Maintenant #14 – Jan-Willem Anker
‘As it gets dark / nails advance on my skin’ an interview with Jan-Willem Anker by SJ Fowler
A leading light in the modern poetic tradition from Holland, Jan-Willem Anker is a considered and intellectual poet who maintains the humble incredulity in the best high European style. At home with experimentation and form, almost looking through the divides that embody and then limit so many other poets through orthodoxy, Anker has a honest, unfeigned directness in his thought which shows through in the clarity and freedom of his poetry. He has been highly regarded in a literary landscape that can sometimes be inward and difficult to export, seen a hope for the future in the exportation of Dutch literature in general. A formidible translator, having worked notably in an exchange with Daljit Nagra, he is another excellent addition to the Maintenant series.
3:AM: Your poetry shows stylistic signs of both the traditional and the experimental. You write in free verse, certainly in translation, yet there is a care of subject matter that harks to more traditional poetry. Undoubtedly your poetry is essentially modern, but do you feel there is a balance between the new and more established that you wish to find?
Jan-Willem Anker: I can certainly relate to that, being somewhere in the middle between the traditional and the experimental, as you put it. Especially in the sense I’m obsessed by form (not all poets are, strangely enough). To be honest, I would have loved to write sonnets my whole life, or to take on some other traditional form, but I’m afraid I’m not cut out for it. I’ve never been able to find a satisfying way of dealing with these forms.
Some words about my poetry: my first book was the most experimental (I tried many things, failing most of the time, but I tell myself that’s what a first book is for), being heavily influenced by leading Dutch poets such as Gerrit Kouwenaar and Hans Faverey, language focused poets (not to be confused with l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e, in the United States) who opened up many new possibilities. I knew quite well what was happening around me when I published my first book. I preferred reading poets like the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer and Polish poets such as Adam Zagajewski and Zbigniew Herbert. Some Flemish poets were also in the background. And Rilke too by the way. The first book has a lot of series in it. The second book just one, the final ten poems. The second book is much more accessible, small anecdotes, parable like prose poems, some transparent free verse. The third book consists of a series of twenty half ironic, half serious love poems, written in a traditional form of three quatrains. It’s a conceptual book about expressing love and desire in poetry.
3:AM: Your poetry seems to be focused on creating careful linguistic pictures driven by a philosophical or observational underpinning. Do you work with a specific style or methodology, or is the writing process very free?
J-WA: I cannot imagine the writing process ever being very free, but on the other hand I never know what the poem will look like when I start. I’m used to begin a poem with just a couple of images, some notes I made or a very vague thought, an impression or sensation. I guess that’s nothing to be surprised about. The ground from which I start is rather observational than philosophical, although perhaps that’s changing in favour of philosophy these days. I’m not a philosopher nor a philosophical poet, but sometimes I have an idea, which is something completely different than an impression. Much clearer. Knowing somehow more beforehand.
3:AM: You seem to utilise written paragraphs over lines, so you create distended prose poems. Is this deliberate? Do you engage in more avant garde poetry practises, like concrete poetry, or typographically experimental verse?
J-WA:It was deliberate, but it’s as avant-garde as I’m going to get. I feel concrete poetry on paper is a dead end, although you never know. And there are many possibilities on the internet I suppose. Same goes for typographical experiments.
3:AM: I’m interested in your influences when it comes to poetry. Perhaps it is my own ignorance but I have not come across a major Dutch poet who contributed to modernism or another of the 20th centuries literary movements. Marcellus Emants is the only figure I can think of. I’m interested in which Dutch poets have influenced you, or are considered vital and should be read by those outside of Holland.
J-WA:I’ve already mentioned a couple of names. It surprises me you know Emants, but I don’t know his poetry myself, didn’t know he published any. He’s mainly known for his prose writing, in particular the novel Een nagelaten bekentenis (I saw on the internet Coetzee translated it as A Posthumous Confession). A wonderful book. Emants was also an outsider, not part of any literary movement as far as I know. The most important Dutch poets of the first half of the 20th century are in my opinion the untranslatable Herman Gorter and Martinus Nijhoff, and I would only call Nijhoff a modernist. I don’t know in what way they’ve influenced me. Nijhoff has, especially his longer, more narrative verses. He made a good translation of Eliot’s Prufrock and translated other things of Eliot as well.
I don’t know where to begin to describe Gorters work. It’s overwhelming, sometimes radically lyric, sometimes surprisingly simple. A lot of it is still wonderful, grand poetry. The work for which he is still known the best was written in the end of the 19th century. If you’re interested in contemporary Dutch poetry, there’s a lot to be found on lyrikline.org, but also on poetryinternational.org.
3:AM: Is your own influence globalised definitively? Is this the case with Dutch poets of your generation, and perhaps before? Being so regularly mulitlingual, is poetry from the Anglo-American or Francophone or Germanic tradition read as often as poetry in Dutch?
J-WA:I don’t think so. Because I write in Dutch I mostly read Dutch poets, or foreign poetry in translation. You would expect more influence from abroad to be honest. Contemporary French and German poetry have almost no influence on Dutch poetry, since even intellectuals aren’t very good in French any more. And I don’t know any young poet who knows anything about contemporary German poetry. I spent some time in Berlin last year, and I used to work for an international poetry festival in Rotterdam, so I have a vague idea about what is going on in Germany today. Of course people read the older stuff. But I suppose that’s the same in Great Britain.
I read some English (language) poetry of course, but it still takes time to digest, because I’m not a native speaker, I don’t know English / American / Canadian / Australian society that well, and because poetic language is (on the whole) the most dense and ambiguous language you can find. A lot of Dutch people think they’re good in English when they’re not. I understand that English people are impressed by how easy it is to communicate in The Netherlands, but don’t be fooled. It’s pidgin the Dutch speak, not English.
To give you a rather sad and extreme example of how things can go wrong. Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle was translated recently by a young Dutch poet. Some time ago the publishing house decided to take the book out of circulation (no pun intended), because the translation was trashed by critics and colleague translators for being inaccurate and so on. I feel sorry for the guy who translated Heaney’s book. But it shows how hard it is to get a grip on poetry that was written in another country, and in another language.
3:AM: How did the translation project, the translation exchange almost, with Daljit Nagra come about? Could you describe the experience?
J-WA:It’s a long story. To make that long story short: the idea was Sarah Corbett’s, who approached me. She found me through the poetry festival I was working for at the time. I loved the idea, and I was moved by her interest in Dutch poetry. We met in Amsterdam and worked together for some time. She chose the two other English poets (Daljit Nagra and Antony Dunn) and I the two Dutch poets (Maria Barnas and Mustafa Stitou). It was a wonderful experience, and I’m still very grateful to Sarah.
Daljit Nagra and I are very different poets, so in the beginning it seemed we were an odd combination, but I felt our personalities matched very well, which made translating his work enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, I love his poetry, but it was so hard to translate it. I needed his help all the time. I’m much easier to translate.
For the English poets the work was a little different by the way, because the Dutch poets made literals of their poems into English. The Dutch poets didn’t need any.
3:AM: You have written, and are writing prose and essay alongside your poetry. Do these different writing mediums act as a compliment to each other, methodologically and with content?
J-WA:I don’t write essays that much, and I’ve really just started writing prose seriously. Anyway, thematically there is definitely some overlap. In the novel (a satirical book about the famous Lord Elgin) and the poetry collection (to be called Vandalism), I’m working on at the same time, I’m interested in the notion all destruction is a form of creation. ‘Destruction is creation,’ it sounds silly like this but I don’t know how else to put it. A great deal of Vandalism deals with Germanic tribal violence in a time the Roman Empire is about to collapse. The book about Elgin deals with the saviour of art by destroying it. When Elgin took the sculptures he thought he was saving them, but he was ruining the temple of course.
Methodologically: writing prose demands real discipline. I cannot wait for it. In my case I need the regular life of desk clerk. Poetry often comes by itself. Prose I have to drag out.
3:AM: You won the Jo Peters Poëzie Prijs in 2006 for your first collection. Did this effect your output, to be critically recognised at the publication of your first poetry collection?
J-WA:Winning a prize helps a young poet enormously of course. For some time it felt like I did something right. I did a lot of writing in the time after I received the prize. Only later I realised I would never write a book like that again.
3:AM: What is the state of poetry in Holland at the moment? Is poetry read widely and in great numbers? Is there sufficient support for poetry from the government and publishers?
J-WA:Many collections of poetry are published each year. They aren’t sold very well, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Furthermore, there are many opportunities for poets to give lectures and to read their poems. For more than ten years there has been a lively scene. Apparently there’s an audience that doesn’t buy poetry books, but likes to attend readings.
There is sufficient support for poetry from the government and publishing houses. Something very similar to the Arts Council exists in Holland, and for a published poet it’s possible to get a stipend, even from the Flemish government, because the Flemish and the Dutch share their language.
We have a poet laureate too. And many cities have their own poet laureate these days. City poets, they’re called. One poet laureate is enough for me, or maybe one is already too much. But it does illustrate that national and local government feel poetry is valuable.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum. In addition to interviewing leading European poets, he is curating the forthcoming Maintenant reading series.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 18th, 2010.