015 attended by six of the seven ‘poetry houses’ and hosted by the National Museum of Literature. This three-day conference coincided with the Bucharest International Poetry Festival and the partners all brought along a poet too, to participate in the event. R&V was represented by the award-winning Anglo-Spanish poet Jane Duran, who is also an acclaimed translator of Lorca’s poetry into English. It is difficult to convey in words the goodwill and the collegiate spirit which characterised this international conference, which brought together arts leaders and talented contemporary poets from all over Europe. It was a golden moment of international partnership and collaboration, full of creativity and promise. I am tempted to say that international partnership working is easy. But that is not quite correct. It requires a lot of groundwork and diplomacy. However, the rewards of openness and friendship are palpable. The overwhelming feeling is of communality of interest, of shared challenges and of generous cooperation. On behalf of R&V I gave a keynote address about the phenomenology of the ‘poetry house’ concept, consciously drawing on ideas from German, French and Czech philosophy in articulating a common vision for the Kindred Spirits network.
In 2015 R&V’s application achieved a score of 76 per cent, a reputable outcome, and one suggesting that a second application in 2016 would likely be successful. In the event the following year brought the BREXIT referendum and the decision by the UK to leave the EU. The future of the UK’s participation in the EU Cultural Funding scheme had been questioned even by the Coalition Government of Cameron. BREXIT suggested that the inclusion of the UK in the scheme could be ended at any point. The R&V Board decided reluctantly that it was no longer possible to develop a strategy for the arts organisation around this source of funding, no matter how appropriate it might be to R&V’s objectives and international ethos. I continue to regard this as the only sensible decision for R&V to take although, by some miracle, EU Cultural funding continues to be available to UK applicants collaborating with EU-based partners to this day. In truth the difficulties inherent in EU funding were compounded by BREXIT and by the uncertainty surrounding it. Like many organisations R&V could not afford to persist on a course which could be rendered impossible at a moment’s notice. Such is the price that is paid at ground level for the unravelling of a long-standing international alliance. I am reassured by the fact that ideas like Kindred Spirits are exemplary and are liable to re-emerge in different forms. For instance, the network lives on in an annual Kindred Spirits international poetry competition hosted by the Residencia in Madrid.
In the meantime the Kindred Spirits network enabled R&V to bring all of the playwrights and actors involved in the Poetry House Live theatre show over to the UK for a two-day workshop at Roehampton University in the summer of 2016, allowing them to refine and adapt their pieces for performance. The connections and goodwill established for this collaboration continue to resonate, even 5 years later. And the experience of commissioning this theatre show fed directly into more theatre programming, most notably the Anglo-Chinese theatre show which R&V took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019. The success achieved by the Kindred Spirits network shows how an SME arts organisation can achieve an impressive international reach, such that it can offer opportunities for talented artists from many different countries and successfully deliver a project entirely based on cultural exchange.
A partnership with the Czech Republic
Since 2016 R&V has found other ways to champion international cultural exchange and the idea of a shared European culture. When I was running R&V’s sister organisation (Poet in the City) I came across the ideas of the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka (1907-1977). As a phenomenologist Patočka was particularly interested in the arts (which he regarded as playing a privileged role in the articulation of human meanings), and in the idea of Europe (as a call to self-understanding). It therefore seemed natural for R&V to take a lead in commissioning a new Selected Edition of some of Patočka’s key texts, translated into English for the first time. I shall discuss the role of Patočka’s ideas in championing the arts in a separate essay. The point I want to make here is that this project has involved R&V once again in leading an important international collaboration involving a partnership with the Patočka Archive and Charles University in Prague, and sponsorship from the Czech Ministry of Culture, the Sekyra Foundation (a Czech grant-making trust), and the Michalski Foundation (a Swiss grant-making trust). It has also involved R&V in programming academic conferences and arts events in both London and Prague. The new Selected Edition is due to be published by Bloomsbury Publishers Ltd in April 2022.
The French connection
R&V has also managed to maintain its connections with France. For instance it was involved briefly in the unsuccessful campaign by the journalist Frederic Martel to have the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine placed in the Pantheon, not least because of their status as LGBTQ icons. This association has led to some sponsored sponsorship into the use of gay slang in 1870s London and possible echoes of it in the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, work conducted by Dr Michael Craske under the auspices of the Decadent Research Centre at Goldsmiths. One of R&V’s Trustees, Professor Catherine Morel, teaches at the Business school in Nantes and continues to champion R&V’s ideas on the other side of the channel.
R&V may have been swimming against the tide, but it has nevertheless shown how it is possible for an SME arts organisation to expand its reach and influence internationally and to champion cultural exchange and a shared European cultural identity. In a quiet way it has been using the arts and culture to push back against intolerance and xenophobia, at a time when it is especially important to do so.