I Made a Radical Choice for Poetry

An Interview with Charlotte Van den Broeck

/ by Jooris Van Hulle

From the Frankfurt Book Fair to the Antwerp Boekenbeurs, from stage performances to the publication of a debut collection, Kameleon (Chameleon) in 2015, the Saint-Amour tour in that same year, the award of the Herman de Coninck Prize for Kameleon in 2016, and now, in early 2017, the new collection, Nachtroer (name taken from a night-time shop): Things are happening quickly for poetess Charlotte Van den Broeck.

Jooris Van Hulle: Perhaps even a bit too quickly for someone who often feels insecurity raising its head?

Charlotte Van den Broeck: Everything has indeed happened very quickly. I have been very lucky: Kameleon was just out, I was allowed to go along on that tour, so I had a lot of visibility and, as a result, there were also reviews. That’s how I tried to explain all of this, but since the Nachtroer collection is done, and Frankfurt is behind us, what I have come to realize, above all, is that I have also been working very hard for two years. I made a radical choice for poetry. You see, I wanted that speed, too.

JVH: Poetry still requires languor, which is diametrically opposed to the speed you are now talking about...

CvdB: For me, poetry is certainly a slowing down and a standing still, both in writing it and in reading it. I could also have chosen to start a full-time course, instead of standing on a stage yet again, four times a week. This is what I mean by wanting speed and making a radical choice for my poetry.

JVH: Poetry, on stage and in the form of a collection: Can one speak in terms of mutual influence?

CvdB: I do think that it is a dialectic relationship, and that the two forms maintain each other. With Kameleon, it was the case that, before the collection, there were already a couple of poems that I only presented on stage. And again, when writing the collection, I started from the premise that I also wanted an audience for the poems. When writing Nachtroer, that audience was already less to hand.

JVH: With Nachtroer, I had the feeling, more than once, that some of the widely-expanding poems were really written for the stage...

CvdB: I would not immediately associate the stage with the length of the poems. It’s all positioned somewhere between cycle and poem. Some are quite clearly a series, others create the illusion of being one long whole. I wanted to play with that on paper. What was important for me, in Nachtroer, was to find a kind of thrust in the language, and to work out how far the breath could last before the tension was dissipated. Whether that also works on stage, maybe, but the linguistic and philosophical impact of the poems is another layer...

JVH: In the opening cycle of Nachtroer, one can read: “It betrays me on the stage / everyone looks, I still say ‘dearest’ and ‘refusal’ / and ‘forgive me,’ but the applause is endless / afterwards I am not attached.”

CvdB: I notice that, as a poet, one is quickly confused with the lyric “I.” Here and there, in Nachtroer, that is unavoidable, but in Kameleon its effect still seemed strange sometimes. For example, I do not have a grandfather who went to the whores in Romania. And yet I was called to account about that. Now, when I’m on stage, I strive for a kind of immediacy which causes the boundary between the lyric I and the I conversing with the audience at that moment to virtually disappear. That is sometimes very fragile, certainly in the series from which you quoted. Above all, because we are dealing with something personal here. I can imagine that I betray myself, when I bring that to the stage.

JVH: In your speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair, you mentioned, among other things, “my teachers who chat in my work.” You hear the voices of your grandparents, your parents, your brother...

CvdB: A person consists of stories, I think, or a person constructs himself out of stories; out of experiences and feelings, he creates a narrative to give meaning to a number of things. After all, you are not detached from your context or the texts that influence you.

JVH: From Kameleon and Nachtroer, it seems that for you, poetry is an exercise in equilibrium between “knowing” and “understanding,” on the one hand, and letting emotions play along, on the other hand. For example, you write in “Aquarium” from Nachtroer: “Have not travelled far enough / to reason what is past into a phenomenon.”

CvdB: That tension also defines me as a human being. With shape, meter and musicality, poetry basically hands you a kind of straitjacket, into which everything is supposed to fit, but emotion, for me, works destructively in some sense, somehow or other making that straitjacket intolerable. I have a very strong compulsion for rationality, for ordering and understanding, but on the other hand, I would not be able to live that way. I put that rationality first, but I also constantly destroy it. A poem is only good for me if it compels an emotion. The verse that you quote is about the failing co-operation between mind and body, which is given the floor in Nachtroer. What was more central in Kameleon was the relationship with other bodies, which sometimes did not succeed.

JVH: Hence the main motif in Nachtroer: The tension between standing still and moving, which is made concrete, inter alia, with the word “shearing stress,” which ought to give people a “comprehensible physics.”

CvdB: That’s how it is, yes! The word appears in the poem “Drift,” a key poem in the collection, which often refers to the longing for movement, for space, distance, for something megalomaniacal, even, and at the same time you are constantly drawn back to a starting point. That contradiction, the collisions, that’s where the shearing stress is: Two things touch each other, even if it is only just, and inevitably influence each other, even though it is not discernible to the eye. The idea behind that image returns often in the collection.

JVH: As against the regularities of physics, there is the poem “Gilles,” in Kameleon, which refers to the painting by Watteau, in which sentiment is far from avoided.

CvdB: It is one of the reasons why I began writing poetry. It shows how I feel as a poet: A kind of wistful humor is expressed.

JVH: And then there’s the picture of the chameleon...

CvdB: The chameleon can adapt to its surroundings, for example, in order to seek cover, but equally a color can come over the chameleon: If he’s agitated, that will also be visible on the outside. So the construction, but also the idea that you can be a victim of it.

JVH: Kameleon ends with a series around the mother figure (“I grew up with salt rings in my clothes”), still followed by the poem “Fernweh” (“Wanderlust”).

CvdB: Yearning for the distance, breaking away from security, is clearly intended in the collection as the end of the cycle. It’s the last resort. The poem has its inspiration from De atlas van afgelegen eilanden (The Atlas of Remote Islands) by Judith Schalansky. There she describes one island where the number of inhabitants must always be kept in balance, because otherwise not enough food can be produced on the island: If, at a certain moment, there are too many children and there is a danger of shortages, they will put them out on the open sea. That is the opposite of a stifling mother, who always wants to keep her child at her side. With the image of the canoe that is being launched, I also had certain funeral rituals in mind, such as those, for example, found among the Vikings. In Nachtroer, the image of the boat returns in the final poem, but then as a deus ex machina for the whole collection: “The boat should be ready / where to?” So the question remains open, just briefly, maybe even as the incentive to a further collection.

JVH: So it’s about freeing yourself up, prying yourself free from certain structures within education, social functioning?

CvdB: You’re talking about “prying free.” I myself call it “uprooting,” not necessarily geographically, but rather focused on the affect. Structures cause me to become obstinate, but so does laxity. And what is the best option, then? As a writer, you’re sitting between them both. You are in a structure, too, but also in total freedom. In my education, of course, I’m also in a structure; in a relationship, you’re in a structure... Sometimes it can be all-consuming, but it can equally be soothing.

JVH: Nachtroer is the title of a poem that you wrote for Remco Campert, but also the title of the collection itself.

CvdB: Nachtroer is the name of a night-time shop at the Sint-Annatunnel, here in the Antwerp quays. I think it’s a beautiful word, a bit pathetic, but it leaves room for possible interpretations, because it’s just not an existing word. And then Campert: By reading him, I learned a lot from him, especially because of the way he is able to combine self-examination with an outward gaze. And how, throughout his life, he always manages to keep the lightness and to create the mental and physical space for that. I, too, want to continue writing poems throughout my life, to have time for it and to buy time to have time for it.

JVH: “In among the snakes of light there shines a comforting purchasing power / a Pakistani on hand all night long / ferryman at the gate for one more hour.” Here, too, at the beginning of the poem “Algemene voeding…” (“General foods...”) again the concrete interpretation?

CvdB: Except that, in the day-to-day reality, it isn’t a Pakistani, but a Bengali.

JVH: This poem follows immediately after “Lethe,” in which the allusion to the mythological figure, Charon, who carries the deceased over the river to the underworld, is already being prepared.

CvdB: Water and the nautical play a role throughout the collection. And indeed, the poem about the night-time shop connects almost tangibly to the “Lethe” poem. Anyone who drinks from the Lethe frolics through eternal life, but does have to forego his memories for that. Now, the proprietor of the night-time shop in this case is the “ferryman” who helps you the whole night through, for example, by continuing to sell you beer and so keeping you going. I have deliberately composed the collection – I hope not over composed it – in such a way that the poems lean against each other. So, in the final part of the collection, the commonplace poem, “Topos,” leads to the following more concrete interpretation, “Daar” (“There”). In that series, in search of a place to come home to, the I approaches a personal genealogy.

JVH: Nachtroer is the collection of the night, especially if you put the motif opposite to that of the light. It is no coincidence that one of the mottos that precedes the collection is: “Where will the sun be when the sky is black?”

CvdB: The night, and what follows it: “You will have all night to ponder about that,” for a logical natural phenomenon, but still while fretting, wishing to seek an instinctive solution, not managing to reason the emotion away. The motto comes from a song by Daniel Norgren, which makes a very naive impression, and with that I would like to possibly make a kind of faint bridge to Kameleon, where the (ostensible) naivety was emphatically at the forefront.

JVH: A number of the poems from Nachtroer are based directly on a fourteen-day stay as writer-in-residence in Paris. What was this like for you?

CvdB: In January 2015, Kameleon appeared; in July of that year, I went to Paris. In the six intervening months, I had not written anything; I was busy doing performances and running around. With the task of writing something about or on the occasion of my stay in Paris, the first poems came, and I had the taste of it back again. It was also the first time I ever travelled all by myself. And there I learned a lot about “wandering,” literally wandering through a city, but also wandering in yourself.

JVH: That process is emphatically on offer in the poem “Dorst” (“Thirst”).

CvdB: Indeed, “walking, all the time walking, foolishly out of the flock / walking yourself to smithereens against the glaring desire of the distance,” as the poem begins. The image has to do with the prying free we were talking about. I derived it from a film by Werner Herzog about penguins that display a deviant behavior and turn away from the water, attracted by the distance, to trek inland and so to meet a certain death. That is the romance, of course: The almost kitschy wish to dissolve into something bigger.

JVH: The collection opens with the cycle “Acht” (“Eight”), which describes a broken relationship. What the I may take away in the distribution of the household effects is, among other things, “the poetry, which just now stands stubbornly silent.”

CvdB: The poetry doesn’t work, and is also somewhat the debtor, in this case. The cycle is the most autobiographical of the collection. I lived together for eight years with the love of my youth. I wrote twelve lines eight times for each year that we were together.

JVH: The cycle is constructed as retrograde, beginning with the split-up, to refer in the final poem to the tender beginning of the relationship.

CvdB: I think it a logical progression that, whenever you’re at the end of something and deeply unhappy, you are so seized by the force of that emotion that you can no longer imagine what it was like when you were happy. My starting point was: Now there is the break-up, but before that, it must have been this way or that way. It’s a quest for the happiness that’s gone, asking if you can still get to it, or if it hasn’t been too distorted along the way.

JVH: The “eight” in the title of the cycle is followed by the lemniscate, symbol of infinity.

CvdB: It is also infinite for me, your first love is infinite.

JVH: And from the backlighting, then: Often you leave the verses of the collection unfinished, you break them off deliberately.

CvdB: There the faltering rhythm has something to do with wanting to try to say something and then falling into the abyss of the ellipsis, of not getting it said.

JVH: Or, as it says in “Blauw” (“Blue”): “The throat is covered with bark / and the voice grates itself a path upwards.”

CvdB: Yes, in this poem, the theme coincides very closely with the form, because there are many break-ups in it. If you bottle something up, then it can only ultimately come up in a rough way, in my imagination here, it also physically impairs your voice which turns into a weed.

JVH: Hence also the “Wrijfklank” (“Rubbing Sound”), as one of the poems is called?

CvdB: The jolting, grating speaking, indeed.

Jooris Van Hulle

studied classical philologhy and works as a teacher and reviewer for Flemish newspapers.