This transatlantic interview series, “The Slow Boat,” provides a setting for poets to engage in occasional conversation over the course of two months. It strives to be an invitation to further inquiry into the methods and complexities of a particular composition. The aim is not to be conclusive, but, in tandem, to further explore what it is to make a poem.
Johan de Wit is a poet whose project is to create an absolute poetry of unalloyed language, acting as a rigorous detoxifier to the language centers of the brain. He is a truly avant-garde figure, a genuine explorer of language continents others don’t even know about. He has been published since the 1980s, with a large number of books and pamphlets to his name.
Our correspondence took place from late 2012 into early 2013.
Jim Goar: When I read Gero Nimo, I hear a multitude of voices vying to complete a shared sentence through a shared mouth. There are no lines at random, but in trying to talk about this book, I’d like to start with a sentence from the first piece:
The idea that time is an absent landlord more interested in lining his bed linen than pampering his bank manager is as absurd as sending your name ahead when preparing to meet your maker.
Time as an absent landlord is a “poetic” metaphor attacked by the sentence that surrounds it. While this image is static, that which follows makes apparent the passing of time. The eye cannot hold and needs to move through alliteration, assonance and haunted images. There are shadows behind the phrases. For example, what do we do with “more interested in lining his bed linen” besides roll around in it as the spectre of money in the mattress hovers nearby? And further, the hierarchy of authority from landlord (notice the “land,” the “lord”) to the bank manager and finally to “meet your maker” moves into and through some debris of eternal truth. Now to a question: Could you talk about your sentences in Gero Nimo?
Johan de Wit: Yeah, how do I write my sentences? It’s not so much that one image or metaphor (however mixed) leads to another one: My mind goes from phrase to phrase.
I sit at my desk. On my left, books or magazines in case I get stuck, right in front of me the window, a patio lined with shrubs, trees, the usual suburban vegetation.
I’ve got the title. I begin to write. I keep the title in the back of my mind. I follow the words my mind suggests, trying to keep pace, the moment my mind stops giving me words I open a book at random and the first word or phrase that appeals to me, meaning, that makes me stop reading, because I have to think, I use either directly or via substitutions to make it fit into the sentence if the sentence is incomplete or I begin a new sentence with these borrowed phrases. That’s one way, roughly.
I listen to the rhythm—reading a finished or unfinished sentence out loud—if it jars (to my ears, maybe to my mind would be a better way of putting it) I keep repeating the phrases, sometimes aloud, sometimes silently, until I hear my mind suggesting the next one or a better sounding phrase. Sometimes I have to read several sentences from someone else before my mind starts working again.
Also, I frequently go back over what I’ve written, before I finish a “chapter,” because something in the back of my mind makes me jump, reminds me that several sentences earlier I should have used a different word, tense, register or what have you.
I like sentences that seem to run away with my thoughts; I try to catch them while they’re still in my mind. Revising is more like tinkering with the language than anything else. It’s true I like to tinker with the written page.
JG: Your titles are always in the back of my mind too. They function, it seems, in much the same way that your sentences do. The separation of a word puts focus on the space between. The borders create an echo chamber deep inside the word. And, when I read, I ask your sentences to fill that space and rattle around in it. “Yoko Hama” behaves in a way that “Gero Nimo” can’t. One title can’t substitute for another:
Once facts beep they sell. But since Yoko Hama’s face has changed the ground rules the missionary position is occupied by sunshine and great achievers.
There is sex in the exotic. There are missionaries in Japan. It is as though you are defining the title by the text which flows from it. So, if the title comes first, how and why that title? Is it an interest in that name’s hidden history, or is it something else?
JdW: Yes, the titles came first, all of them, although one or two I have changed after I had written the text. Occasionally I like to change my mind.
I wanted titles, names really, that resemble only one aspect of my own name. My name, Johan de Wit, has four syllables, two open and two closed. Let’s say, the open syllables stand for my public persona, me as a poet I mean, and the closed syllables for me as a private person. All names have histories, but those histories are not necessarily those of the bearer of that name. Names exclusively with open syllables have, through their look and sound, a beauty all of their own making. So, I went looking in my dictionary for geographical names, and later for any name that took my fancy, with four open syllables, which, if necessary, I could, correctly or not, split into two words. Britain’s history or geography provides hardly any. “Magna Carta” has two of what I call pseudo open syllables, the post-vocalic “r” is not sounded and I took the liberty to treat the “g” like the “n” in “Casa Blanca” as part of the vowel. Apart from that, I have always liked the sound of the words “Magna Carta.”
Having a name as a title means I can use the title as the name of the character in the text. I am a poet, not a story writer, so the story has to provide its own narrative so to speak. Title and sentence are close to an ideal pair to make that happen. Each “chapter” or “story” or “text” has only one proper character, so I could focus through the name on the text to be written. These names acted like an association generator; if you forget that Yokohama is “a port in central Japan” (according to my Collins dictionary) you can still get excited about the sound of the name, the beauty and economy of only two vowels for four syllables. Free association or letting your mind wonder and wander does the rest.
JG: As your titles are very much on my mind, I hope you’ll permit another “title” question. With Gero Nimo, maybe because its titles are broken words, I want to re-connect with something still ringing, but no longer present, in the sentence. I hold the hope of a reading bringing something back into existence; a reunification. However, I feel very differently about Up To You Munro. When I read a piece from that book, I don’t feel that anything has been lost. I do not want to bring anything back into existence; I’d instead like to create, with these pieces, only from the present interaction. And, maybe, the titles help with this. I read these titles as instruction. If I read “Gold,” I see the piece in that hue. If “relax,” I do. This continues forward even when the titles bookend the pieces. I read first with the top title in mind and then a second time with both.
You mentioned that a name in Gero Nimo acted like an association generator. Are the titles in Up To You Munro association generators? Do they give direction? In short, what part do they play in your composition?
JdW: Beginning a story, a text, a poem with a title means the title is literally the point of departure, but its main function, in my practice, is to solve the problem of how to start. My mind is not always in a cooperative mood: I want to write but my mind says there are other, usually more down-to-earth, activities to do first. The title is then an expression of already having made a start, and makes it possible to press on regardless. Even if a title could be called a crystal ball of some sort it is much more a referring expression: the title breaks the silence of the white page. Having done that you can write or read in earnest; you may hold your breath, but the text has to be written/read in conjunction with the title.
There are of course different and other ways of starting: you just take the white page and begin to write, to get on with it, but as you probably know yourself that is easier said than done. After x-number of years you get into a routine and when that happens you have to find variations on this routine, otherwise you get stuck—at least that’s how I feel about it.
So, in Gero Nimo each “chapter” can be captured by the title; the title of the book indicates that too: it is a kind of generic title. Having grasped the nature of the title Gero Nimo, you know more or less what to expect but still have to be persuaded by reading the text or (in my case) by writing it. Through the Gero Nimo titles I show the reader this is, from my point of view, a book, not an anthology of experimental narrative prose. Generating the titles according to their own logic should persuade my mind to write the text according to a consistent logic. So the titles also function as a margin, a boundary, a constraint and a restraint.
The titles in Up To You Munro are not at all like that. They are truly the first and/or the last word of the poem. Putting the titles in lower case brings a political dimension (in the meaning of the politics of poetry) to the book in question. I do follow the convention in these two books, Gero Nimo and Up To You Munro, of having a white line between title and “text.” In Gero Nimo this gesture has meaning in relation to writing and reading, time to pause, reflect, take a deep breath. But in Up To You Munro, this is not the case. I was so eager to get these words on the page—they had been swirling around in my mind while walking home—that I hadn’t thought of a title. When I wrote the first poem down I instantly realized that there were nine words. I thought this is too neat, too regular. The most practical solution was to separate the last word from the others and, hey presto, a title was born. I also realized this poem was far too short, so I hit on what I thought was a lucky idea: to add one additional line to each subsequent poem until I reached 30 lines (in Scotland any mountain peak over 3000 feet high is a Munro).
Up To You Munro is in three sections: the ascent, the range, and the descent. Although I am not a mountaineer, I have done some hill walking, not much, never in Scotland. Because of the sense of the name Munro, I told myself I may talk about ascent and descent. The titles at the bottom of the poem indicate, to me, that writing is an achievement of some sort and why not mark it (after the achievement) with a word in bold, a word that is part of that achievement, but also stands apart from its body. In the middle section I had no choice but to enclose the poem in a title: the bottom title is the delayed half of the top title in the way that pensions are delayed earnings.
JG: I think you are helping me to get closer, and I realize that what follows is an oversimplification, but maybe it is a place from which you could further help me to see. Gero Nimo’s titles are central to the composition of the chapter, whereas Up To You Munro’s titles are part of the poem. Yet, where Gero Nimo is a writing from this title in its occurrence, Up To You Munro is an act of memory—the words were in your head on your walk and then you put them down on the paper. Yet, in both instances, there is a sense that the words were waiting, with Gero Nimo from the title’s memory and Up To You Munro from your memory. However, the origin of the material is different. Gero Nimo is primarily of “textual” (inside/sitting/books/ window, etc.) origin and Up To You Munro primarily “physical” (walking/outside, etc.).
I do not intend this to be reductive, but I know that if it is not, it is still awfully close. Could you help me to clarify/further this, or maybe leave it altogether and show a different framework?
JdW: Nothing wrong with simplifications or oversimplifications. Before anything else, Gero Nimo is prose and Up To You Munro is poetry. That difference is in my opinion crucial, not the titles or the different starting points. In a way the chapters and titles in Gero Nimo are one. The text is an unwinding, unravelling of the title, an exploration of what the title does to the mind (and therefore to language) when you want to write. I may have given the wrong impression, but Up To You Munro is also written at my desk in spite of some poems already being prepared on the way home. Gero Nimo’s titles form, encapsulate the body of a work in prose called Gero Nimo; Up To You Munro’s titles are part and parcel of a book-length poem that could only be called Up To You Munro.
Gero Nimo’s chapters are all parcelled out in five paragraphs. The paragraph goes one up on the structure of the title, four syllables. In British education a 16-year old is repeatedly told: a story has to have five paragraphs, introduction and conclusion both short; the middle paragraph, that’s the center, the core of the story. Gero Nimo is not a mockery or a parody of that advice when it makes the sentence the core of a narrative, but shows what you can do with educational instructions or guidelines. I am not an educator. I do not have to write textbook examples. But what ties my poetic practice to education is reading, nothing else. How you or any potential reader reads my work is not on my mind when I write, but how I read is, very much so! Reading my own work (while writing I mean) involves not only a mental check of its literary neighbors or forebears, but also a kind of scanning of my participation in the social and cultural life of what the language suggests, while at the same time following a version of my psychological reality.
When I start a new work that’s usually the result of a sudden change in mood; I try to capture its energy by channelling its language into the new work. Moods need words! That means the next day or at the next writing session I must reconnect with the sensibilities of that mood and its language in order not only to continue but, much more importantly, to hold on to that mood, because that mood seems to generate its own poetic possibilities. Day after day, chapter after chapter, poem after poem, I’ll have to hang on to a mood that initially was real but must be lodged in my mind as soon as possible so that it can, through the act of writing, be exhausted before it disappears. That’s the challenge I face as a poet.