notes on dutch literature

Posts Tagged ‘High Impact’

‘I don’t like to be pigeonholed’

In More poetry please, Pick of the Week on January 31, 2013 at 9:44 AM

Ramsey NasrMichele Hutchison interviewed Ramsey Nasr at the end of his four-year term as Dutch Poet Laureate
© Michele Hutchison, Wednesday 30 January 2013 Poetry International

I’ve just had the pleasure of spending a week with Ramsey Nasr and five other Dutch and Flemish writers travelling around England with the High Impact Tour. It gave me an excellent opportunity to discover the man behind the celebrated actor-poet and to hear his views on poetry, politics and performance.

What is poetry for you?
People think that poems are based on feelings and longings, but that has nothing to do with the poem itself but the effect it has on the reader. When Shakespeare wrote his famous sonnet ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day’ he probably wasn’t moved himself, he was just doing a good job. Prose is a parallel universe but poetry can transport. Nothing happens in a poem, time has come to a standstill and space disappears. A poem consists of nothing but letters, put them in the right order and you evoke emotion. Good poetic technique is about creating that emotion in the reader.

The students we met in Sheffield were preoccupied with understanding poetry.
Yes. People want to understand poetry but you have to let go of that. Language is usually functional. It gets us from A to B. In poetry, language is used in a different way. The meanings of words change, that’s why it is seen as difficult. You think it’s about something and then suddenly it’s about something else. The poet himself sometimes doesn’t know what the poem is about, because things occur through association or rhyme. The laws of the form determine the poem. Poetry puts language under pressure, misunderstandings surface.

Compare it to music. You never think of a song as difficult to understand. You just hear a melody. When I was young, I listened to Michael Jackson and sang along, copying the sounds and vowels. I had no idea what he was saying. We need to be released from the question of understanding or not understanding poetry. Don’t analyse it all the time. Dissecting a rat doesn’t tell you anything about life.

What kind of poetry do you write?
People always ask what kind of poetry I write. They also ask whether I’m an actor or poet and which I prefer. If they threatened to cut off my finger, which would I be? The Dutch in particular like to pigeonhole everything.
I started off as a love poet. My first volume was about a real relationship, or actually several (poor me), but my second was about women I invented. Readers said to me, you’ve had a bad run of it! That’s the thing – the reader can be completely fooled. The poet can create something that isn’t real.
In 2005, I became City Poet for Antwerp where I lived for 18 years. It forced me to write about the here and now. For example, I wrote a poem about the ‘slumlords’ in the city, or about extreme poverty in Antwerp. Four years later, when I became poet laureate of the Netherlands, I continued on that path: I wrote a poem about Geert Wilders. I wrote a poem about child abuse in the Catholic church – and suddenly everyone called me a political poet. I hate being called a political poet actually.

Is there a difference between the poetry you used to write and the poetry you wrote ‘in function’?
There is a difference, although I don’t like to admit it. The poetry I used to write was private, I didn’t write it for an audience. As City Poet or Poet Laureate, it’s like there’s a monster with a thousand eyes looking down on you. It’s not that my ‘public’ poetry is more simple, but I’m much more conscious about what I write.

What’s it like being Poet Laureate?
You have to write a minimum of four poems a year but there is lots of pressure and lots of requests. You’re the Ambassador for Dutch poetry. It’s a full-time honorary function but you can get paid by the newspaper or institute that commissions the poem. It pulls poetry into the society and society into poetry. Having a Poet Laureate is a way of letting poetry open its ears and eyes a bit more. Poetry doesn’t have to just be about love, or the weather.

Do they commission poems from you? How does it work?
I have the freedom to publish what I like. It’s very Dutch, that. In general I view our liberty as a tool that has been used too much. The whole concept has lost its meaning for us; it’s a sign of arrogance. ‘I am Dutch, so I can be blunt’, said our minister of Finance at a EU-meeting. We don’t realise anymore what it is to be free, we take it for granted. I hate the Dutch for being too loud, it’s better to be modest sometimes. We’re a small country. But this freedom as Poet Laureate is a good thing; it is also a risk: the newspaper agreed to publish anything, without censorship.

Nevertheless, it will feel like a release when I can do what I like again at the end of the month. I look forward to writing completely private poetry. Not to anyone in particular, just for myself. It isn’t very poetic to write something current-affairs related with a twenty-four hour deadline. The poem becomes the news. I said that time stands still in a poem, this goes against that. There’s less room for multi-interpretability when you’re writing about child abuse.

Being Poet Laureate is also a great way of getting a much larger readership. In general you’re lucky if a volume of poetry sells a thousand copies in its lifetime. The top sellers might be about five thousand, that’s all. Now 200,000 people might read a poem when it’s published in the paper and if I read it out on a talk show, the audience rises to a million. You reach much more people – the man in the street.. A male cleaner in a hotel came up to me to thank me after I’d written an anti-war poem about our participation in Iraq. ‘Who other than a poet could say that?’ he commented.

How does acting compare to writing poetry?
As an actor you are always present. Your body never disappears, it’s always part of the act. The poet dissolves in language. I don’t like poets who deliberately perform on stage, there’s always a tension between the poem itself and his or her presence. It can also mask the fact that a poem might not work on paper. It has to be good enough in print, in my opinion.

I’ve had people come up to me and say they’ve only understood poems when they’ve heard them aloud. People like listening to poetry. It gives the appearance of it being understandable. Perhaps because it is read with ease. It might be like musical notation, it’s difficult to execute it in your head. Hearing a poem is a similar process of interpretation, the preparation is done for you.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was about four I wanted to be Queen of the Netherlands. We had a queen, so the idea of a king didn’t occur to me. Some years later, I wanted to become Darwin. After that, my ambitions more or less evolved into something more, let’s say, realistic . . . After flirting with the idea of studying Greek and Latin, I finally knew what I wanted to be: an actor. And as you can see, I changed my mind again, ha-ha.

Banipal published Nasr’s Collected poems Heavenly Life, translated by David Colmer.

The Rebel’s Hour

In Pick of the Week, Review on December 20, 2012 at 8:24 PM

The Rebel's hour - Lieve Joris
Award-winning journalist Lieve Joris (Back to the Congo, Mali Blues) gracefully re-imagines the non-fiction genre in The Rebel’s Hour of ‘literary’ reportage, an exhaustively researched, colorfully executed look at war-torn Congo that was released in Joris’s native Holland as nonfiction and in France as a novel (the facts are true, though her subjects could be evasive). A profound portrait of a man and his times, the book follows the life of Assani, a Tutsi cowherd who abandons the tribe of his youth to fight in the Congolese wars, where he becomes a distinguished military man, rising through the ranks of government even as he becomes deeply jaded by the chaos, destruction and suffering around him.

Joris’s Congo is a fragmented mess of political aggression, ethnic clashes and disintegrating national unity, and if the breakdown of Joris’s hero parallels the nation’s collapse a bit too neatly, it’s made up for in the author’s deft handling of Assani’s slippery perspective: “Families paralyzed you; everyone clung to everyone else and they kept asking each other for advice. Assani was against that sort of dependence-it made you lazy.” Joris presents a bare, honest and powerful tableau that illuminates the African delimma in hauntingly personal terms.
Source: Publisher’s Weekly

The Rebel’s Hour, written by Lieve Joris, translated by Liz Waters, published by Grove Press (ISBN 978-0-8021-1868-4)

Lieve Joris is one of the six novelists touring through the UK with High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries, January 14th – January 19th 2013.

High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries

In Festivals on November 20, 2012 at 10:13 AM

High Impact Literature from the Low Countries

Lieve Joris, Herman Koch, Ramsey Nasr, Peter Terrin, Chika Unigwe, Judith Vanistendael and Geert Mak. All award-winning and best-selling authors from Belgium and the Netherlands.

From 14th – 19th January 2013 these Dutch and Belgian authors will tour from Liverpool to London. 6 cities for 6 nights of readings & debates, to showcase the excellent literature from Flanders & the Netherlands in English translation

HIGH IMPACT brings this unique group of writers together. You’ll hear the Dutch Poet Laureate side by side with Belgium’s leading graphic novelist; 2 global best-sellers, a thriller writer, a celebrated historian and a travel writer, together on stage every night. Each night a different city, a different theme, a different type of venue (a church, theatre, an arts centre). During the final gig they will perform alongside English literati such David Mitchell, Tracy Chevalier and Deborah Moggach, themselves famous writers on Dutch themes: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Girl With The Pearl Earring and Tulip Fever.

More info @Dutch Foundation for Literature

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