An Interview with Panmelys, Tea Party Hostess
Please note: the Tea Party is taking a break over the festive period. It will restart on Sunday 2nd February 2020.
Panmelys is a Welsh poet and painter living in Paris. Every Sunday, she hosts a “Live Poets’ Circle” and “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” from 4 to 6pm in the library of Shakespeare and Company and has been doing so for over 20 years. She asks you to come with a “poem in your pocket and a song in your heart.” In return, she’ll give you a cup of tea, a biscuit, and—if you’re lucky—a piece of her homemade cake, while you listen to some wonderful poetry. Entry is free and open to all.
Would you tell us a little about the history of the Tea Party?
Well, the Tea Party started with Sylvia Beach really, but then George took up the mantle. Half the time when he was downstairs at the desk, he’d have a pot boiling with tea, another with coffee, and every Sunday he would invite people upstairs for his own little tea party.
How did you take over the Tea Party?
I arrived at the shop in 1991. I was distributing pamphlets outside Notre-Dame for my poetry reading at the American University, and I felt there was a terrible magnet inside of me tugging me back somewhere. So I crossed the bridge, passed the park, and came across this little shop: “Shakespeare and Company.” I went in and I saw this thin, bearded man sitting at the desk who I was told was George Whitman. I went over and introduced myself, told him I was a poet and asked if I could do a reading. He waved his hand at me and said gruffly, “Leave your poems there—go read a book.” Well, I went off for about 10 minutes, didn’t read a book, and came back and asked him what he thought. He said, “Well, are you published?” I told him not really, and he replied, “You’re not published, great! Give us a reading next Monday night!” I was shocked: I wouldn’t be ready by Monday night and I told him so. “Take it or leave it,” he replied. So I had to do it. Luckily, it went well—I think George liked my poems about the Médecins Sans Frontières. I became more and more involved with the shop; I was even what he called “The Housekeeper for his Tumbleweeds.” I stayed for 10 years, then I left for a little while, but eventually I came back to take over the Tea Party.
What is the ethos of the Tea Party for you, the true spirit of it?
I like to encourage people not necessarily to read good poetry but to read and write their thoughts, to give them form. Some of them are very, very good and some of them are not bad, never bad, because no poetry is ever bad, but they don’t know anything about poetry, about technique. I’m here to give advice and to listen. But some Tea Parties are almost like miracles, it’s just incredible. I can’t explain it. They’re part of the spirit, the soul of the shop.
Tell us about a memorable Tea Party.
Every week is memorable! I always seem to meet such interesting people. I’ve made some very good friends thanks to the Tea Party, such as Glenn Thompson, an Australian musician— he’s put a video of me on his YouTube channel, which is very exciting. At the end of each Tea Party I hand around a book, where everyone can leave a little message. Once there was a girl who wrote two lines that went straight to my heart. She said: “I want you to know that I’ve been extremely depressed, especially during this time in Paris, but you’ve changed my whole life. 4000km away, there will be a girl you gave desire to live.” I couldn’t believe it. But all of it, everything, comes back to George because things like that happened at his Tea Parties, too.