By Andi McDaniel
Christophe Wall-Romana and the new study of “cinepoetry”
Christophe Wall-Romana—much like his field of research—is hard to describe in a nutshell. With a Ph.D. in French literature from Berkeley, an impressive array of awards for his research, and a growing international reputation as the “go to” guy for anyone interested in the intersections between cinema and poetry, Wall-Romana has certainly earned his status as an esteemed professor of French studies. But that’s not all that makes him such an effective professor. He’s also funny, enthusiastic, and full of stories that testify to his innate quirkiness (like the one about proposing to his wife five days after he met her in a coffee shop).
Perhaps that’s why he’s drawn to “cinepoetry,” a writing genre he is the first to identify as such and that’s quirky in its own right. In addition to writing his dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, on the topic, as well as a slew of articles, Wall-Romana is in the process of writing a book about cinepoetry. Cinepoetry, he explains, is the merging of film and poetry, and it can take a wide variety of forms—a poem in verse or in prose, a visual poem, or even a longer novelistic poem that is unmistakably cinematic.
One easy way to get a feel for cinepoetry is to think back to silent films. “Before 1928, you couldn’t go to the movies without seeing words on screen, so that’s probably one way poets began thinking about writing in relation to the moving image,” Wall-Romana explains.
While cinepoetry has been around since the late 1800’s—when poet Stéphane Mallarmé first began visually arranging his poems in a distinctly film-inspired way (see “Un Coup de Dés” image)—it has of course gone in new directions as film technology has evolved. Hence its appeal to younger generations—and its growing status as the “hot new thing” in French studies.
“One of the things that initially fueled my research is the question of ‘How can we still teach poetry to our students?’” explains Wall-Romana. “These days, it’s like a dead language to them; it might as well be cuneiform writing.” The way Wall-Romana sees it, cinepoetry is an opportunity to bring poetry back to life for today’s students.
In addition to cinepoetry, Wall-Romana’s research focuses on new phenomenology, the history of silent French film, and the relationship between French and American poetry. One of the things he’s learned from hovering between the two languages is how certain poetic meanings resist translation. “That’s why I have my students do translation work,” he explains. “Because they learn a lot through the difficulties they run into; they come up against the ‘thingness’ of language.”
Born in Paris, Wall-Romana came to the United States in his early twenties, fully intending to return to France. As fate would have it, he met his future wife in a coffee shop in New York City on his first day. He never moved back to Paris. (As the story goes, he complained that the café’s coffee “tasted like cat pee,” and as a New Yorker, she felt like she had to show him good coffee. So, they walked to another café…and the rest is history.)
As a Franco-American, Wall-Romana shrugs at the American media’s representation of France. “There’s much less anti-Americanism [in France] than you would expect,” he remarks. “The media promotes this rhetoric of ‘they hate us, we hate them.’” In fact, most French people enjoy Americans, and as for the United States—“The vast majority of Americans dream of nothing but living in Paris,” he says laughing.
When asked about some of the most exciting developments in the Department of French and Italian this fall, Wall-Romana seems relieved to have the chance to brag about the department’s new faculty, Mary Brown and Hakim Abderrezak. Brown, from Berkeley like Wall-Romana, works on the role of encyclopedism in Medieval French thought. Abderrezak, from Northwestern, studies Beur and Francophone literature and cinema, especially from North Africa.
Wall-Romana also eagerly mentions the grant he’s received to create a digital film clip database, a tool that will allow all instructors in cinema to access examples of specific techniques at the click of mouse. The project will be part of the new Digital Image Database that will soon revolutionize all visual studies on campus. And he has joined with his colleague Rembert Hueser from German, Scandinavian, and Dutch to organize screenings of French and German experimental filmmakers with the Walker Art Center.
Given Wall-Romana’s dedication to film and cinepoetry, it might seem that he’d left traditional poetry behind. Thankfully, that’s not the case. He beams: “I’m proofing a book of poems by W. S. Merwin (who received the National Book Award for poetry in 2005),” says Wall-Romana. “It will be the first book in French by this great poet!”