When Ester Naomi Perquin was walking through Utrecht once, she saw a man waving. She waved back. The waving man on the scooter came closer. As the two looked at each other in surprise, Perquin saw that the man was missing an arm and that the sleeve was empty. “So the arm he had waved with was not there at all. As he drove over a threshold, that sleeve was thrown into the air. Both sides hadn’t intended to wave, but a wave had been exchanged. That is a poem that happens, that is exactly what poetry is, but written down”, says Perquin in A possible start to many. 29 poets at work.
In this book, photographer Bianca Sistermans and interviewer Hester van Hasselt are looking for the writing process of poetry. Between 2013 and 2021 they visited, among others, Remco Campert, Mustafa Stitou, Lieke Marsman, Antjie Krog, Radna Fabias, K. Schippers, Alfred Schaffer, Vrouwkje Tuinman and Joost Oomen. Although some interviews have been overtaken by time, the common thread is an interesting one: can you express the origin of poetry in words or images? You can of course have conversations about quests for inspiration, but can you also portray them? Yes, as shown by Sistermans’ photos. You can see the search in most of the writer’s portraits. This is even clearest with the South African poet Antjie Krog: two hands are in fact holding nothing, and yet you can see that she is taking air. With Fabias it’s waiting on the couch together with your ashtray and with Perquin it’s watching when a cup falls off her pregnant belly.
Clarification is of course easier in text. Van Hasselt sometimes asks very basic questions. Does a poem arise in words or images? Do you have a set time when you write? That often works well: if you want to find out something, you have to start with the basics.
K. Schippers (1936-2021), still city poet of Amsterdam at the time of the interview, shows the desk on which his notes are arranged. “Each note is actually a possible beginning of many,” he says, reading aloud comments such as “people look different since the news is renewed” or “man finds sheet music from his youth.”
When Sistermans asks whether Amsterdam has influenced his work, Schippers replies: “I never thought about it that way. I was not anywhere else.” I wasn’t anywhere else—in this book, next to Perquin’s empty sleeve, that’s perhaps the best observation of how poetry is created.
without now on spoiler alerts want to do: no one can explain exactly how poetry is created. “It is a secretive profession, it is very difficult to make definitive statements about it,” says Remco Campert. Menno Wigman summarizes: “Poetry is a slippery thing”. And Maarten van der Graaff notes: “Poetry is not an expression of your unique individuality. It is something that passes you.”
If there is a poetry secret, it is the openness to passing, and the gift of questioning it. In a search for rhythm, RadnaFabias asked what happens when you play the sound of dominoes after a conversation? “What does that evoke?”
The search for rhythm and words, Jan Hanlo – who appears several times in this collection – was also able to manage well. For example, he wondered what a cubic meter of air in deer’s antlers is called. And Joost Oomen in turn wants to know why a beautifully painted window frame can make you happy. Some think you’re crazy, others see poetry in it. The latter is of course correct: for the same money, while you are enjoying that window frame, someone on the scooter comes around the corner and waves at you with an empty sleeve.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 26, 2021