Vagabond poet who found his way with words

Poet and translator Ian Monk has become part of an elite literary group in France

Published Last updated

In the quartier Bel Air of Paris’ 12th arrondissement, a little girl runs to the gate of the Square Charles Péguy ahead of her mother, who is holding a chocolate birthday cake. Behind them, families of all nationalities go about their Sunday routine, passing the bulging terrasse of the café and the queue in front of the boulangerie on their way to the park in the Bois de Vincennes.

Not far, in a tidy, leafy residential block, a disheveled Ian Monk opens the door to a neat room lined with books, apologising for having just woken up from his nap. He has only recently returned from the Jura, where he was visiting his daughter to celebrate the arrival of his second grandchild. He is confident, calm, alert and without arrogance – if this is him when he’s sleepy, how quick must he be at full capacity.

Almost immediately, with sharp wit and a voice like velvet, Monk is explaining how he came to be in France. “It’s interesting that you want to interview writers who have decided to live in France,” he says with a grin, “because I didn’t.”

As a young Londoner, Monk already knew he wanted to be a writer, and coming to France was his way of gaining life experience to nourish his craft. “I thought it would be a cool idea to live in different countries and learn different languages,” he explains, “so I became a TEFL teacher.”

As his teaching career began, he happened to bump into somebody who lived in Paris, who agreed to circulate his CV. Monk soon got the phone call asking him to come over for a trial period, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now a prolific poet and award-winning translator, Ian Monk is one of the only British members of the famous French writing group Oulipo, or ‘Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle’, which uses constrained writing techniques such as palindromes (phrases that read the same way backwards or forwards) or lipograms, which is a form that excludes one or more letters.

Georges Perec, one of the founding members of the group, wrote the 300-odd pages of La disparition without using a single letter ‘e’. Ian Monk has been a member since 1998, and now writing in French as well as English, he has created his own constraints, such as the “monkine”, a complex rule based on something called a square rhyme, that determines the number of letters in each word of the first verse.

Living in France wasn’t necessarily what the young Monk had always wished for, though: “If I’d met a guy who knew somebody in Tokyo, I’d be there now,” he says. “I had nothing whatsoever against France, but I’m not one of these people who had dreamed of living here.”

He was more of a Germanophile, having dropped French at O Level. But given France’s rich literary landscape, he used this teaching opportunity to start reading French classics again. “I learned French reading Proust, with a dictionary on my knee,” Monk says, “and in bars, talking to the people in them.”

To write his poetry, Monk chose to gain his inspiration from the latter. Most people imagine that poetry has to be as gentle and flowery as the park surrounding Monk’s apartment, but with incredible skill and mastery of French slang, he proves that there is a profound musicality to the words we would usually consider to be “ugly”. It’s almost a guide for wayward francophiles, presented in French slang.

With echoes of the realities of council flat living, Monk plays with words like “piaule” (room), “clebs” (dog), “taffe” (job) or “téloche” (television). “Reading Céline made me think ‘oh, this is possible’,” explains Monk, “but also I’m not French, I’m not naturally bilingual and I had no particular love for French, either – I have a kind of distance which lets me do things that a native speaker wouldn’t dare do, or would consider to be out of bounds to a certain extent.”

The power of love

Monk’s French trajectory was also determined by the fact that, before he had a chance to move on to his next international adventure, he fell in love with a Frenchwoman. He naturally found himself settling down for the longer term. While he struggled to find an outlet for his writing, and without any formal training in French, he decided to try his hand at translation. “I was reading La disparition one day,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘is it possible to translate this?’ and I started messing around with it.”

Soon Monk had translated the whole thing, and was sending it off to Harvard, who had already bought the rights. An impressed response came back, but unfortunately they had pre-signed someone else to translate the book. Monk’s efforts had not been in vain, however – soon the publisher signed him to translate four of the Malaussène novels by Daniel Pennac, earning him a Scott Moncrieff Prize in 2004.

Translating Perec’s lipogram wasn’t Monk’s first time applying restrictions to his writing. Even without knowing of the Oulipo, Monk had already enjoyed giving himself structures and constraints. “It channels your imagination,” he explains. “Often, I haven’t decided on anything but the structure. I decide that there will be x number of poems, or x number of lines, or something like that, without having any idea of what I’m going to write.”

Then it’s just a question of filling in the blanks. “In fact, it has a two-fold function: one is that you know you have to do something – to take a classic example, if you write a sonnet, you know you are going to have to write 14 lines. So you write a first line, wonder what rhymes with that, and the thing almost writes itself once you get going. The other thing is that when you’re used to writing and get quite good at it, it stops you just spewing out stuff, it keeps you under control.”

What seems like something very restrictive becomes, in this context, more of a guideline, a mechanical quasi-trance to allow the words to come forth. Like knitting, you have to keep counting, and you just can’t afford to let yourself go.

Monk sent some of this work to the publishing house he was translating for, and although they couldn’t publish it themselves, they recommended that he sent it to Harry Mathews, an American member of the Oulipo group. “He phoned me up and asked if I wanted to come for lunch,” Monk recalls, “then one thing led to another.”

Years later, the plan to move on from France still hasn’t happened, and roots have taken form under the vagabond poet. Could he even possibly have become a little French? Looking decidedly Gallic in his stripy marinière top, he looks askew. “What does it feel like to be French? You have a slight moustache and half a baguette under your arm?!”

But reading something like Plouk Town, or Là, it feels as though this British man understands France more than even some thoroughly French people might do. “Oddly enough,” he says, “after about six or seven years I was in this bar, and a guy who I didn’t know started saying ‘tu’ to me. It annoyed me, and I thought ‘well, there you are’. When you’re fresh off the ferry, you have no sensitivity about this.”

Plouk town

Monk on the ferry is exactly where his most recognized book, Plouk Town, begins. After a series of pieces written in order to participate in the Oulipo’s monthly readings, Monk wrote this larger book in French, and it starts with an introduction from fellow Oulipo member Jacques Roubaud, imagining Ian Monk on the ferry, crossing over to France and being introduced to all of the usual French clichés. Written by a Frenchman, the litany is in stark contrast to the realities of France written by the British man in the main text. The book is populated with supermarket car parks, local drinking holes and council flats full of “plouks” – vulgar, uneducated folk who speak in a harsh slang and aren’t afraid of confrontation. It’s not depressing, though. There is even a form of humour in it. It’s just a cold, stark observation from a passing outsider.

“That was a reality of where I was living at the time, in working class Lille,” says Monk. “It was barely an exaggeration. I wanted to write that book because I think nobody writes stuff like that in France. There are films and rap songs, but no serious literature.” No one expects a poet to write about working class ghettos, especially not an English one!

“That’s why it took me three years to get it published,” Monk says. Nobody wanted to touch this violent poetry, written by an Englishman, using slang in a formal structure. It’s raw, real and dark. The usual rosy picture of France it most definitely is not. “One of the reasons I am still here is that I didn’t have any particular great illusions about how wonderful France was going to be,” says Monk. “The food is not always wonderful, you don’t walk into the average café and meet the modern equivalent of Jean-Paul Sartre holding forth on philosophy... People get really disappointed and go back home, but I didn’t have that kind of expectation, so I wasn’t disappointed.”

As the conversation progresses, it becomes apparent that this no-expectations philosophy is what rules Monk’s day-to-day decisions. His entire life seems to be a series of coincidences. Rather than having a plan that could get him frustrated if it didn’t pan out, he just lets life come to him. A way of thinking that is helped by the fact that Monk is a translator as well as a poet. “I think it’s good for me to live off primarily translation,” he explains, “that way I can write what I want when I want, and I don’t have to bring out that novel every year like some people do.” No commercial urgency means complete freedom.

Plouk Town ends with the (true) story of a man who was thrown out of a window after winning the lottery and getting drunk with his friends. “I don’t know exactly what happened,” says Monk, “the survivors were so drunk that it took three days before the police could question them, but that’s where that book started, with the vague idea of telling this guy’s story.”

It’s not exactly the most joyful of anecdotes. But then everything comes back down to expectations. Could that poor guy have been unhappy if his expectations met his reality? “In modern society we tend to have very high expectations – how much we earn, which house we want to live in, the relationship we’re in, the career...” muses Monk. “But with such high expectations, you’ll never be happy.”

Surely we all still need something pushing us forward though... What motivates Monk every day? “See what happens next!” he says, with a confident grin. As it happens, the next thing I encounter on the way home, scrawled across the walls of the périphérique in huge graffiti letters, is the word “PLOUK”.

Struck by the synchronicity, I imagine Monk walking past the families on their way to the park near his home, blending in with the passers-by. After a lifetime of living and writing in France, Ian Monk is an intricate part of the very fabric of his adoptive country. He’s not just the “rosbif” in the corner anymore, he’s a plouk like all the rest of us.