Nov 30, 2014


An Exchange with Multi-media Artist 

Nicole Peyrafitte           

The following exchange occurred during September and October 2014 between Nicole Peyrafitte and me by email.  It followed on the heels of a visit I made to Peyrafitte's home territory in Southeast France during the first week of August.    -- Laura Hinton 

As a poet, visual artist, vocalist, cook and overall performer, your "poetic" work encompasses a great range and facility.  When your recording came out several years ago, "Whisk not Churn," I was at one of your New York City performances and found myself amazed at your ability to make so many different media work together on the stage, from vocals, jazz instrumentation, poetry  even yoga!  I wrote about that particular multi-media performance here on Chant de la Sirene in the context of the then recently released "Whisk not Churn" recording.  

Since that time, we've talked more about your work — and I've now been to visit the region in the French Pyrenees where you were born and raised, and where you and your husband, Pierre Joris, spend much of your summers in a mountain cabin you have restored.  It is from this experience that I want to revisit your newest multi-media book, Bi-Valve:  Vulvic Space/Vulvic Knowledge.  Not only is this a bilingual poetry book project, one that is beautifully produced by a small poetry publisher Stockport Flats Press (Ithaca, NY);  but this book also contains your gorgeous visual art work, as well as a CD (and a web link) playing your powerful vocal-poetry recordings.  

When we hiked high in the Pyrenees, close to the Spanish border, to see the ancient standing stone you call "White Lady," you talked about the possible origins and legends surrounding "her," whose images are featured in your book, as well.  We also visited Gargas Cave together, which you speak about in your poetry.  These recent experiences have given me a deeper sense of the foundations of the visual-verbal expression you are entraining in the multi-media "Bi-Valve" project.

Let's discuss these multi-media components as well as the places behind the book.  You offer your reader some interesting photographs taken in your homeland region, some of which are Photo-shopped or otherwise enhanced.   There are first some general issues that your bold project raises for me about poetry synthesized with other media.  These issues concern your conception of this "hybrid" or multi-media poetry project.  I'd like to ask more about that  and also where you consider its "origins" to rest (if one may speak of "origins" in such a disparate and artistically transformational context).  

Can you talk a little bit about the southern-border, French region in the Pyrenees from which you came — in and around the little spa town of Luchon?

The mountains of Peyrafitte's homeland, 
above Luchon, France 
(photo by Laura Hinton)
How is this beautiful mountain region not only important to your life history but to the development of your hybrid art? 

The region I come from is Gascony, a neighbor of the Languedoc   and both belong to the Occitan region along with Provence, the Limousin, Auvergne, and the Vivaro Alpin.  

What you call the “hybrid conception” of my work is something that happens of necessity. I find the traditional book format painfully reductive when it comes to what I need to transmit. It is possible to trace this hybridity back to the importance of orality in my culture. You well know that, in the context of human history, books are a very recent development, and what I am drawn to has its origin in a much older manner of expression.
Nicole Peyrafitte in performance

No voice, no visuals, no live presence… only words on an often white, flat page? That simply doesn’t do it for me. I don’t have the same sacred relationship to books that my husband [poet-translator Joris] or many of his friends have. I am a terrible reader.  It took me years to feel at ease reading books. I love listening to poetry live, but the printed page is often painful for me. I mostly read for content,  rarely for pleasure.

So to get back to this hybridity: it is what I am made of. Difficult for me to tell you what type, genre or particular style I may or may not belong to. I “compose” my work with the various elements I need to dwell in. None is more or less important that the others: voice, text, visuals (painting, drawing, photo, video), cooking — they are all at the same level. The problem is that such hybrid work is not easy or convenient when it comes to publish, distribute, perform or promote.

As a child I was often told that I was a “touche à tout, bonne à rien,” meaning someone who tries out everything but is good at nothing. That really stuck with me, negatively, hence I developed a low level of confidence in myself.

This "low level of confidence" does not transmit on the stage.  In fact, the parts and pieces you weld together in your performances suggest to me an artistic persona emboldened to try new experiments and forge new arenas of expression. 

One of the greatest tools you have an your disposal is your remarkable singing voice.  I'd like to ask you a little bit about this voice  and how you use it.  You indicated to me once in personal conversation recently that you had no formal training.  But for such an exquisite and potent voice, this lack of training is very unusual.  I actually do have operatic training myself (long ago, in my undergraduate music-major days, during which I also performed folk music in bars and cafes).  I feel that I recognize a real voice when I hear it.  You have that!

In your performances, your voice astounds the audience, I believe.  The quality in your use of vocals along with spoken word poetry is a major part of your hybrid-performances as you stage them.  You are literally working with deep qualities available in sound.  But this voice of yours is not "operatic"; nor is it a traditional Joan-Baez style "self-made folk" voice.  Rather, it contains a kind of primal sonoric quality, like the voice of a shaman performing in ritual.  

I wonder if you can reflect on this topic, and your use of vocals  say, specifically, in the powerful piece like "Hou Hou Hou!  Hemna Hou" from the book and recording.   I don't think one can read the English translation in your book and "get" what the poem is achieving without listening to the CD recording that accompanies it.  And can you talk about the meaning of this piece for you, in terms of sound, song, and performance? 

Answering this question is getting into something really deep for me. I will try to keep it concise. The voice and I, we had to meet —and that was and is quite a journey! Already as a child I always wanted to sing and play the piano, but every time I sang someone would always say: “tu chantes faux," meaning, you are out of tune—and I believed them. 

A little anecdote: When I started singing seriously in the mid 90s, I recorded a singing message on my answering machine and the first time my dad heard this he said (not realizing that his voice was being recorded): “Elle est folle, maintenant elle chante!” — “She’s crazy, now she sings!”

While I had no formal training, I did have about about 20 voice lessons. First with a folk singer in Albany then with an opera voice teacher who taught me great voice exercises – although when she tried me with arias, I went along for a while, then stopped. Later I consulted a French Operetta singer, Suzie Sorano, who was a family friend. I had two lessons with her: one in her apartment and one over the phone (shortly before she passed).  It is she who transmitted the true relationship between voice, body and space. 

All I had to do — still do— is practice! I had started yoga around that time and I used that practice to work at my voice organically and sustainably. Meeting my voice enables me to map my territories —voice vulva vulnerability: connecting the v’s!

And that is what la “Hemna de Oo” or “Woman of Oo” emanates from. Yes, one needs to hear the voice, but one also needs to look at the paintings I made—the opening quadriptych in the book— to get a better sense of the multiple folds. 

I homeomorph into HERstory, that is, the story of  this powerful 11th-to-12th century bas relief that comes from a Pyrenean village next to mine —the village of Oô. Today the original is at the Musée des Augustin in Toulouse; there is a copy in the decrepit Luchon museum, which is where I first saw her. I have two songs about her, but this one is really the incantation about the quest: gathering strength, reclaiming, mapping and reviving my territories. Remember my name is Peyrafitte.  In the Gascon language, this name is "peira hita," and literally means “raised stone” — now observe the connections:

This granite bas relief carved in the 11th-12th century depicts a women with a snake coming out of her protuberant vulva and slithering upward to suck her left breast. As we know, Romanesque churches were full of images of sins and lust, carved during the time that the Christians were working hard at eradicating pagan rituals in the region. These carvings are often grotesques — but this one is not. The woman of Oô is untroubled and very serene. She has been subjected to all kinds of interpretations, but to me she epitomizes the fold between different sets of beliefs while remaining herself. So I attempted to “homeomorph” into her strength. First, I “fleshed” her through the paintings, made with homemade tempera based on egg yolk & naturals pigments.  And now I perform her: this allows me to log in to her.

The quadriptych is very evocative.  I'd like to show it here:

From Bi-Valve: Vulvic Space/Vulvic Knowledge 
(reproduced with permission) 
It is sexual / bi-valve sexual:  the images contain multiple valves and openings and and connectivities that make it a fertile artistic image that goes beyond gender or embodied sex.  Let me ask you some specific questions about your work in painting.  By now I have seen a number of pieces both inside and outside the book  and I certainly love all the visual work you've chose to offer as part of your "vulvic space" and "knowledge."  One question concerns how  you perceive these visual pieces playing in and out of your poetic verbal text (which is very oral)?  And how do the paintings also resonate with the sound recording, provided on the enclosed CD?  Do the paintings work together as a kind of ensemble with the other media? Or do the visual, vocal/verbal pieces purposefully jar and compete — as in other forms of postmodern art?  

I will add that the visual work seems to me highly shamanistic in its calling forth of primal forms — sexual, political, graphic.  This "primal" force is present even in the natural materials you use.   And since we recently had the opportunity to go to Gargas Cave together  and I know from previous conversations that this cave near Luchon is an important "space" for you and artistically inspirational to your work  can you now comment on the possible influence of so-called "cave paintings" on your own visual art work?  I'm thinking not only of the animal and human-hand paintings we see at Gargas, specifically, but also other French prehistoric caves, those "grottos" whose ancient designs were Ice Age spiritual sanctuaries within the Earth  or, alternatively, functioned as tribal meeting grounds that conveyed important group messages.

I would say that my visual-verbal pieces in the book really are an ensemble.  And, yes, I am indeed very influenced not only by the Gargas Cave but also by other sites I have regularly encountered, such as the Pyrenean Mountains in general, the sea shores of New York City, the Louisiana bayous, and others.  My work arises as response to the energies a given site stimulates. This instinctual connection gets released into paintings, texts, voices, movements, cooking, photos or whatever medium is available or convenient at the moment.

About shamanism: all I can say is that these connections are not transcendental but immanent. My practice is heuristic and this is what Bi-Valve is about. To go back to the beginning of your question and the foundation of my painting work: it is based in a response triggered by the stimulation, and comes into being at times before and at times after the text. Sometimes the text and visual work is directly linked and sometimes not. 

Let's talk a bit about the stone in the Pyrenees you call the "White Lady," which we also visited together and whose image is very sensually reproduced in the book. Tell me what you know about this monolith's origins, and what you believe "she's" about  or how we might interpret "her" presence on the slope of a Pyrenean mountainside.  

          Peyrafitte with "White Lady"
          (photos by Laura Hinton)

Can you also talk about the image of "White Lady" as it has now became part of the Bi-Valve text:  an image that super-imposes what I surmise to be female genitalia on top of, and out of, the granite.   Why this use of one image layered over another? How did this particular representation of "White Lady" come to you?

Over the years I have read and listened to several variations of the legend on the monolith situated at the pass of Pierrefite (altitude 1855 meters, or 6085 feet). They all point to the switch from pagan to Christian rituals.  No doubt the monolith is pre-Christian and was most likely placed there by humans. But the most often heard version is that the stone is a petrified shepherdess, hence the name la dama blanco the white lady,  also called era peirahita in Gascon. One day the holy spirit and god stopped by her at the pass and asked her to join them, but she refused and ran away to the village. They told her not to tell anyone, but she did.  And when she returned she was struck by lightning and petrified.

Now, another — more likely — story has it that women used to come and rub their genitals against the stone. To this day, there is a spot that is highly polished, and that is exactly at crouch height, when one takes into account the erosion of the surrounding earth that clearly shows the stone’s original setting.   Women would rub against the stone to stimulate sexual pleasure. Now there are many sites in this region where stories of similar sexual activity have been reported, and they have often been adorned with a cross in order to deter people from continuing it. The peirahita called "White Lady," in fact, has 5 crosses carved on it.

Often such female activity, or representations, are classified as “fertility” rituals. That is certainly not the only way to classify this activity. The view, the air, the warmth of the stone, the softness of the grass... can trigger amazing orgasmic stimulation if one turns to one's simple elemental power.  See my poem called “Savoir recevoir  this is about receiving.”  So the superimposed vulva (you surmised correctly)  here, mine  reveals or revives the stone’s full magnitude.

How did this image come to me? Simply by being there on the mountain  and allowing for the access of what I call “vulvic space" as a homeomorphic topology. That is the term I use for a transformable conceptual space that enhances the exchanges with the self and/or the other(s).  My text is dedicated to Carolee Schneemann, as it is her work that granted the ingress.

So there is many intimate folds to the story — look at this one:

Peyrafitte — my name = Raised Stone — in French = Peira Hita—in Gascon = Pierre Dressée — French. 

And last but not least, my partner for 25 years has been Pierre!
Things fall where they lie... as another one of my texts in the book puts it.

Peyrafitte with Joris, hiking in the Pyrenees 
(photo by Laura Hinton)

As a final set of inquiries, and since you mention "Pierre," I'd like to ask you to discuss the current project you and he are engaged in together: on Occitan poetry.  That "project," like your multi-media work, seems to have engaged many wheels and spokes.  For example, you've been doing many performances here in the States as well as France, and you include other poets as well as musicians.  You two are also editing a volume of Occitan poetry together.  And you, especially, are boning up on your native Occitan language skills so you can read it more deeply and fluently.

This is a fascinating and original project — or, actually, a series of projects  circling in and around this lovely if often forgotten verse.  Tell us more about the project underway, and what you hope to achieve by it, as well as its mission.   

Why should be pay so much new attention to Occitan literature? 

It became essential for me to know my culture in depth. Occitan literature is totally expunged from our education, whether in the south or north of France. I had to expatriate myself to realize that this cultural literature, in fact, is what I am made of. I wrote a performance piece that was addressing these issues, called, La Garbure Transcontinentale/TheBi-Continental Chowder.  It was performed at various Occitan festivals.

The next step for me was reactivating the language which was lodged deeply inside me  though my parents didn’t use it, my grandparents all did. Around the same time, Pierre — who was interested in Pound and Blackburn's work on the troubadours — was invited to give a talk on the influence of the Troubadors on Anglo-American literature at an Occitan festival.  That talk gave Joan Francés Tisnèr the idea to collaborate on a performance that would be witnessing these exchanges and va-et-viens.

So in 2013 the NY’OC Trobadors project began.  We premiered it in November 2014 at Poets House, then toured with it in the Occitan Country. We are now planning the next season. 

The idea of the anthology came naturally, since I wanted to study the history and the literature  from the original Medieval troubadors to today's Occitan poets.  Pierre had already put together a number of anthologies;  he had the techniques and experience, and I wanted to dedicate several years to the research.  The Occitan anthology will not be poetry only. We will include all materials, poems or prose, literary or non-literary, oral or written, that are relevant to and revealing of the culture.

Some of Nicole Peyrafitte's upcoming poetry-performance events in New York City and internationally in 2015 include:

 January, The Poetry Project marathon (reading + flipping    crêpes!), New York City
 January, University of Haifa, Israel
 February, Rubin Museum Tel Aviv, Israel
 February, The Poetry Project reading series, NYC
 March, Cabaret Heretique, Bowery Poetry Club, NYC
May-June, Solo Art Show, Gallery Edouard Paradis, Marseilles, France

More details of these events can be found at her website: