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Literary Ambassador

To assemble a collection of poems that capture the American experience yet are also accessible to children is a daunting task. That’s what Alison Kim ’89 had to do to create La poésie américaine, a new illustrated anthology of 19 American poems that range from the late seventeenth century (“Upon a Spider Catching a Fly,” by Edward Taylor), to the midtwentieth (“The Event,” by Rita Dove). The book, which presents each poem in its original English alongside a French translation, is part of a series from the French publisher, Mango. Les Albums Dada offer young people numerous anthologies — poems from foreign countries or different historical eras, of different styles or by certain poets — in addition to volumes exploring the philosophy of visionaries like Che Guevara and Gandhi in the subjects’ own words and CDs that teach children about activism. (The multilayered series name alludes both to the Dada movement of the early twentieth century and to the French words for “hobby” and “hobbyhorse.”)

Poetry guide Alison Kim
Photograph courtesy Alison Kim

Kim developed her own Francophilia, especially her fondness for Paris, during the summer trips that her family took to Europe when she was a child. “Great teachers” in junior high and high school kept her interested in French; although she concentrated in English at Harvard, she earned a master’s in French from Middlebury and then decided to live in France. Now she is married to a Frenchman and actively supports his parents’ vineyard, Château Brillette, by handling a share of communications and marketing strategy.

Despite the delights of Paris and wine, Kim says she was eager to dive back into the world of American literature, an opportunity the book project offered. Choosing which poems to include involved a long collaborative process. After she and her editor decided that her first list of poems focused too heavily on animals and nature, she redirected her search toward diverse themes and stylistic qualities. She also had to track down existing translations of the final selections; because these were hard to find and often poorly done, Mango hired consultants to compose original French versions when necessary.

To Kim, the bilingual aspect of the new book is a large part of what made and makes it special. She also feels that the striking line drawings by Tanitoc (Yves Cotinat) are another vital part of La poésie américaine. “Right away, they give you a context,” she explains. “Even if you just look at the cover, there’s a counter which is very sort of ‘diner-esque’ — you really don’t have anything like that in France. [The illustrations] create a universe.”

Kim already has a new Album Dada in mind: she would enjoy publishing a series of folklore collections from different cultures. “As a child, that was something that I really loved, “ she says, “to dive into different cultures through their popular culture, their popular literary tradition.” But in the meantime, she is studying Korean, to help her in-laws expand their wine market into Asia.                         

~Margaret Sullivan