A Conversation With Lyric Hunter

Lyric Hunter is a tremendously clever and lovely person who was one of my very favorite interns during my brief tenure as a Poets' Manager; she also happens to be a brilliant poet herself. She was nice enough to answer a few questions about her first book, Swallower.

To me so much of this book is about having a love affair with France, and with French--what is it that has so ensnared you?

Love affair--I think that must come across in the way I’ve dug into every detail of the city, every aspect of my experience there—and that’s exactly what has ensnared me. Long before I ever set foot in Paris I’d been infatuated with its mythos, its image. Paris is a city designed from top to bottom to be beautiful in every season. Living in it one can see what makes Paris dirty and loud and crazy and different. The war cries of the vendors at the open-air market at La Chapelle. The French obsession with funk music. French curse words, and French attitudes about language, and I’m talking about who can say what, and the cultural significations and urban identities that come with words like wesh and the use of French slang like Verlan. To some extent I’m fascinated by this huge secret club and if I get the pronunciation and tone right, I can be allowed entrance, at least into the vestibule. And to some extent I am initiated, welcomed to the table by friends. I am no longer infatuated, I am involved with Paris.

Your poems move effortlessly between French and English and often mix up both languages in really lovely ways. Do you think in French more, now that you live there? How has being surrounded by that language changed the way you write?

Thank you, I’m definitely writing more in French now and trying to get a more even give and take between my use of both languages. My confidence in my ability to write/speak/think in the language has grown a little. Most recently I’ve been writing in fragments, mixed with longer sentences, in a way reflecting my everyday speech, that toneless, broken, but grammatically correct French of someone who’s still working on perfecting her use of the subjunctive. I’ve learned from working with language teachers that learning new languages has a lot to do with singing, and with music and rhythm

There's so much texture in these poems and also lots of things to eat. Which is not really a question. I just like that I can taste your poetry when I'm reading it.

Yeah, that’s a really fun thing about France--theirs seems to be a meal-centered culture. Roommates eat meals together, meals were eaten together in the studio when I was a study abroad student (I always felt too awkward to sit down with them but I was invited every time). Food is closely connected with my experiences with people--with social situations--in France.

What are you working on now?

While working on lots of different little fragment poems on a variety of subjects, I’m also learning what kind of writer I am, and what drives me to write. I want to do research and I want to have projects, but I find myself so much more driven by landscapes and urban experiences and the questions that language brings up. When I first came back I felt very struck by this idea that since re-tracing all my steps, and re-tracing re-tracing historical landmarks I am walking in the present in the space of memory; it’s a bizarre (favorite French word) deja-vu type of melancholy energy that thrives off solitude and introspection, and which really drives what I write almost more than anything else. I have also more recently been focusing on what is bewildering about France, what inspires indignant rage. I live in an immigrant neighborhood and I worked in schools in working-class, leftist neighborhoods, and many of my colleagues at school are very political. It was the first time I’d ever worked side by side with public school teachers, so I can’t compare experiences country-wise (by which I mean, the French are stereotyped as being generally more leftist, i.e., angry, than the majority of Americans, but I also grew up in New York and my political experience is skewed left anyway) but Paris feels more generally politically charged in a way I can’t say I’ve felt in New York, outside of my personal experience at Cooper Union. In my neighborhood here, in the 18th, while there are good things and not-so-good things, I’ve seen a lot of things that are outside the law, because it’s necessary, and I see a lot of things that make me really angry—from the desperation of a high school in the banlieue trying to keep its students-without-papers from being harassed by the police to just blatant racial profiling on the corner of Barb├Ęs and Rochechouart. From being in France and getting to know a political system similar to but historically descended from a different lineage than the American political system, I’ve learned a lot about politics as both an abstract topic of conversation over beers on a Friday night and as the act of just walking down the street and evaluating every move made in relationship to others. How we speak and what vocabulary we use is identification—of origin, of class, of education, of politics—the question I’m considering now is how are the young French using that language to break out of these very rigid and long-enduring hierarchies?

Lyric Hunter was born in New York in 1990. After graduating in 2012 from the Cooper Union, she taught visual art in Queens. She currently lives in Paris as an English teaching assistant in the Teaching Assistant Program In France. Her poems and drawings have appeared in Poems by Sunday. Swallower (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014) is her first chapbook.