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Professor translates children's poetry from Holocaust era for exhibit

  • Picture of exhibit
  • Photo of exhibit
  • Photo of exhibit

Posted on January 14, 2019

French Surrealist poet Robert Desnos brought hope in the face of despair as he wrote children’s poetry while living in Nazi-occupied France.

Kirsten Strom, professor of art history at Grand Valley, is sharing Desnos’ vision of hope with a new generation. A selection of her translations and illustrations of Desnos’ work is currently on display in the “Apple Blossom and Nightingale” exhibit in the Mary Idema Pew Library’s exhibition space through January 30.

During his career, Desnos only wrote one book for children, a collection of poems called “Chantefleurs et Chantefables,” which primarily contains poetry about flowers and animals.

Strom said that for Desnos, “one of the most important writers to be associated with Surrealism in Paris,” writing a book of children’s poetry was a curious decision, as many of the key themes of surrealist art were not suitable for children. However, Strom noted the importance of Desnos’ work during a dire time in history.

“Desnos was living in a real-life worst-case scenario, and yet he composed these poems that seem so innocent,” Strom said. “I see them as his way of trying to help children remain children in a very dark time, and also to have hope for the future.”

Strom first encountered these poems in 2012 Grand Valley’s library while studying Surrealism, her main research focus. She began her project by putting her background in music to good use by setting the poems to music. She began translating the poems in 2017 to use in her Surrealism class, and the project has only grown since.

“It didn’t occur to me to even try translating them before then because I always thought that my French wasn’t good enough for translation,” Strom said. “It was a real surprise when it actually seemed to be going very well. Once I got started, I didn’t want to stop, so I translated all 80 of them.”

Given that the original book was intended for children, Strom began illustrating the poems and compiling some of her translations and illustrations into a manuscript for a children’s poetry book, pages from which make up the “Apple Blossom and Nightingale” exhibit.

Strom will give a presentation about the exhibit on January 16 from 3-4:15 p.m. She will present and read from her manuscript, reflect on the process of translation and play recordings of the songs she created for the poems as well as the dances she developed to accompany them.

After the exhibition, Strom plans to seek a children’s book publisher to publish and distribute her manuscript. Eventually, she hopes to use her songs and dances to turn the book into a children’s ballet.

“I would love for English-speaking children to have the opportunity to engage with his work,” Strom said.

Strom hopes that her work will help keep Desnos’ powerful and tragic legacy alive. Desnos, who was active in the French Resistance against the Nazis, was arrested in 1944 and eventually died after imprisonment in concentration camps.

“He was sent to the camps of Buchenwald and later Auschwitz. He survived both of those camps only to contract typhus on a forced march to the Theresienstadt camp where he died shortly after the camp was liberated by the Soviets in 1945,” Strom said. “This, for me, is all the more reason to keep his memory alive."

-Story written by Madison Barnes, student writer