A soft spot for harbours

Interview with the Frisian poet Tsjêbbe Hettinga

© Claudio Zaccherini on Shutterstock.

The ‘epic’ poetry of Tsjêbbe Hettinga is characterized by a remarkable attentiveness to light and colour. "My sensory perceptions are easily interchangeable. I have a picture and a colour with everything I hear, smell and feel."

He prefers not to discuss ‘extra-literary things’. Requests from television, radio or the newspapers looking for a human-interest story, about his near-blindness for example, are categorically rejected. But if you wish to talk about his work, the Frisian poet Tsjêbbe Hettinga turns into an extremely loquacious partner who, at his kitchen table in the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden, can passionately expand for hours on topics such as his wanderlust, a long poem about the village where he grew up, or the colour of words.

In the past ten years, it has gradually become evident to the whole of the Netherlands that Hettinga is the best Frisian-language poet of the present day, a fact that was recognized in Friesland some time ago. Hettinga (1949) made his debut in 1971, when one of his poems won a Frisian literature award. Since then, he has published numerous well-received collections of poetry in Frisian. However, it was only with a spectacular performance at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in 1993, which caught the attention of the international public, in conjunction with the bilingual collection Vreemde kusten/ Frjemde kusten (Strange Shores) published in 1995, that his reputation was established in the rest of the country. A second bilingual collection appeared recently, Platina de zee/ Fan oer see en fierder (From Overseas and Further). For the Frisian part of this collection he received the Gysbert-Japicx Award, the highest Frisian literary honour, in 2001.

It is no coincidence that one of Hettinga’s performances was the impulse for his national (and international) breakthrough. Hettinga recites his poems by heart, like an old bard. The declamation is an integral part of his work, forming ‘an extension of what is written on paper’, as Hettinga explains. His last two collections also include a CD comprising all his Frisian poems. Independently of these, ‘The Town Always Ready’, a long epic poem about the village in which he was raised, appeared on CD in 2000. A few weeks ago, a new CD was issued, Oan ’e brek in dei /Een dag aan de Brekken (A Day on the Brekken), inspired by the work of the Frisian poet and painter Gerben Rypma (1878-1963). It is as yet only available in Friesland.

Anyone hearing Hettinga recite his poetry will not easily forget the occasion. He performs in a sing-song musical Frisian in which the rhythms drive the work forward so relentlessly that it is difficult to read the Dutch or English translation at the same time: the recital absorbs the listener’s full attention. Nonetheless, Hettinga does not regard the oral element of his poetry as being dominant. "I don’t agree with Dylan Thomas’s statement that ‘the written poem is half the poem’," he says. "There’s too much opposition there. To me, the paper and the recital are complementary. My poems are not epics. They do possess epic ingredients, due to the narrative elements they contain – without them becoming narrative poems."

But the classics are also present in his poetry in other ways: the many references to Greek mythology in Platina de zee, the long stanzas, the grand, lyrical, often epic style, and Hettinga’s great themes – transience, love, death, wanderlust, and nostalgia. "I elaborate the things I’ve experienced, which are the roots of my ideas, in such a way that personal anecdotal elements are eliminated and universal human elements remain," he explains. Hettinga writes in strikingly sensory, sensual images that often refer back to nature, to the Frisian landscape and, repeatedly, to the sea. He feels akin to poets such as Dylan Thomas, Derek Walcott and Walt Whitman, all of whom he has translated into Frisian. "I am particularly fond of poets who sing, who are aware of sound and tone," he says. "But perhaps I should mention Lucebert first of all, the way he sings is unbelievable! This may not be what Dutch readers immediately observe in his poetry – that is usually his metaphorical language – but it is an inextricable part of his poetry and it forms its colour and character."

However, Dutch critics primarily compare Hettinga to Slauerhoff, Marsman, and even Baudelaire. Hettinga, laughing: "I have a soft spot for harbours, big harbours, industrial ports. Whenever I get the chance to visit a harbour, I always go and meander around there." As he stated in ‘Strange Shores’:

I rove for hours through this labyrinth of docks,
Drinking in the sailor’s pubs: under the cover
Of the night and neon, rosy women are
Sailing in the bunks of the wreck, called
The World

"Those restless Slauerhoff traits, yes, I recognize them. I began travelling when I was very young, with my father who was in the horse trade. He took me all over the country as a child. When I was around sixteen, I hitchhiked everywhere, through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, further and further. You can trace it all back to intense curiosity about what lies beyond the horizon.

"Years ago, in the seventies, I once met a blues singer, a friend, in a pub," Hettinga continues. "He had heard that I wanted to go to America. He said, ‘Why should you go to America? You can’t see a thing. So what’s the use of leaving here?’ At that time, I could see much better than I can nowadays, but my eyes were pretty bad. I answered, ‘But you don’t do everything with your eyes either, do you?’ I’ve always remembered that question. My eyes have become worse over the years but my urge to travel has not disappeared. It is not an unbearable restlessness but more of a longing to move, to look around, to experience new things. Of course it’s true that you meet yourself everywhere, no matter where you go. In that sense, travelling is a fantastic, childish magic lantern. It’s an illusion, you are pulling the wool over your own eyes, but it is a fantastic illusion, and you yourself are the person doing the pulling. The real point of travelling – meeting people who fire your imagination – that has never diminished. That has nothing to do with my eyes."

Despite his restlessness, Hettinga’s work expresses a deep devotion to Friesland, and many of his poems are solidly anchored in the Frisian landscape. ‘The Town Always Ready’, for example, a long epic poem about Burgwerd, the village where he grew up:

From the breathless mouth of Marilyn Monroe, a curvaceous
Silhouette cut out of discarded tin, tacked to
The growling front of the blue Ford Dearborn
And hotly pursued by the hired hands, as hurried
As the flow of cash and the bouncing seed in the fields of
The Noordoostpolder and New Holland (oh blood-red
Baler that swallowed summer and spat it
Out again as fall), bounding like eager young pups,
Until at last – down, Tarzan! – tractors and balers fell still,
Campfire, beer and starry night above the L.A.B. bus:
Red hotel in the middle of nowhere,
And in the light of a nomadic moon a jeep,
With the clumsily painted words BURGWERD –
Always Ready
(transl. Susan Massotty)

Hettinga: "I was asked by my own village to recite several poems for the Friesland Festival in 2000. It was a great honour and I was pleased to agree. It did turn out to be fantastic, with the brass band playing on the farm cart the whole day long – I once played with that band myself. The village had also asked me to write something especially for the occasion, and that set me thinking: what was my own relationship to the village? Prior to that, I had never evoked my youth or my memories in my work, not in such a directly personal way."

Hettinga went looking for details he remembered, a tin Marilyn Monroe on the front of the tractor, the slogan ‘Always Ready’ – they could all be recovered. A photograph of Marilyn even turned up, which now graces the CD cover. "A tiny photograph, since nobody had a camera in those days. The photographer visited the village, went to the villages festivities, and copies of the photos were displayed in the greengrocer’s window, the one the right way up, the other upside down. You could order them there." It was the fifties and sixties and America was propagated as the promised land. "And it was, too," Hettinga says. "The Americans were our liberators, they brought films and cigarettes. Another factor was that people I knew from our village emigrated there. It lân fan dream en winsken – the country of dreams and wishes – the sky was the limit!"

‘The Town Always Ready’ describes a youth’s development into adulthood, against the background of that village, in the first and third person alternately. "It is a treacherous perspective," the author concedes. The child somehow remains young, consistently recalling the ‘inner self’. This yearning for wonder and innocence, for a certain naivety, connected to the impossibility of turning back the years, is a constant factor in Hettinga’s work. "Eternity: a brat with a jampot", as he states in his poem ‘Het Wijckeler Hop’.

"Naivety is something marvellous in a person," Hettinga says with conviction. "I refer to the naivety of someone who is worldwise but still retains his or her innocence. I can feel that naivety in myself, it has to do with the child in me – the child I should stay. It is easy to become hard or bitter due to circumstances. Keeping your naivety is something you should aspire to, going against the current if necessary. It’s a question of character, you have to fight for it."

This theme touches on Hettinga’s admiration for the Frisian poet and painter Gerben Rypma, who was the subject of his lyrical poem ‘Een dag aan de Brekken’ (A Day on the Brekken). "Rypma lived pretty secluded, he went his own way," Hettinga explains. "It wasn’t appreciated by everybody. His studio hut was set on fire, some of his paintings were lost. His placing himself outside the community was not accepted. Rypma was a finely strung man, extremely intelligent, philosophical. He followed his own path and accepted the consequences. I think that deserves respect. It required a lot more courage then than it would today. But it is still the same to a certain extent, especially in the countryside. People who go their own way don’t have an easy passage."

‘Een dag aan de Brekken’ is perhaps Hettinga’s most painterly poem, with lines such as "Een hoeve weggekwast door groendruppelende bomen" (a farmstead painted out by green-dripping trees’). A remarkable attentiveness to light and colour characterizes his entire oeuvre. The striking synaesthetic imagery in his work is no coincidenc; when asked, the poet confirms that he is synaesthetic to a strong degree. When one particular sense is activated, people with synaesthesia (roughly one in 2000) experience a sensation from one or more of the other senses. ‘Colour hearing’ is the most common: one ‘sees’ colours when one hears sounds or music, or reads numbers or words. But the combination of colour with taste, smell or movement also occurs. The perceived colours remain constant down through the years.

Hettinga: "My own senses seem to be very closely connected. They have been this way since I was a boy, so that my sensory perceptions are easily interchangeable. I have a picture and a colour with everything I hear, smell and feel. This has nothing to do with good or bad eyesight, it’s in your head." (This has indeed been confirmed by research – when synaesthetes hear sounds, the visual centre in the brain is also activated.) In 2000, Hettinga wrote a lecture for the Poetry Afternoons in Antwerp as a reaction to the lecture by Jorge Louis Borges on his blindness. The title of Hettinga’s lecture was ‘A Chronic Case of Synaesthesia’, and in this he presents the following example: "when the band I play in has done its sound-check before a gig, I see the proper balance between the vocals and the various instruments in terms of intense red, golden yellow, bronze, intermittent green and blue, white that wants to become silver."

But even separate words have a specific colour to him – a fact that has clearly influenced his poetry. ‘Fierte’ (distance), for example, has a "thin blue colour"; he experiences the phrase "slim simmer" (harsh summer) from the poem ‘De blauwe havik van Wales’ (The Blue Hawk of Wales) as having a "bright silver-like colour". This latter colour is specific for this combination – it is unusual because the standard phrase is slim kâld, severe cold. "The expression has taken on a life of its own," Hettinga proudly explains. "Nowadays I hear people in my immediate surroundings using it to describe sultry summer days." And in the ‘ee’ sounds that follow the phrase "slim simmer", Hettinga perceives "a thinning and whooshing away, vanishing in light, flying off" – comparable to the ‘ie’ (pronounced as ‘ee’) in ‘fierte’.

Physically, Hettinga can still see real-life colours to a certain degree, "if I’m close by and there is a good incidence of light." In his youth he was told that there was a fifty percent chance that he would be completely blind by the time he reached thirty, due to the degenerative eye disease from which he suffers. (Later, on the phone, he emphasizes the enormous intensification of his lust for life that this knowledge entailed.) Fortunately, he belongs to the fifty per cent that retain partial sight. "Light, changes in light, that is really the most I can see. Details and colour intensity have been reduced to a minimum." ("Nonetheless," he reflects later on the phone, "poor sight is still a form of sight. It can even stimulate artistic imagination, produce original pictures that actually arise from inaccurate perception.")

Outside, in town, night has fallen, while Hettinga continues his animated discourse on the quality of light on Vlieland (one of the Dutch Wadden islands, CV) and on the Greek islands where he once lived. "On those islands, it is easy to recognize the influence of the sea on the land, in the light, in the flora, in the silt," he outlines. "The light of the sea is everywhere. In fact, Platina de zee actually begins with it, with the light, the sea light. And ends with it too: ‘een licht/ Dat een en al lokaas is voor zijn blinde passagier’ (a light/ that is nothing but bait for his blind passenger). In Greece you have variations in the intensity of light, it has something to do with the winds. It’s blue for months on end, but the atmospheric conditions change continuously, making it brighter or less bright. The clearness of the sky enormously intensifies the colours of the sea. The horizon receives its sharpness. This is something fantastic, marvellous! The more you look, the more details you see. That is something I now can’t do anymore," he says calmly. ‘But I did see it all."

First published in NRC Handelsblad, November 28, 2003.

Harbour image via Shutterstock.

© Corine Vloet (Translated by George Hall)  
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