Geof Huth



Remembering Philippe Billé

On November 29th, 1989, Philippe Billé wrote me a note (folded into nine rectangles) about my Subtle Journal of Raw Coinage (SJRC) and included a couple of small simple collages, including one of a songbird with the head of a fish. And this is how I came to know Philippe, a man with a ravenous appetite for information, an interest in perfect documentation, and a broad interest in the world.

From the beginning, I could tell that Philippe and I had much in common. We were both collectors interested in completing any series of acquisitions. As I sent him my SJRCs (each issue of which included undefined invented words, he sent me copies of his Lettre documentaire (LD), which he filled with all manner of different interesting information. We cajoled each other for a copy of the first issue of our respective series, because we both wanted complete sets of each other’s work and of each other. We were both family men, who wrote about our children. We both had a keen interest in language as a general concept, languages and their variety, and literature in any language. We both loved each other’s native tongues. And, by 1992, when Philippe began library school, we both shared that experience as well.

Looking through my collection of our correspondence, I am surprised that it is only a couple of centimeters thick. For four years, we were fairly steady correspondents (with occasional lapses caused by excess work), and we enjoyed each other’s company. Philippe was certainly my best friend in Europe, and an almost-constant companion through the mail. Most of all, he was a great friend: generous, helpful, and kind. I learned much from him, especially in his frequent issues of LD.

Lettre documentaire was Philippe’s outlet for his imagination. He used this simple zine to freeze in time whatever was of interest to him at a particular moment. The earliest issues (beginning in late 1989) often made reference to the Art Strike 1990-1993, but soon LD transformed itself into a showcase for all kinds of art and activities, particularly literary. Philippe filled the pages of LD with an olla-podrida of scraps of information. Sometimes, I saw LD as little more than the mind of Philippe laid open for all of us to admire. His interests were broad, eclectic, and always entertaining. He had a particular interest in documenting the work of others (even my work), and some of his issues included particular responses to simple questions of his. My favorite was the sequence of issues in the second series of LD that included lists of people’s ten “favorite” books. There was huge variation in people’s lists, but Joyces’ Ulysses showed up on many people’s lists (though not on mine—I included Finnegans Wake instead).

One of the most valuable services Philippe provided within the pages of LD were his translations of the works of underground writers. He seemed to love the challenge of translating almost untranslatable works of literature. He might be unique in having translated the humorous underground writing of “Blaster” Al Ackerman’s into French. I would have considered this feat of translation Philippe’s most difficult if he hadn’t also have translated—successfully!—John M. Bennett’s poetry into French. At the time, Bennett wrote a hard-edge, incantatory prose that was decidedly American and exquisitely avant-garde in its flavor. I could not have believed such a translation possible until I read Philippe’s translations. Once I read them, I sent him my congratulations for a job well done. Philippe also did me the honor of translating my favorite of my own micro-essays into French. While working on the translation of “Endwords,” (an afterword I wrote to a small sequence of visual poems, and a personal essay on my life-long interest in the visual representation of language), I discovered what a careful translator he was. He wrote me with a number of questions, as he tried to clarify exactly what I was saying in my sometimes overwrought English. In this end, this translation became an issue of LD and later appear in a French anthology of North American visual poetry. Without Philippe, no-one would have been interested enough in those words to translate them into French. Philippe also released an issue of LD that included translations from my former column on praecisio (a figure of speech in which someone makes a point by saying nothing at all).

By the time Philippe had introduced himself to me, he had decided to take part in the Art Strike 1990-1993, but he also published and distributed LD throughout this strike. He might not have seen his work in LD as art—after all, he was merely documenting the world through that publication. But I always considered his Lettre documentaire to be art. He created in LD a unique anthology of thoughts, a certain spare visual style, and a clear expression of his interests in the world. LD was a particular kind of art that I have come to call information art, an art that focused on the information within it, rather than on the visual or aural representation of it. In some ways, I see information art as the purest of arts, since the ultimate content of any art is information, pieces of the world presented for our enjoyment and interpretation.

What Philippe has done for me is incalculable, and this support from him appeared immediately in our relationship. LD 13 was a reprinting the content of the first thirty-two issues of SJRC, and that issue immediately enhanced the exposure of that small project of mine to an even greater public. Philippe also worked hard to understand the deep puns I used in English and the strange (and unidiomatic) ways I would occasionally stretch the French language. Philippe and I usually corresponded in English, but he was the only one of my correspondents with whom I could write macaronic paragraphs like this one:

Est-ce que vous voudrez me comprendre si yo escribo en more than una lengua at once? J’aime beaucoup les mots del mundo, y je like writing in fier linguas or cinco. Um lingua e due languages are three langues, a tongue for hommekind. Lire sont lire en Italia; lire est lire in Frankreich.

Philippe knew English quite well, studied Spanish in college, and finished everything but his dissertation for his doctorate in Portuguese (leading him to tell me that he had “stayed half a doctor, just a doc”). I was an American who learned French while living in Morocco, practiced my Spanish while living in Bolivia, and learned Portuguese as a boy in Oporto, Portugal, so Philippe and I were tied together by the languages that had created us. I have to say, though, that Philippe’s grasp of foreign languages was greater than my own. He was a true polyglot, and it was his understanding of various languages that made him the stitch that held two sides of the Atlantic together. He translated works from English, Spanish, and Portuguese, from both sides of the Atlantic, and many of these translations made it into the incomparable little pages of LD. One of Philippe’s greatest feats of translation was the smallest: he translated my clumsy word pwoermd (the words poem and word imbricated together to form the word for a poem that is only one word in length) into the elegant, and slightly archaic, poëmot.

Lettre documentaire began as an A4 sheet of paper folded into four pages, but on my son’s third birthday in 1992, Philippe began his second series of LD. He changed the format to a single-sided A4 sheet (folded only to fit in an envelope). Originally numbered with Roman numerals to distinguish this series from the first, the second series reverted to Arabic numerals with its 100th issue (for, I assume, simplicity’s sake). Both series exhibited Philippe’s interest in documentation, his archivist’s eye for the importance of dates, and his librarian’s eye for the perfection of cataloging data. These pieces of paper are beautiful documentation of the world around (and within) Philippe, and I’ve spent hours of my life reading through these wonderfully idiosyncratic issues.

For personal reasons, my favorite issue of LD is issue XX from the new series. Published on December 31, 1992, and entitled “Verbier,” this issue was a joint publication with my press (dbqp), so it also carried the title The Subtle Journal of Raw Coinage # 64. This issue included 366 undefined néomots by Philippe. Originally, the issue included 365 neologisms of his (one for each day of the new year), but I suggested that he add poëmot to the issue, so that he would have one word for each day of the leap year that 1992 was. I typeset the publication so that it fit on both an A4 sheet and a cisatlantic sheet of letter-sized paper. This issue joined Philippe and me together in our joint interest in words, neologisms, language, and micropublishing, and it is the one spot in our careers where LD and SJRC are one. (This issue of LD/SJRC included Philippe’s neologisms, presqu and aujourd’hier, which I have joined together into the title of this tribute to this man of more than letters, this man of words.)

I lost contact with Philippe sometime in 1994. In October of 1993, my wife Nancy and I had purchased a house and I began a new job that kept me on the road for much of my time, and I found it impossible to keep up my correspondence. My life was too busy for art, and I let my correspondence with even my dearest friends lag. I now wonder how old Philippe’s son Samuel is now. Maybe twenty. I wonder if I should contact him again so we can finish the translation of my poems in Paralipomena. I wrote the original English, my brother translated the text into Portuguese, I translated most of the Portuguese into Spanish, and I had planned to have Philippe translate the Spanish into French. Until I have the French, I cannot finish the book, which has been sitting unfinished for over a decade. But all of this is my fault for being a poor correspondent, the weak link in the chain of our friendship. Near the end of our correspondence, after I had taken too long to respond, Philippe sent me a note asking, simply, “Still Alive?” Yes, but no, would have been the right answer.

I have lost contact with a great man and a great mind, so I’ll need to rectify that. I do, however, read (without telling him) his weblog, Journal documentaire, but the last issue of Lettre documentaire I own is number 158 (second series) from November 1995. And I mailed my last letter to Philippe in June 1994, so I’m sure I owe him a letter.

30 April 2006