Dancing with Words: The Poetry of Jean-Baptiste Para

March 8, 2022
An underexposed black and white photograph of Jean-Baptiste Para on the shore of Lake Baikal
Para on Lake Baikal in southern Siberia / Photo courtesy of the author

Editorial note: “Siberian Romance,” a suite of Para’s poems, accompanies this introductory essay.

Born in 1956, Jean-Baptiste Para is a poet, art critic, essayist, translator, editor of numerous books, and editor in chief of the French journal Europe, which was founded in 1923.

Para has authored five volumes of poetry: La Faim des ombres (Obsidiane, 2006), for which he was awarded the Guillaume Apollinaire Prize; Atlantes (Arcane 17, 1991); Longa tibi exilia (Æncrages, 1990); Une semaine dans la vie de Mona Grembo (MEET, 1986); and Arcanes de l’ermite et du monde (Temps actuels/Messidor, 1985). His poems have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Persian, Italian, and English and have been anthologized in Italian, Greek, and Persian. His poems have also appeared in journals such as Action poétique, Le Mâche-Laurier, Caravanes, La Revue de Belles Lettres, Neige d’août, and Rehauts.

A seasoned translator of twenty-three volumes of poetry, Para is also the editor/translator of an anthology of O. V. de Miłosz’s poetry, La Berline arrêtée dans la nuit, anthologie poétique (1999) and the editor of an anthology of twentieth-century French poetry, Anthologie de la poésie française du XXe siècle, prefaced by Jorge Semprún; both anthologies were published by Gallimard. He has translated Italian and Russian writers and poets, notably Camillo Sbarbaro, Cristina Campo, Giorgio Manganelli, Vera Pavlova, Velimir Khlebnikov, Nikolai Zabolotski, Vladimir Mayakovski, and Boris Ryzhy, as well as Indian poets Nissim Ezekiel and Agha Shahid Ali. He has received four translation prizes: the 2019 Gilbert Musy Translation Fellowship, Université de Lausanne; the 2017 Etienne-Dolet Translation Prize, Sorbonne Université; the 2006 Guillaume Apollinaire Prize for La Faim des ombres; the 1989 Translation Prize for L’Océan et l’enfant, by Giuseppe Conte; and the 1987 Laure Bataillon Prize for the translation of Amour, by Giorgio Manganelli.

Para’s activities as essayist and author of articles and prefaces constitute a main part of his oeuvre. He has prefaced volumes by French poets Franck Venaille, Olivier Barbarant, and Célestin De Meeûs as well as by foreign poets Amelia Rosselli, Thanassis Hatzopoulos, and Milo de Angelis. He also prefaced an anthology of twentieth-century Russian poets, which he translated, penned a book-length study about Pierre Reverdy, and authored a study about the arts, Le Jeûne des yeux et autres exercices du regard. Since his debut in the 1980s, he has penned several hundred articles that have been published in French and European journals. He has been associated with the literary journal Europe since 1980, where he served as arts chronicler, editorial secretary, and now editor in chief. He is also the director of the foreign poetry section “D’une voix l’autre” for the literary press Cheyne. No stranger to the media, he co-produced with André Velter the program Poésie sur parole for the French equivalent of PBS, France Culture.

Para is first and foremost a conduit of culture, and an altruistic one at that.

These activities, unfolding at several levels of literary and poetic activity in which he plays vastly different roles, demonstrate that Para is a “complete” writer. He entered into poetry as a young man, and he lives fully and happily in it. The volume of his essays and translations show that he is first and foremost a conduit of culture, and an altruistic one at that. By championing the work of poets, writers, and artists other than himself and belonging to at least a dozen different countries and languages, and especially by shaping and editing the journal Europe, he renders an indefatigable service to contemporary literature. Working for the literary community is a top priority for him, and his immense talent renders this service invaluable. Words used to describe the depth of Para’s own poetry apply to this other part of his literary life: Jean-Yves Masson compares Para’s écriture to antique “offerings of milk and honey.”[i]

Para approaches poetry-writing as a sage who knows that openness to others’ poetic language leads to a renewed wonderment about the world, to the essence of creativity. Prizing quality over quantity, he writes what is essential, each of his verses a signpost between silent, meditative spaces. Indeed, Para’s poems reflect a particular dance of words that opens up the reader’s reflective space between absence and presence, words and emotion, present and an immemorial past. It is a dance that illuminates words while lighting their path; a dance of intuition that gives words a fluid, organic rhythm, and whose flexible path creates deep, uncluttered connections.

Para approaches poetry-writing as a sage who knows that openness to others’ poetic language leads to a renewed wonderment about the world, to the essence of creativity.

Para’s childhood and cultural heritage is not without parallels to Jean Giono’s. As a child of Italian immigrants from the Cottian Alps of the Piedmont region, possessing a rare Celtic-Ligurian heritage, Para grew up in Paris. The family returned home for summers spent on the farm. Para described the trips home as a linguistic transition: first, from French to Italian, to Piedmontese, to Occitan. This quadrilingual life ensured him a transition from broadly spoken languages to local ones; the Latin of the Roman Catholic mass and of Roman poets such as Virgil added a fifth, dead language to his education. What mattered most was not the degree to which he was fluent in each of these languages but what these languages represented for him: linguistic borders became existential borders, giving him what French sailors call l’appel du large, the call of the open seas, whether they are the dried seas of the Russian steppes or the shores of Lake Baikal. Furthermore, his seamless, organic familiarity with dead, almost-dead, and living languages must have freighted language with the gravitas of time and words with rich, multilayered meanings. Even deeper, this experience anchored in him the passion to save from oblivion the stories of men and women whom history has forgotten. These experiences served as a prelude to his dance with words.

For Para, translating is inseparable from the most ancient of arts, hospitality.

Para has continued the travels of his youth by train and bus, through landscapes and their languages, his entire life. These trips take him from his mother tongue to foreign tongues, from his native village to faraway places. One landmark of his adult life: becoming self-taught in Russian in order to follow in the footsteps of the native sons of his Ligurian village who died on the Russian front in World War II, and whose names are engraved on a commemorative plaque on the village church’s parvis. It was during one of his trips to Russia that he wrote “Siberian Romance.” But these “outward-bound” trips were only one half of Para’s dance with words. Rewarded by the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, with the Gilbert Musy Translation Fellowship in 2019, Para described the act of translating as synonymous with “welcoming.”[ii] For him, translating means giving travelers from different cultures, languages, and literary experiences a sense of homecoming. It is inseparable from the most ancient of arts, hospitality. It means relating to others in a full way, understanding their humanity, and sharing their culture.

If translation is a trip toward perfection, an awakening to what is most intimate in language, a life-giving exercise, writing poetry more than matches that exercise. He rushes body and mind and soul into writing, experiencing with each new project the destitution and nakedness of new beginnings whose emergence brings him true happiness.

University of Tennessee at Martin


Author’s note: The poems of “Siberian Romance” are part of Para’s new volume of poetry in progress. Their publication in English was made possible by Para’s gracious permission.

[i] Jean-Yves Masson, “Le lait et le miel: Jean-Baptiste Para entre l’Italie, l’Inde et la Russie,” Le Magazine littéraire – Les livres du mois, 2006.

[ii] Jean-Baptiste Para, “Traduire, accueillir” (in press). Typescript of the text presented during the opening ceremony of the 2019 University of Lausanne translation workshop where Para received the Gilbert Musy Translation Fellowship.

Photo by Nathan Morgan

Alice-Catherine Carls is Tom Elam Distinguished Professor of History (emeritus) at the University of Tennessee at Martin. An internationally published diplomatic and cultural historian of twentieth-century Europe, she is also a translator and literary critic. She serves on several editorial boards and commissions in the United States and abroad.