Michele Hutchison talks to Ramsey Nasr at the end of his four-year term as Dutch Poet Laureate
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.
On stage, Ramsey Nasr is a consummate performer, off-stage a genial travelling companion. The reception in the UK was amazing, many members of the audience told me that they had been converted to the idea of reading poetry after listening to him.
On 25 January at the IFFR in Rotterdam, Ramsey Nasr launched a filming of 21 poems from the Dutch canon for educational purposes. It is now freely available on www.dichterdraagtvoor.nl or via the QR codes in the poetry collection Dichter Draagt Voor.
Ramsey Nasr’s website
Heavenly Life, trs. David Colmer, Banipal 2011
The collected poems from his laureateship plus opinion pieces, Mi have een droom, will be published in Dutch on National Poetry Day, 31st January. A CD of Ramsey reading his work is included.
Hier komt de poëzie! A 7-CD box-set. 350 Dutch poems from the Middle Ages to the Vijftigers.
Goltzius & The Pelican Family. Dir. Peter Greenaway staring Ramsey Nasr, F. Murray Abraham and Halina Reijn, due to hit screens in 2013.