This year, Poetry International invited Jan Lauwereyns to be a guest at the festival, not only because of the quality of his poetry, but also because he was recently awarded the 2012 VSB Poetry Prize for his collection Hemelsblauw (Sky Blue). While he was in Rotterdam, Poetry International editor Patrick Peeters asked Jan Lauwereyns a few questions.
It has sometimes been said that poetry tends towards the meaningless. With Splash you wrote an essay that strongly countered that view. How do you see the role of meaning in poetry?
The notion of poetry tending towards meaninglessness was vehemently expressed by the Dutch literary scientist J.H. de Roder in a pamphlet, more than ten years ago. With Splash I was responding not so much to that remark but more specifically to De Roder’s scientific arguments and concept of the origin of language – he argued that the development of language from the meaningless evolved into meaningful day-to-day language by way of rituals and meaningless poetry. What he is suggesting is that the origins of language lie in poetry. That evolutionary scenario, in particular, bothered me. It didn’t seem right. I exposed a number of contradictions and provided additional scientific material that challenges De Roder’s story. It all depends on how you interpret the concepts.
The concept of meaningless was quite misleading: it sounded extremely misleading. It seemed to suggest that poetry is about absurdity, that poetry is of no importance and deliberately attempts to undermine meaning. Such a view is directly opposed to my poetics. For me, meaning remains a crucial attractor, an indispensible factor that exerts gravity on poetry. Often, it’s about discovering or inventing new meanings. Poetry tests the boundaries of the comprehensible and sometimes dares to go ‘too far’, beyond the domain where we can understand meaning automatically or in any familiar way.
In that sense, it is true that poetry sometimes tends towards meaninglessness, not for the sake of absurdity but in exploring the unknown, perhaps experimenting in a non-intellectual manner – it can even be a matter of sensual pleasure, playing with sounds and so forth. But it always implies a deeper longing for meaning. “If you enjoy it, then you understand it,” Gertrude Stein once said in an interview. Here, pleasure is associated with sense and importance – it surpasses chance and chaos; it provides our experience with a kind of structure. Certainly, all those things are covered by the concept of ‘meaning’.
In the Poetry Day essay you wrote for the Flemish Literature Foundation, you analysed the Japanese character for poetry as “the taste of the sound of the heart”. Is that the role poetry plays in your life?
Not the Japanese character for poetry, but the character for ‘meaning’. In the Poetry Day essay, I offer the formula “meaning is like the taste of the sound of the heart” and I explain that this formula can best be achieved in poetry. I relate it to the concepts of ‘testing’ and ‘experimenting’ and suggest that this goes straight to the affective dimension, to our feelings, our awareness, the things that matter to us – it gives meaning; it is an intensive occupation that enriches our experience. Poetry does, indeed, have that role in my life, a role that is in some way enhanced by the interaction with science. I probably need science precisely because the issue of ‘meaning’ is so crucial for me – I seek the most complete, the richest meanings and therefore consult the truth, knowledge – science is the best and most developed (most systematic) method for gathering knowledge. But some things remain outside the scope of science and it is through my activities as a scientist that I often detect or sense a specific need for poetry.
You like to work with other people, not just Dutch-language poets such as Leo Vroman, Paul Bogaert and Arnoud van Adrichem but also Russian and Japanese colleagues. What exactly is it that appeals to you about those collaborations when, not so long ago, poetry was described as “the most individual expression of the most individual emotion”?
That statement by Willem Kloos does, perhaps, still apply, in the sense that we can enrich our own experience via poetry and therefore feel it as intensely as possible. The paradoxical thing is that that subjectivity nevertheless in some way surpasses the individual. It records itself in a text, in a poem, and that poem works like a small ‘thinking outfit’, which is able to reproduce that most individual emotion in the awareness of others. The Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky quite plainly stated that the greatest, most universal art follows that route of subjectivity. It's a question of investigating as deeply and intensively as possible: the individual as a case study. The truths discovered via that case study are perfectly relevant for other people. That shouldn't surprise us: our brains, our thinking system and our language capacities exhibit deep, structural relationships. Thanks to those relationships we can also achieve sympathy and empathy, the capacity to imagine what other people think and feel – it creates bonds with others, something that is naturally crucial for humans, who are extremely social animals.
So I don’t see it as a contradiction to seek something like a highly individual emotion in a duo poem, a poem written in collaboration with another poet. What is ultimately boils down to is making a ‘thinking outfit’ that evolves dynamically during the interaction – it is as if, while writing, we at the same time write a poem and create an author – you could also say that the poem writes itself and that co-authors act as guides, listening in turn to what the poem wants to say. That is the very aspect that appeals to me in those collaborations; it lets me to play on the paradox between the individual and shared experiences as intensively as possible. In these collaborations, we see the poems (more expressly than usual) demanding a kind of autonomy; the end product is not mine and it's not the other author's either: it belongs to the poem itself and yet I notice that I can still count it as “a most individual expression of a most individual emotion”.
The collaboration with Leo Vroman, in particular, is one of two scientists. What is it that attracts scientists to something as inexact as poetry?
I think it has to do with a longing for more, which science fails to satisfy. Science does have its systems and protocols, of course, its methods and promises where exact statements are concerned – or statements with carefully measured probability. But that doesn’t analyse the whole of reality. It’s impossible, precisely because the systems and paradigms set all kinds of requirements of the data; they decide what should count and what not; what can be measured and what can’t. It implies that there are also plenty of things that exist, that are true, but can’t (yet) be measured, can't (yet) be predicted or explained with exact models. Poetry provides a completely different route, which science can add to or even embrace and assimilate.
I can’t speak for Leo Vroman, but personally I find the interaction really exciting. I enjoy the exchange between various different points of view. I’m fascinated by the parallax – the phenomenon where you can sometimes see something from a certain perspective but not from another. Sometimes poetry functions as a pretext or as an objective for science; poetry provides the imagination and can invite science to study or test what has been imagined. The helpfulness also goes the other way, too. Science provides poetry with raw material or building blocks, a certain amount of information that can be expanded upon or coloured by the imagination.
Incidentally, I should mention that Leo Vroman and I have worked together, but not really on the same text – no pure duo poems like those I’ve written with Paul Bogaert and Arnoud van Adrichem. With Leo Vroman it was more of a poetic correspondence: I wrote a poem and Leo replied with another poem. That may well be because our attitudes and working methods are too different, in both poetry and science. Leo is, as he says himself, a fanatic writer of rhyming verse; I rhyme now and again, more generally by chance, and I often then attempt to conceal it slightly. I experiment quite a lot with various verse forms; Leo sticks reasonably strictly to classic stanzas (in recent years even more than he used to). Our similarities are more at a general level, with the double interest in poetry and science, life as an ex-pat, our philosophical and ethical views, sometimes a certain kind of black humour, too – so there is, I believe, a mutual recognition and understanding. I simply really enjoy it; I consider it a great honour to be able to correspond with him.
Where the relationship between poetry and science is concerned, I think that for Leo Vroman they are more clearly differentiated disciplines, with less direct interaction. From a scientific point of view this is, inevitably, because Leo’s specialisation (as a haematologist, a blood specialist) is fairly far removed from poetry. Sometimes he does use scientific terms or topics for his poems, but I don’t think his poems have had any influence on his scientific activities.
In my case, the two domains overlap more. As a cognitive neurologist I study subjects such as ‘attention’, ‘perception’, ‘awareness’ and ‘doubt’ – subjects that also have a major poetical slant. In literary theories, a special role is often allotted to the mechanisms of attention and perception in poetry. My experiences of poetry or my views on literary theories can, for example, sometimes have an inspiring effect on my science – for devising empirical studies or discussing new data. That integration goes quite far in my English monographies, published by The MIT Press (The Anatomy of Bias, 2010, The MIT Press; and Brain and the Gaze, in press).
The reading of ‘Addertje zonder kop’ (Adder without a Head) in Japanese was a great success with the audience at both the presentation of the Poetry Day essay and the award ceremony for the VSB Poetry Prize. The poem gained a musicality you don’t find in the Dutch language. How does a poet living abroad, whose main languages are now Japanese and English, treat his mother tongue? Is that original bond maintained or does the relationship with the mother tongue make way for another relationship?
I think there are two factors involved in the appealing sound of ‘Addertje zonder kop’ in Japanese – on one hand there are the exotic sounds that the prosody nevertheless lends an clear emotional tint (Dutch language speakers can understand the feelings without understanding the Japanese words); on the other hand I had deliberately written the poem as a performance piece (I originally wrote it in Japanese for the Tokyo Poetry Festival in 2008) – a highly natural language that I can produce rapidly, unlike much of my Dutch-language poetry, which often functions more expressly as written text and primarily comes into its own when re-read several times.
In my present living circumstances, English and Japanese are, indeed, my main languages. English is the language for my professional activities, lecturing, communicating about research, both in seminaries and papers; Japanese is the language I speak at home, particularly with my children, but also with my colleagues at the lab. For me, Japanese is primarily a spoken language; English is the intellectual language (when I’m making notes I simply do it in English; even when I’m dreaming it usually in English) and I also started writing poems and essays in English a few years ago.
But I don’t neglect my Dutch at all. Unfortunately, in Fukuoka, the Japanese town where I now live, I don't have the opportunity to speak Dutch (there are no Dutch speakers around me). But I often still do write in Dutch – e-mails to a number of correspondents, and poetry: that just keeps coming. The link with the Dutch language is changing slightly; the emotional bond remains, but Dutch sometimes starts sounding at little strange to me. I actually like that; it makes me aware of the unique characteristics of Dutch. Sometimes, it’s a purely sensual effect, too. Then I suddenly find the sounds of Dutch pronunciation really beautiful. Or even a single word, like ‘zin’ (sense). Then I enjoy pronouncing such a word a few times.
Do you still follow the poetry scene in Flanders? Who should we keep an eye out for in your detached view?
Yes, I do try to follow what's happening in Flanders and the Netherlands. I think I manage reasonably well. I correspond fairly regularly with a number of friends and like-minded souls; I contribute to two magazines (DWB and Parmentier) and I follow a few very diverse blogs (mainly Ooteoote, sfcdt and De contrabas). Apart from that, I get over to the lowlands now and again (once a year, on average). That gives me the chance to meet loads of people. As far as keeping an eye out for Flemish poets is concerned, of course there are the familiar names, who we can expect a lot more beautiful work from (Erik Spinoy, Eva Cox and Paul Bogaert, to name a few). In the way of up-and-coming talent, I’m curious to see how someone like Wouter Rogiest evolves, a poet and network engineer. He visited Kyoto in Japan last year. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to meet up while he staying was here, but it did generate a great contribution from him for a special issue on ‘De verwondering’ [Amazement] that I compiled with Heidi Thomson for DWB (DWB 2012/3, June). Someone else who is not yet known as a poet but writes great poems is the artist Bart Baele.
In the meantime, your new collection has been announced, under the title De willekeur (Arbitrariness). Could you tell us a little bit about your new poems?
Actually, it’s a collection I’ve been working on for a few years, partly parallel with Hemelsblauw (Sky Blue). Again, it’s a reasonably large collection (some 130 pages), with highly varied verse forms interwoven - short elliptical poems, prose poems, rhythmically driven verse. Theme-wise, it’s again very close to that attractor 'meaning', but this time more explicitly in the face of death and in defiance of chance (the chaos of ultimate meaninglessness). That ‘willekeur’ is such a wonderful Dutch word, which unites utmost extremes: Conscious free will as opposed to coincidence (often with a negative connotation; cruel chance, fate). The collection includes poems that spontaneously erupted in response to the tsunami in Tohoku (in north-eastern Japan) last year. And a few narrative, surrealistic poems - a bit delirious, nightmares. There's more black humour and concrete reality in it than in Hemelsblauw, but the underlying tone, the poetics and the ambitions are all going the same way.