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Poetic tourism

When I first pitched the idea for this blog post I felt very strongly about the subject of poetic tourism (i.e against it), or at least I thought I did. Concretising my thoughts has made it unfortunately clear to me that this is not as clear cut a topic as I’d hoped, and it is especially hazy when you are a product of two cultures like me (never mind what it must be like if you are a bona fide third culture kid).

Then of course there is that word ‘culture’, used hazily in my previous sentence to indicate that I belong to two regions/countries while knowing that the definition extends beyond the geographical to issues of gender, sexuality, race, circles of friendships, socio-economic standing, interests, and so much more.

So, where to start? Perhaps with an explanation of what ‘poetic tourism’ means to those unfamiliar with the term.

Poetic tourism is, at its worst, an act of cultural appropriation and/or exoticisation. Both are a tempting course of action to the poet. We are in the business of looking at life slantly, at making the ordinary extraordinary, and what easier method than to transpose images from other cultures into our own, delighting in the incongruity? This can of course be deeply problematic, and if you’re not sure why then Adrienne Rich’s chapter ‘Tourism and promised lands’ from her still wildly relevant What is found there: notebooks on poetry and politics, may be a help:

‘Tourism. Can be a trap for poets […]

White poetry of the islands: no clue that there are poets, born and living there, who are building literary movements, who are part of an anticolonial resistance. The people of the fabulous realm: abstract figures on a simplified ground.

The exotic–that way of viewing a landscape, people, a culture as escape from our carefully constructed selves, our ‘real’ lives–a trap for poets”.

Committing the more extreme kind of poetry tourism is akin to bursting into someone’s house and running off with their family photo album without any knowledge of what these photos mean in themselves or to those to whom they belong. It’s probably of no surprise that as a half French person, I find poems about Paris written by poets after a drunk week-end there, extremely tiresome. If you were to judge Paris purely on that basis, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a Woody Allen film rather than the city of urine, homelessness and encroaching neighbours (I say this as someone who loves Paris).

However, does this mean we can never write about cultures that are not our own or include them in our poetry? No, that would make for an insular experience that does not reflect the blurred boundaries of the modern world, but some questions need to be asked:

  • Are you unknowingly feeding into tired stereotypes?
  • Are you ventriloquising an entire culture that you are only vaguely acquainted with?
  • Would you be better served promoting or translating current writers from that culture who are not well known enough?

Ask someone from the culture you are writing/borrowing from what they think of your efforts and have the humility to listen if they find any part of it offensive or reductive.

Pascale Petit is, in my opinion, an example of someone who has done things right with The Zoo Father for instance. Her collection is based on extensive travel, research, and genuine interest in Venezuela and Amazonian culture in general. It has also been translated in Spanish and distributed in Latin America, where it has been well received (see the transcript from our Q&A with her).

In short, if you must be a tourist, be the kind of tourist who makes the effort to learn some of the language before visiting the country. Don’t be the tourist who wings it and hopes everyone speaks English. Be the kind of tourist who is aware of their own ignorance and doesn’t position themselves as an ‘objective’ outsider who knows better. You are not objective, even if you believe you are. You, like everyone else, have luggage and privileges that skew your perception of the world. Basically, don’t claim objectivity over a culture that isn’t yours, and continue to question yourself and your practice.

Now for the part where I appear to contradict myself, though contrary to what you might think it is possible to hold two conflicting opinions at once:

Be a tourist.

If you are a writer, you’re a tourist anyway: a permanent outsider who will dissect the behaviour of your own family as if they were from Mars. It’s a perfectly valid method of working to continually forget what you know and see the world afresh. Forget your own language, your upbringing, your preferences, and give yourself over to the terrifying blank page as if you had never been inside your own culture to begin with. Forget the traditions, the toes you might be stepping on, the weight of expectation and write about damn daffodils if you want to.

homepage_071Claire Trévien is the Anglo-Breton author of the pamphlet Low-Tide Lottery (Salt), and The Shipwrecked House (Penned in the Margins), which is longlisted in this year’s Guardian First Book Award. Her poetry has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including the Forward Book of Poetry 2014 and Best British Poetry 2012. She edits Sabotage Reviews, co-edits Verse Kraken, and co-organizes Penning Perfumes.



  • Nia Davies

    Hi Claire, this is a big interest to me at the moment. I feel the same way. On the one hand I think that poetic cultural appropriation isn’t just rude it’s also tiresome. And it’s not only tourism, ‘natives’ can be the worst tourists of their own environments. Sometimes artists devour their own cultures without saying anything new. But it’s also true that I and other poets are traveling pretty much all the time – even just around the cities I regularly inhabit – and virtually too – and a new experiences of culture and place are always going to come into my consciousness which then goes into poetry. So …somehow there has to be something in the way a ‘piece’ of culture in a poem is treated. It’s very easy to see when the culture or place you feel very close to has been appropriated in a stereotypical or shallow way in an other’s work, so I’m just trying to spot what I don’t like and try not to emulate it. Amy Key and I talked a lot about this – and poetry of ‘place’ too – at Shingle Street and some of those discussions should come into the blogs on here.

  • Claire Trevien

    It’s really great to hear your thoughts on it Nia, and just to know I’m not alone in feeling so conflicted and confused at times about what is appropriate. As I said on my FB, this topic will continue to needle at my brain for a long time, which is as it should be of course!

  • A Tourist’s Guide to Appropriation | Gareth Prior

    […] to be immersed in Geoffrey Hill when I read Claire Trévien’s excellent Poetry School blog post on poetic […]

  • Will Barrett (Poetry School)

    Gareth Prior has written a wonderful response to Claire’s article on his blog, by way of Geoffrey Hill and Robert Browning:

  • Nichola May

    What if you write about somewhere you’ve *never* been? About someone you’ve never met? Does poetry have to be based on truth? Isn’t it just another form of fiction? Should it always respectful of the people or culture it writes about? Do we really have to live the life to write about it? Asking because I don’t know the answers…[and because I don’t have a passport 😉 ]

  • KEB

    Hmm… I think it’s fair to say though that a poem should be based on SOME kind of truth. An emotional one is the best kind. Nic, you’re right that it feels a bit constricting to say people should only, eg, write about the place where they grew up – but there are different ways of ‘knowing/ something, and ‘being respectful’ just means doing your subject the honour of finding out a little bit about it before you write. And tbh that’s a service to your readers, too. I’ve been thinking about this since the article went up, and I think that, even without the ‘check your privilege’ angle, the kind of poetry Claire’s complaining about just isn’t very good writing. Good writing isn’t patronising or partial, or held back by the writer not getting it. Good writing has depth and charge and can surprise a reader, and the only way it can do that is if it comes out of a position of understanding. The worst thing about most ‘holiday poems’ is how dull ad sort of egocentric they are. As with most things in life, you just have to be the thing; you can’t fake it. If you’re writing about something you’ve never experienced, there should be a point of imaginative connection, empathy, a kernel of it that you feel you do inhabit.

    After all – why would you want to write something disrespectful (which I take to mean uninformed, full of cliché and platitude) about a place you’d never been? What would be the resonance for you? And – more to the point, even – what would you imagine you’d gain from reading something like that?

  • CathyDreyer

    Place, or space as some will have it, is one thing we all have in common. We are all in a space/place. So if I talk about leaves then most people will know what I mean and I think that’s a good starting point, common ground even.
    The problem as I see it is that that can become dangerously cosy, exclusively cosy. I write about leaves because there are a lot of them about in my place. I don’t write about mountains and deserts. It would be wonderful if people were ever to connect to my work because they know the landscape I’m writing about. But I don’t want to be the Bard of Royston Vaizey – a local poet for local people. Finding the universal in the parish, or anywhere, is what I want to do. Of course, other people don’t want to do that at all and that’s great.

  • KEB

    It’s a great truism that the more specific and local you are in your writing, the more ‘universal’ it can seem. Really good writing about a specific type of leaf can not only remind people that they have leaves of their own, it can almost fool them into thinking theirs are just like yours! Pale, general writing about an ersatz desert won’t intrigue the woodland folk OR fool the desert-dwellers.

  • Nichola May

    So what we’re *really* talking about is avoiding stereotypes and generalisations? It’s less about place or people or travel, but perhaps more about being observant, specific, concrete, about wherever you are?

    Or perhaps it’s about being honest? If you write about a place as a tourist then it should be about that experience as a tourist, not trying to fake the authenticity of someone for whom that landscape and culture is ‘home’. The tourist experience is surely just as valid, if it’s not pretending to be anything else, ,though I suppose it risks being rather cliched and dull unless you seek out the extraordinary.

    I’m wondering if this whole ‘poetic tourism’ also applies to writing from the perspective of another gender. Can we, for example, successfully write from a male point of view if we are female? Or are we simply offering some token image of what we perceive another gender to be? Should we be the gender tourist that “makes the effort to learn some of the language before visiting”?

  • Sketching line-breaks, writing paint | Gareth Prior

    […] To put this in context, I spent much of 2013 in a pre-emptive tirade against the infantry-charge of WW1 poems we can expect for this year’s 1914 centenary. Surely no subject has been so thoroughly exhausted in English-language poetry – not just in its original “doomed youth” incarnation, but re-exhausted for each new generation: the in-memoriam-pensioner-tommy-poem; the granddad’s-revolver-I-found-in-the-attic poem; the walking-peacefully-across-a-field-in-France poem. The further we get from the lived experience of the thing, the greater the risk of a time-travelling version of the poetic tourism that Claire Trévien nailed in her recent Poetry School blog post. […]

  • Claire Trévien’s and Gareth Prior’s Other Countries: Contemporary Poets Rewiring History | Poor Rude Lines

    […] Claire Trévien’s Poetic Tourism post at Campus […]

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