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Poetics of Statelessness in Twentieth-Century France and Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - POSE (Poetics of Statelessness in Twentieth-Century France and Europe)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2017-08-31

Project Title: Poetics of Statelessness in Twentieth-Century France and Europe.

This project addresses the work of a range of French and European poets whose writing is marked by issues of migration, multi-lingualism and diasporic forms of identity. It approaches their poetry through the juridical and metaphorical framework of statelessness, that is, the condition of no longer being a citizen of any one country. Though literature and exile have long been the subject of academic research, this project explores how poetic language can illuminate a more specific set of national, juridical and ontological connotations which are at issue where statelessness is concerned.

In the first half of the twentieth century, events such as the Armenian genocide, the Russian Revolution, or the rise of fascism and political anti-Semitism in European countries precipitated stateless persons onto the international stage, while the contemporary migrant crisis has only intensified public awareness of their condition. These historical experiences show that statelessness is closely linked to the emergence of the modern nation state, to ideologies of nation and language, and to the administrative procedures around citizenship. This project demonstrates how a certain strand of modern and contemporary poetry promotes a subtle critical understanding of the normative matrix of language, birthplace and political society within which identities are forged.

The objectives of the project are: 1) the production of a monograph on four poets writing in French: Armen Lubin (1903-74), Edmond Jabès (1912-1991), Ghérasim Luca (1913-1994) and Michelle Grangaud (1941-); 2) the organisation of an international conference at Nancy in May 2017 on the theme of ‘European Poetry and Statelessness’; 3) the preparation of an open access peer-reviewed special issue on the theme of ‘French and European Poetics of Statelessness’ based on the proceedings of the conference; 4) a digitization project involving the FRANTEXT literature database; and 5) public engagement actions, including presentations to cultural organisations, a film screening and a press interview.
Dr Kerr’s monograph manuscript is progressing well. Research for this project since September 2016 has necessitated numerous archival visits to Paris, where he undertook research at the Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides (OFPRA), an archive of stateless persons, the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. He has also offered conference or invited presentations describing his research for the monograph at University College Cork (October 2016), the École Normale Supérieure, Paris (10 December 2016), the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris (13 December 2016) and the Analyse et Traitement Informatique de la Langue Française research laboratory, Nancy (10 March 2017).

On May 4th and 5th 2017, Dr Kerr and Dr Véronique Montémont organised a conference entitled ‘European Poetry and Statelessness’ in Nancy on the 4th and 5th of May 2017. The conference brought together 15 contributors from a range of different countries (including France, Ireland, Poland, the United Kingdom and the USA) and was a very successful event by all accounts. Since the event, Drs Kerr and Montémont have produced a journal special issue proposal based on a selection of presentations offered at the conference and provisionally entitled ‘French and European Poetics of Statelessness’; this has received a favourable initial response from a leading peer-reviewed journal in Modern Languages.

Public engagement actions led by Dr Kerr have taken place within two cultural organisations: the Union Générale Arménienne de Bienfaisance, Paris (14 March 2017, 25 attendees) and the Salon de la Maison des étudiants arméniens, Cité Universitaire, Paris (10 May 2017, 20 attendees). Other public engagement actions include a screening and public discussion of the film The Great Wall (with its director Tadhg O’Sullivan, 35 attendees) in the context of the European Poetry and Statelessness’ conference at Nancy in May 2017, and an interview for Nouvelles d’Arménie Magazine, which appeared in September 2017 (issue 243 - a copy of the interview is attached below).
The implications for the project can be accounted for in broad and specific senses.

In the broad sense, through evoking a position abstracted from established categories of being, place and political selfhood, statelessness speaks to the dramas of exile and migration as well as to the anxious positioning of poetry itself on the margins of prevailing discursive systems. The originality of the project is that it opens a way for approaching some fundamental aspects of migrant and cross-cultural experience and for interrogating the ‘place’ of poetry in modern society. These issues are of crucial importance in a contemporary context where factors such as nationality and the practice of a majoritarian language are subject to ever-growing interrogation as the principal ordering frameworks of social experience. The projected monograph by Dr Kerr as well as the range of contributions for the planned special issue on ‘French and European Poetics of Statelessness’ will make a significant contribution to the study of statelessness within literary studies, from both a historical and contemporary perspective.

More specific societal implications can be identified through specific strands of the project. One notable example is the public discussion between Dr Kerr and documentary director Tadhg O’Sullivan that took place following the screening of O’Sullivan’s film The Great Wall. The film, which explores issues concerning the contemporary migrant crisis and Europe’s preoccupation with the reinforcement of borders, was presented to a public audience to much acclaim, and generated subsequent discussion.

A further specific impact of Dr Kerr’s research is to raise public awareness among the French Armenian community of the poet Armen Lubin, a poet who, of all those under consideration as part of this project, was most personally affected by the condition of statelessness. Dr Kerr’s efforts to this end took the form of the public engagement activities and interview described above.

A final strand of the project to be emphasised in this regard is the digitisation project. As part of the project, the collected works of each of the poets whose writings are the subject of Dr Kerr’s monograph were scanned and entered into the FRANTEXT database, and will now be available for other researchers to exploit. The result is a resource of major value for scholarship, and opens up possibilities for new kinds of textual analysis, particularly in the case of writers such as Edmond Jabes and Gherasim Luca, whose works are only available to researchers in very limited form on online databases. The texts will now be available for other researchers to exploit, in accordance with copyright rules and with the agreement of the French Syndicat National de l’Edition (which allow for only for display of excerpts).
Screening at Nancy conference
Kerr, Union Générale Arménienne de Bienfaisance public engagement
POSE conference
Kerr interview in Nouvelles d’Arménie Magazine, no 243 second page
Kerr interview in Nouvelles d’Arménie Magazine, no 243 first page
Kerr Salon de la Maison des étudiants arméniens public engagement, Cité Universitaire, Paris