Live to be 100

According to octogenarian poet, writer and inspired child Simon Vinkenoog, the trick is to keep breathing.

By Steve Korver, 15-05-2008, Amsterdam Weekly


So how does one live a long, healthy and balanced life?

‘Just feel good. That’s the secret,’ answers the poet, writer and inspired child Simon Vinkenoog over coffee and joints on a Monday morning at his garden house in Amsterdam Noord.

‘Oh, and try breathing.’ We both inhale, then exhale. I feel better already.

Turning 80 on 18 July, Vinkenoog starts celebrating this week at the Bimhuis by declaiming his poetry backed by a jazz band. Around the official birthday itself, there will be events organised at OBA public library and much will be published: Vinkenoog’s collected poems, a scrapbook of his memorabilia, his 1951-57 correspondence with the recently deceased writer Hugo Claus and a new collaboration with the musician Spinvis. Yes, the man is still busy. And he even finds time to rate as Amsterdam Weekly’s oldest contributor.

Vinkenoog has lived—and continues to do so. He’s the psychonaut who made it. Born in Amsterdam, he barely survived World War II. During the ‘hunger winter’, he ended up contracting a skin disease which had him covered with a rash, and then scabs. ‘But then a new skin broke through. Maybe that’s why my skin still looks so young,’ he jokes as he rubs his wrinkles.

After the war, he moved to Paris and befriended CoBrA painters like Karel Appel and Corneille, and writers like Hugo Claus and Remco Campert. He started publishing poems, magazines and novels before returning to Amsterdam in 1956. ‘I had become a world citizen and would therefore always be a strange duck here in Holland.’

And it only got stranger when he became an LSD test subject at the Wilhelmina Gasthuis hospital in 1959. His previous main literary theme of ‘hate’ became ‘love’. ‘Before then, I was always busy with hate,’ he says. ‘I had handicaps, insecurities, depressions—of course, I can still burst out in tears if I see something horrible on TV but I’m no longer always busy with it. One person’s nightmare is another’s fairy tale…’

By the 1960s, he had evolved into a full blown shamanic hippie performance poet. And like his friend, the late American poet Allen Ginsberg, he moved with the times. In 1979, he was the ‘priest’ who ‘married’ rocker Herman Brood to the off-her-rocker Nina Hagen. He was also named the ‘poet of the fatherland’ and managed to get married six times.

But now he’s been married to his constant companion Edith for over 20 years. ‘Partnership is happiness. It’s about balance, like summer and winter,’ says Vinkenoog. And indeed, the couple still come across as a pair of crazy kids in love.

‘The garden is our child,’ says Edith. ‘And on 13 April 2004, we had a second child. That was the day we discovered the internet.’ They laugh.

Once motivated, Vinkenoog just can’t stop giving advice on how to live—or maybe he’s just generating another poem. ‘Enjoy! Be entertained by the social games you play! Look 360 degrees around you! Learn! Then unlearn! Yoga’s good: it brightens up every cell! There are no endings, just etceteras! Always be in a process! Stay curious! Smell the mutation in the air! Be a generalist, not a specialist! Enter new houses! Stay surprised! Be in wonder! Everything is allowed! Don’t kill time, make time! Keep your own street clean! Regard every pain as a growing pain! Stay flexible! Read Walt Whitman—he’s the opa of hip! Trust life!…’ Vinkenoog pauses.

‘Actually trust is good but it’s also good to stay a bit suspicious, since it’s just getting more and more about the survival of the fittest out there,’ says Vinkenoog as he motions towards the outside world beyond their self-made Eden.

Vinkenoog takes me on a tour of the garden, one in which even gnomes would have trouble getting around, but not Vinkenoog. He shows me his latest project: reclaiming a path through the rose bushes to the second cabin where he keeps his books. The emerging path has a sign: ‘Terra Incognito: Fun in progress.’

So is hyperactivity the secret to a long and healthy life? ‘Well I’ve always danced like a fool! Sure, maybe it’s just about exhibitionism or narcissism but, nonetheless, at least you’re stretching!’

‘When you mentioned that you wanted to talk about healthy-living, I dug up a few books,’ says Vinkenoog when we return to the table. These few books form a metre-high pile, but the one he really wants to show me is called Live to be 100 by a certain S Sage. He points out something he’s underlined: ‘Maintain a consistently optimistic, positive and constructive mental attitude’.

‘Really it’s just about getting away from conditioning and all that Victorian moral nonsense,’ says Vinkenoog. ‘That whole Christian-Judaic idea of “one god” is the most dangerous of things. Our neighbour over there describes it best: “God is a garden”.’

While Vinkenoog takes a moment to admire God, I notice he had been reading last Saturday’s Volkskrant magazine. Under the headline for an interview with cabaretier Mike Bodde about his long and crippling depression, Vinkenoog had scrawled in large letters: ‘Learn to live with the chaos, young man!’

Learn to live with the chaos. I think I can do that. But first I’m going to sit here for just a while longer.

2 Replies

  1. Ya learn seomthnig new everyday. It’s true I guess!

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