“Change life” as Rimbaud said—An Interview with French Poet Francis Combes—by Ming Di

Francis Combes’ books of poetry include La Fabrique du bonheur, Cause commune and La Clef du monde est dans l’entree a gauche. He has also published two novels and, with his wife Patricia Latour, Conversation avec Henri Lefebvre. He is a founder of the radical publishing cooperative, Le Temps des Cerises, and was for many years responsible for putting poems on the Paris Metro.

Ming Di: The “communism” in your poetry is different from what the school system tried to teach us in China. You seem to be more of an idealist. In your poetry collection That Light (Black Bird, 2009), what do you try to achieve?

Francis Combes: Communism has yet to be achieved. The real history of the revolutions during the twentieth century is a terrific and terrible history, epic and tragic as well. It is the attempt to create new societies that are able to “change life” as Rimbaud said, but life still needs to be changed. Everywhere on Earth is the “American way of life”, (to live as a cattle in a big supermarket), which seems to be the only dream for all the people... Actually, the “socialist revolutions” made big changes on economic, social and cultural levels, and played a great role to modernize countries, which were mostly feudal and underdeveloped. But the “Damned of the Earth” are still down... and the wonderful line written on Marx’s tombstone in Highgate cemetery, “Workers of all lands unite”, remains an unrealized project.

MD: You are more radical than I thought. Very interesting. I didn’t realize Rimbaud was communist. Allen Ginsberg had his own version of communism. Mayakovsky, Neruda, Ritsos, and Vallejo all have been popular in China but I’m not sure if readers are attracted to their poetry or their political ideologies. You write about revolutions but I notice the sense of humor more than anything else.

FC: Humor is not forbidden for a Marxist poet! Marx himself, if you are curious enough (and a little bit courageous) to dive into the reading of “The Capital”, has a very strong sense of humor... And Bertolt Brecht said, “for someone who hasn’t any sense of humor, it’s much more difficult to understand the Great method” (the name he gave to dialectics). Actually, the dialectical philosophy is a way of looking into the contradictions of the world, so, it’s deeply connected with humor... Dialectics is a very old way of thinking. You’ll find it among the first philosophers in Greece, as well in Lao Tzi. In the modern time Hegel and Marx renewed it... I could say, I am a Marxist and Taoist poet! (I am joking a little bit...)

But, let me say something more about socialism and communism. The experiment of socialism appears to be, as everywhere, (more or less) despotic experiment. Why? I think this is not only due to human fault or mistakes. There is, as we used to say, “objective causes”. I mean that Marx himself predicted that revolution would take place in the most developed capitalist countries, such as Great Britain, France or Germany. But history made revolution possible in places where capitalism was young and weak, in the periphery of the system : Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam... In all these countries, the foundation of the new society was not ready in terms of economic system. The huge paradox is that, in different countries, real socialism seems to be the shortest way to reach developed capitalism! Of course, that was not the dream of Marx, nor Lenin or Mao...

The major problem is the question of democracy. Communism, in Marx’s text, is nothing else but an effective and radical democracy (the kind of democracy which doesn’t exist in a country like mine, where real power is in the hands of money). Democracy? It means power for the people... but also, by the people. And this is precisely what’s missing everywhere.

MD: I admit I haven’t read The Capital or The Complete Works of Mao Zedong. China wants capital without capitalism. As to democracy, everyone talks about it but each has his own definition in his head. Mao talked about democracy too. What you said about the despotic (tyrannical) experiment in economically poor countries is very interesting observation.

FC: Apart from the problem of under-development, there is probably a second reason for such a despotic socialism: the lack of thinking about power itself. I’ve noticed everywhere that when revolutionaries take over the power (even just a little power, in a town council, for instance) they are afraid of losing the power... and become conservative. And they stop living as workers, poor people, but live as if they were members of the so called elite.

Is it compulsory? Maybe not. I hope... You may say I am an idealist, a dreamer... Why not? Lenin said: “we have to make dreams”. Marx dreamed of a world free of wars, frontiers, exploitation, racism, sexism and getting rid of the distinction between the ones who govern and the ones who have to obey. Basically, the Marxism as it was thought by Marx, Gramsci and others such as the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre (about which my wife and I wrote a book) is a theory of freedom. One of the biggest problems of the communist movement is that people in power try to keep it longer, they have forgotten the original dream was for democracy and freedom.

MD: It’s so fascinating to see you criticize communism from the perspective of authentic communists. Can you tell me about your childhood? Why is revolution the source of inspiration for you?

FC: I was born in the south of France, in a region called Cévennes, a wild and beautiful place, where the protestant rebellions took places during the monarchy and then the resistance against Nazis during World War II.

This region and its landscape (made of mountains, valleys, chestnuts trees and torrents) impressed me deeply and affected my sensibility. This is probably why I feel close to the nature. At the same time, I love cities and urban life... (Now I’m living in a working class suburb of Paris, Aubervilliers, which belongs to the former “red belt of Paris”). My parents were what people called “red teachers”, because they were not Catholic nor Protestant. They believed that believers and atheists should work together to improve the life on Earth...

When I was a child, I went with my parents to the festivals organized by miners... To join communism was something natural. (As Picasso said, “I went to the party as one goes to a fountain”)... Of course, I discovered later that there’s not only water or not just clear water in this fountain... But I’m still a communist.

MD: I actually didn’t know you were communist. I started with the question of communism without knowing what I was doing. I guess maybe subconsciously I thought about clarifying something with you after reading your poetry collections That Light and Common Cause (Smokestack Books, 2014).

FC: Well, I simply belong to the people. I have never been rich. As we say in French “Je suis un poète pauvre... cela vaut mieux que d’être un pauvre poète”. (I am a poor poet, that’s better than to be a miserable – I mean bad – poet.)

When some people ask me why I’m still a communist, I used to answer: if capitalism agrees not going on exploiting people and Earth, making wars everywhere for oil and profits, and threatening life itself, I agree to change my mind... But, actually, capitalism makes no effort to convince me.

MD: LOL. I’ve never read anything like yours in the last thirty years living in the US. I guess I was color blind...until I heard Jack Hirschman’s reading at the Getty Center. In China, red poetry is gaining power in recent five to six years in the name of working class poetry and soldiers poetry. I enjoy the humor in your poems such as “Berlin, ’89” and I would like to know what you enjoyed most yourself when you wrote the poems in the two collections That Light and Common Cause?

FC: I cannot answer... Except that I enjoy the translations made by Jack Hirschman and different friends such as the British poet Bob Dixon...

Thinking a little bit further about your question, perhaps I could say that I have a peculiar tenderness for my “Chinese poems”.

When I came for the first time to China, in 2005, I immediately felt something strange: to be on a foreign planet, where everything is different, and at the same time, to feel at home, among Chinese people. I have a strong affection for some classic Chinese poets, Du Fu, Li Bai, Bai Jiu Yi... but also modern poets such as Ai Qing. I love the realism in his poetry, its sense of nature, of friendship, and its humanity.

I think that my own poetry is an attempt to unify two opposite tendencies which exist in French poetry: lyricism and satirical spirit. (You can recognize these tendencies in poets like Aragon and Eluard, or Prévert). Love and fight. But even fight must be endorsed by love. I “vote” for a kind of political poetry which is based on humor, joy and happiness. For me, poetry is a factory of happiness. A way of changing all the sadness of the world (and of our life) into a source of joy. If revolutionaries struggle, it is not because they hate or dislike life. On the contrary, it is because we love life that we want life to be better (and the best of life for everybody on this Earth). Happiness doesn’t lie mainly in the ability to possess things... Not only “to have”, but also “to be”. And to be, we have “to do” something useful and beautiful. The most beautiful thing we are able to create, all of us, is love. You know what was the definition of poetry by the ancient French troubadours (of the 12th Century)? “Amor entrebesc amb lo cant”. Love criss-crossed with song. On my mind, this is still a valuable definition for today.

MD: As a non-communist growing up in a communist country, I find what you said quite unique. You speak about many familiar topics quite differently from most Chinese (who are more capitalists to you anyway).  Can you talk about literary influences? What have influenced you most and in what ways?

FC: Of course, a lot of poets influenced me...  Nobody (except maybe genius or very bad poets) can write on a strictly white page of paper... There are always a lot of invisible poems hidden behind our words, all the poems we’ve read and loved, all the poems we know. On one hand, I have been influenced by different French poets, such as Villon, Hugo, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Aragon, Eluard, Desnos, Prévert... but also by a lot of foreign poets. Poets who write in other languages make me discover other countries, other people, a wider landscape of human being and a different idea of poetry itself. Among them, the most important, for me, were: the Russian Vladimir Maïakovski, the German Bertolt Brecht, the Hungarian Attila Jozsef. And I love them so deeply that I translated their poems into French, from their own language. But I could add a lot of names : Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet,  the Czech poet,Vítězslav Nezval, Yannis Ritsos, Mahmud Darwich, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Roque Dalton, Ernesto Cardenal, the ancient Roman poets, the old Arabic poets such as Abu Nuwas,  the Tang poets... Maybe we’re the first generation, among French poets, who received so many foreign influences. There is a kind of globalization of poetry and human sensibility. And every one chooses his own path in the huge library of world poetry. The danger of course would be to create poems looking the same everywhere, like those universal vegetables growing out of the soil... To be universal, you have to be open-minded to the world and, at the same time, to be deeply rooted in your own country, your people, your language.

MD: I do see a variety of styles and approaches to poetry in your books.  How would you define your poetry and you yourself as a poet and why?

FC:  I like diversity, in poetry as well as in life. When a new poem that I have written doesn’t provoke any surprising effect on me, I feel it is not a good one... But, I know that even when I change my style, people who know my poetry can recognize it... You know the line: the style is the man himself. So, style is not a big problem. The big question is to renew always, to think and feel always, to be touched and to be able to touch, one more time. I feel myself as a poet when I find a new image, when I succeed to write a new poem... Or, also, sometimes when I read a poem in front of an audience. But when I read again my own poems, sometimes I wonder: who has written this; how could I have written this?... Because, very often, I don’t feel myself as a poet. I think, poets don’t live the whole day among amazing and marvelous images... Poets, as you know very well yourself, live as average people: they have to work, to pay bills, to do some shopping, to solve a lot of problems, like everybody else...  But, maybe they endure the tedious repetitions of everyday life better than other people. So, they need to introduce fun and beauty to the world, for themselves and for others. What I treasure most in poetry? Truth... and imagination as well. Sense of reality and fantasy.

MD: You talked about Tang poets earlier. Have you found Du Fu or Li Bai in contemporary Chinese poetry? What did you notice during your second trip to China that changed your impression of the country? What do you find most interesting in contemporary China?

FC: Though I have been trying to learn Chinese language for several years, my knowledge is too limited to read any poems in the original texts. But I regularly read contemporary Chinese poets translated into French, or in English, like in your anthology, New Cathay. I also invited several Chinese poets to our International poetry festival in Paris and we had readings with Bei Dao, Mang Ke, Zhai Yongming, Ouyang Jianghe, Yu Jian, Wang Yin, and you. All these poets have very strong personalities, of various types.

I also met other poets when I went to China later, in Quinghai, Chengdu and Beijing.

As far as I know, the poets of the post-revolutionary era in China, are numerous and their writings are very diversified. The so called Misty generation introduced new topics and new forms. The free verse seems to be widely spreading. And a lot of poets now become interested in the dark side of life. That’s also the job of poets. Poets don’t have to repaint the world with blue or pink color of false happiness...  (As poets, we have to show the real color of life, both dark and bright. The most important thing is to be truthful. That means not only sincere but authentic).

Maybe, contemporary Chinese poetry has discovered a time of individuality and subjective poetry and, after the Maoist period, it’s certainly new.

In France, our situation, of course, is quite different. I could say that we are on the opposite side of the mirror. French poetry has a long tradition of individualistic and subjective and sometimes desperate poetry. And perhaps we have to re-discover that we are not only individuals on earth. That not everything just finishes with us. You know, the line by Arthur Rimbaud : “Je est un autre” (“I is Another”). Now, we have to discover that “The other is also Me”.

MD: What are the most exciting poetry festivals or events that you’ve been to? And how do you compare them with the festival you are running? What do you try to achieve most as a poetry festival director?

FC: I had the wonderful opportunity to take part in several festivals and I thank the poets who invited me. All of them are interesting, because you meet other poets in other countries. The biggest festival I know is Medellin in Columbia. But I took part in other very sympathetic poetry meetings, in San Francisco, Nicaragua, Italy, Macedonia, China and Greece.

As a festival director, I invited very different poets. Of course, good ones, if possible. And if you ask me what I tried to achieve, I could say, not only a performance, but a human meeting. And that’s easy. The point is to involve the largest audience possible, and, in a country like France, it is not so easy. But usually, we succeed, or succeeded.

MD: What are the most interesting books or anthologies you edited or published?

FC:  I was a publisher for more than twenty years, editing about fifty books every year, (among them, one third was poetry). First, I published the complete verse of Aragon (about 2000 pages). I’m also particularly happy to have published in France the last poems of the great Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, which is a real masterpiece... The most recent book I published was a choice of a young Palestinian poet, Fayad Ashraf. He lives in Saudi Arabia and was condemned to death because he was accused of being an atheist. We’ve led an international campaign and the judge finally decided to change his punishment into 8 years in jail and 800 slashes!

MD: What’s the state of poetry in France? How do you define “mainstream poetry” in France? And how do you react to that? Who are the most interesting poets and who are the most underrated/neglected poets in France right now?  Is there a division of governmental/institutional poets vs. outlaw/independent poets in contemporary France (as in China)?

FC: Poetry, now in France, is in a certain renewal. There are a lot of readings and events. And there is an audience for poetry. But poetry has no place on TV and big media. It exists mainly online, and ‘in real life”.

The spectrum of French poetry, at the moment, is very broad. From performers, spoken word poets (slam) to some kind of “language poets”, who call themselves sometimes “litéralistes” and who go on the formal and “déconstructiviste” attempts of the seventies. A lot of them are influenced by US objectivists. Their sensibility is often of the post-modernists. They speak of the real world, but their vision of the world is very disseminated, without any direction.

There are also now many female poets, (after Andrée Chedid or Venus Khoury Ghata, younger ones come with various styles).

I belong to the generation which began to publish in the eighties and which brought back lyricism, and a more communicative poetry. We are the generation who began again to read in front of an audience. And that poetry is probably the mainstream today. But our generation was unable to produce any Manifesto nor poetry movement. Actually, it didn’t try at all. (Probably, there was, on the contrary of the older generations, a disaffection for theories). But it includes a lot of good poets, such as Jean-Pierre Simeon, Gérard Noiret, Guy Goffette, Yvon le Men, Jean-Pierre Lemaire.  All of them are friends, but, for many years I felt a little bit alone among them. I mean, I was probably the only one to practice an openly political poetry. And, if there is not officially a division between institutional poets vs. outlaw/independent poets, it’s for sure that political poetry is not the best way to receive prizes, official recognition and grants! Once, an Arabic poet in Syria told me: “Francis, you’re the last socialist poet!” Actually, to a certain extend, it seemed to be true in France. But now things are changing. There are new young poets who are involved in social struggle and who try to renew with the satirical voice inside French poetry and I work with them.



Two poems by Francis Combes



In the middle of Berlin, near the Town Hall
and a couple of steps from the ancient Reichstag,
a few hours after the Wall came down,
on the pedestal of the Monument to Marx and Engels
(where you can see Marx seated, looking profound, stern and somber,
and Engels, standing always
faithfully, behind),
an anonymous hand has written these words:
“We’ll do better next time.”

(English translation by Bob Dixon)




During the summer, Volodya, I passed through your home
you weren’t there but I was easily able to enter it.
I saw the very small room that you occupied
in the communal apartment on Serov St.
Apparently nothing had changed,
seeing the pencils, the writing pads and blotters
one could say you were on the way back from going out.
The tools needed to write a poem were there
on the wooden table.
Newspapers, cigarettes and even the umbrella.
I imagine you sitting, thick-lipped and sulky,
dark eye fixed in its socket,
sentimental and unhappy like a young puppy
your beat-up hooligan cap on your head,
you wanted, with all the power of your desire,
that the worker, the mujik learn to march
in good step, with boots crackling with pleasure
over this bit of earth that’s our planet;
that finally they be, along with masters and landlords,
amid the stars, precisely the equal of God.
You wanted to simply enlarge the heart’s
appearance to the dimension of the universe.
It’s here that you sounded the hue and cry of words
summoning the masses of the oppressed throughout
the world to the general mobilization
for Love, Revolution, warm water
and the Fifth International. For you knew
how, during their sleep, Revolutions
die. And that it’s not enough
to have chased away Kings in order  to be victors.
You who rebelled, who kicked over the traces,
always with the masses and always against them:
you knew that one doesn’t progress
without scuffles or without contradictions.
Ah! Volodya, my brother...
it’s really been a long time since you’ve been back.
You know, the house has changed a lot,
you wouldn’t even recognize the staircase,
the Conservatives of the Revolution
have promoted the premises to the rank of a mausoleum.
There where your neighbors lived, with their dirty
kids, snotty and whistle-happy as kettles,
they’ve recovered the walls in pink marble
and ready everywhere with patriotic plasterwork
they brazenly brandish fake guns
(strange in company, those pale statues
unfit for combat, for you, the producer of shock.
Those who’ve killed you with a throw of an ace of spades
planted right in your heart, have covered you with napthalline
and put a Pioneer kerchief around your neck.
Maybe tomorrow, at History’s Tribunal
one will say, examining their voluminous dossier:
“They wanted to save the revolution, they’ve lost it.
They wanted to change it into a statue,, they’ve petrified it.”
But today, Volodya, my friend, my brother,
October’s come down from its pedestal,
revolutionaries are a bit lost
but the planet always carries on its own revolution
and the water flows from the stalactites’ nose.
You yourself will have taken your place among us anew
To pull in opposite directions in order to make of your voice
a frowning cloud, carrier of trousers.
For sure some distinguished poets still remain
who’d gladly dispatch you into the limbo of the oblivion
of a plugged up mustiness...
What does it matter, it’s enough always to open one of your books
to get a good whack.
Your poetry has shoulders too large;
it doesn’t fit through the doorframes
that lead to the Academies.
Volodya, my friend, I haven’t been able to meet you
but I’ve left in the book of gold, this message for you:
“If you’re strolling
anywhere around the Earth
call again home.”

(English translation by Jack Hirschman)