mardi 30 août 2016

Winged Victory : Interview with Erin Byrne

Erin Byrne is author of Wings - Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France (Travelers’ Tales, 2016), winner of the Paris Book Festival Award for travel genre, editor of Vignettes & Postcards From Paris and Vignettes & Postcards From Morocco (Reputation Books, 2016), and writer of The Storykeeper film.  
Erin’s travel essays, poetry, fiction and screenplays have won numerous awards including three Grand Prize Solas Awards for Travel Story of the Year, the Reader’s Favorite Award, Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Finalist, and an Accolade Award for film.
Erin is occasional guest instructor at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris and teaches on Deep Travel trips.  Her screenplay, Siesta, is in pre-production in Spain, and she is working on the novel, The Red Notebook.  

PML:  How did you come to writing?

EB:  I wrote my first story at four years old, it was about the circus and I posted it on my bedroom door.  I wrote a story at age six about how my first trip to the beach compared with my favorite book,  I See the Sea and that was when travel writing became my genre.  I spent hours, weeks, decades, centuries at the desk in my bedroom writing and drawing, quite near, in fact, to a painting of a little red-haired girl raising her arms in joy on a cobblestoned street under spiral balconies, which my mom had painted right on the wall.

PML:  This was a painting your mother did of you?

EB: Yes, in a perfectly Parisian set—bit prophetic perhaps.  But then I veered away from my creative self over the years; it was so easy to be less quirky and more mainstream.

PML: Was this veering away conscious?  Willed even?

EB: Yes, as I write about in my “Winged Victory” essay, I remember making the conscious choice at five years old to cast off my curious, inquisitive, relentlessly intense nature and become Well-Behaved. It was decades later when I first went to France in 2005 that this artistic self was piqued, drawn out, and nourished.  I began writing, in 2007 and was published right at the start, which was incredibly lucky.  The ghosts of Victor Hugo, George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir, and others turned up to guide me through, and I acquired what I call a “kick-ass group of mentors”, mostly in the Bay Area. 

PML:  What was it about France that inspired you?

EB:  The instantaneous sense that I fit into this place, an audible “click”: the pace matched my pulse, the wildly dramatic swings of its history mesmerized me, the outside-the-box creative vibe resonated.  In France I discovered a way of communicating that I myself had engaged in but rarely had reciprocated, a focus on savoring the simple pleasures of life, and an elevation of beauty and all forms of art.  These things that exist so freely in French culture were all inside of me but missing in my outer life, and I was inspired to change in a myriad of ways.

PML:  Do you have a writing philosophy?

EB:  My writing and travel philosophy is based on this quote by Joseph Campbell:
The passage of the mythological hero is overground incidentally.  Fundamentally it is inward, into the depths, where obscure resistances are overcome and long lost powers revivified.
I believe that if we dig deep enough we reach the universal emotion.  I use and teach a creative process based on this premise. The minute we begin to seek meaning, resistances crop up, but if we persist, the results are powerful indeed.  I believe every writer who has written anything that has touched me has done this. 

PML:  So you’re philosophically opposed to the literature of escapism?

EB:  We lose ourselves to find ourselves, no?  I can be reading the most fantastical stories that seem removed from your my life, but if I begin to ask myself why I’m so captivated , what any of this has to do with me, connections light up like a power grid.  I’ve discovered this in both reading and writing ... in film ... in all forms of art, actually.  In my writing I call it The Mystique of Art.  This process works with fiction, nonfiction, film, playwriting ... whatever genre we create in. If a writer persists, I have never seen it fail to both elicit surprise and spark a story that touches others.

PML:  How did the writing of ”Wings” come about?

EB:  As soon as I began writing these more in-depth travel essays, I had found my niche and envisioned this collection.  I remember confiding in Anna Pook years ago sitting by the window in Café Panis, and quite early on I pitched it to my agent.  Travelers’ Tales was the perfect publisher to keep the focus on travel but to also make it a bit of a memoir.

PML:  What is the book’s main theme?

EB:  The book is about how I was changed by traveling through France with the ghosts of artists and historical figures—and writers and filmmakers and friends—who shared with me their guides to living.  Essentially, Wings follows the trajectory of a bumbling traveler guided by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Winged Victory, and other magical guides.  I was drawn to France and then sort of fell into its history and have never really emerged—I find this happens whenever I travel often to a place.

PML:  It’s, in fact, a collection of autobiographical essays?

EB:  My sometimes genre-bending travel essays!  15 of them have already been published, 15 of which are new, arranged in a deep-deeper-deepest arc in chapters of three stories each around themes: Tastes, Characters, Connections, Art, Transformation, Secrets, Signs, and Belonging. 

PML:  Children and adolescents play a prominent role in some of the chapters.

EB:  Yes. One chapter, Les Deux Garçons, is about my son Brendan and his friend Corbin.  There’s another based on The Storykeeper, the award-winning documentary that Rogier Van Beeck Calkoen and I made about a young boy in occupied Paris who witnessed a USAF B-17 crash in his neighborhood. 

PML:  What I like about “Wings” is that we witness your view of France evolving.

EB:  My image of France was at first blindingly glittering, but my own air of sophistication misted over the more I went there, and finally evaporated altogether.  During the editing of Wings, I chose not to make myself seem smarter or savvier, although it was tempting.  I tried to keep the essence of what we often do when we travel: arrive with preconceived notions, cling to our assumptions, pine for our prior expectations, and take pride in our vast knowledge.  I found that if I was open enough, these all got upended and that was when the discoveries began.  We feel such an affinity with a place that we over-identify (“Bastille Day on the Palouse”), we get it wrong and we fall (“Signs”), we fumble with the language and learn that une croissant is really un croissant (“f is for...”), and thus we are humbled (“The Mirror of Montmartre”).  The view is different from this vantage point.

PML:  There are a lot of lovely illustrations.  Who did them?

EB:  The artist Anna Elkins.  She contributed over 100 gorgeous sketches which illustrate the stories perfectly.  The pictures include many addresses that make Wings a guidebook of sorts.  

PML:  You’ve also made films of some of the stories?

EB: Rogier and I filmed a book trailer and made short films for two of the stories, which you can find here on YouTube.  Rogier has also made The Storykeeper available for a limited time to view. 

PML:  Tell us a little about your writing workshops.

EB:  I’m “anti-workshop”, so  with me, writers do not weigh in creatively on each other’s work.  Instead we wrestle with our own stories, which go from unmanageable beasts to concise stories with a clear structure and theme.  It’s a grind but it is the only way to get to the heart of what you are trying to write.

PML:  Why no group feedback?

EB:  The objective is to learn to do this for ourselves, to develop our intuition into a kind of divining rod for our own truths. “Why do you want to write this story?” “What was the most powerful emotion here?” ... and perhaps most crucial, “What is the connection between this story and you?”  This is where that resistance Campbell mentions in his quote about the inner journey comes up; we think we randomly choose our topics but I’ve found that is rarely the case. We polish and burnish our prose, and then we always have a party when we share our stories. So we also develop the skill of reading our own work as a reader would, which requires stepping back from it. 

PML:  You obviously enjoy teaching these workshops.

EB:  I adore teaching the writers at Shakespeare and Company because they’re used to this process, and they are up for anything.  I can toss out a concept like the Spanish duende or the idea of using fictional techniques in nonfiction stories, or ask them to grab a book and write the first thing that comes into your head, and everyone leaps into, shall we say, the void??  I’m so inspired by everyone every time I’m here. 

PML:  You’ve also begun hosting Literary Salons?

EB:  As well as a riveting presentation by you on Menippean Satire that led to a rousing analysis of humor, I’ve hosted salons over the past five years in Paris featuring an expert in medieval storytelling, filmmaker Gonzague Pichelin speaking of his Love Letters Project art installation and film, Jane Weston and David Vauclair, authors of De Charlie Hebdo à#Charlie: Enjeux, histoire, perspectives, Moroccan storytelling, and the varied and gifted artist Anna Elkins.  These evenings follow the patterns of literary salons established in Renaissance Italy and continued in 17th-century France, a short presentation of around 20 minutes followed by discussion that swerves all over the map.  It is a wildly fun and vibrant tradition.

PML:  What other projects have you been working on?

EB:  The beloved original anthology of stories written by writers here that Anna Pook and I put together, Vignettes & Postcards - Writings From the Evening Writing Workshop at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Fall, 2011 will be republished by Reputation Books and comes out in August.  The new edition, Vignettes & Postcards From Paris,  has 21 new stories and poems by Don George, Georgia Hesse, Billy Collins and others that bring the reader to Paris before ascending to the upstairs library for the original stories. 

PML:  There’s a Moroccan version too?
EB: Vignettes & Postcards From Morocco is coming out at the same time, a collection of stories and poems that seek the ancient and celebrate the exotic in Morocco by Suzanna Clarke, Phil Cousineau, Michael Chabon and many other fabulous writers (including Ann Dufaux and Claire Fallou, two of the original Paris writers).  We will launch these in the Bay Area in August and in Fez and Paris in March. Vignettes & Postcards is now a series of destination specific anthologies ... next will be either Spain or Ireland!

PML:  And you’re writing a screenplay?

EB: I’m editing my screenplay Siesta now.  It’s a short (or perhaps a full-length feature, we are in the midst of this decision) Rogier Van Beeck Calkoen and I plan to film in Spain.  It is set in a small village in southern Spain that continues to keep the tradition of the siesta, and is about one high-strung American man’s encounter with that culture and the ensuing clashes and changes, and features flamenco, a group of eccentric old men, and a close encounter with a bull. I love writing for film and it is awesome to collaborate with Rogier. 

PML:  What’s your upcoming novel The Red Notebook about?

EB: It’s loosely based on Ginette Rocher, a woman in the Parisian Résistance who hid Allies, who is part of The Storykeeper story.  The book is about the hiding of American spies, and revolves around a plot that took place in the Paris Ritz.  I’m finding writing fiction an incredible adventure.  After the grueling work of research and outlining 27 chapters, it seems to be about putting oneself in a character’s skin and just writing down what happens, which give it a thrill akin to reading.

mercredi 29 juin 2016

Thou ART Ruud (interview with Ruud Antonius)

RuudAntonius was born on the 3rd of December 1959 in Apeldoorn, The Netherlands. He lived there until the age of 13 and moved to England with his family in 1973, continued his schooling and studied art. After that, in 1979, he left England and moved to Bielefeld, Germany and 9 months later to Hameln a small town close to Hanover.
For a period of 5 years he painted and played music here. In 1984 he returned to The Netherlands. In March 2006 he moved to England until 2011 and moved to Spain for 2 years, he now resides in the UK where he writes, paints and produces music.  

PML: When did you realise that you wanted to be an artist?

RA:  I was 8 years old and I remember it was a sunny day on a market in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands where my mother had taken me to do some shopping.  That is where I saw a man behind an easel, working on a painting in oils.  Now to be perfectly clear, I had never touched oils before, but I’d been drawing obsessively since I could hold a pencil.  After watching this man for quite a while maybe as long as half an hour my prevailing thought at the time was that I found the work appalling.

PML: Even at that young age you possessed a critical eye.

RA:  I did find the process fascinating and intriguing.  I made up my mind that that was what I wanted to do.  Certainly not as badly as what I was witnessing, but I was definitely going to be an artist.  It seemed a good idea at the time, and I am still struggling with the thought today.

PML: Why do you say that?

RA:  I am not so sure what an artist is.  Okay, someone who paints, dances, sings, writes, composes music.  But there is more to it than that.  I don’t think we can just say, ‘hey he paints, he’s an artist’. Or even, ‘he makes a living selling his paintings’.  It may be that art is not just producing work of a certain standard.  It may be that it is the way you stand in the world, the way you live your life, all for the sake of making it possible to create your works.  There is a lot of poverty before you start making money as an artist.

PML: How do you define your art?

RA:  Why should my art be defined?  Let’s face it, the more we have defined art the more the decline in quality of the arts has overwhelmed us.

PML:  Give it a go anyway.

RA:  Listen, I have been an artist now for over forty years and I've learned  a few lessons.  We are soul searchers.  We are boundary seekers concerned with giving meaning to our existence rather than artisans trying to explain what our art is.  Artists are completely obsessed by the drug that is the process of creating.  It is the creating that gives us energy.  We are gobsmacked and in awe of what our fingers produce.  We listen in amazement to the magic of the medium we use. Our thoughts are merely there to enjoy these little miracles as they appear:  the fact we can manipulate light, dissect material, find hidden structures in what we take for granted.  We create an apparition, a view...  The creation, which has managed to crawl from our mind and soul, is the true essence of our occupation.  I don’t believe we can or should try to define art.  Not if you are an artist.

PML:  You are saying that art is, in fact, decided by the public?

RA: Yes. The initial question does not interest me anymore, but naturally as a student and youngster I followed the trend of my teachers and peers.  Yet I do realise you are fishing for that mutual language which takes years to understand.  It is a broad language that does not contain words or pictures.  It is a language of values, of artist ethics and aesthetics based on many years of exploring the small wonders of creation.  It is a language for creators to help create.  So back to the question as to how I define my art, I don’t but you may.  It is not in my job description, but if you feel it happens to be in yours than you are more than welcome.

PML: Salvador Dali seems to be an influence?

RA:  No, Surrealism has an influence. Since Dali was a huge exponent of this movement does not mean to say he influenced me.

PML:  Sorry to insist, Ruud, but surely Dali is albeit among the Surrealists important for you?

RA:  Okay, I’ll give you that one.  But the greatest influences on my work are the old masters.  I was 14 when I got my first set of oil paints sent over from my grandmother in the Netherlands.  I had moved to the UK two years earlier.  I didn't have a clue about brushes, mediums, canvasses and was very disappointed with my first attempts.  So I went to the library and borrowed some books on the old masters.  It was John Constable, the English landscape painter, who inspired me most.

PML:  Interesting that it should have been an English painter.

RA:   England had adopted me and I was adopting Mr. Constable.  I even visited the National Gallery in London to see ‘the Haywain’ in the flesh. And here I must admit to a secret I have kept for many years.  I waited until no one else was in the room and actually felt the painting.  I wanted to feel the paint, the tension of the canvass, the structures of the glazes and the highlights underneath.

PML:  What did you achieve by this?

RA:  Two major things in my life. Firstly, it may sound weird, but touching the surface of a painting tells a lot about how it has been painted.  It certainly was the best art lesson I've ever had.  And secondly, I am probably one of the very few in the world who have actually been able to touch this work.  How I got away with it I do not know.

PML: So you started by copying the old masters?

RA:  I copied many masters from the age of about 14-15 years, and suddenly I found myself selling these pieces to my teachers at school for a couple of pounds.  This enabled me to afford my materials for the next paintings.  Other people caught on, and in a short span of time, I got a few commissions.  During my school days, Turner, Rembrandt, Constable, Whistler and many others have stood on my easel.

PML: You could have made a fortune as a forger.

RA:  Not very long ago a long lost friend contacted me on Facebook and reminded me her father had bought two paintings of mine when I was 15 years old.  She sent me a photograph of Salisbury Cathedral, originally painted by John Constable.  Although I could see my mistakes, I was surprised that these attempts were not bad at all.

PML: When did the surrealism creep in?

RA:  It was many years later, in my early 20’s that my work showed any signs of leaning towards surrealism.  I was very much a traditionalist, wanting to learn the trade of painting, the techniques, before wandering off into alleys of weird and wonderful ideas.  My approach to art as a young man did me a huge favour although I was not aware of it at the time.

PML:  Perhaps, nowadays, the originality of the idea is more important than technique?

RA:  Most definitely, but the problem is that an artist has a million ideas but 900.000 of them should be trashed before they are executed.  They are simply not worth it.  Then another couple of 10’s of thousands might be amusing, but on closer inspection should be recorded in a sketch book as a reference.  

PML:  You would dismiss most modern art?

RA:  I am not particularly proud of what our last decennia have brought us, the Jeffrey Koons, The Tracy Emmet’s, The Damien Hirst’s, all exponents of a derogatory hallucinating and fraudulent form of making a living from having absolutely no talent at all.  The fact that galleries have always dictated what sells and does not sell is part of our culture.  But we can now safely say that, as long as it is big and shiny and maybe interesting as a tiny idea, it will sell.  It is the story of the artist, the words, the racket rather than the joy of the conception of the work that now prevails.  

PML:  Where does this tendency come from?

RA:  Obviously the current trend of indifference and the need for bite-sized glossy and appealing results.  Also, and I know I am treading on thin ice and many will disagree with my point of view, but the first one who did this was my fellow countryman Vincent Gogh.  It wasn’t his fault.  He was not aware of it.  But he was one of the first artists whose character became a story, a book, a romantic novel of a failed artist supported by his brother.

PML:  You can't deny he was ahead of his time though?  No one painted like him.

RA:  That is a lame excuse. One could argue, and I tend to very often, that, in the latter stages of his life, Rembrandt was far ahead of his time with his technique.  I’d put forward he was the first impressionist.  In fact, nobody paints like anyone else.  Vincent van Gogh did not show any revolutionary aspect in his specific field of ‘expertise’ , nor does his work have an amazing masterly quality we can relate to.  It is the work of a maniac.  His paintings were and are awful, technically as well as intellectually.

PML:  His paintings are alive with movement and colour...

RA:  There is that, but let’s face it, there were many others in his time who did a better job.  If anyone can convince me otherwise I'd like to meet them.  I truly believe that I might be able to convince them.  I know it is a bit of a rant but hey, the injustice of this ‘industry’ is sometimes unbearable, and I feel someone has to have the guts to say things as they are.

PML:  What is your current project?

RA:  I am working on a painting with a huge Cauliflower.  The title is ‘Je n'aime pas le choufleur’ a reference to Rene Margritte’s series the most famous one being "Ceci n'est pas une pipe."

PML:  Is this a commission or do you just like cauliflowers?

RA:  I don’t do commissions.  I just make my own stuff.  Cauliflowers are quite nice until they are overcooked.  They get this nasty odour, something between rotten fruit and a urinal that hasn't been cleaned for a while. Not palatable at all.  In the UK they usually then cover it in cheese sauce to seal in the smell, and then kill it some more in the oven.  So I avoid them in that state like the plague.  But seeing a cauliflower in the sky, fresh, like a sun beaming caulirays into my landscape, seemed a lovely idea and just made me feel very good.  Of course there is more to it than that, but I will leave that to the observers.  I mustn't make it out to be bigger than it is.  It is just a cauliflower in the sky.

PML:  And when you've finished that?

RA:  I am going to paint a painting without a huge cauliflower.

dimanche 8 mai 2016

"Rock 'n' Roll Rescue": Knox (Ian M. Carnochan)

Knox (real name Ian M. Carnochan) was the frontman and main songwriter of The Vibrators, one of the very first U.K. punk bands.  His songs Baby Baby, London Girls and Automatic Lover all went top forty.

Along with The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned, The Vibrators played the pivotal 100 Club Punk Festival in 1976, and the following year supported Iggy Pop (when David Bowie played keyboards). Among the musicians Knox has recorded with are Chris Spedding, Alex Chilton, Robin Hitchcock and Hanoi Rocks.

Prior to punk, Knox attended art school in Watford.  His paintings are inspired by both classical and contemporary artists such as Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, and Andrew Garnet-Lawson.

A prolific songwriter, Knox continues to write for The Vibrators, but nowadays devotes most of his time to running Rock 'n' Roll Rescue, a music charity shop.

PML: It might seem strange to some people for a “punk rock” star to get involved in charity.  How did the shift come about?

KNOX:  I think it’s probably a normal thing to happen when you get older.  You don’t have all the distractions like youth and a family to clutter up your vision.  You start seeing more of the ‘big picture’ and you realise also that maybe you should try and do something about the things that are not OK in the world.

PML:  You don’t think that looking after the poor should be the responsibility of the state?  Or those with money?

KNOX: Well yes, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work too well, profit before people, that sort of thing.  So rather than try and change things through legislation, though that is what should eventually happen, you think: I’ll just get on and do what I can.  Straightaway.  Where I am.

PML: Listening to some of your songs, it seems as if “Poll Tax Blues” is the first manifestation of a concern for the vulnerable?

KNOX:  It might be.  I had another song called “Modern World” which had some concerns about people in it.  Some of my friends used to say my songs weren’t about anything, but now I can’t seem to write one that isn’t about something.  I’m probably a late developer.

PML:  Where did the idea for a charity shop come from?

KNOX:  Because my nickname is Knox, and there is an existing chain of charity shops called Oxfam, I used to make jokes about “KnOxfam. Charity begins at home!”  From there I think I got the idea of a music charity shop.  As I got more horrified at the state of the world, especially vulnerable people not being properly supported, I felt I had to go ahead and start Rock ’n’ Roll Rescue.

PML:  Was it difficult to find premises?

KNOX:  I had been looking for a few months but was always busy until a week before I started the shop.  One of my friends, who I mentioned the idea to, said the premises right next door to the Dublin Castle pub in Camden Town would be perfect.  So there we are.

PML:  But isn’t it expensive to rent in Camden?  Where did you find the initial capital?

KNOX:  I was left a little bit of money in my aunt’s will, and I thought she’d like the idea of it being used to start a charity shop.  It is expensive, but we struggle on.  I always think the shop, given the right breaks, could make a million pounds a year.  If it got supported by ‘pop stars’, it could have quite a bit of political clout.  But I’ll leave that to people who know more about that sort of thing than me.  I much prefer being invisible, and not the face of the shop.

PML: How is the shop organised?

KNOX:  I supposed it is organised, even though it always seems to be running out of control.  We’re a registered charity (No: 1162829) and the money goes to the local food bank, and the Hare Krishna van.  It goes round feeding 1,000 meals a week in the local area (Para, the guy who cooks, has been getting up at 5.00 in the morning to do this for twenty years, I think).  We bankroll that van and another to take stuff out to the migrants in Calais, also we give money to the Mayhew animal place, and a local women’s refuge, that sort of thing.  Rather sadly there’s an endless list of people and places to donate the money to.

PML:  What are the main challenges in running the shop?

KNOX:  I think it’s getting the right people to help who properly know how to do things, and finding the time to get things done, as you will start something, then get interrupted.  There are plenty of ideas that the shop could do, but getting any of them implemented is extremely hard, because of the lack of time and available people.  Everyone’s a volunteer so it’s not like they’re being paid to attend, and life gets in the way.

PML:  Do other ‘77 era musicians help out?

KNOX:  Quite a lot do.  We get stuff donated from some of these people, but I think generally they help the world in other ways, not just dropping a few things off into our shop.

PML: What sort of stock do you sell?

KNOX:  We have tons of old electrical band recording stuff, small amps, guitars, CDs, DVDs, cassettes, 8-track tapes, LPs and singles, clothes, shoes, etc.  We’re very much dictated to by what people donate, so the stock is constantly changing.

PML: You also organise concerts on the premises?

KNOX:  We have very small gigs in the middle room in the shop.  We move the clothes racks and other stuff out of the way, and it’s actually a very nice small intimate space.  Our ‘house band’ which plays once a month is Pete Parker’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Club and are a two piece a bit like the White Stripes.  They’re really good.  We’ve also had other people playing: Charlie Harper (UK Subs), John Ellis (Vibrators/Stranglers), Luke Haines (who started Brit Pop), Dead Letter (Black Metal), Lach (one of the starters of the Anti-folk NY scene), and a few others.

PML:  Is this a long term project?

KNOX:  Hopefully it’ll run and run.  It’s a lot of work so the shop always need more people to help as frequently the best volunteers will get a job, that sort of thing, so we always need more.

PML:  What about your own musical and artistic projects?

KNOX:  I’ve got a few things on at the moment, a new Urban Dogs (with Charlie Harper) album this month and, in the summer, a new Vibrators’ album.  It’s a lot of extra work because, at the moment, all my time is used up doing the shop.  Hopefully I’ll somehow survive.  I want to make lots more albums (dream on), plus I’d like to record a lot of other people, especially ones in the shop (I have managed to make a small start with that), and I’d like a quiet life, just sitting outside somewhere, doing a painting, hopefully with a little pet dog (dream on!).
Camden Town Postcard by Knox

lundi 18 janvier 2016

The Silent Way Today: Roslyn Young

Until she retired, Roslyn Young taught spoken English at the Centre de Linguistique Appliquée at the University of Franche-Comté in Besançon (France). She wrote her PhD on Caleb Gattegno's teaching approach applied to the teaching of foreign languages, reading and French grammar. She has ran seminars and teacher training workshops around the world, especially in Japan. She remains active in teacher training, teaching and materials development, and has written several books, on the Silent Way and on how people learn. A new book "Teaching English the Silent Way" will be published in 2016.

PML: What first attracted you to the Silent Way?

RY: In 1971, I attended a seminar with Caleb Gattegno. During the weekend, he taught Chinese for about an hour, and I was amazed and thrilled by what I saw and experienced during that lesson. There were about 35 people in the ‘class’, sitting on the front of their chairs, present to the work. I had never seen such a high level of interest and enthusiasm in a class. I decided on the spot that I wanted to be able to teach as well as that.

PML: Was this high level of interest from Gattegno himself or the method?

RY:  At the time, I thought it came from Gattegno. As I learned to do something similar, I realised that it comes from the approach. It’s easy to see small children completely absorbed in what they do, less common to find the same thing in adults in language classes. When they are taught using this approach, adults can often be intensely absorbed in the task. Well used, the approach creates what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘Flow’. Silent Way teachers have other ways of expressing this state, and know how to develop it in students.

PML: What were your impressions of Gattegno as a person?

RY:  I have always felt extraordinarily privileged to work with someone of Gattegno’s calibre. He spoke many languages very well, was an extraordinary teacher, a deep thinker, and yet he was humble.

PML:  I understand that his knowledge was encyclopedic.

RY:   He seemed to have read everything worth reading—Pascal, Descartes, Montaigne, Flaubert and so many others in the original. Then, years later, he still had it all in mind well enough to cite something which might usefully illustrate a point in a workshop. To do this in one culture was extraordinary, but then I discovered he could do it in several. I went to quite a few of his workshops in Bristol and was astounded to see that he could cite Bacon, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell and many others just as easily. And English was not among his first languages.

PML: What motivated him?

RY:  He did not see his job in workshops he gave as telling participants what he thought, but as educating us to think. His vision of the universe and man-in-the-universe was and remains compelling.

PML:  What is the basis of the Silent Way?

RY: The approach is based on a precise and detailed model of learning described by Gattegno, who invented it as part of his vision of man. This model describes all learning, from learning a language to water skiing to learning one’s multiplication tables or how to play chess.

PML: Can you describe this model?

RY:  It involves ‘awarenesses’. An awareness is that tiny movement of the mind which takes place when I change from ‘being unaware’ to ‘being aware’. It’s the moment of ‘becoming aware’. Awarenesses are what humans use to remain in contact with both their inner and outer lives. We live our lives using awarenesses to guide us. Everyone recognises an ‘Aha’ moment. It is a moment when an important awareness takes place. However awarenesses come in all sizes, and I am more interested in the much smaller ones.

PML: Can you give us an example?

RY: I am doing the washing up. I run my fingers around the inner surface of the saucepan and become aware that there is a slight rough patch, and I become aware that I have to rub this spot again.  A Silent Way class is full of such tiny ‘Aha’ moments when students become aware.

PML:  How does this awareness of awarenesses help the teacher?

RY: It makes the teaching process much more precise. I watch the students as they work together in the classroom. From what I see and hear, I can pin-point certain awarenesses that they have had—or not had. I choose how I respond in function of the awarenesses I know they need here and now in order to say what they are trying to say. One of the results of working within this model is that I can be quite precise in my work with students.

PML: The Silent Way also renders the students responsible for their learning.

RY:  Absolutely.  The Silent Way allows me to give my students as much freedom as they can handle. One of the main techniques I use with non-beginners is the ‘class conversation’.

PML: Is this simply free conversation or are there implicit or explicit rules?

RY: The ground rule of a class conversation is that the students must speak the truth. I seed the first few conversations with a leading question which is likely to have as many answers as there are people in the class, for example, something as simple as: “What did you do last weekend?” Then I allow the students to take this where it might naturally lead in a similar conversation in their own language. They simply express their thoughts and feelings. Once they realise that these are genuine exchanges, that I am not going to interfere with the content, but only work on their expression, the class conversation becomes as interesting as the class can make it.

PML:  What are you doing while they're having this conversation?

RY: I work on their English sentence by sentence.  My role is to help them improve the quality of their English and also to extend their range. When a new word or structure is required because students cannot say something that they genuinely want to say, they are primed to notice the new facet of the language when I provide it. This is why Gattegno called errors ‘gifts to the class’. I use the Silent Way materials as ‘tools’ which allow me to correct rapidly and precisely, so that students can develop criteria for their English. I never ‘teach’ in the usual sense of the word.

PML: What happens when a conversation is interrupted by a long period of correction?

RY:  I maintain the thread by making sure that several of the previous statements are said again to re-create the context before the new, now correct sentence, is added. Such periods can be surprisingly long without being detrimental to the conversation.

PML: So, in fact, it's always the learners themselves who provide the content of the conversation.

RY: And this means that students’ learning is always directly connected to self expression. There is a personal, affective impetus in everything they say.

PML: What benefit does the Silent Way give students on a technical level?

RY: One major benefit is that the Silent Way enables the students to have in front of them a synthesis of several aspects of the language they are learning. They can see, displayed on a wall or laid out on a table, a well-developed synthesis of its systems: pronunciation, spelling, functional vocabulary, verb tenses, etc. Having a synthesis before one’s eyes helps immeasurably in learning anything. When learning a language, students can better see how the language functions as a whole.  I believe this was one of Gattegno’s great insights.

PML:  Another was that memorisation isn't important.  Am I right?

RY: Well, Gattegno proposed that we have two different kinds of memory. They differ in the expenditure of energy each requires. The one most people know about is memorisation, which involves spending lots of energy. Imagine how much mental energy it takes—not to speak of time—to memorise history dates, for example, or irregular verbs in English, the gender of nouns in French, or the times tables.  Some of us spend hours memorising all sorts of things, and have done so since we first went to school. And years later, how much is still available? What is memorised is easily forgotten.

PML:  So what is the other form of memory?

RY:  It's our retention system, and it's much more efficient. We are natural retention systems. I go into a shop and walk around, noticing how the various products are arranged as I look for the thing I want to buy. The next time I go into this shop, I know where to find all sorts of things. I have retained mental images of the shop and its layout. As a result of this system, I have in me images of dozens of shops from various countries. I'll have similar images of the shop assistants, people I don’t know but see in the bus from time to time... It's the same for tactile images: the feel of honey on my fingers, sacking, the leaves of certain plants…  I have auditory images of voices, of pieces of music...  Creating and retaining of these images costs me nothing. These are a natural functioning of humans.  So Gattegno proposed that we base our work as teachers on the retention system rather than on memorisation.

PML:  How can the teacher exploit the student's retention system?

RY:  It requires thought until one sees how it can be done, and the payoff for the students is excellent. The images are free of cost, long-lasting and reliable.

PML:   How relevant do you think the Silent Way remains today?

RY:  It is entirely relevant today.  It is timeless. Since no books are used, only charts showing the function words of the language, and since the teacher has no agenda other than helping the students to improve their capacity to say whatever they want to say, there is nothing to tie it to a time or a place. It is whatever any particular class makes it for the duration of the course.

PML:   Actually, I was thinking more of the revolution in new technologies, whether people might prefer to learn through tutorials on You Tube or other Medias…

RY: It depends what students come to class to learn. If they want to learn to speak the language, then they would be making a mistake. Clearly, speaking a language is a know-how—I ‘know how’ to speak French—, and to learn a know-how, you have to keep doing it until you know how! This is obvious for playing an instrument, for example, or for playing a sport: you can go to as many concerts or matches as you like, they will teach you some things about the discipline, but not how to pluck strings, serve or kick goals.  Watching a video on You Tube is undoubtedly useful for some aspects of the discipline of learning a language, but it won’t produce the know-how-to-speak.

PML:  The tools (Cuisenaire rods and colour-coded charts) aren’t conventionally authentic materials…

RY: I don’t think it’s important whether the materials used are authentic. What has to be authentic in a classroom is what people say. What could be more authentic than speaking one’s personal thoughts, expressing one’s sentiments and feelings?  Have you heard of a French writer called Louise de Vilmorin?  She once famously said to a journalist, “Talk to me about myself. That is all that interests me”. She was onto something, Louise! And I think it applies to our students too.

PML:  So the Silent Way might be considered, first and foremost, a humanistic approach to language teaching?

RY:  Gattegno used to say:  "I’m not a language teacher, I’m a people teacher, and the people are learning the language". I learn my students while they learn the language.

jeudi 8 octobre 2015

On Travel, Transcendence, and Taking the First Step: Christina Ammon

Christina Ammon has penned stories for Orion Magazine, Hemispheres, The San Francisco Chronicle, Conde Nast and numerous travel anthologies. She is the recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship for nonfiction and organizes the Deep Travel writing tours in Morocco and Nepal.
When not traveling, Christina Ammon lives in Ruch, Oregon where she writes, sips wine, and paraglides.  For travel tales and workshop information, visit her blog 


PML:  What triggered your life as inveterate traveller and writer?

CA:  I grew up with a case of geographical low-self esteem. I think this is common among kids living in places like the American Midwest. I disdained the ordinariness, the flatness, the feeling of not being somewhere - like California!

PML:  Did your parents and siblings feel the same way?

CA:  Given that they all live in Nebraska, Kansas and Minnesota, I don’t think they felt the same way at all.

PML:  But what was so frustrating about life in the Midwest? 

CA: I didn’t understand why people wanted to take on all of the strictures of conventional life: get married young, have kids right away, live in the same house forever etc. But that’s how teenagers think.  

PML:  And now?

CA:  I understand now the huge satisfaction that comes from having roots and rich, long-term friendships.  And I respect the meaning people find in family and routines and community—wherever they find it.

PML:  But your choices have necessitated sacrifices.

CA:  Yes, I have forgone having children and committed to have adventures, which offer up a similar amount of mundane moments, stress, and annoyances all redeemed by moments of transcendence.

PML: Meaning?

CA: Those moments of bliss where you feel sort of out of yourself and connected to everything.  Small, transient moments of awakening and pure contentment. It’s blissful.

PML:  How did you get in touch with the outside back then?

CA:  My window to the big world—as it was for many--was National Geographic magazine. I sat on the brown shag carpet of my bedroom in Nebraska and thumbed through photos of Africa and South America and conjured some big dreams.  I still haven’t quite matured out of the dream of being a female Sinbad and sailing the high seas, or trekking through the Middle East like Freya Stark.

PML:  I’ve read a little of Freya Stark.  Didn’t she have a rather condescending, colonial attitude?

CA:   So, I’d be Freya Stark minus the colonialism. Or how about Pippi Longstocking instead? Seriously, when it comes to traveling role models for women, it’s been slim pickings. Our gender hasn’t historically been encouraged to set off on our own. That’s changing now.

PML:  How did you begin writing about travelling?

CA:  It was Jeff Greenwald who tipped me over the edge. I read his book Shopping for Buddhas when I was sick in bed with flu and food-poisoning in Kathmandu, Nepal in my early twenties.  His humor and insight were the best medicine. He modeled a way of travel, or I should say a way of looking at travel, that I wanted for myself: an openesss to the random and as well as a comedic attention whatever is served up. Jeff winnows the remarkable out of the most ordinary, and at the same time, makes the remarkable feel ordinary to the reader. Although he has had incredibly exotic experiences, he communicates in accessible, everyday metaphors.

PML: Can you give us an example?

CA:  The flow and color of a monks orange robe might be described as “a flood of Florida orange juice.”  I always delight in these whimsical descriptions and ability to render the extraordinary ordinary. There is humility in this approach, in not presenting his own life in grand, flourishing terms, or holding his experience above that of his reader.

PML:  Do you have your own philosophy towards travelling?

CA:  Travel, like writing, is a creative act and like all creative acts, is best not planned too much in advance. But there is alchemy in the first step. You can’t know what an essay is really going to be about until you’ve written it. The writing itself is generative. The same goes for travel. The first step is generative: one step is followed by the next in the way that one word suggests another.  If you want all the details ahead of time, either you won’t begin or the writing/travel will have a stiff and disappointing quality. That step into the unknown can feel risky and painful though.  At first, you wander around feeling lost, and you wonder if you are wasting time.

PML:  Do you always have such feelings?

CA:  Particularly in the case of solo travel. I’m usually miserable for at least a little while. It takes time to strike a match, for the trip to catch fire. I’m still undone by it, but now at least hold a little more faith that I’ll find my way.

PML: Where do you think this discomfort comes from?

CA:  It’s the feeling of being suspended between two chapters. You’ve left what you know, but haven’t started the new chapter yet. You’re in limbo. It’s awful. But I think it’s a potent formula for living a vital life.

PML: Which is?

CA: It’s being awake! It’s not trying to escape through television or compulsive Internet-use, or addiction. It’s not trading your integrity for security by staying in dead relationships, or in jobs or lifestyles that are killing you. It’s being present and sitting with pain. It’s grieving, laughing—it’s everything that isn’t numb.

PML: Can you describe one of your trips?

CA:  I arrived in Morocco by myself a couple of years ago. I floated from Tangier to Chefchaouen to Fez and felt depressed for the first month.  I even looked into early plane tickets home. Later, I ended making wonderful friends, and having some of the most profound travel experiences of my life.

PML:  How did that come about?

CA:  Well, after feeling isolated in Fez for a while, I worked up the nerve to call a writer I admired. Soon after, I was having dinner with her and her husband. Then, they hosted me in their incredible house for months and introduced me to many people wonderful people. So, I went from being depressed and aimless, to incredibly inspired and connected. That couple saved me! Travel serves up some awful loneliness sometimes, but it also offers magic connections.  Anyway, I stayed for four months and return every year. I’m glad I stuck out those initial weeks. Nothing is wasted.

PML:  You’re off to Morocco again soon.

CA:  I’m organizing writing and storytelling workshops in Morocco for this fall. Our group will have a cultural exchange with the old storytellers of Marrakech. Morocco has a long storytelling tradition that has been threatened in this era of Internet and television. Our group will be part of an effort to keep this ancient tradition alive.

PML: I’m wondering whether travelling contributes to destroying such traditions too...

CA:  The cat is already out of the bag, and it’s probably not going back in. There is an upside though. In this case, travelers are interested in the storytellers, are willing to pay to hear them, and that could inspire a renaissance of sorts.

PML:  How do you design these trips?

CA: I approach itineraries like art projects and take great care in calibrating the pace of the trip. It’s fun to do something a bit rough like trekking in the mountains and then follow it up with some pampering, to immerse ourselves into something deeply foreign, but then relax into something comfortable.

PML:  How do you connect your participants with the local culture?

CA: I search for the people in the place who can articulate the culture. For example, rather than trail around a guide to the Top Ten Sites (you can do that on your own with a guidebook!), we wander the medina with Fez photographer Omar Chennafi. You never know what’s going to happen with Omar—he doesn’t plan in advance. You just experience the place as he experiences it—running into friends, stopping over somewhere for a spontaneous cup of mint tea. People like Omar are bridges for us, they straddle both worlds—that of the local and that of the foreigner and so can empathize and help translate our confusion. Fez writer Suzanna Clarke is another one, Sandy McCutcheon another, and Mike Richardson with his cross-cultural cafes. There are not many people at this nexus, so it feels like such a gift when you find them.

PML:  Thanks for this, Christina.  A brief word about future plans?

CA: I see more writing, more travels, and more workshops abroad. Our Morocco storytelling workshops will be held October 21-30th and December 4th-13th.

Photos by Tim Daw.