> Poetry is not for wimps

Poetry is not for wimps

Par |2019-01-23T13:25:50+00:00 3 août 2012|Catégories : Chroniques|

Recently appea­red WHEN I GO BLIND by the Danish author Niels Hav in Dutch trans­la­tion. Finally, for Hav is a fas­ci­na­ting poet, who alrea­dy is publi­shed in English, Italian, Arabic and Chinese. Now when his poems through the efforts of the trans­la­tor Jan Baptist are avai­lable in book form in the Low Countries, it was high time for Meander to make an email inter­view with the Dane.


Sander de Vaan : Where do you “stand” in contem­po­ra­ry Danish poe­try ? (com­pa­red to your Danish col­leagues)

Niels Hav : I was born on the west coast, far from the capi­tal where I live today. So in some sense I’m a new­co­mer here, like the Arabs, Pakistani and Turkish’s immi­grants living in my neigh­bo­rhood. I spoke a rural dia­lect when I was a kid. Of course I belong to the lite­ra­ry land­scape in Denmark, but I never had the fee­ling of belon­ging to any gene­ra­tion or move­ment in Danish poe­try. I arri­ved with com­ple­te­ly dif­ferent expe­riences than the urban poets. I remem­ber what joy it was when I first came across poems of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney for example, they wrote in a lar­ger space than the urban ghet­to and on expe­riences with nature and ani­mals that I could imme­dia­te­ly reco­gnize. Today I am a down­town dove and feel at home in Copenhagen, but maybe it's still there I stand, as kind of an out­si­der who also have other rela­tion­ships and belong in other contexts.


SdV : In 'My Fantastic Pen' you write : “Poetry is not for sis­sies!” Does this express also your per­so­nal view on poe­try ?

NH : That's a good ques­tion with mul­tiple levels. Poetry is of course for eve­ryone, poems are addres­sed to just any­bo­dy. But here I am tal­king about the pro­fes­sion, the craft, the dai­ly prac­tice of wri­ting poe­try. It may require cou­rage and sta­mi­na to work in this branch. And a willin­gness to renounce pri­vate lyri­cism and the unbrid­led emo­tio­na­lism, which always threa­tens to drown poe­try. The cha­rac­te­ris­tic of good poets is, all the bad poems, they never write.
What I mean is : poe­try contains ele­ments of music and fun, but not only that. Time passes, we live and die. The world is on fire. Politics, bombs, ideo­lo­gy and reli­gion rava­ging the globe. This is what the adults are tal­king about – and in its inner­most core the chal­lenge for art is to join this conver­sa­tion. To find out and unders­tand what’s going on, and if pos­sible to say things as they are.
So, yes, poe­try – the pro­fes­sion – is not for sis­sies. You have to face your­self and look rea­li­ty, God, or what it is, direct­ly into the eyes. Poetry’s first duty is to be an inti­mate talk with the single rea­der about the dee­pest mys­te­ries of exis­tence.


SdV : Is there any other poet who, accor­ding to you, has come real­ly close to an ‘unders­tan­ding’ of what’s going on with his poems ? (if so, maybe you can cite some verses too ?)

NH : There are many great poets, some have writ­ten a hand­ful of excellent poems full of insight on fun­da­men­tal ques­tions in life. But in our culture there may be a ten­den­cy to iso­late poe­try in a spe­cial ghet­to. A poet who tal­ked serious­ly about essen­tial things and insis­ted on poetry’s gene­ral rele­vance is Czeslaw Milosz. In 2011 his 100-year anni­ver­sa­ry was cele­bra­ted, not only in Poland but on seve­ral conti­nents. I think it’s because he dee­ply reflec­ted issues that are still cur­rent. But if I should quote a poet here, it could be the Chinese poet Li Bai (701-762). He said some­thing about the impor­tance of poe­try and no one could say it bet­ter today :

Perfect poems are the only buil­dings
there always will be stan­ding.
Where are they now the proud palaces,
once towe­ring here ?
When the power is in me my brush
shakes five holy moun­tains.
What does it concerns me all the things
people want of glo­ry, power, rich­ness and honour –
what is that against wri­ting poe­try ?
Before I kneel for them the yel­low river
should flow in the direc­tion of its sources.”


SdV : Could you tell us some­thing about the ori­gin of the poem 'Visit from My Father', with these mar­vel­lous lines : "On my bul­le­tin board hang seven­teen bills./ Throw them away,/ he says, they'll come back again!" and how it was crea­ted ?

NH : My father was a far­mer and sex­ton (he loo­ked after the ceme­te­ry in the vil­lage), eco­no­mics was not his hob­by, and often the wal­let was emp­ty. When the post­man arri­ved, my mother stood with the bills and asked what to do with them. Throw them away, he said, they'll come back again. My father died many years ago, but in lone­ly moments he still comes to visit to dis­cuss the situa­tion. And like far­ming poe­try isn't the most pro­fi­table pro­fes­sion, there’s rare­ly real money in poe­try – but per­haps there is after all some kind of balance in life ; there isn’t either much poe­try in money.
This is the per­so­nal impe­tus for the poem. But if a poem should be of inter­est to any other than the poet, it must in some sense be emble­ma­tic. When I write a poem about my Dad, the poem must be so exem­pla­ry that the rea­der can move in and take over the poem and be there with his own father. I'm not oiling the rea­der with my pri­vate fee­lings and reflec­tions – that would prevent him from using the poem to any­thing at all, then it would just be about me. The poem must be desi­gned or deve­lo­ped such that the rea­der can feel at home there with his per­so­nal thoughts and fee­lings and make the words to his own words. Now they belong to her or to him. So in the end my per­so­nal expe­riences are com­ple­te­ly unim­por­tant, I have writ­ten the poem and han­ded it over to the rea­der, to eve­ryone. My father never got a pas­sport, but the poem has been on stage in China and Dubai, and it seems to work also in Arabic and Chinese. Everybody has a father.


SdV : How do you usual­ly start a poem ? (is it a word, a verse, an image, some­thing else ?)

NH : Poetry is such a futile acti­vi­ty, I’m sure most poets know the fee­ling. My wife is a concert pia­nist, eve­ry mor­ning she sits down at the pia­no, and I go to my office. Often nothing hap­pens. I am there, the words are there, and nothing hap­pens. On a good day my confu­sion and doubt maybe leads to a poem. It is the dai­ly prac­tice and the contact with the writ­ten mate­rial which some­times bring elec­tri­ci­ty to lan­guage and let the words sparkle. I write slow­ly or in spurts, but things are often left to wait a while before they are publi­shed. They lie there and matures. And some­times it's per­haps much later when I look at the mate­rial again and sud­den­ly rea­lize that here it is : this is a poem. When it hap­pens it is because the text holds sur­prises even for me. So the pro­cess is still somew­hat of a mys­te­ry. A new poem is a gift, it can hap­pen sud­den­ly, on the street, in traf­fic, while you take care of dai­ly chores, a lit­tle epi­pha­ny. But a good poem is more sel­dom than a dead bad­ger on the free­way or a UFO.


SdV : Such nice, true verses like : “The new lovers kiss each other’s fin­ger­tips /​ I do know that.” – seem the result of a good obser­va­tor. Do you look around a lot for ins­pi­ra­tion ?

NH : Kissing is a very inter­es­ting topic, thanks for brin­ging it up. We love each other, we kiss. In this sport most of us are both spec­ta­tors and per­for­mers. I don't know if I've done more research on the field than others, but I've noti­ced that new lovers love eve­ry­thing about each other. It's the way she speaks, it's her jacket, her pen and her bag. It's her laugh­ter, her wrists, her hips, but also her hair­brush, her books and music, her bicycle. It's the way she eats, it's her toe­nails. It's her gro­ce­ry store and the street she lives in. It's her !

So, to return to your ques­tion : I can’t say I look much around for ins­pi­ra­tion. Most of the time I sim­ply live and am busy with the dai­ly chores. Inspiration comes when it comes. But I also write short sto­ries, and when it comes to prose there of course can be details requi­ring research.


SdV : You speak very well English. Would you be able to write a poem in that lan­guage, or is poe­try 100% bound to your mother lan­guage ?

NH : Maybe not 100 percent, but I'm not that good in English unfor­tu­na­te­ly. I write almost exclu­si­ve­ly in Danish, and my Danish is even influen­ced by the dia­lect I spoke in my child­hood. I've only writ­ten a few poems in English. I'm bound to my mother tongue – and I'm trap­ped in the Latin alpha­bet. Even if I com­mu­ni­cate in English, I'm still iso­la­ted from half of the world. How many alpha­bets are there on our pla­net ? Nobody knows for sure, but alone Chinese, Hindi, Bengali and other Asian alpha­bets are used by more than one third of the planet's popu­la­tion. And then there is the Arabic alpha­bet used by a bil­lion. Many Arab and Chinese wri­ters have the advan­tage over European col­leagues, they are able to handle two alpha­bets. I wish my igno­rance wasn't so exten­sive.

So I am dependent on my trans­la­tors. In English it is Per Brask, Patrick Friesen, Martin Aitken and others. In Holland I am lucky enough to be trans­la­ted by Jan Baptist, who is fluent in Danish right into the fringes of the lin­guis­tic nuances. He has con amore trans­la­ted clas­sics such as Andersen, Leonora Christina and J. P. Jacobsen – to be in his stable is a pri­vi­lege. He is doing a great unsel­fish work without deman­ding much applause.


SdV : What are your “poe­tic goals” for the near future ?

NH : I've always many plans, but my plans often flut­ter down like paper planes … And of course I'm like all wri­ters super­sti­tious, I do not dare to talk about unwrit­ten things, but I am always wor­king on new poems and new sto­ries. I real­ly wan­ted to write a major work that reflects the gran­deur and beau­ty of our uni­verse, as a thanks for that I am allo­wed to walk around on the pla­net. This ambi­tion col­lides constant­ly with mis­sing skills and rea­li­ties of the world around us.

I can exem­pli­fy my imme­diate fee­ling with a new poem.


Something has hap­pe­ned


We want to leave traces
     in words.
But lan­guage is no pri­vate inven­tion.
To love, to be aban­do­ned ;
to dis­co­ver the clock that counts the seconds
inside the body. The pain in the light,
hel­pless grief. Language knows all that.

What then is my own ? Is it pos­sible
to gain per­so­nal expe­rience
     and attach words to it
that are not sim­ply conven­tio­nal ?
To make an addi­tion ?

Something has hap­pe­ned, some­thing big,
yet I can­not explain
     what it is.
Assertions betray them­selves.
I must accept my embar­rass­ment –
and lis­ten to the words
repro­du­cing with rea­li­ty


© Niels Hav
The poem trans­la­ted by Martin Aitken