“A poem is an object made of words”: A conversation with Flemish poet, novelist, and art critic, Willem M. Roggeman

A Conversation With A Renaissance man

By Philippe Ernewein

Since first writing about Gary Snyder’s poems and essays as part of my undergraduate thesis, I have sought out and read his work. While English is now my primary language, Flemish is my native language (although naming it Flemish might not be correct, in the interview, Mr. Roggeman calls it Dutch). A few years ago, while traveling in Ghent, Belgium, I visited the Poëzieshop. There, behind the counter in a glass case, I first saw Willem M. Roggeman’s translations of Gary Snyder called Schildpadeiland. While that copy was not for sale, I was fortunate to find a copy a few years later at Demian, an excellent bookshop and small press in Antwerp.

There is a short introduction in Schildpadeiland by the translator, Mr. Roggeman, that provides a brief history of Gary Snyder in Dutch and one clue as to how this collection may have come together. The last line of the introduction states, “The poems collected in this bundle were personally selected by Gary Snyder for translation.” I always wanted to know more and also learn more about the translator and poet Willem M. Roggeman. In November 2019, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Roggeman in Brussels at the Café Métropole, located in the Hotel Métropole.

In preparation for the interview, I wanted to be sure I was familiar with more than just the Gary Snyder translations. I read numerous books by Willem M. Roggeman in both English and Dutch, among them Blue Notebook (Demian, Antwerp, 2006), The Revolution Begins in Bruges (Netherlandic Press, Ontario, Canada, 1983), and A Vanishing Emptiness (Forest Books, London,1989).

In re-reading the interview now, it is clear that Gary Snyder was just an entry point for me to have a conversation with a true renaissance man of poetry. I’m reminded of the Pakistani proverb that says when you share the first cup of tea, you are a stranger. With the second cup, you are a friend, and with the third cup, you become family. Mr. Roggeman and I sipped coffee during our conversation, and it was clear that we quickly moved through the three cups from strangers to friends. Mr. Roggeman was kind and generous with his answers and time. I am grateful for his time and continued collaboration after our initial meeting.

{WMR = Willem Maurits Roggeman, PE = Philippe Ernewein}

(INTERVIEW) Café Metropole, Brussels, Belgium: November 29, 2019

PE: How did you first learn about the American poet Gary Snyder? I know he was scheduled to participate in the Poetry International Festival (7th Poetry International Festival Rotterdam, 1976).

WMR: I was a member of the Board of the International Poetry Festival in Rotterdam, and we had a committee. One of the committee members, who specialized in American literature, proposed Gary Snyder as one of the poets. And we all accepted that, and they asked me to do the translations, as I already translated and presented the American poets Robert Lowell and Gregory Corso. The translations are read at the festival – the poet reads his poems in English, and then I read the Dutch version. Our language’s official name is Dutch, not Flemish because it’s the same language as in Holland.

PE: How did you select the poems to be translated? Were you familiar with Gary Snyder’s work at that time?

WMR: No, I wasn’t familiar. I was still very young. This was in the seventies. They asked Gary Snyder to choose which poems he wanted to read, and he sent this selection. This selection was then given to me to translate.

PE: OK, that makes sense. I was also curious about this because the Dutch translation of Schildpadeiland (De Bladen voor de Poëzie, 1985) does not contain all the poems published in the original version (Turtle Island, New Directions, 1974), considered his most famous book. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.

WMR: Yes, so I translated the poems he selected, and he promised he would come. A few days before the festival, he said he couldn’t come because he was in Japan.

PE: From his published work, we know that Gary Snyder spent a lot of time in Japan. Along with being a poet and teacher, he is also a translator. Most notably, he translated the Tang poet Han Shan. These translations were published in America as Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems (Four Seasons Foundation, 1969).

WMR: Just this year, one of my books has been translated into Japanese.

PE: I’m curious about some more of the connections between you and the Beat Generation’s writers, and then I’d like to move to some of your poetry.

WMR: Well, there was another poet of the Beat Generation that I also translated for, and he actually did participate in the festival, and that was Gregory Corso. I also published a book of his poetry. For the book’s title, I selected one of Corso’s poems, Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway. In Dutch, Dichters liftend langs de snelweg (Poëziecentrum, 1987).

PE: Did you meet Gregory Corso?

WMR: Yes, he came, and I read his translation after he read it in English. I put the photo of Gregory Corso and me on the back of the book I translated.

PE: Last week I saw a picture of you and Ted Joans. The publisher and bookstore owner of Demian in Antwerp, René, gave me a copy of Blue Notebook (Demian, Antwerp, 2006), and there you both are, standing in front of a car on a street in Brussels.

WMR: Ted Joans was also in Rotterdam, but I did not translate him. We did become friends, and later, he came to Brussels to see me.

PE: (showing Blue Notebook publication to WMR)

WMR: Yes, this picture is here in Brussels. It is actually just around the corner from here. This picture was taken in front of the building where the newspaper that I worked for was located. Ted was visiting me. His quote, “Jazz is my religion,” is included in Blue Notebook.

PE: How does a collection of poems like Blue Notebook get published?

WMR: René published this because he is very interested in the Beat Generation and jazz, of course, and that’s what this book did; it connected to that. It is the only book of mine that he has published. I have several publishers that put out my work.

PE: It seems to me that René wants Demian to be a little bit like City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

WMR: Yes, he also organizes meetings and presentations of books and poetry readings. I had one reading there, and it was about the Beat Generation.

PE: Have you ever visited the United States?

WMR: Yes, I was there in 1963 and 1966. On that second trip, I traveled all around the States on a Greyhound bus because that was very cheap. At that time, for Europeans, it was a dollar a day, and you could drive as far as you want. That was only for Europeans; Americans couldn’t do that. So I traveled all over the states, and I went to San Francisco. There, I visited Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookshop, City Lights. I spoke with him and got a photograph with him afterward. I wrote a book about the Beat Generation with the title from a verse of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America”: It occurs to me that I am America. And then, I wrote a long essay about the Beat Generation’s history, and I made several translations of poets that were part of that group. I think about ten poets, including Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ginsberg had already been translated by the Dutch poet Simon Vinkenoog. So I didn’t translate much of Ginsberg because it had already been done. Simon Vinkenoog was a friend of mine. He wrote the introduction to Blue Notebook.

PE: What do you remember about that first trip to the US in 1963?

WMR: Yeah, in 63, I went to the International PEN Congress in New York. It was a shorter trip. I got to meet Pablo Neruda after his presentation, and I spoke with him. He signed a book for me. I also met Arthur Miller, who was President of P.E.N. International, and also Samuel Bellow.

PE: I’m curious if you wrote “Columbus in New York” on that trip.

WMR: No, that was not written during my travels. I was living in Holland. The poem came to me suddenly in the middle of the night when I was in bed. And, not to forget it, I learned it by heart, the whole poem, and then I stood up, and I wrote it down. It all came out as a complete poem that had just come to my mind when I was in bed. Afterward, I didn’t change one word. I thought this was perfect.

PE: New York has been a city and a subject you’ve written about more than once.

WMR: Yes, I was impressed by New York City. I even wrote a book of poems about the city. I think it was in 1969, called, The Oracle of New York City (Het orakel van New York City: gedichten, Manteau, Brussel, 1969). In that book, I’m linking the old Greek Oracle and New York City, the city of the future. I also wrote about my friend Ted Joans because I think he’s the Oracle of New York. I wrote a long poem with that title, and I let him speak in the poem. It has never been translated into any language, I think because it is too long.

PE: What you are describing now, with these long poetic historical poems, reminds me of Ed Sanders’s work, an American poet who has written many books of American history in verse.

WMR: I know his name, but I’m not familiar with his work. I have been writing many long historical poems and last year published them collectively in a book called Portretten (Uitgeverij Liverse, 2018). It starts in the prehistoric with cave paintings, and it goes to the work of Lucebert, the great Dutch poet and painter (1924-1994).

PE: I still read and speak Dutch but primarily read English text. So for me, I’ve enjoyed the translated English versions of your poems in the collection, A Vanishing Emptiness. Can you tell me about “The colours of dream”? Was this also part of a nighttime vision?

WMR: No, this poem was written on my table during the day. I was thinking about how some people when they dream they are dreaming in black-and-white other people are really dreaming colors, and that intrigued me. So I thought I must write a poem about dreaming in colors. That’s the central theme of the poem. Can you see all the colors in your dream?

PE: Along with being a novelist and art critic, you are also a poet. When I read and write poems with my students, I often ask them to think about the poet’s role today. I know this is a big question, but I’d like to hear how you answer that question. What is the role of the poet today?

WMR: I think it depends on which country you are talking about. The situation is different in every country. And it changes regularly. It depends on the economic situation in the country and certainly on the political system. In totalitarian governments, the poet is considered very important. That’s why they receive significant support when they are writing in the way that the political system accepts. That was the case in the Soviet Union with poets such as Vosnessensky and Yevtushenko. When the poet didn’t write according to the government’s political ideas, they could not publish, as happened with Pasternak and many others. There was nothing interesting on radio or television—only speeches of politicians. So people read a lot of literature at that time. Books were published in large numbers. When a new book was published, people stood in a line at the bookstore, and in one or two days, the book was sold
out. During the Nazi regime in Germany, the books of unaccepted writers were burned publicly. Anyway, the books and the writers were considered very important in a good or bad way. In fact, a dictatorship is very interesting for the poet, even if it puts him in a dangerous corner. In Belgium, we have total freedom. You can write anything you want. You can say that the king is an idiot. Nobody cares. Nobody is interested. So whatever you write has no influence. That’s why our politicians don’t care for literature. Writers are harmless. And the situation of poetry is much worse than prose literature. There is this very small selection of a few interested people who like poetry. You see, if a novel is published in Belgium, that’s 5,000 copies. If a book of poetry is published, it’s normally 300 copies. With a population of 6 million Dutch speakers in Belgium, that means one person out of 20,000 is reading poetry. So with this reality, you are writing just for yourself and a few other people. Now, the situation is
a little bit better in Holland. I am selling most of my books there. But there you have, of course, twice the population of Flanders.

PE: Do you think the difference is just the population number or has something to do with culture?

WMR: Yes, I think the culture as well. People are much more interested in literature in Holland. We, the Flemish people, are more interested in paintings. We have the great thinkers, of course, like Jan van Ruusbroec, who was one of the most important mystic writers and after six centuries he is still read and translated, and we have of course the Flemish Primitives, painters like Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, and further Brueghel and later Rubens. And also still today, we have great painters. I was also working together with BOZAR (The Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels). I was an art critic, and I was also the Flemish Cultural Center director in Amsterdam, where I organized Flemish painters’ exhibitions. I had many connections all over Holland because I went to galleries and museums. So when I organized an exhibition in my Cultural Center in Amsterdam, at the same time, there were also two other exhibitions of that same painter in other cities, like Utrecht and Rotterdam. When you do this, then you get the interest of the newspaper.

PE: Who are some of your favorite painters?

WMR: I just completed a new book that includes the artwork of Pol Mara. And of course, his artwork was also included in my book of collected English translations, A Vanishing Emptiness (Forest Books, 1989). This new poem I wrote is called “Twenty Years After Pol Mara” (In een getekende morgen: Liverse, Dordrecht, 2019). This was a way to honor a great painter and my old friend. He was the first European painter to be working in the style of Pop Art. The American Pop Art style was not yet known here. And he found himself going in this same direction. However, there was quite a difference from American Pop Art. It was in a similar direction.

PE: Last week, I visited the retrospective for Rene Magritte at Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and, in his work, saw a little bit of Andy Warhol’s style in there, like the repetition of the hat.

WMR: Yes, I think Magritte was not a good painter, and Paul Delvaux was even worse. This is because he’s making images. Technically, it’s not good, but he was a poet. Magritte was painting his poems. He’s full of ideas, but technically, not a good painter.

PE: At the beginning of the Magritte exhibit, I learned about his early career in advertising and all the posters he was making to sell products. And then to see those lines and colors, that exactitude in his later work, made sense to me.

WMR: Yes, he had wonderful images.

PE: Back to the role of the poet, what do you think has changed? Do you believe that there was ever a time in Belgium where the poet’s role was important and more prominent?

WMR: Yes, of course. Just after the second world war in 1945, there it started, and then all the 1950s and even the 1960s was a very important period. We had a great generation of poets at that time. I think that a war is fascinating because, after the war, you have entirely new areas, a completely new period with new artistic movements and new literature. That made that post-war period like a renewal in everything, the arts, and literature. It also happened after the First World War with the start of expressionism in Germany, and with Dadaism in Switzerland, and Surrealism in France. And after the Second War, we had a completely new style of painting with the Cobra movement (Cobra is an abbreviation of Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam because the most important painters of that movement came from these three cities) and poetry that we called experimental with Hugo Claus and Lucebert as the most important poets. It’s been 50 years since the last war, and the arts are tumbling down, more and more every day. You have no new school in art or literature or music or anything. I
think people need the misery of war. And then, after the war, they can breathe again. They can feel the importance again of liberty, the importance of creating something new to start life again. And that is what we don’t have anymore, and that’s why there is no good poetry.

PE: I’m wondering about the different perspectives you were talking about earlier. The United States, for example, enters the second world war later, but our post-war periods are parallel. The Vietnam War impacted the US’s arts and culture, like the poets we’ve talked about, Ginsberg, Corso, Snyder, and Ferlinghetti. Was there any impact of the American counterculture movement here in Belgium?

WMR: Yes, (laughing) all the bad poets were writing poems about Vietnam under the influence of the American culture you are talking about.

PE: What was your involvement during that time?

WMR: The involvement of the poet should be to write good poetry. And let the journalist report and write about Vietnam and what was going on in the world.

PE: Something you just said reminds me of a quote from William Carlos Williams. He said, “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” And you just said a similar thing that a poet’s role is to write a good poem. What else do you think the poet is supposed to do?

WMR: There are many sorts of poets. It all depends on what you mean by poetry. A poem is an object made of words. But it is totally different from a letter, an agreement of any other document. Because a poem doesn’t inform you about some fact of reality. I consider poetry as an art form. It is an art just as painting or music or dancing. But the significant difference with the other arts is the material that the poet uses. Nobody uses music notes or oil colors in daily life, but everybody uses words all day long. And there lies the big misunderstanding. When I ask somebody if he reads poetry, he usually answers: Poetry? Certainly not. I don’t understand it. So why should I bother? There you have a big misunderstanding. The poet is an artist using the language, using words to make a piece of art. These words are exactly the same words everybody uses all day long. But he uses them in a totally different way. The poet doesn’t use words to give any information. His poem is not a message like you find in official documents or newspapers. You don’t have to understand a poem. You have to feel a poem. The poet tries to express emotions that can’t be expressed in another way, in typical prose. There are quite a lot of emotions, of feelings we are not aware of, and therefore never have been described. There are certain emotions you have when you see a classic dance performance or when you hear a concert with the music of Mozart, Chopin, or Glass, or when you see a painting of Botticelli, of Vermeer, of Jackson Pollock. Nobody asks you to understand these artworks. But they ask you to understand a poem because it is made with words. The other arts don’t give you information about the situation in the world. So why should a poem do it? The task of reporting is the task of the journalist. They are read much more by people than any poet. If the poet writes about the events that the journalist has already reported, the reader has already accepted this, and there is nothing new in his work.

PE: This reminds me of the English expression, “Preaching to the choir.” If the poets are writing what the reader already knows and has already accepted, nothing is new. No transformations, no conversions. It sounds to me like you are suggesting that poets need to infiltrate various groups. The poet as a chameleon becoming a journalist, art critic, novelist…

WMR: Well, I was a journalist and a poet at the same time.

PE: Yes, I know; this is why I’m asking.

WMR: In my journalistic work, I was committed to reporting but not in my poetry work. There is no sense in reporting out in poetry. With poetry, you are writing for a different public. The majority of people are not going to read your poems. It is only a small select public that will read poetry.

PE: Yes, and occasionally, there is one poem that, for whatever reason, is read by millions of people. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Dante’s Inferno, in Germany, Heinrich Heine.

WMR: Yes, and often this depends again on the political situation in the country. Like during the time of the Nazis in Germany, if you were a well-known poet, it is your duty to write because then you influence the intellectual groups. But if you are a simple poet, you have no influence.

PE: Do you consider yourself a simple poet?

WMR: Yes, I do.

PE: When did you know you were a poet?

WMR: Oh, when I was nine. Yes, I was nine, and I was on holiday with my grandparents, and in the kitchen on the kitchen table, I suddenly wrote a poem, (laughs) a sonnet with rhymes. It was about flowers and bees, all very typical.

PE: What had you been reading as a nine-year-old? What do you think inspired this sudden composition of a poem?

WMR: My father had one book of poetry in his library, and I read it hundreds of times. It was by Pol de Mont (1857-1931) – a good poet, a very traditional poet. We didn’t have other books of poetry in the house. Then I told my father that I wanted to write poetry. I was only nine. I had an uncle who was a painter, my father’s brother, a rather good painter, and wanted me to be a painter. So he gave me lessons. I went with him outside and made drawings, and I was also in his atelier with him painting. He taught me how to paint. My parents wanted me to be a musician, and they bought a piano for me. So I started to learn to play the piano. I went for six years to piano school. And when I was in secondary school, I played piano in a jazz combo.

PE: So there was a time when being a musician may have been your career.

WMR: Yes, but then I decided I will not be a painter; I will not be a musician. I will be a writer.

PE: Tell me about the first time you were published.

WMR: It started with winning a literary prize, an important literary prize. I had never published anything before. And my father said, “You are always getting lost in poetry and writing all the time; you should send it to this contest in the newspaper and see if it’s any good.” So, I sent my poems, and I won the first prize.

PE: How old were you?

WMR: I was twenty at that time. Instead of studying, I took the cover of a study book and wrapped it around a book of poetry. I preferred writing poetry much more than studying for school. The poems that won the newspaper contest were published in an influential literary magazine. I had enough poems for a book, and I thought now is the right moment to publish a book of poetry. I sent the poems to an important publisher in Antwerp, De Sikkel. They had published Hugo Claus. And they published it. That was the start for me.

PE: You’ve mentioned painting a couple of times, and I’m reminded of the beautiful introduction to a collection of your poem translated into English, A Splendid View on Words (Demer Press, 2010). In that introduction, the Flemish critic, Paul de Vree, calls you “a painter with words.”

WRM: It was a theoretical statement about my poetry and literature. He had a little magazine about Antwerp’s poetry, and he published many books and essays about the experimental poetry of that moment. And in 1985, I had my complete collection of poems up to that time published, and I asked him to write the introduction for that very big book. {The title of that book is Memoires. Gedichten 1955-1985 (Soethoudt & Co, 1985)}.

PE: Do you think this description of you as “a painter with words” is accurate?

WMR: Yes, I think so because my poetry is very visual. In general, poets are writing a kind of poetry that is more musical. It’s close to music and the sounds of the vowels. This is like Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) said, “Music first in poetry.” Verlaine is saying pure music is poetry. My poetry is not musical at all; on the contrary, it is very close to painting. It is visual and full of amazing images. You can see it in your mind. You can see what I’m writing about. Even if it doesn’t exist, even if it’s something surrealistic, you can still see it.

PE: Can you tell me about some of your literary influences?

WMR: Well, the influence came more from the poets from the Netherlands than from the Flemish poets. I’m not very close to Flemish poets. The atmosphere and my writing style are closer to the Dutch poets than the Flemish poets. Well, I’m in between, I think because I like the Baroque, which is typical for the Flemish poets and poetry, but I’m more reserved with the Baroque style than the Flemish poets. I think I’m the only one who is just between the Dutch and the Flemish, and that may be a difficult position because you are entirely alone.

PE: Who is on your list of most influential poets in your work?

WMR: Well, especially Dutch poets, like Lucebert. I remember during my military service in 1958 or 1959, I could not write one word. Then, when I got out of the army, it was like an explosion. I wrote one poem that was very influenced by Lucebert. It was a collision of images in one line. It was a real explosion of language. I wrote only one thing like that, and the year after that, I wrote very simple poems. And that collection was my first publication in Holland, which was in 1960. It is called “Bij wijze van schrijven” (De Beuk, Amsterdam, 1960). You could translate it as “A way of writing.”

PE: In preparing for our interview, I have looked over your many publications since that first publication, and there are, of course, many different publishers.

WMR: An early collection of my poems that I mentioned before was Rhapsody In Blue, the title after Gershwin. That was in 1958 and published by De Sikkel. But then they stopped publishing literature and published only school books. So I had to look for another publisher. And I went to Ontwikkeling, which was the second most important publisher at that time; much of the Avant-Garde was there. I published two books there and afterward went to Holland. Every Flemish poet hopes to be published in Holland because there you have a much larger public. Also, books published in Belgium, you can’t find them in Holland. And, the books published in Holland, you cannot find them in Belgium.

PE: Why isn’t there better distribution between the two Dutch-speaking countries?

WMR: It always seems to have been this way. The Dutch publishers are protecting themselves. They don’t want the books from Belgium to come, and this is a kind of discrimination toward Flemish poets. If you’re publishing in Holland, you’re a good poet. If you are publishing in Flanders, you are not so good.

PE: That reminds me of the linguistic differences that exist not only inside of Belgium between the French and Flemish speakers but also with Holland, which is, after all, as you’ve pointed out, the same language: Dutch.

WMR: You have the Nederlandse Taalunie (Dutch Language Union) in The Hague because there is only one language for the two countries. Remember, once we were one country. You know that we’ve been an occupied country for 500 years. In the 16th century by the Spanish, afterward by the French, and twice by the Germans. And now, by the Belgians, because the Belgians are French-speaking. I know the Belgian Revolution was organized by France, not by the Belgians. All of Brussels was full of French people. The person who became the first Prime Minister of Belgium was a Frenchman, Charles Rogier. Also, the first mayor of Brussels was French, de Brouckère. And Rogier said, “Belgium must be a Latin country, or it must not continue to exist.” So, we had a Flemish University in Ghent, and what did they do when Belgium started up? All the Flemish professors were out, and the French-speaking professors were installed. The Flemish University of Ghent became the French University of Ghent.

PE: Remind me of the timeline here. In what year is this happening?

WMR: This was in 1830. You see, the French could never accept that Napoleon was beaten in 1815 in Waterloo, very close to Brussels. Then, there was the International Congress in Vienna where all the European countries came. They decided that the Netherlands should be reunited as it was before: Holland and Belgium together. Because that’s the way it was spoken of for centuries, of the northern Netherlands and the southern Netherlands. We were in the southern Netherlands. We had a very good king, King William the First, who organized the University of Ghent because there was no university before that. He made the canal from Ghent-Terneuzen so that ships could come from the sea to the harbor of Ghent. And in Wallonia, he started the industry of coal and iron. We had an important Wallonian economic expert named Cockerile, and he was very in favor of the Dutch. But then the French came here, and they organized this revolution. France occupied the southern areas before Napoleon was beaten. I have seen the original documents in Holland. France said to the Dutch army,
“You have to leave immediately to the Southern Netherlands because at the border there’s an army of 140,000 soldiers ready to invade. We will follow you till Amsterdam if you don’t leave.” So they left. There was fighting, and there was resistance. The people of Ghent were in favor of keeping power. They had the canal, and they had the university. The French were almost beaten in Ghent. So, the so-called Belgian Revolution succeeded with the help of the French.

PE: From my memory of Belgian history, I do not remember reading or learning about this.

WMR: Right, nobody knows about this. You know, the history of Belgium is completely false. It has been written by a professor of the French University in Ghent. So, it was the French point-of-view that was dictated here, and he wrote the history of Belgium, which is entirely false.

PE: What you are saying reminds me of Howard Zinn’s work (1922 – 2010). Like you, he was an American historian who sought out original documents and journals to make sure that history was not just being written down and codified by the victors. Do you think you can bring some of this information to light and bring it to the masses? Are there ways to correct the history books of this period?

WMR: Yes, a great book has been written about this. There is a professor from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Professor Els Witte (b. 1941). She was the first female rector of a Belgian university. She is a noted historian and wrote a book about this period. It is called The Lost Kingdom. The stiff resistance of the Belgian Orangists against the revolution 1828-1850 (Het verloren koninkrijk. Het harde verzet van de Belgische orangisten tegen de revolutie 1828-1850).

PE: I’d like to return to something you said earlier. You said that after your military duty in the Belgian army, there was an explosion of poems. Can you tell me more about that? Why do you think that happened?

WMR: Yes, during my time in the army, which lasted 15 months, I didn’t write a word. I wasn’t able to. A few times, I tried to write poems, but I just couldn’t.

PE: Now, you were already published before you went into the army. Is that right?

WMR: Yes, I had two books ready. One was already published, and the second one I sent before going into the army was published while I was in the army. I had to be in Germany. First, there were three months of preparation in Mechelen at the Kazerne Dossin. This is where the Jews were during the war, which was not discussed while we were there. Today it is a museum (Kazerne Dossin: Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights). After training for three months there, I was in Germany for 12 months. I had a nice life. I was with the officers, but I refused to be an officer. If you have attended university, they ask you to become an officer. I had done four years of university, but I said no. Because if you become an officer, then you have three more months to do in addition to your 15 months. They then asked me if I would be an under-officer, a sergeant, which I refused also. Then they said I had to be a corporal, and I couldn’t refuse that. It doesn’t mean anything. My job was to write letters and documents for the officers. I didn’t even have a gun. There was a library for the officers. I remember there was a book teaching Russian there, so I studied Russian for a time. Now, every three months, you could go home for two weeks. And I packed at home a suitcase full of books to read. After three months in Germany, I returned home with a suitcase full of the books I had read in that period. That was my military service. Not bad, I think.

PE: Hearing you mention “a suitcase full of books to read,” I am reminded of the books in my satchel that I carried with me today. I have books written by you in Dutch and, of course, your translation of the selected poems of Gary’s Snyder’s Turtle Island. Do you believe that poetry can be effectively translated without losing its essence?

WMR: It depends, of course, on the kind of poetry. Very enforced experimental poetry is very difficult or even impossible to translate. But most poetry can effectively be translated without betraying the original version because the essence of what the poet wants to express will be recognizable in a good translation. Of course, you will always lose some characteristics. For example, for words with a double meaning in the original language, the translator must choose one of the two definitions. Alliterations are challenging to be maintained, or the translator will have to change one of the two words. But these are all details. The poem’s atmosphere, how the poet treats the material, the words, the subject of the poem, and the poet’s technique can be shown in a translation. The most difficult aspect of translation is the music of the language. Even when a good translator can find a way to express the original poem, that translator must become a poet himself and is almost forced to write a new poem in a new language. But every country has a different atmosphere that you can feel in the work of its great poets. And it is that unique, specific atmosphere that can be felt in a good translation. All this means is that a translator’s work is a challenging job that may not be underestimated.

PE: It is clear to me that you were successful with the translation of Snyder’s poems so many years ago. I am grateful that the translation led me to discover your own poetry and many interviews with writers and artists. Thank you.

Biographical Information: Willem Maurits Roggeman is a Belgian poet, novelist, and art critic. His poetry has been widely translated, and he is a regular guest at international poetry festivals. He has also published two novels and several collections of articles on artists and highly regarded interviews with writers. In 1988, he was awarded the Order of Leopold II for his cultural work. His most recent book of poems is What Only Painters See (Bamboo Dart Press, 2023).

Philippe Ernewein is a native of Turnhout, Belgium. He is the Director of Education at the Denver Academy in Denver, Colorado, USA. Philippe’s published work can be found at www.rememberit.org.
Willem Roggeman & Philippe Ernewein, November 2019, Brussels, Belgium.