An Interview with Niels Schoenmaker

Is there honestly anyone who doesn’t know Niels Schoenmaker on Instagram?  @niels_schoenmaker is an acclaimed Dutch poet, of both the written word and slam poetry, who utilizes his vast knowledge of form, structure, and style to support other writers on their own craft.  As a fellow foodie and video game nerd, Niels is truly a man after my own heart.  When he posts his own pieces, he usually features them after a photo of some delicious meal he has either consumed or created (making all of us who follow him hungry). He not only informs his readers about the type of stylistic choices he uses within his work, but he sometimes is playful enough to create his own form and challenge his followers to take their hand at the form he has crafted.

Not only is he wonderful to read, Niels also is a resource within the social media writing community.  Others often look to him for feedback on pieces and help with poetic structure and rhyme scheme.  Always gracious, Niels goes through others work and offers them advice based on his expertise. He is one of my most trusted resources and I am so happy to share what I know about him with all of you.  I hope that learning about Niels is a delicious treat because knowing him is certainly one for me.

JAG: Niels you’re the best. Thank you.

NS: Aww, thanks. I’m sure I’m not the best. There is bound to be someone better than me, you know. I do wonder on what planet he lives.

JAG: If you had a superpower what would it be?

NS: Depends... is this in Marvel’s, DC’s, Imagine’s or Valiant’s comic universe?

JAG: Whatever you choose

NS: I’d think I would have Marvel’s Deadpool or DC’s Mr. Nobody’s power (the one played by Alan Tudyk in Doom Patrol, not the minor villain from the comics). Not the regenerative capabilities or interdimensional powers, but the power to break the fourth wall and control the narrative whenever it would be most funny.

JAG: We all have an inner critic how do you contend with yours?

NS: I waterboard him!

Well, obviously that’s not possible... My inner critic is as critical of my own work as of others. If that inner voice says, I don’t like this or am not sure about that, I ask myself; why?

I turn any self-doubt about my writing into constructive criticism that way, just like I try to do for others. Then I rewrite and improve the piece. I approach most of my work with rhythm analysis (meter), I’m mindful of phonetics and I often check how many times I use the same word in the text to ensure there is enough variation in my vocabulary.

So I contend with him by listening and letting him improve my work.

JAG: Have you ever been creatively blocked if yes how did you overcome it?

NS: I have! I took a tiny break of 10 years from writing and came back refreshed and inspired. That break had some additional reasons, though. Apart from that, I don’t force myself to write - so I’m never really blocked. I write when I have something to write about, it’s as simple as that.

JAG: Do you have any artist rituals before you start a new piece?

NS: Depends on what kind of piece I feel like writing. Some require a lot of brainstorming and I make a little mind map of ideas and concepts. But other times I just wing it, open my google docs file and start writing the first draft as soon as I have an idea.

JAG: From reading your posts, I know that you enjoy food and baking. Have you come up with any recipes of your own? 

NS: I came up with quite a few! I have more recipes that poems. I never wrote them down, though...

JAG: What are they?

A buddy of mine LOVES the colour pink. So when he and his girlfriend came for dinner I made a cauliflower soup with a red-wine base (so it was pink), Risotto with beet and goat cheese (so it was pink) and I made unsweetened strawberry ice cream with a cherry-marshmallow sauce (you get the idea).

I also make these great Japanese-style hot-dogs garnished with sesame seed, scraps of Nori seaweed, salad onion, Bonito flakes and okonomiyaki sauce (made with Worcestershire sauce, Soy, Ketchup and Japanese Mayo)

I haven’t even mentioned my Japanese style pizza (or as I call it, Japizza), my own brownie recipe (available in poetry form) or my many spontaneous soups, cakes, cookies, quiches... I rarely follow recipes because I always like to experiment in the kitchen.

I can fill an entire interview with just answering this question, so I’ll keep it to these examples for now.

JAG: Do you feel social media hinders or helps writers?

It’s really a dual-edged sword.

It is definitely beneficial to writers in many ways beyond the obvious easily found audience.
It is a very easy way to reach out and find like-minded writers (as well as illustrators, musicians etc.) that can become writing partners and peers to give feedback to each other. The media aspect furthermore stimulates creativity beyond writing – from spoken word, the inclusion of drawings and paintings – to even animated projects and music.

On the other hand, People really want to be popular on social media and it makes many give praise just in hopes to receive praise back. If someone re-shares and praises each line of writing you produce, that praise will lose value at some point. I can’t deny that this does give many artists more confidence and allow them to venture out of their creative comfort zones.

However, I think every serious writer should post a terrible piece every once in a while to weed out the false praise.

It is also easy to feel incapable as you are constantly confronted with other writers’ post frequency and quality, having an insight in the numerical popularity of posts only helps to strengthen the feeling you are never quite good enough and it is all too easy to get caught up in arbitrary numbers instead of creating content you are proud of.

Sometimes it is good to take a step back and remember; Shakespeare only wrote 160 Sonnets (6 of which were in his plays) in his entire life and Lord Byron only published 275 poems in his lifetime. Most of the poets revered today did not write all that much. The need for regular posts to be able to build and maintain an audience on social media does not always help to raise quality, but is unfortunately needed to gain visibility.

JAG: What is your favourite aspect of supporting writers?

NS: My favourite aspect is definitely getting to know the writers themselves, as well as their process. I’m pretty extroverted so I thoroughly enjoy chatting and I love talking about poetry, how to play with language and the effect of meter or alliteration over how a piece is read and perceived. There is a subtle psychology at work in poetry too, the right enjambement can change the way someone reads a piece – I love discussing that sort of stuff. There are quite a few poets that message me asking for direct feedback, and I really love work-shopping their poems with them, which is much more involved than the comments I post on the poems posted publicly. Ultimately, I just give alternate approaches and it is up to them how to use my tips and techniques so I get to see them building up the poem, and it is amazing to be a part of that.

Helping another author to analyse their work is often a teachable moment as well. You can learn a lot by giving other people constructive feedback. I also love the sense of discovery. I often check the #poetry hashtag and comment on those that aren’t tagging all the communities. I just wish I had enough time for everyone that wants feedback.

JAG: What is your favourite meal and why?

NS: I have many, many favourites and my favourite changed throughout the years and is bound to change in the future. I like spicy food. Thai and Indian is great, but I’m especially fond of the Creole kitchen. I tried making Gumbo for the first time because I just loved the name of the dish, but after tasting it, it quickly became my ultimate comfort food. If I really need to treat myself, I will gladly do that 2,5hour roux stirring and subsequent 1 hour cooking time to make it properly.

JAG: Do you ever weave secrets into your poetry?

NS: Always, but they are usually pretty close to the surface. I like to keep my work accessible, but there is always a story behind the poem or an underlying moral. For example; I made a popcorn poem about sarmassophobia, a poem about a Mayfly that lives forever about mindfulness and a poem about the word verb realising it’s a noun that is actually about accepting your own strengths and weaknesses.

JAG: What was the catalyst the started off your poetic journey?

NS: I love reading. I have loved reading ever since I learned to read... but I had a long period where I wasn’t such a happy kid. After our family moved to another part of our tiny country I found all my classmates and the teacher spoke in dialect and I became an instant outsider. I lost a lot of trust in people around me, even those who did reach out. So I spent a lot of time on my own, reading. That’s when I found writing - or writing found me. My writing had an emotional effect on my classmates and I was treated differently after they read my poems – I learned how powerful words can be and have been fascinated with the various ways of using language and sound to make an emotional impact on people ever since.

JAG: What is your writing process? Do you go right to a pad and paper or the computer or device?

NS: I get an idea and I let it sit in my mind for days, weeks or months. But as soon as I have that first line that matches an idea or narrative I have in my mind I start writing, decide on whether the idea would work well with a form and usually complete the first draft in a single day.

I let my poems sit at least a day after writing, I always tweak it a little before posting it, I double check meter, debate if adding alliteration or assonances would add or detract from the poem, check if the same word isn’t used too often (or if it is, if the repetition is consistent enough to strengthen the poem).

JAG: I know you used to do slam poetry. Tell us about your experience with that and what it was like for you.

NS: The first time I performed I was SOOOO nervous. I stutter, and I assumed I would get stuck on stage so I took some poems that made light of that (Using lines as: “the sc-sc-sc-scratched re-record hangs again / so I’ll rewind my thoughts”). But once on stage, knowing exactly how I wanted each line to be spoken, I did not stutter at all and I was so surprised by that I mumbled almost all the pieces I performed and the audience didn’t hear it at all.

Subsequent performances were better and organizers started to invite me to slams, which I did for ~1,5 years (about one every month). I won audience votes long before I started to win over the various juries.

However, as soon as I did win over those juries, a lot of poets that didn’t give me the time of day before started to talk to me like they were old friends. This didn’t sit well with me. I felt I was appreciated for reputation and not merit, so at that point I just dropped out of the scene and quit writing for a decade. I actually haven’t written a word in my own language since!

JAG: What do you want your readers to take away from your poetry?

A smile.

What kind of smile is different for each poem. I hope some cause a huge grin and others a sympathetic wistful half-smile. I aspire to write lines and narratives that stick with people and cause random smiles throughout their day.

JAG: Who are some of your favourite Instagram writers or writers you like to work with on Instagram?

NS: This question is evil! I am so afraid to disappoint all the people I absolutely adore reading, talking to and writing with by just picking a handful of favourites. I’ll keep it down to three of my current favourites.

You would expect me to pick someone focused on sonnets and form, like I often write... but my favourites are actually all free verse writers.
In no particular order;

@sincerelymariepoetry – She removed most of her poems at one point, but she then wrote 5 AMAZING long pieces expanded from shorter of-the-cuff spoken before she left Instagram. I hope she’ll return to writing one of these days! Her poems really manage to take your hand and pull you along into her way of thinking as she sees a deeper meaning in even the things encountered in her daily grind, showing a lot of herself in the process.

@poetrystillexists / @aleksandergamble – Another poet recommended his work to me, and I’m so glad she did. His narrative free verse takes some odd leaps and showcase the way he’s able to think out of the box. He rarely uses poetic exaggeration in his later works and instead tends to describe things as they are. Raw, real and sometimes ugly and clumsy. It is very refreshing to see a great writer drop all poetic pretence like that.

@a_brown_writes – I would not have attributed the word ‘sassy’ to poetry before I read this poet. She makes her spokens feel personal and her written poems gain emotional weight as she toys with light sassy lines before dropping a lyrical bombshell that either gives you something profound to think about, or shows you something to truly emphasize with.


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