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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Jaap Blonk on Sound Poetry and how it can change the world

Bibi Slippers - 2011-10-26

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Hello Jaap, and thank you for your willingness to answer a few questions.  Firstly, I was fascinated by your performance in Cape Town, and I've never seen anything quite like it.  Can you give our readers a little bit of background about Sound Poetry and tell us how you got involved in this sub-genre?

Answering this question would amount to writing an article, which I cannot do in this short time-span. I will give you a few short statements and then some links to interviews that go into this in more depth.

The history of Sound Poetry as an art form goes back about 100 years (Futurism, Dadaism, Constructivism).

A nice thing about Sound Poetry is that it can stimulate the imagination of each individual listener in a different way, as they are freed from the “dictatorship” of the words.

As I entered this “no man's land” between music and poetry about 30 years ago, I felt very much at home there. I became aware of an enormous freedom to create, not hampered by any given rules.

I read in the Poetry Africa programme that you are currently researching the possibilities of algorithmic composition in the creation of music, visual animation and poetry. Can you tell us more about this interest and what it has led to thus far?

I quit my mathematics study in 1977. About 25 years later I started to feel a desire to get back to it, especially because of the fascinating new areas that had been discovered thanks to the computer: chaos theory, fractals, artificial neural networks, genetic algorithms etc, which can also be used to generate art.

In 2006 I had the chance to take a sabbatical year – a year off of performing – and found time to learn computer programming languages (C++, Java and a bit of a few others). This opened up new ways of generating music, text, visual animations and images.

The "Mindscapes" are computer-generated images.

"Windslides", "Glopvoets" and "Puhkterg" are recent algorithmic compositions. The last one also has a computer-generated text.

More algorithmic music: "Due Course", "daysyways" and "Lifespans".

Visual animations made from short video footage: "Ponder nothing", "Icecuboscopy" and some more.

Made from photos: "Isfjorden" and "Isfjorden 2", "Viceregal Impressions".

More work is to be found on SoundCloud, Vimeo and YouTube.

Is this your first trip to Africa?  What has your experience been of South Africa and the Poetry Africa Tour to Malawi and Zimbabwe? 

It is my second time in South Africa, I went to Poetry Africa in 2003. On the tour this time I have not been to Malawi. At the reading in Harare the circumstances were not so good for me: there was a lot of loud background noise, and that affects a sound poetry performance more than a verbal one. Still, there were quite a few people who told me afterwards that they had enjoyed my reading; for most people it may have been totally new, so I think I can have opened up new roads and ways of thinking about poetry for some of them.

In Cape Town the situation was more favourable. I was able to perform with much more subtlety and it was well received.

Also, this week in the schools I visited, and at UNISA, I found an open and willing audience. Still, I think for some time poetry with a clear political message will prevail over here.

In general, it's clear that most people in the audiences here, like yourself, have never been exposed to anything like this. In the beginning of a performance there's often general uneasiness, but later on people feel more free in their reactions – that's how I perceive it.

Until recently you have been very lucky in the Netherlands in terms of the government's financial support of the arts. This seems to be changing rapidly, putting the arts community under quite a lot of pressure. Has this changed the face of the spoken word and poetry scene in your country? What does the future look like for poets, especially those working in less traditional forms, like you?

I must say, I don't know much about the financial situation of poets in the Netherlands. In general, poets (everywhere, I think) don't depend so much on their readings for their income. They usually have a regular job and/or get grants for writing from the Dutch Literary Fund. 

I make a living almost exclusively from my performances. And I have very little opportunity to perform in Holland. For more than a decade already the cultural climate in the country has got ever more inimical towards all experimental or “difficult” art. Until the late '90s I had regular radio appearances, but they have stopped altogether. So have reviews of my CDs in national newspapers.

Poetry, contemporary and improvised music and contemporary art have been virtually banned by the media. Which is how it has always been in the USA: the Dutch government, like that of Britain, is now following America as a model, so the market is the only thing that counts.

The new measures that have been announced recently will take effect in 2013, and will no doubt lead to an even bleaker future. So far writing grants have not been touched, but now they will be seriously reduced, and many writers and composers will have to look for other means to support themselves.

Many poets seem to believe that poetry can change the world. Are you one of them? I am sympathetic toward this sentiment, but interested in the mechanics of it all. How does it work? How can a poem make a difference? And if not, why is poetry important? Why bother making really cool sounds and amazing facial expressions?

In general one can change the world only by changing individual minds. And I believe that's a thing poetry can certainly do. 

There is not one mechanism, there is not one specific effect, of course. Each poem can leave a different mark with each different person.

Speaking for myself, I don't see much difference between the influences on me of poetry and, for instance, novels or philosophy. To mention a few names: the poetry of Wallace Stevens and Paul Celan was as important to me as Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus or the philosophy of Ernst Bloch, the late work of Wittgenstein. At the moment I read a lot of David Foster Wallace.

About the facial expressions: I don't make them for their own sake, they only happen in so far as they are necessary to make the sounds. Doing away with all redundancy has made my performances more expressive, I believe.

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