He was belatedly gripped by poetry, but how: for Flemish poet and street musician Geert Viaene (1963), poetry has now become a condition of life. 'A chord has been struck that still can't stop vibrating.' From this late bloomer, who published on digital forum The Sifted Poem, recently published the debut collection Claim times.
Viaene understands the art of being outspoken in the inexpressible and elevating the unspeakable to power. Or, to paraphrase Spinvis: In the silence between words is a beautiful poem:
IN THE BLANK LINES
Is there something rather than nothing. Therefore
we are silent. I interrupt
not you now, mum, speak up.
Just pretend you are somewhere else
are and that you forget me, that you forget me
forgot I understand, because you think I
Still be your little boy.
You are as old as when the earth
disappeared beneath me. I knew, you will stay
not in that wooden box. Quicksilver
in your vocabulary you have in me
woven. You jacked me up. You were silent.
Teacher and pupil
In mid-February, the Claim times presented for Belgium at the Ghent Poetry Centre. Daniel Billiet, founder of the Poëziekrant and the Ghent Poetry Centre, among others, provided an introductory word. Billiet, who is also a major influence on youth poetry, is an inspiration to many; Geert Viaene also became captivated by poetry under Billiet's inspiring influence. For A Quattro Mani, the teacher interviewed his pupil.
Most poets debut at a young, or even very young age. You are what is called a late bloomer. Do you have any idea why it took you so long to start writing poetry? And what triggered you?
'Before I wrote poetry, I found pleasure in improvisational theatre. The audience sketches the character of a character, drops this character to a certain time in circumstances that everyone may or may not be familiar with, and you go with that. This creates an alienating experience that you also sometimes experience in poetry. As in poetry, it comes down to portraying this combination of factors believably. You hold up a mirror to the audience and shift the squares they indicate so that new meanings arise automatically.'
'I have difficulty memorising texts, but I did learn in this kind of theatre to respond (quickly) to associations. In fact, I was already working with language there too, albeit under a different form. The writing itself started thanks to the 366 writing assignments you put together at the initiative of Creative Writing in 2012. One of the assignments, in which you suggested smuggling a deceased person into the poem and playing a role, struck a chord for me that still can't stop vibrating.'
'Besides playing with language, poetry allows you to create a recognisable situation from which you start. Although my mother died back in 1992, she has only taken an important role in my writing since 2012. Before this, of course, she was not out of my thoughts, but I did not yet know that I could do something with this loss.'
A PHOTO SMILE
It's the middle of summer. Austria. The picture
has since yellowed somewhat. There we are
At the foot of the Großglockner. A high mountain-
top in the mist shows its white tongue on which the sun
plunges. Merciless is also the bitterly cold wind.
In shorts, we are still young, next to mum, dad.
The glacier is shrinking. The glacier slides. The glacier
lives. Under a mass of flowing ice, white oozes
blood, meanders into the plain. We want in eternal
playing snow. Mum picks up a pebble, puts it
In my hand. My brother wears big sunglasses
with gold trim in front of the camera and we pose.
November 5. A nurse puts fresh sheets
On the bed. Mum lies peacefully, fingers interlocked
woven. I return the small stone. She sleeps
with her clothes on. There we are alone.
Around her stiff lips that same cool grin.
You're up in those grey clouds now, Mum.
Your poems excellently manage to stay away from sentimental trappings and corny. Do you have a particular approach or formula for that?
'Writing takes practice. You can prepare for a challenge to write around a certain theme by experimenting. Like in a cooking competition, it often fails at first. You don't always know why it is that your sauce is not fluffy enough until you pull out a recipe that says how many spoonfuls of flour it is best to use.'
'In poetry workshops, teachers point out that it is better to avoid "big words", such as infatuation, sadness, fear. You can give this feeling a face. Actually, anything is possible, as long as you try in a clear way not to say what it is about. By this I mean that you just don't explicitly name what you mean (the 'show, don't tell principle', at first I didn't quite understand what was meant by this) but transform this state of mind into, say, an action.
You turn the slow movements of a glacier into a mountain tongue that links you to a trip you took to Austria in your youth. You can still see yourself standing there in shorts with your glittering sunglasses next to your brother and parents. By catapulting certain events to another time, you get a layering; besides, you also have the double meanings of a word that help shape the sketch. Every letter, every space and certainly also the omission of words by replacing them with words you automatically think of, help with this.'
'Again, you can shift the boxes endlessly, taking into account the smallest details. What I also learnt in writing courses I took in the meantime is that the urgency to write about something can splash off the page. There is no set formula to achieve this effect. The dessert may be sweet, but if you are preparing a mole-sweet dish, you better make sure there is also room for an acidity, a crunch and, above all, a surprising denouement that you sometimes only taste afterwards.'
Society is bracing itself. Trump, Brexit, refugee flows, wars, globalisation, rising tensions in the world... If you read the title Claim times not read but only heard, everyone thinks of some kind of doomsday scenario, the coming of a new ice age. Was it your intention, did you consciously pursue this dual content?
'The compilation of the collection was rational on the one hand; on the other, it struck me that it could not be a coincidence that certain poems ended up next to each other. The title Claim times indeed refers to the fact that the captain has long been the first to leave the sinking ship and leave the travellers to their fate. Our job is to keep dancing, singing, acting or writing about it. We are all quite capable of using all effective means to escape the rut. The lifeboat is full and the water is freezing cold, but we form a human bridge between the floating ice floe and the choppy waves.'
Gasping for air
You also do a lot with music, including in public spaces. How is the relationship between your poems and your music? Complementary, fertilising each other?
'The poems I write I always read out loud to myself. It has to sound fluent. Every now and then you have to take time to gasp for air and let the situation sink in. You write the different lines and stanzas in a poem in a certain chord. You can create a canon effect, use enjambments to emphasise words you move to the next stanza and repeat the sounds in alliterations, assonances or just by repeating them in full. I know from experience that writing a lyric and a poem are not the same, because you have a different structure in music.'
One of the main themes in the collection is the attraction, but equally the repulsion, of 'girls'. It sometimes looks like a poetic investigation into what 'girls' can all be, mean, cause... Striking here: the lyrical self is constantly talking about 'girls', not women. How do you look at that?
'The word girl has an image of innocence attached to it, a tender sound you can play with. It could just as easily be about the little boy you were yourself, you look from the eyes of a youthful person. Wonder lies at the cradle of philosophy, as well as poetry, and it is taken that you can also suggest this through words. When you talk about a bride, as a reader you immediately think of the rice, the ring, the dress, but is it really that virginal white? Like in Woody Allen's films, we hardly manage to make anything of it, we miss the ball, but we keep trying.'
AND THEN EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT
(second prize Turing poetry competition 2015)
Birds fly backwards, folding their wings in the water.
The moon wallows countercurrently and the sun too sucks out
up the horizon. Catapults strain the detached
ropes up, disappear with broken shells, hatched
eggs in the tepid mother's womb. Books rattle stories
backwards to where it starts. We imagine something there
Or what with for, don't know it so well yet. Covers are calving,
prints and word balloons slide printers in. The pencils
remain salivating in inner pockets and desires grow.
Poetry as antidote
In the face of all kinds of horrors, illness, death, rejection, disillusionment... the poet does not place an invective or cynicism, but a delightful kind of surrealism or his own kind of je m'en foutism. As in 'And then everything is different'. Is humour the dream antidote?
'For me, poetry is a drug; as with music and sports, I can no longer live without it. The lightness with which doomsday scenarios are handled makes life bearable. In 'And then everything is different', I started from a comment I read in the aforementioned writing assignments, namely that you could start the assignment after reading all the suggestions, but you can/may also colour next to the lines.'
'Maybe the wasabi suits your flan, you may suddenly have a hunch (I usually write it down immediately, even if it is in the middle of the night) by rewinding the film. The court jester sometimes comes off as odd and is not always appreciated, but the truth comes from the mouth of a fool it seems. And even if the truth does not exist, we are all looking for it, aren't we?
Claim times, published by Uitgeverij P in Leuven. On 4 March 2017 from 2pm, the collection will be brought 'closer to' the Dutch public in a performance, at the Poëziecentrum in Nijmegen.