On High Tides & Flights of Fancy: an interview with Jean-Christophe Réhel

by Juliette Gaudreault-Tremblay

On the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, there’s not much to be done with the afternoon beyond vague hopes of an ice cream or picking up Ce qu’on respire sur Tatouine (Del Busso Éditeur). A merchandise-less red and white cargo ship glides lazily along the St. Lawrence; MarineTraffic informs me that the Symphony of the Seas left Singapore five months earlier. What a trip. As it happens, later that same day I get offered the chance to interview Jean-Christophe Réhel — the author of five well-regarded poetry collections, including La Fatigue des fruits (L’Oie de cravan) and La Douleur du verre d’eau (L’Écrou), as well as a novel — who also happens to be into marine traffic. I grab the chance to talk to one of the bigger names on Quebec’s literary scene in recent years, his work met with an enthusiasm that I would put down to the disarming sincerity of his writing.

A weekly poem, published every Saturday in Le Devoir’s books supplement, has kept Jean-Christophe busy since January. It’s a new formula, but his personal and touching brand of poetry has lost none of its world-weary ingenuousness, none of the fascination for the details that punctuate everyday life, none of the breathlessness that characterizes it, whether he’s musing about IV treatments, coffee capsules, or racoons.

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Jean-Christophe Réhel. Photo credit: Hamza Abouelouafaa

It’s an approach that Jean-Christophe expresses through the varied forms of his work:

“What I’m writing in the paper is more or less an extension of La Fatigue des fruits and La douleur du verre d’eau. With my earlier collections, Bleu sexe les gorilles (Del Busso Éditeur) and Les volcans sentent la coconut (L’Écrou), I was writing short poems with short verses. With La Fatigue des fruits, I found another, longer form that built on repetitions. I dug in, and I’m not done exploring it yet.”

Acknowledging the broad range of opportunities that have come his way this year, Jean-Christophe says he greeted the prospect of publishing a weekly poem as a chance to bring poetry somewhere new and to reach a new audience. The project nonetheless requires no small amount of discipline, and the furious pace takes some getting used to.

“When the newspaper called, I was over the moon,” he says. “Maybe a little naïve, too. I’m still just starting out. It’s a first to get published in a newspaper every week, and Le Devoir isn’t just any newspaper. Writing for a newspaper is a marathon, not a 100 m sprint.”

This new way of writing marked a departure from sluggishness and fatigue, two of his central themes.

“I usually have one eye on a slow pace, but ironically enough I’ve never been so far removed from it. I’m talking up things that it seems as though, at times, I’m not experiencing for myself. As it happens, I have all kinds of stuff going on in my life, and writing my poems takes forever — I really wish the whole process was more relaxed. I’d like to write about nothing but birds for two months straight. Sometimes I even think to myself that my readers won’t believe what I’m writing, but I write about what I know.”

Jean-Christophe’s work resonates differently given the backdrop of the pandemic; his musings on what it’s like to be sick (he suffers from cystic fibrosis) have a social dimension to them. Through various collaborations he has been among the few artists to express vulnerability, but he doesn’t like being labelled a spokesperson, protesting that his experiences are no more legitimate than those of anyone else who suffers from a lung disease. That said, he does hope the sincerity of his writing can help make it more universal:

“Our world is being turned upside down right now. I don’t consider myself to be a political poet, but I do try to write poems that will help find us a way to survive, to live OK lives. I think that everyone’s looking for answers, and I think that 99.9% of the time I don’t have anything intelligent to say, but what I can give is emotions. People are looking for emotions, and I try to give them as much as I can, or at least as best I can.”

Our conversation turns to poetry for younger readers, an area of literature that’s close to his heart due to its democratic nature, and somewhere he’s already dipped a toe with Peigner le feu (La courte échelle). For Jean-Christophe, having not himself been awakened to the possibilities of contemporary Quebec poetry until cégep (just before university), he says it’s ultimately up to schools to introduce it to younger readers. His own experience just goes to show, he believes, the key role that our education system can play in developing a passion for YA.

“More and more of this kind of poetry needs to be taught,” he says. “We don’t talk about it enough. Elementary and high school teachers need to be talking more about Quebec poets, and not only the old guard. I visited a ton of schools before this crappy pandemic, and it’s just not true that young people aren’t interested in poetry. Maybe it’s that there aren’t enough poets talking to young people, really talking to them. With Peigner le feu, I wanted to talk about down-to-earth things, things they could relate to, things they knew.”

Before he sets foot in another school, before the end of this confinement-with- still-no-vaccine-in-sight-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel, Jean-Christophe is quietly working on another novel he hopes will be published some day, a novel he promises is set worlds away from the pandemic. In the meantime, we can keep on reading his whimsical digressions on everything from cargo ships to catheters in his weekly poem in Le Devoir, or pick up his novel and poetry collections from our local independent bookstore.

Interview translated by Peter McCambridge

This article first appeared, in French, at leculte.ca. Ce qu’on respire sur Tatouine is available this fall as Tatouine from QC Fiction in a translation by Katherine Hastings and Peter McCambridge.

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