Linda Veldman, director of Perdu, Amsterdam's 35-year-old poetry bookstore-publishing house-experimental performance space, talks multilingualism and the Perdu community with Perdu editor Dean Bowen.
Linda: Perdu started out as a tiny bookshop selling used books, fully run by volunteers. It slowly grew bigger because people started organizing programs and other events. In '96 Perdu finally moved here [its current, larger headquarters]. Perdu has grown and professionalized a lot during the last decades—we're currently working with a staff of four to make sure things run smoothly, in terms of business, administration, PR etc. Perdu remains primarily volunteer and community based however, with around 30 volunteers as of today. Those who do the work, whether it be behind the bar, as an editor or as a book seller, decide which way to go. Experimental poetry remains our main focus, we're mostly operating in the margins, trying to shine a light on the literary and artistic work that is under-exposed elsewhere. Our bookshop sells poetry from all over the world and every Friday is Perdu-night, it's called De Avonden (The Evenings). The editors build every night from scratch, there is no fixed format, it's something else entirely every week: different theme, different form, different speakers. There's hardly any money to be made of course, we're all just in it for this crazy love of poetry.
How did you get involved with Perdu?
L: I decided to volunteer for Perdu when I was living Berlin. A friend of mine knew the former director, and she said, “Yeah that’s something for you. You should call them.” So yeah, I just came in here and started doing all sorts of stuff. I became an editor for years, and then I moved back to Berlin, but then I came back. The former director, she wanted to quit, and I applied for the job. Then they hired me. I love doing it, so it’s a good place to be.
Are you from Berlin originally?
L: No, but I am half German. I was raised in the Netherlands, but I also speak German fluently. I just moved back and forth a bit.
I know that you performed at a Verso event a while ago, and you were billed as doing trilingual poetry, which I thought was very interesting.
L: I’m not doing it now because now most of my poems are in Dutch. For me, as a poet, I think that started because I was basically living in three languages. In Berlin I was working in English, I was speaking to all my German friends in German, but I obviously still had contact with my Dutch family and friends and stuff. So that was a day-to-day thing, just living in three languages, and that just naturally ended up in my poetry as well. And at first I tried to work around it, in the sense that I translated things if they didn’t fit into the same language. At a certain point I just left things the way they were. We have a series this year on multilingualism, actually.
I didn’t know before I came here that, like, everyone speaks English. It’s been crazy for me.
Dean: Dutch people love to speak English. It gives us the opportunity to feel international.
L: It does, it does. So sad!
D: Well, it’s good to be able to facilitate people coming here and just being able to communicate.
L: My experience in France is that if you try French, they’ll just start in English, like: "You suck at this." And if you start in English, they will do French! There’s no way.
D: I just kind of abuse my memory, so the only thing that I can retain is the early years of French. So I know how to order a beer and get some bread, ask for cheese.
Well, that’s better than most Americans. Myself included—I’m monolingual.
L: Yeah, but is that such a big surprise? I mean, you have this entire continent where you just wander around and speak that one language. It’s also born out of necessity, right? The speaking multiple languages. I mean, Dutch is obviously—if we drive for three hours—
D: We’re in a country where nobody’s gonna understand.
L: —it’s a language that you cannot speak anymore, so you’re forced to learn different languages. Because otherwise you’re also forced to stay within this very tiny country. [Americans] have heaps of ground to cover before you reach the end of your language, so it makes perfect sense that you just stick with that.
D: Apart from you just speaking English, which is, you know, spoken in I think most of the world right now, then there’s also this part of being American. A lot of the world is already kind of geared towards you in a sense.
L: Yeah, I think that, definitely. I had to write the yearly reports, and I realized that we had been—and still are—inviting a lot of American poets. This is something we’re doing—why is that?
D: Well, I think that it’s just circumstantial with the contacts—we just get tipped off about American poets.
L: Yeah that’s true. We’re lucky in that sense. But American literature is also big.
D: It is.
L: I mean, most Dutch poets and writers read a lot of American lit—we wouldn’t say that about Spanish literature.
Does who the editors read factor into who gets invited for events?
L: Yeah. So our programming also changes—it depends on the editors, really. So if you look at Perdu and the history of Perdu, what we do—the basis is experimental poetry, but what that means is that the programming changes a lot. It depends on the team of editors we have because they have the freedom to do what they want. It’s also because it’s so community-based—people invite people they know, or they hear of new voices. So what we do and our subjects, that just changes along with the editors. What’s on the program now is definitely not what was on the program a couple of years ago—not only because, obviously, they’re different programs, but also because the interests and topics and everything changes over time. Most editors stay two or three years, so there is not a constant shift, but it changes and you do see that in the programming. I also really like that about Perdu: it’s not stuck. There is always room to evolve, to turn things upside down and in a different direction.
Do you remember the first event that you organized when you first joined?
L: Oof. I think it was a night about poetry and performance where I invited four speakers to perform their own work and each other’s work. They all had very specific ways of performing, so they kind of did a roulette with their work. And what came out was very interesting, because a very loud poet, for example, would do the work of a very quiet poet and vice versa. It was cool.
This seems like a cool place to work!
L: It is. Yeah. It’s also a crazy bunch, I guess. Isn’t it?
D: Oh yeah. It’s wild. The thing is, there is this connective tissue that is poetry, literature, but then you look at the people, the editors, and it’s just a weird bunch that would not necessarily mix any other way. And not for personality’s sake, but just the pockets that we kind of move in, in regards to just our jobs and studies, and life in general. So it’s this weird little thing that we’ve got here. But it’s home, which is important.
That’s great that you have hands in different ponds—well, that’s mixing metaphors—
D: No, I think especially for what we’re doing with the programming, we also kind of look for that—to find people from these different pockets, because I think in the range of programs that we want to make, that gives us the opportunity to diversify themes, topics, and access to certain archives or certain networks. So it is to our benefit.
That sounds like a smart way to do things.
L: Yeah, so I’m very happy here. A couple more years, and then we’ll see! I guess the position I’m in now, most people that do it do it around four, five years. I think that’s also a good thing. That there’s room for new ideas—I don’t think it’d be good if I stayed here for 15 years or whatever and just did what I know. At a certain point you just—I don’t know, I guess you grow old and tired and you need a new, fresh person to pick things up.
Two weeks ago I had a dinner with all the former directors—five of them in total. That was a lot of fun. Perdu is very much a community—people leave, in the sense that they stop being an editor here or doing whatever they did, but they don’t leave in the sense that they come back every time, and they do still feel involved, and they help out when needed. Once at Perdu, always at Perdu.
This interview has been edited and condensed.