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Paris has long been revered not only as a city of beauty but also of thought. Throughout its history it has acted both as muse and mecca for many free and enquiring minds, from Peter Abelard to Ezra Pound. Writers have flocked to Paris, and an enduring ‘vie en rose’ vision of these streets in la belle epoch and the jazz age ’20s is of poets and artists littering the brasseries of the Seine, sipping absinthe, arguing about whom is the true painter of modern life. Therefore it is little surprise that from the city’s vibrant Spoken Word scene of 2012 a relaxed school of thought and discussion, centering upon an eclectic range of widely embracing subjects, should have emerged in the form of Unstrung Letters: An Informal Lecture Series in English.
Spoken Word Paris, the effective alma mater of Unstrung Letters, was set up in 2003 by David Barnes, a writer who identified a gap in Parisian social culture for a primarily English language poetry open-mic night and promptly filled it. Since its humble beginnings the night has grown into quite the institution in the city, drawing a large crowd of natives and ex-pats to the basement of Au Chat Noir in the 11eme where performers get five minutes of stage time each to air their ego. Whilst largely focused on poetry, all other forms of performance are welcomed, and musicians, singers, actors and Welsh-language druids have all stomped the boards.
A regular acolyte of the Spoken Word scene is one Georgina Emerson, a sassy and immediately likable New York-born American living in Paris, who is the brains behind the formation of Unstrung Letters. Understanding that quite the exciting group of modern thinking and ideas was constructing itself around the social scene of ex-pats attending Spoken Word Paris, Georgina foresaw how it could be a vibrant and interesting project to tap into that knowledge and make it accessible to all via a series of enjoyable talks. Thus Unstrung Letters was born, and gained its Sunday night slot in the basement of Au Chat Noir.
Georgina says of the lectures: “I myself am not sure what an informal lecture series is. I don’t know what it is now and I certainly didn’t know what it was when on December 11th, 2011 after a night of performing and drinking I stood up in front of eleven friends in the basement of a bar and tried to explain to them this idea I have.” This idea being to release stimulating subjects of intellectual interest from the shackles of academia and provide a clearer amplification for the individual voices speaking on those subjects. “Had I tried to present my thesis in an academic setting,” she says of her own lecture entitled Irony, Sermons and Dirty Jokes: Humor and the Birth of the Author in the Middle Ages, “I would have had to do several years of research and not go on nearly as many tangents with funny stories. Maybe that’s what defines an informal lecture series: a transparent connection between a personality and a thesis.”
This connection between personality and thesis then makes for an invigorating presentation on Sunday nights, as charismatic and engaging speakers tackle big and fascinating subjects. Over the past few months Au Chat Noir has hosted talks ranging from US poet Griffin Payne‘s dissemination of ‘Radical Mythology: Story and Subversion’ to Jason Francis McGimsey‘s ‘From Factory to Facebook: A Marxist critique of the economic crisis’ and Kate Noakes’ ‘Philip Larkin and Fucked Up Poetry,” amongst many other philosophical, literary and theoretical subjects.
Following a simple formula the speaker presents an opinion, taking a certain critical stance in their presentation. After they have finished speaking, the debate is thrown open to the floor, whereby the audience may either quiz the speaker for a deeper analysis or take an active stance against the one presented. Throw in copious amounts of cheap booze (Au Chat Noir’s happy hour until 9pm offers pints of beer at just 3 euros, almost certainly the cheapest you’ll find in Paris), and one is guaranteed a stimulating couple of hours of quickfire tete-a-tete, wit and very vocal opinions all in the attractively quaint environs of a true Parisian basement, with the possibility of everything continuing until the small hours when the party eventually moves upstairs to the main bar.
Georgina sums up with the words, “Rather than being an academic series, we’re academically minded. We have the freedom to be more grandiose and less nit-picking than academics.” Whether you take an active interest in the subject at hand or are completely new to the topic, Unstrung Letters provides a platform upon which you can expand your knowledge of the world in a relaxed, intelligent and supportive atmosphere, and experience the modern thinking of Paris at first hand.
Spoken Word Paris – Every Monday night, 9pm.
Unstrung Letters – On Sundays, irregular timings. Check website for schedule or join the Facebook group
Au Chat Noir, 76 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 11eme, Paris, 75011.
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