It’s Monday 26th February 2007 and I’m speaking to the young poet Tsead Bruinja who has published seven poetry collections since his debut in 2000. His latest, Bang voor de bal (Afraid of the Ball) came out a month ago from his new publishing house, Cossee.
TM: Tsead, you’ve lived in Amsterdam for several years now but you were born in Friesland, the northern province where the second language of the Netherlands, Friesian, is spoken. As a poet you’re developing parallel Friesian and Dutch oeuvres. What is the relationship between these languages and these oeuvres?
TB: I debuted in Friesian and in the beginning I wrote mostly in Friesian about my past – my family, my parents, and my grandmother and grandfather. When I used Dutch it was to write about the loves of my life who came and went, and it was more about experimenting with the language – the poetry was more language-based. At this moment in my life I speak more Dutch because I live in Amsterdam and I’ve noticed when I use Friesian now I write less Friesianly.
TM: Could that imply that the Friesian part of your oeuvre might slowly dry up, or that you might become more of a Dutch language writer pur sang?
TB: Perhaps, but it’s still my ambition to write a beautiful Friesian book. Which means I’ll have to entrench myself in Friesian, read more Friesian books, and then the poems should come about naturally.
TM: Speaking of Friesian books, in 2004, together with Friesian poet Hein Jaap Hilarides, you put together an anthology of Friesian poets in Dutch translation, Droom in blauwe regenjas (Dream in a Blue Raincoat). Firstly, what was your aim in doing that, and secondly, now that three years have passed, has that been achieved?
TB: I did that because the last bilingual anthology of Friesian poetry dated back to 1994 and from the intervening ten years, together with Hein Jaap Hilarides, I was able to add some new poets. We went on a tour of the Netherlands, the book received a lot of attention, and meant that another publisher brought out four Friesian poets in bilingual editions. I do think that Friesian poetry, which did have some standing, for example through Albertina Soepboer and Tsjêbbe Hettinga, gained further standing. People aren’t surprised anymore when a Friesian poet gives a reading.
TM: As a Dutch reader, the ones I was aware of were people like Albertina Soepboer and Tsjêbbe Hettinga or a bit further back, Obe Postma. But what astonished me was that a book full of current young poets who were all writing in Friesian right now, didn’t concur with the standard image of Friesian poetry I had. For me as a Dutch reader, it meant that this book really filled a gap in the picture. I presume that that’s also something you wanted to do?
TB: Yes, there was a typical kind of poetry written in Friesian, and maybe there still is, which really differs from Dutch poetry and in which there’s more room for the surreal or the absurd. I’m referring to poets such as Cornelis van der Wal and Anne Feddema in particular.
TM: Let’s just go back to your own Friesian and Dutch oeuvres. You’ve published seven collections within eight years, three in Dutch and four in Friesian. One might suppose that there’s already some development to be seen in your oeuvre, or perhaps in your two oeuvres.
TB: I think my Friesian poetry has become narrower, more relaxed in tone, more concentrated, and I thought that this would also happen with the Dutch poetry. But the development in the Friesian poetry didn’t really take place in the Dutch, instead there was another kind of development there, a move more towards anecdotes, with more ready-mades, a poetry that stays very close to home.
TM: “Close to home” is something you said about your new Dutch collection, Bang voor de bal, much more than about the second which is called Batterij. But at the same time, as I read your new collection, the outside world is more present in the poems than it ever was before. There’s just as much taken from the outside world as from the inner, from Oprah Winfrey to Henry Kissinger to the Dog Club, they seem to be worked in with much greater ease than in Batterij.
TB: I realized when you responded that that was not quite right, because Batterij was really close to home for me, but it spoke in a more abstract manner over a certain aggressive side of my character, and that’s still there, but this collection is indeed about something else. Bang voor de bal is about whether you want to bring a child into this world, and this world is not only determined by me but also by Henry Kissinger types from the well-known Bilderberg group or the Bilderberg Conference, so in that sense I’ve let the world in more. Also by using ready-mades, simply containing chunks of what people have said.
TM: Which is how, again with Kissinger, but just as easily with Oprah Winfrey or the Dog Club, it’s about the repercussions that these kinds of ideas in the form of ready-mades or descriptions have on you as a person.
TB: Well, it’s also got to do with the fact that I was pre-occupied with names. I wanted to put a lot of names in this collection. In novels, we’re all used to proper names but in poetry it’s much less common. Usually people say ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘you’ or ‘me’ and I wanted to experiment with that. Amongst other things, there’s this song by Peter Gabriel where he uses all kinds of names – “Jane plays with Willie” and “Suki plays with John”... and then there’s suddenly a line “Adolf builds a bonfire” and you’re shocked because it’s Adolf Hitler, of course.
TM: Yes, you use a bit of text from Peter Gabriel’s names piece as an epigram in Bang voor de bal. You also use other pop motiefs, actually quite a lot of them. Have they all got the same kind of function as the epigram from Gabriel – why do you always come up with bits from pop songs when you’re thinking up epigrams?
TB: In part it’s to honour people who have inspired me, and sometimes they were there first, I’d thought of them before the collection had taken shape. At a certain point, I knew that I wanted to give most of the cycles or sections an epigram. The first section of the collection has got a bit of Marillion – “Warm wet circles” – and there’s a poem which has also got a circle in it, and then I noticed at once that a new connection existed. In the song it was about the same circle as I’d been writing about. So it can be that you find something that fits, and that it adds something or gives more depth.
TM: Peter Gabriel, Marillion – which other groups lent epigrams to the collection?
TB: For example, Paul Simon and Dire Straits, who most people know. In ‘The Walk of Life’ they sing something like: “He do the song about the sweet lovin’ woman, he do the song about the knife,’ so a woman and a knife. As an extension of Batterij, I find that really pointed (excuse the pun). It added some depth. I think it’s funny that most people think, “Dire Straits? That’s hackneyed,” but I really don’t care.
TM: Well, that’s clear. But they are all obviously the groups and the songs that we, as people in our early thirties, grew up with, it’s typical 80’s stuff.
TB: That song by Paul Simon is from last year, and the other song by Marillion I use is from two years ago.
TM: Always nice to hear that people from that period are still writing quotable songs. Another thing, you’ve got your own website – www.tseadbruinja.nl, and there’s an enormous amount of work on it, a lot of material to give people an impression of your work, but what’s extraordinary is that you can browse in thirteen different languages. Aside from that, for a young poet, quite a lot of your work has been published abroad, and you get in touch with poetry translators from Dutch yourself. To be read in a language other than Dutch, the search for other countries and worlds outside of the Netherlands, are things that are obviously important to you. Why do you think it’s of such great value?
TB: I think as a poet you’re in search of readers, so I set out to get as many readers as possible, equally in the Netherlands where I do my own PR, and abroad where there are simply more readers. You also hope for other kinds of reactions, that people might react with, “oh that makes me think of this or this poetry” and this might lead you to meet other inspiring poets or listen to them. That’s why I’m more than happy to do readings abroad, even though I’m not much of a traveller, but I do enjoy it and it’s part of what you hope for when you get taken up in those publications. It’s wonderful to hear your poems in another language, for example I was recently translated into Indonesian which is such a different language.
TM: But primarily it’s about reaching out to a readership of more than just the 22 million Dutch speakers, and then to meet other people there?
TB: Yes, my site is in many languages and I see it as a kind of meeting places for readers and the poet. A lot of people say that English is really sufficient, but English is a second language for a lot of people so if I can, for example, get the same poem translated into English and French or Spanish and even Kurdish as well, then I find that nicer. Perhaps also because I’ve grown up in a minority language myself.
TM: Which brings us back to minority languages again, perhaps this is an unanswerable question, but do you see yourself as a poet in a mostly Friesian context, in a Dutch context, in a European context or in a broader international context?
TB: Of course, as a Dutch poet, you primarily work and function in a Dutch context, and in my case in a Friesian context at the same time. And beyond that? Who knows what I am. I’m on a few international sites and in a few magazines. As a person I see myself as a European, yes I think it’s mainly as a European... . But I don’t feel I’m a European poet, basically because I’m very influenced by American poets and English bands.
TM: The question about context is naturally two-sided, it's about how you're perceived on the one hand and who influences you on the other. Could you name a few foreign poets that inspired or influenced you?
TB: In terms of foreign poets there’s a lot of Americans – Whitman, Ginsberg, Ashbury. Ann Carson from Canada, and Neruda before, Drummond de Andrade ... and a couple of Iraki poets I’ve worked with – Al Galidi and Mowaffk Al Sawad – all of these have changed both my view of the world as well as my view of poetry.
TM: Those last two changed your view of the world and of poetry because you got to know them personally too. Do you think that still would have happened if you had only known their work?
TB: For Mowaffk Al Sawad I don’t think so, because we translated together a book of letters he wrote during his time in prison in Saudi Arabia, and his view of the world and particularly American politics has affected me more strongly than it would have done if I’d only read him.
TM: Tsead, I want to thank you for answering these general questions and I won’t keep you away from your writing for any longer.
TB: Thank you, I’ll go off and get writing straight away then.
Audio file of the interview in Dutch
Interview with Tsead Bruinja (dutch / 16 min)