Why would you write in English when it’s not your mother tongue?
‘You could always just translate your poems to Dutch?’ my mother soothingly advised me a while ago in response to my rant about my difficulties in finding doors into the English poetry market. ‘Uhm, thanks Mum, but no, it doesn’t work like that.’ Or at least, for me it doesn’t. But it does raise the question: why would you burden yourself with writing in English when it’s not your first language and you don’t even live in an English-speaking country? As if writing poetry isn’t hard enough as it is. Why am I doing this (to myself)? And why are so many poets among me?
Since 2017 I’ve been part of an English poetry circle in Groningen, the biggest city in the north of the Netherlands. We come together every month to discuss our own work and that of others. Some of us are Dutch, others come from English-speaking countries, most attendants are foreign students or expats from all over the world. It is one of the first questions we ask newcomers. Do you also write in your native language? Or only in English? Why? Usually the answer comes down to something along the lines of ‘it just comes naturally.’ The poems simply want to be written in English.
As for me: my mouth may sound Dutch most of the time, but my heart speaks in English. I blame my teenage years in which I basically reprogrammed myself by ditching Dutch popular culture and submerging myself in Britpop, EastEnders, anything BBC, the Premier League and a lot of gin & tonics. I even ate Weetabix for a few weeks. I never recovered. And now I have to deal with the consequences.
Fast forward to now, I call myself a bilingual poet. Not because I have a Dutch and an English version of every poem I ever wrote. It’s just that I occasionally write poetry in Dutch as well. Am I, to quote my dictionary, ‘able to use two languages equally well’? Not at all. I’m a bilingual poet for lack of a better word, but I’m not a bilingual human. Please, don’t ask me for directions on the street. I’ll probably choke.
In fact, I feel like a dyslexic drunk at times. Every time I dare to think I’ve finally mastered everything I need to feel confident in my preferred second language, I discover new pitfalls, new errors, new enigmas, new pronunciations. Just this morning I spotted a spelling error in one of my favourite poems, written back in 2017. Apparently it’s ‘fingernails’, not ‘finger nails’. And I thought you lot loved your spaces?!
And that culture we supposedly share? I’m not always so sure about that either. One of my poems published in this issue of impspired, ‘back then’, contains the lines:
and after school we’d watch Cartoon Network
Noel and Liam Weasel and Baboon
Surely the existence of Liam and Noel is common knowledge, but I don’t know for certain whether Cartoon Network was a thing on the British Isles. I hope it was. Is my experience British, Dutch, universal or undeniably personal? Does it even really matter?
Finally, yes, setting foot in the English poetry market is harder. The Dutch poetry world is a tiny bubble. With some grit and some luck you can get to know everyone worth knowing and make yourself known in the process in just a few years. Next thing you know, you are making money with workshops, have one or two collections published, are a City Poet… Scribbler, you’ll be a Poet soon!
A Dutch poet isn’t eligible for any English bursaries. Certain competitions are out of bounds. Even just contemplating to enrol for a Masters in Creative Writing is incredibly complicated. I’m never able to attend a launching party of a magazine or anthology to which I’ve contributed. And suppose I ever do have a collection published? How will I manage a cross-country tour of promotional book signings? A silly dream maybe, but although I’m not here to become rich and famous, I’m not playing just for show either.
Are translations a possible solution, like my mother suggested? I did try. In both directions. It has its own difficulties and in my experience translating a poem can take up more time and cause more frustration than writing a new poem altogether. A good example is the hard time I had (and still have) translating my most critically acclaimed Dutch poem. This particular poem leans heavily on the ambiguity of the Dutch word for ‘pussy’ in combination with the use of ‘she’. In Dutch it’s completely fifty-fifty whether ‘pussy’ means ‘cat’ or ‘vagina’. Furthermore, in Dutch we usually give objects a gender where an English speaker may prefer ‘it’. Call somebody’s cat an ‘it’ in my country and you might get ghosted soon after. I try and try, but I just can’t make the poem have the same intense impact in English. The poem chooses its own language.
Odd grammatical constructions. Humiliating spelling errors. Misplaced cultural references. Lines in our own work we can’t even properly pronounce. I guess it’s the burden of doing something that we paradoxically say ‘comes naturally’.
‘So what does it bring you?’ one of the attendants of last night’s poetry circle session asked when my fellow co-leader told the group she had made the choice to only write in English from now on. ‘Distance,’ she replied without hesitation. ‘Healthy distance from the subject so that there’s more room for play.’
Now, this is a fantastic advantage we, the English-as-a-second-language poets, have over natives. It can be a pitfall to approach your poems as if they are pages in your diary. Poems hardly ever benefit from this. Would ‘red’ dress sound better and amplify the metaphor, but was my dress ‘green’ that day? In a Dutch poem this would have me stumble. In English not so much. In essence, I find it easier to lie in English than in my mother tongue. The poem chooses its own truth.
Of course it’s a bit of a lie when I say I don’t want to become a ‘rich & famous’ poet. I mean, I’ll hopefully never become a celebrity, but it would be nice to actually be read by more than a few and earn some euros. The beating heart of art is its impact on others. The potential readership in the English-speaking parts of the world is huge. In theory. More practically, the English poetry market is so big, that there’s always a niche in which your work fits. Still just a few readers, maybe, but the right readers.
As for the mistakes I make, I bet natives make mistakes in spelling and grammar too. I work as a professional copywriter in Dutch and I still make silly mistakes. Expecting to find all kinds of errors in my poetry has three major advantages for me. First of all, I’ve quickly outgrown being scared of sharing my work with others. Of course I was petrified in the beginning, but the benefit of somebody pointing out a silly error outweighs any fears I had about giving people a small piece of my soul.
This constant sharing boosted my self-confidence, helped me to define my personal voice and made my work a lot better. It also opened the door to an infinite cycle of editing. I now accept that poems are never finished. Every few months I sift through the whole pile in search of overlooked errors. And in the process I sometimes change words, delete lines, swap verses, kill darlings, nurse undervalued babies and extend metaphors. It has become a fruitful habit I highly recommend to every poet: review all your work on a quarterly basis.
Lastly, I feel no shame or guilt at all for using every tool available. Dictionary and thesaurus on the corner of my desk? Check. Tabs open with Google Translate and Thesaurus.com? Check. Copying and pasting drafts into an online text to speech converter to check the pronunciation? Check. These are all resources I might feel reluctant to use for Dutch poetry. A matter of pride, I suppose. Yet, when I write in English, I don’t mind tinkering about with reference books and online tools. In fact, I’m enjoying it enormously, often fooling around with my own insecurities and experiencing the joy of learning something new.
I recently found an old draft of ‘Singulars of the 21st century’, published in this issue of impspired. The last lines are:
yet to figure out the singular thing
I need not have been to know I’m unique.
I remember feeling unsure about ‘need not have been’ as a grammatical construction. It sounded odd to me. Apparently I googled the line and found a few examples in Jane Austen’s work, because next to the lines I scrawled ‘Good enough for Jane Austen, good enough for me. :D’
Writing in your second language is writing with a handicap. But with some effort these weaknesses can become strengths. The poems simply want to be written in English. It’s an easy line to hide behind, even though it’s kind of true. Yet the only valid answer to why I write in English even though it’s not my first language is simple. I do it because I love it.
Cecile Bol is a Dutch writer with a small family and a big garden in the north of the Netherlands. She is the co-leader of a local English poetry circle. Her English work has appeared (or is due to appear) in Picaroon Poetry, The Blue Nib and anthologies from The Frogmore Press and Earlyworks Press.