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.
Claire 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.