The Left Bank Collage
Rebecca West wrote Black Lamb, Grey Falcon about former Yugoslavia in the 1930s. It’s a non-fiction work that combines historical research with her own experiences and observations. At its best, it brings alive the history with insight and tells as much about the writer herself. It made such an impact on me that I’m on a bus on the Croatian coast on my way to Split and then Dubrovnik. I want to visit some of the places she described.
In Split I can’t resist the churches. They are everywhere. I even go to mass. You can take the girl out of the Catholic Church etc . . . But soon I am reminded of the church’s overwhelming masculinity. This is a man’s show. I start to look for images of women. Of course there’s the Virgin and the Madonna. In the treasury of St Dominicus a large open book in a glass case attracts my attention. Amongst the hand-lettered text is an image of two women. One bends in supplication – this language rolls out of me – before the other.
In the Franciscan monastery in Dubrovnik exquisite embroideries sparkle even in the dim display-cases. These robes and altar cloths weren’t embroidered by angels but by very skilled women, though that’s not acknowledged anywhere. And this is how women are represented in the church’s history – their presence is prescribed or to be intuited.
This is my cultural heritage. What did it tell me about being a woman? That I was destined to be a lone virgin or a mother or invisible – that I would live without agency. There are many women saints but all the interesting ones like Jeanne d’Arc came to a depressing end. Which is by way of explaining how, since teenage-hood, I came to be looking for other sorts of women – women with agency.
Then one day in an art history lecture, Picasso’s image of Gertrude Stein stared at me with beady eyes. Further investigation revealed that here was a woman of interest, one who lived a life in which she made decisions and took action. And who wrote prose and poetry that still challenges the way we read language. In my teens I had read and adored the French writer Colette. I discovered she was a contemporary of Stein’s and these two writers introduced me to other writers who came to resemble, in my mind at least, a community. Here were women who tried to live the lives they wanted, who worked, who wrote. And Paris in 1900–40 provided a cheap and reasonably tolerant city in which to do that. Some had independent incomes, which at times supported other women. Djuna Barnes, for instance, was supported throughout her life by an allowance from Natalie Barney. These women became an inspiration, a way of living in the world. They became my heroes. And they’re still important to me – though I don’t always ‘like’ them.
But how to bring all this to poetry? Lynn Jenner provided the signpost with Dear Sweet Harry. Lynn uses stories, experiences, observations, non-poetic forms and found texts – real and imagined – as the basis for the book. And that’s what I did to begin ‘The Gertrude Stein Workshop’, a series of poems that imagines the women of the Left Bank, the area in Paris where Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Renée Vivien and Colette lived.
I reread their biographies as well as stories and poems. From this reading I began collecting anecdotes, quotes and images. When I assembled this material, it became a huge collage of impressions, ideas, phrases and historical language. At first I didn’t know what to do with it. I fiddled about with it, ordering and playing, and then the thought struck me: where was I in this material?
I set about answering this question by responding to the collage with my own stories and images and language. This was when the writing really started. I was the red thread in all of this, the thing that would string it all together and tell some sort of story. This gave the writing a focus and provided an approach.
Then I began rehearsing the work for performances. I started to hear an overall sameness that didn’t seem very interesting. The work needed texture and variety so I kept rewriting, and with the opportunity of every workshop or writing class I tried new angles. This process isn’t quite finished. Now I know I want to channel the women’s writing more. I want their voices and their interests to inform the work more. And I want a new lens to look at it all . . . I want, I want, I want . . . To achieve this I’ll have to continue experimenting with form and voice, and read, read, read. And so, on it goes.
Mary-Jane Duffy loves reading about food and people who love food. She is a big fan of Elizabeth David and her books and recipes. She thinks that learning to cook something from scratch as per a recipe is the first lesson for any artist.