Menno Wigman: Poet with a Drum Set in his Head

A character sketch by Martijn Meijer (2005)


“Menno Wigman is a remarkable figure”, says poet and journalist, Joris van Casteren. “There is something obscure about him, with his penchant for the seamy side of life, while on the other hand he is extremely precise and devoted to his work. Poetry is his life’s blood.”

Van Casteren saw Wigman for the first time eight years ago, on stage at the Nacht van de Poëzie (an annual poetry night in Utrecht, attracting over two thousand visitors). “He was a phenomenon that immediately left a deep impression. You could see he was a poet. I found him very intriguing.” Wigman is an elegant manifestation. The 38-year-old poet often wears a dark tailor-made suit and seems to be ageless. “Perhaps this is because he is living in the wrong century,” remarks Van Casteren. The nineteenth century is, or rather was, Wigman’s century. In his poetry he has now finally alighted, after a long detour, in the twenty-first century.

Besides being a poet, Menno Wigman is also a translator and poetry reader. For a long time he has been seen as a major talent, and he is currently engaged in successfully fulfilling this promise. His third collection of poems, Dit is mijn dag (This is my Day) has just been published. Until recently, Wigman was the editor of Awater and is now planning to reanimate the literary magazine Optima, together with Joris van Casteren and Arie Storm. “Menno is ambitious”, says Annette Portegies, Wigman’s editor at Prometheus/Bert Bakker from 1998 to 2001. “It is not that he wants to become the Dutch Poet Laureate in ten years’ time, but he is ambitious in his poetship. It is not a temporary poetship, he is seriously working on an oeuvre.”

Punk and the Dark Romanticism of the nineteenth century: those are the roots of Wigman’s poetship. Those two elements coincided in the figure of Baudelaire who, as far back as 1850, dyed his hair green. A hundred-and-thirty years later, Wigman decided he would be a punk à la Baudelaire, a punk with style. According to his long-time friend Roel Smit: “I became friends with Menno via the punk movement. We were fourteen or fifteen years old. I met him in the library at Santpoort; he lived in the Zuid district, I came from Noord. Menno had set up a punk magazine entitled, Oorpijn (Earache) and was busy making copies in the library. We got talking, and it turned out that we were both fond of the same music, Dutch punk bands such as the Rondos and the Vopos. Menno had completely covered his room with graffiti, which I found great, of course. But the walls were not just simply sprayed over, he had done it neatly, using templates and leaving enough white space in-between. It was stylized anarchy.”

Lex ter Braak has been the Director of the BKVB (Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture) since 2000. In the eighties, he was a Dutch teacher at the Felisenum Gymnasium (grammar school) in Velsen. Wigman attended his classes from the third to sixth year there. Poetry formed a substantial part of the lessons, recounts Ter Braak. “At the end of the lesson, I often handed out Komrij’s anthology of poems. Then everyone chose his or her favourite poem and read it aloud. Menno was an immediate fan of poetry. He started to write poetry himself and regularly showed me his efforts. His poems also appeared in the school newspaper, Olympus.” Wigman also began to behave like a poet. “He strolled through the dunes seeking poetic inspiration. You might also find him at Westerveld graveyard, as if he were a nineteenth-century poet. He nurtured a preference for that period, for the late-romantic poets from France. With regard to Dutch poets, he liked Bloem, Kloos and Slauerhoff.” But Wigman was no odd man out: “There were quite a few other pupils with talent and an interest in literature.”

The first poems showed promise, found Ter Braak. “They leaned upon a long-outdated romanticism, but there were traces of an own, personal sound and original ideas. I did wonder about his further development. It has now become clear that he has managed to evolve from one of the ‘doomed poets’ into a modern-day poet. Menno has gradually entered the twenty-first century. He has converted his romantic yearnings and spleen  into urbane, present-day attitudes.”

In 1984 Wigman independently published a collection of poems entitled Van zaad tot as (From Seed to Ashes). The titles of the poems betray their melancholy ambience: ‘Morphine’, ‘In the Hour of my Death’, ‘Agony’. He read them aloud in youth centres and punk bars. Roel Smit attended his first public performance. “Menno had participated in a poetry competition organized by Groep 82, a poets’ group from Haarlem. The assignment was: write five poems about Haarlem. Menno was very nervous, and the actual reading went much too quickly. It became a kind of Rap. When I saw him again, quite a bit later, he had become extremely good. Apparently he had practised a lot.”

Between 1985 and 1988, a number of issues of the magazine Nachtschade (Nightshade) appeared. “Nachtschade is a magazine that clearly refers to Dark Romanticism and Decadence”, wrote Wigman in the foreword. “For this reason alone, it ought to have appeared a century ago.” Under pseudonyms such as ‘G. de Bazelaire’ and ‘Arthur von Salis’ (affected names, he would admit later), Wigman filled the magazine with poems and stories. And with translations of works by his favourite authors: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé. To Wigman, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal was the apex of poetic achievement; it was the gauge of his own budding poetship. He translated Baudelaire’s poems in order to comprehend them thoroughly. “It was the best training possible for writing poems,” he wrote in literary review De Gids in 2002. “Translatio. Imitatio. Aemulatio. Even if the last of these often takes a long time.”

Wigman was attracted not only to the melancholy of Baudelaire and the other ‘doomed poets’, but also to the life of excess that they led. With the aid of drink and drugs, Wigman experimented with the deregulation of all his senses, and seemed to have a preference for femmes fatales and unrequited love. For example, there are rumours of a girlfriend who attempted to set his house on fire when their relationship ended. “He invited it, because he wanted to be a poète maudit,” says Joris van Casteren. These “careless years, up in smoke and powdered excesses …” (From ‘Een huid’ - A Skin) now seem to be behind him. As he said in an interview: “Nowadays, the whole of the Netherlands lives like those nineteenth-century decadents – extravagance has become the norm; I’ve lost interest in that.”

In the nineties, his fascination for Dark Romanticism waned. He experienced working on the prose poems of people like Huysmans and Mallarmé as a torment. (In 1998, these prose poems were published under the title Wees altijd dronken! (Always Be Drunk!) “I had become fatigued by all those spaghetti-like sentences and overstrained fantasies about insignificant sins.” That was when his own voice began to rise to the surface, when the period of aemulatio had arrived. He stepped out of the shadow of his great precursors. Baudelaire looks over his shoulder now and again. Wigman in De Gids: “Nowadays, when I finish a poem, mostly deep in the night, I often present it to Baudelaire in my imagination. It’s not that I’m hoping that it might meet his approval, that would be nonsense, but rather because it has to satisfy the criteria I learned from him.” In other words, the importance of technique in poetry. “If you want to move your reader, you’d better make sure that your sentences are made of steel.”

In the early nineties, Roel Smit started up the anarcho-punk band Human Alert. Menno Wigman joined it for a time as the drummer. He played on two CDs: the second album entitled Bravo Boys (1996) and the third, Circus Chaos (1998). Smit is currently an illustrator and comic-strip artist, and he still sings with Human Alert. He recalls how Wigman left the band in 1999 because he was too busy with poetry performances. “But he was a very good drummer with an incredible swing. His poems also run smoothly, that’s not without a reason.” Poet Frank Starik once complimented Wigman: “You write poetry with a drum set in your head.”

Wigman’s production rate is not high: he made his debut in 1997 with ’s Zomers stinken alle steden (In the Summer All Cities Stink), and his second collection Zwart als kaviaar (Black as Caviar) appeared four years later. Wigman devotes much time to his poems; he doesn’t write effortlessly. “It bothers me that it takes so agonizingly long to complete a poem,” he said in an interview. “I can become very unhappy about it ... but I don’t know any other way. Yes, with a gun against my head I’m sure I could produce eight poems at the drop of a hat, but whether I would be willing to lend my name to any of them – I don’t think so.” Annette Portegies confirms this picture of the poet engaged in a process of constant refinement: “He is circumspect. He’s not someone who writes and publishes impulsively.” Poet Pieter Boskma: “Every poet works hard, even a poet with a high rate of production. It’s simply not part of Wigman’s temperament to inundate the world with a stream of poems.”

Tom van Eck is Wigman’s current editor. He co-operated with him on his new collection Dit is mijn dag. Van Eck mentions that Wigman submits his work when it is almost perfect. “The involvement of the editor remains limited to discussing the minor details. Wigman doesn’t need any assistance in helping him to think, but appreciates it if you raise objections, so that he can demonstrate that he has already weighed up most of them.” In Van Eck’s view, the new collection is an “intensified continuation” of the previous collections. “In general you could say that Wigman is writing increasingly ‘abrasively’, more austerely, and more clearly. The last part of Dit is mijn dag, which contains poems that were written to accompany old police photos, provides the best evidence of this. Those poems are also more experimental than his earlier work. Because they represent the conclusion to the collection, you could expect this to be a portent of a new phase in his poethood. But that is pure speculation, of course.”

Critics frequently praise Wigman’s technical virtuosity. He is one of the few young poets to use classical verse forms. “If you go looking for kindred poets, you soon end up with people who are long dead. In this context, I can think of Martinus Nijhoff, who also managed to manipulate classical verse forms in his own particular way,” says Van Eck. “Wigman’s poetry seems to be classical, the stanzas have a strict layout, but he actually applies a rather free interpretation of end rhyme and classical structures. When you read his poems aloud, you have the idea that you are dealing with spoken language.” Pieter Boskma observed that Wigman began to experience fixed form as a ‘straitjacket’. “I asked Menno: Why not try something different? If you master a certain type of poem completely, you gradually lose the fun of writing it. Why not discard the strict set-up, and see what happens? Technique is important, but it shouldn’t replace the freedom of creativity.”

A recurrent element in all these accounts is the fact that the poet is extremely amiable, attentive, judicious. Ter Braak recounts an anecdote that illustrates Wigman’s courteous nature. “In the third year of secondary school, Menno raised his hand and said: ‘Sir, you have one large eye and one small one.’ He said it in such a way that I immediately burst out laughing. It demonstrated two things: that Menno was very direct in his statements, and that he had a form of perception that other people apparently didn’t have, because nobody else in the class reacted to this. The other pupils hadn’t seen the subtle difference in size. But regardless of how direct he was, he always remained extremely polite and obliging. At first I thought that his attitude involved a degree of mockery because he was so young. But that wasn’t the case. It was purely his nature.”

Originally published in poetry magazine Awater, 2005; small editorial adjustments by Thomas Möhlmann.

© Martijn Meijer (Translated by George Hall)

Source: Originally published in Awater, 2005.

• Links (Netherlands)
• Organisations (Netherlands)

Subscribe to the newsletter

follow us on facebook follow us on twitter Follow us (international)  

follow us on facebook follow us on twitter Follow us (Dutch)