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The Magic of Paris

During Maymester, poets from USC Dornsife immersed themselves in the culture of the City of Light and emerged stronger writers.

By Ambrosia Viramontes-Brody
July 22, 2011

USC Dornsife alumna Rosaleen O’Sullivan reads an original piece to the audience at the Shakespeare & Company bookstore on the final evening in the month-long Maymester course, “The Poet in Paris.” Photo by Adrian Leeds.

USC Dornsife alumna Rosaleen O’Sullivan reads an original piece to the audience at the Shakespeare & Company bookstore on the final evening in the month-long Maymester course, “The Poet in Paris.” Photo by Adrian Leeds.

With the Eiffel Tower as her backdrop, USC Dornsife alumna Corey Arterian felt at one with those writers who came before her, penning poem after poem about the City of Light.

Paris, she came to understand, incites emotions and creativity.

“There was so much that inspired me,” said Arterian, who graduated with a bachelor’s in English literature in May. “We have so many ideas about the way Paris works, and being there, soaking up the culture and seeing how people interact, was an enriching experience.”

For one month, Arterian and 11 fellow poets followed in the footsteps of American literary figures such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and E.E. Cummings, who had immersed themselves in Parisian life. They also took inspiration from the works of French poets ranging from Baudelaire to Breton.

“The Poet in Paris” is an intermediate-level poetry-writing course led by poet Cecilia Woloch, a creative writing lecturer in USC Dornsife’s Department of English. As one of three inaugural Maymester courses, “The Poet in Paris” gave students a unique opportunity to experience an intensive writing course in an inspiring and challenging setting, while working closely with published poets such as Marilyn Hacker, Heather Hartley and Margo Berdeshevsky. Students found housing in their neighborhood of choice, explored the city at their own pace, and participated in workshops and discussions — all while earning four credits and honing their writing skills.

“I wanted students to get a sense of what it’s like to be a poet in another culture, specifically Paris, which has been home to so many artists and writers,” Woloch said.

Woloch and a host of guest poets, including Hacker, Hartley and Berdeshevsky, Jeffrey Greene, Ellen Hinsey and Christophe Lamiot-Enos, held intensive workshops with students three to four times a week. Encouraged to tread on uncommon writing ground, students broadened their territory as writers by exploring topics ranging from observations and experiences of street life in Paris to re-imagining world history.

In her poem “A Deserted Paris,” Arterian writes of a café down the street from her apartment.

I was sipping on a kir, in an already dusty café, when an armadillo walked in on his hind legs,
wearing a spectacularly subtle green suit and tie, topped with a bowler hat (of all things).
I couldn’t see them from where I was sitting, in the back corner,
but I imagine he took the time to wear cufflinks to match his ridiculous, beige briefcase.
He was confused, naturally, as any armadillo would be in a Parisian café (suited up or not).
Wide eyed, he held his metro map, grazing the floor, in one claw
and desperately clutched his briefcase, in the other.

During one session led by renowned poet Ellen Hinsey, students were instructed to push beyond their usual subject matter and write about global issues that moved them. Students responded by writing about topics such as overpopulation and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I was one of those people who was really boxed into writing about my own life and romance,” said Arterian, who wrote about feminism during the writing session. “But global issues can be made personal and they’re topics that people can really benefit and learn from.”

 


USC students walk the shores of Omaha Beach during a day-trip to Normandy. The visit resulted in students penning emotional pieces during the Maymester program, "The Poet in Paris."

Everyone was influenced by the city in his or her own way. USC Dornsife students strolled along the narrow streets stopping at the same cafés where Ernest Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds were habitués. With literary history waiting around every corner, students found they were influenced by simple sights such as tourists posing for photos in front of the Eiffel Tower, locals chatting at outdoor cafés and lovers strolling hand-in-hand through the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

USC Dornsife alumna, Sophia Kang, who graduated with a bachelor’s in creative writing in May, describes her initial experience in Paris in “Monday Afternoon at Parc des Buttes Chaumont.”

No sunbathers here like in Los Angeles.
Kids run peek-a-booing ‘neath the trees.
A shirtless man saunters over for a light,
and lies in the shade clearly within our view,
staring at the sky. Half a bottle of wine later…
Champagne bubbles over. It’s a celebration:
Welcome to Paris! a pair of men shout from the top.
A lucky accident leads to a lovely afternoon

On Monday nights, students read their works to locals and expatriates at the Cabaret Populaire in Paris’ Belleville district. This popular and lively open mic features poets and musicians from all over the world.

“I am not a huge fan of public speaking, but it was really fun,” Arterian said. “It was interesting to see the literary culture from people of different states and it was great to hear everyone else read.”

On the final evening of the month-long course, “The Poet in Paris” students presented their original works to a standing-room-only audience at the famed Shakespeare & Company bookstore — reading in the same building where James Joyce and Hemingway worked, with the spires of Notre Dame framed in the window behind them.

Andrew Ramirez, a senior English major in USC Dornsife, soaked in his surroundings. Exploring the city during the day, he attempted to write outdoors, but found it best to work in the quiet of indoors with fewer distractions.

“I couldn’t get any work done outside,” he said. “It is so hard to concentrate on a piece of paper when you are in Paris.”

He committed his afternoons to his craft. Writing at a desk in his shared apartment, Ramirez drew from his day-to-day experiences, recounting his first time going through customs, buying fruit and a croissant from the corner store and the people he encountered during his walks through the city. However, it was a day trip to Normandy that evoked an emotional piece from the young poet. In a poem titled simply “Normandy,” Ramirez writes:

I’ve looked up the addresses but they’re all closed-down
coffee shops and rest stops, restaurants with names like Irma’s and Dorothy’s, Elva’s and
Kenny’s, Mauricio’s, Leonardo’s….
I’ve visited the places in person to make sure, but it’s no use:
They’ve all been vacated and destroyed, as if laid into
with bombs,
the windows made into slants of glass held in their frames like guillotines,
the roofs punched with holes that leak sunlight and rain, wind,
and the shadows of the hawks and buzzards circling overhead.
Do you know the paint peels off the walls in eyelash curls?
Falls through the air and is lost in the weeds
and among the sound—screaming through the trees, that crawls across the fields, the sound that resonates from the highway, groaning over hidden streets—the sound that reminds me of the in-progress
invasion
of the mailbox
I’ve left defenseless
back home.

As they walked the shores of Omaha beach, where bloody battles had occurred, students were asked to weave personal, family and world history, and past and present global events, into their poetry, taking inspiration from the poetry collection Overlord, by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham.

“The Normandy trip gave students an opportunity to inhabit history and expand the range, depth and breadth of the subjects they approach in their creative work,” Woloch said. “I was amazed by the poems the students produced from this experience.”

Now back home, USC Dornsife alumna Rosaleen O’Sullivan, who earned a bachelor’s in English and international relations in May, reflected on her time in Paris.

“I definitely grew as a writer,” O’Sullivan said. “Everywhere you go you find some amazing memorial; and living and speaking in a different language had a great influence on my writing.”

“Professor Woloch is an amazing professor. She was so freeing, yet had so many great ideas on what we could do. She gave great advice on writing and genuinely cared about all of our work,” O’Sullivan added with a Mona Lisa smile.

Read more about the students’ trip on their blog, The Poet in Paris: thepoetinparis.blogspot.com.