“Les langues sont toutes les mêmes lorsqu’elles tournent ensemble.”
“All languages are the same when they’re in tune.”
—translated by Antonio D’Alfonso
“Languages all come together when they’re dancing.”
—same line, translated by Martha Tremblay-Vilao
What’s the point of going to see a poetry show if you can’t understand the text? And yet—there it is. That galvanizing, pure communication of the concerns, the beauty, the specificity of another language. The most joyful expression of it that I’ve seen so far was at an unforgettable night with the inzync Poetry sessions in Stellenbosch, South Africa. At least five of South Africa’s eleven official languages were represented onstage, with whispered translations offered by audience members to their neighbours, and whoops of recognition along the way.
I wanted more.
Port-au-Prince, May 2015
I’m nearly the sole Anglophone, and definitely the only Northern Irish, at Les nuits amérindiennes, a festival of First Nations poets and artists in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, curated by the inimitable Rodney Saint-Éloi of Montreal-based publishing house Mémoire d’encrier. The Indigenous poets from Quebec include Joséphine Bacon, Guy Siou Durand, Tomson Highway, Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau, Louis-Karl Picard, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, Moe Clark, Marie-Andrée Gill, and Naomi Fontaine. I’ve been sent by the Edinburgh International Book Festival to meet with Joséphine, Natasha, and Naomi for a collaborative project. This is my introduction to Canadian, to québécois, to Indigenous literature. I have no idea what’s going on, and I can barely understand anyone (my Belfast schoolgirl French being wholly inadequate in the circumstances). But at the shows, I’m electrified by the performance and the politics, the unself-consciousness, the self-awareness, the clear-eyed passion, the trickster craftiness—and well-honed craft—of the various artists.
Nobody really understands why I’m there either, although it’s not that important—this isn’t about me. But I’m not that good at sitting on the sidelines and I’m desperate to communicate, somehow. At the second late-night session at Café Yanvalou, I sidle up to Rodney and ask, haltingly, if I can take a turn at the microphone. The words will be in English, but it’s the only thing I can think of to do. I sweat through a couple of poems, with halting introductions in French. I talk about my mother, and the sea. It works. I cannot speak, but I can extend words. The connection is made. These will become lifelong friends (and in one case, the love of my life, and the beginning of my journey to Montreal).
Edinburgh, December 2016
I am finishing up six years in Edinburgh, Scotland, which has mostly been consumed and absorbed with poetry, performance, promoting events, teaching workshops. It’s been a fantastic life. I have been incredibly lucky, starting from the gritty basics of open mic nights and running shows, and ending up being able to make a living, a good living, from all this. I love my community, I love my work, I love, more than anything, what happens when people get on a stage with their words, and speak them to an audience. And I’m leaving it.
Even I’m not entirely sure why, except that there is love on the other side of the Atlantic. And there is a chance, a real chance to follow this thread of poetry and of performance, and try to understand how, if one cannot follow the sense of the words in an art form that bases its craft on the finer points of language, one can still be so affected by multilingual performances. In Quebec, my native language—which I have spent the last few years learning how to wield as a poet—becomes one among many.
Montreal, November 2018
I’m at Langues liées // Linked Tongues in La Sala Rossa, Boulevard Saint Laurent, Montreal. It’s the opening event of the Mile End Poets’ Festival, and there are ten poets on stage. There are ten languages on the stage. Aside from French and English, there is Arabic, Creole, Korean, Innu-aimun, Italian, Occitan, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Wolof. These are mother tongues, and father tongues; languages of politics, of home, of love.
Languages talk of their own concerns, at once specific and universal. Martha Tremblay-Vilão sings saudade, the Portuguese longing for a past or a home that no longer exists. Hossein Sharang talks of Iran, of democracy, of the impossibility of a country of eighty-two million terrorists. David Bouchet asks—in Wolof, with the aid of cue cards (and his fellow poets): “Where are you, who are you, how are you?” Marcela Huerta performs the stiltedness, then fluidity, of learning English as the daughter of Chilean refugees.
The audience doesn’t understand everything that is being said, but there are ripples of comprehension when a new language is presented. There is a table of Arabic speakers, another of Portuguese. Maëlle Dupon’s mother is in the audience to hear her perform in Occitan; another supporter, a Haitian friend of Maëlle’s, is blown away when his ears catch the Creole of Chloé Savoie-Bernard.
In La Sala Rossa, the last impressions are of joy. Of something ventured and something gained. Of respect. Everyone on that stage can do something that no one else can. They’ve worked for this show, they’ve risked, they’ve listened to one another, translated, called out and responded. And we’re here, and we will listen.
Rachel McCrum is a poet, performer, and promoter—and also the Membership & Communications Co-ordinator of the Quebec Writers’ Federation.* She is originally from Northern Ireland, and has performed and taught poetry in Greece, South Africa, Haiti, Canada, and around the UK. She lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, from 2010 to 2016, where she was the inaugural BBC Scotland Poet-in-Residence, a recipient of an RLS Fellowship, and the co-host of cult spoken word cabaret Rally & Broad. Her first book, The First Blast To Awaken Women Degenerate, was published in 2017. She has lived in Montreal since January 2017, where she co-directs (with Ian Ferrier) the Mile End Poets’ Festival and curates the bilingual poetry performance series, Les Cabarets Bâtards.
*As an employee of the QWF, Rachel has waived the fee for this article.
Photo credits: Michael Kovacs (header image, showing Maëlle Dupon, Uasheshkun Bacon, and Martha Tremblay-Vilão reading in Occitan, Innu-aimun, and Portuguese at Langues liées // Linked Tongues); Rachel McCrum (top image); Ryan McGoverne (headshot)