Interview
17 January 2020

RJ Arkhipov graduated from the University of London Institute in Paris' BA in French Studies class in 2013. He spoke to us about his life since ULIP, writing poetry with his own blood, and meeting President Macron.

What have you been up to since leaving ULIP?

After graduation, I spent a further three years in Paris. In that time, I obtained a Master’s degree from a grande école and did my utmost to make it as a writer, predominantly penning texts on arts and culture for various publications. I had the opportunity to work with French photographer Maud Maillard and write for French-Lebanese director Hadi Mousally on 12 short films which went on to garner nominations and awards at film festivals around the world, giving me the opportunity to travel to Chile to represent both the works and the artists who worked so hard to create them.

In early 2016, I upped sticks in pursuit of new horizons where I could work on my first book. I distinctly remember missing the feeling I’d had during those first months of my first year at ULIP. Everything felt so unexplored then. The language. The landscape. The people. Anywhere else in Europe felt too little a leap, and ultimately Buenos Aires beckoned. Popularly known as the Paris of the South, I sometimes wonder if I had ever really managed to leave the ville lumière behind.

Argentina is an extraordinary country and I have returned for significant spells every year since, but Scotland is my current home. Still, I don’t think I have ever really let go of Paris.

In June 2018, Visceral, the book I had begun in Paris a couple of years earlier, and continued on that first trip to Argentina, was published by London-based publisher, Zuleika.

Tell us about your Visceral and the inspiration behind your work.

It began as a handful of poems written towards the end of my time in Paris. I was originally inspired by a line often attributed to Hemingway: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I took that line au premier degré because I composed the first poems using my own blood as ink as a protest against the ongoing ban on men who have sex with men from donating blood. There is an undeniable poetry to blood; it is a substance of potent metaphor. Notions of family, sacrifice, violence, and stigma are all tied up in it. It is an unfixed and universal element. In both the science and the symbolism of blood, there lies ample ambiguity and an abundance of beauty. These qualities are particularly important to poetry. I was overwhelmed by the reception the book received and was offered opportunities to read my poems and give lectures at the Scottish Parliament, symposia supported by the Universities of York and Leeds, and a particularly memorable occasion in the crypt of St Pancras New Church for the Bloomsbury Festival. Visceral was also long-listed for Polari First Book Prize.

How did it feel to be invited to the Palais de l’Élysée to present your book to the library of President Emmanuel Macron and Brigitte Macron?

Curious and conflicting. Many of my friends in Paris have been seriously injured in the uprisings taking place each weekend and I disagree with a great deal of President Macron’s policies and actions. It was, however, an honour to discover the Palais de l’Élysée and to offer my collection of poems to the library of the French president and Mme. Macron. Both politics and poetry are matters of persuasion, and I appreciate that poetry – and languages, art, and culture more generally – can be a particularly powerful way of connecting people with otherwise polarised political perspectives.

How did your degree prepare you for the career path you have taken?

Whether I am penning poetry or writing speeches for a parliamentarian, language is at the very core of what I do. At university, fluency in French was by far the most pressing aim and, upon graduation, the most obvious reward. The more subtle understandings of language, its innumerable nuances and almost alchemic structures, came much later.

Do you use your language skills regularly?

I find myself reading, listening or speaking French every day, if only a little. I have found myself in Paris most months recently, and am in regular touch with many of my French friends there. Indirectly, my language skills help me in almost everything I work on. Whether I am writing a speech or composing a poem, the linguistic dexterity that studying French in Paris offered me influences my work every day, be that in English or in French.

What advice or tips would you give to current ULIP undergraduates thinking about their future careers?

In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t spent so long believing that the singular future a degree in French could offer me was as a translator or interpreter, with the European Union or United Nations as the epitomic employer. These métiers are perfectly noble pursuits, but nonetheless prosaic ones for a student of language. I don’t anticipate that such a remark will land well among the student body at the University of London Institute in Paris – at least given my memory of it – but I think my words will age well.