Poetry: In our dreams we walk on stilts.

Poetry from Flanders and the Netherlands

Frankfurter Buchmesse
Guest of Honour 2016

Poetry: In our dreams we walk on stilts.

“In our dreams we walk on stilts.” Poetry from Flanders and the Netherlands

By Stefan Wieczorek

Years, if not decades, have passed since so much Dutch-language poetry has been available in German translation as it is now. This might at first appear to stem from the role Flanders and the Netherlands are playing as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2016, with all the additional attention that attracts. But the way poetry from Flanders and the Netherlands has been resonating with publishers, specialist journals and – not least – poetry festivals demonstrates that there is something here well worth discovering: original writers, but also a lyrical landscape where poetry has explicitly sought and found the pathway to a broader audience.

Poetry and public: new paths
The Flemish literary scholar and poet Geert Buelens summarises the situation for poetry in general at the start of the 21st century as follows: “Poetry has become an oral and digital medium. Culture is being reoralised: YouTube is now a literary institution! That creates unprecedented opportunities. Poetry is teaming up with the Internet, the social media and the visual technologies.” This aptly describes the situation, but something should be added about the specifics and characteristics of the landscape where Dutch-language poetry operates. Perhaps it is only immediately striking from the perspective of an outsider: poetry in Dutch is currently defined less by poetological manifestos than by a broad functional shift that has moved poetry more clearly into the public focus as a medium of communication than in German-speaking countries. And that does not primarily refer to the digital community, but to an urban, media-based and local presence where the poet often ends up face-to-face with the audience. Orality and performativity are increasingly important to the way poetry is delivered and experienced in Flanders and the Netherlands, albeit without making the printed format redundant.
This public arena did not happen by itself. It has grown out of a plethora of mostly institutionalised events and flagship projects. Many towns in Flanders and the Netherlands have designated “stadsdichter”, community laureates with the task of bringing together poetry and an urban, local identity. The role is defined differently in different places, and the laureate may be elected or appointed, but usually the core task – rather like that of a chronicler – is to take part in public life and generally help to build an interest in poetry. That does not simply mean generating an audience for poems and poets, but also reflecting through practice on the social functions poetry can fulfil for the community. Poems thus become a medium for airing and commenting on current social processes, and the old tradition of writing a poem to mark a special occasion has spawned a new form. At national level, both Belgium and the Netherlands also have an official State Laureate. Institutions, universities and associations often have their own poet, invested for a certain period with a duty to support the organisation in its activities. (This is a fundamentally different approach from the poet in residence or community bursary, as the emphasis is on the public role as a kind of chronicler and “poetry ambassador”.) Moreover, poems enjoy a growing presence in the public space and in the built environment. In fact, poets are regularly asked to write odes for special occasions in public life, for example by newspapers. Even some television channels have installed their own in-house poets.
For some years now, a number of poetry institutions in Flanders and the Netherlands have held an annual Poetry Week, packed with a variety of activities and events and accompanied by great media interest. Each year a poet is invited to compose a poem as a special gift that can be handed out free in book shops throughout Flanders and the Netherlands to customers who purchase a book of poetry or similar item. Parallel to this, writers embark on hundreds of readings and road shows. Several major poetry prizes are awarded during this week, the Netherlands organises its Poetry Slam Championship, and initiates gather for the Poetry Ball. All this is made possible by professional involvement and a network of poetry institutions, as well as a broad landscape of festivals and opportunities to perform.

21st-century poets: new voices
The anthology “Polderpoesie. Junge Lyrik aus Flandern und den Niederlanden”, which I have co-edited with Christoph Wenzel, is a bilingual presentation of 21 poets born between 1973 and 1988. “Polders are typical landscapes in Flanders and the Netherlands, the ‘Low Countries’. Polders are new land reclaimed from the sea, and polder poetry is the new land carved out by poetry.” Most of the contributors made their debut in the 21st century; their generation has been most affected by the functional shift in poetry outlined above and has also done the most to define it. Their names are Jan-Willem Anker, Maria Barnas, Tsead Bruinja, Anne Büdgen, Yannick Dangre, Ellen Deckwitz, Annemarie Estor, Andy Fierens, Maarten Inghels, Ruth Lasters, Delphine Lecompte, Thomas Möhlmann, Els Moors, Ramsey Nasr,  Ester Naomi Perquin, Alfred Schaffer, Mustafa Stitou, Max Temmerman, Vrouwkje Tuinman, Maud Vanhauwaert and Tom Van de Voorde. Of course, the conclusion that poetry is more popular in Flanders and the Netherlands than in our own German-speaking territories could quickly degenerate into a lament about popular poetry being lightweight or whatever. There is no doubt that literature changes when literary discourse opens up and adapts to new media conditions and contexts. Poetry performed on reading platforms has to assert itself as a medium in that setting. Poems embedded in public space have a directly communicative function. The poets presented here are gratifying evidence that the downside to this trend does not have to mean pruning down to the anecdotal or the gag. Rather, a literary generation has entered the stage with works that are original and diverse. Two authors of this generation will have personal volumes of work published in 2016, Els Moors and Andy Fierens, both from Flanders.
  • Els Moors‘ poems are uncommonly refreshing and alive,” observes Martin Grzimek for the radio station SWR2 in his review of “Lieder vom Pferd über Bord” with its scenic, often erotic texts: “there’s a woman lying on the bed / seems to have fallen into it / hey look, a monkey, just think, / sitting on her belly, and the shadow / of his thoughts drifts between / her legs.” The poems yank “us from the regularity of perception into fragments of an image which stick with us, and which we come across again in enigmatic dreams” (M. Grzimek). Els Moors (b. 1976) has taken part in several translation workshops in Germany, including “Poesie der Nachbarn” and VERSSchmuggel.
  • Andy Fierens, likewise born in 1976, is a poet and performer “who acts out his full-throated poems on the stage, but has less of the poetry slam about him than pop culture, punk and a great deal of literary tradition. Lines that could rank as aphorisms for the new century jostle with underground elements like violence, sex and alcohol – always with plenty of pleasure in words, wit and absurd wisdom.“ (S. Wieczorek, Literatur und Kritik, 2014). This characterisation still applies to his latest volume “Gambaviecher in fetter Tunke” – “sometimes I am / as happy / as a German / scrabbling in the gutter / who finds / a sack / full of umlauts // but / mostly / not“.
  • Rodaan Al Galidi is a voice who is currently causing a stir in the Netherlands with a novel about the years he sent in refugee hostels. Rodaan Al Galidi was born in Iraq, probably in 1971, but no date or year of birth was recorded at the time. In the late 1990s he fled to the Netherlands. He writes in Dutch. His collection “Kühlschranklicht” combines the existential with the biographic, always accompanied by a critique of our times and of society. Many of his cyclical texts display features of the canto, while others are short and deeply ironic: “Sparrow, teach me to fly, / I will show you how to write poems. / Teach me to build a nest, / I will show you how to find a publisher. / Give me your feathers, / I will give you my coat. / Give me your fear, / I will give you my cat. / Give me your branch, / I will give you my bedroom. / Sparrow, give me your life, / I will give you my cage.”
  • Finally, the volume “Im Sommer stinken alle Städte“ offers some insights into the unmistakable and highly acclaimed work of Menno Wigman (b. 1966). Wigman, a former poet laureate of Amsterdam who has himself translated Rainer Maria Rilke, Else Lasker-Schüler and Thomas Bernhard, works with – among other things – alternating rhythms, assonance and varied rhyming patterns, drawing on (neo-)romanticism and modernism. Often to express an inhospitable world, as in “Kaspar Hauser”: “And Kaspar now is dead. / And we? We animated him in glowing German / prose, but nothing did we see. // Crush your pens. Snap every letter off. / No language can console, / no word will blush for Kaspar and his wretched death.“
Broader, increasingly non-literary public exposure also confronts poetry with new challenges. The concomitant premise that poetry is not just an aesthetic but also a communicative, performative, political, social event literally changes the place of poetry. Groningen first produced the concept of the “solitary burial”, where poets, as a kind of proxy for society, lay to rest those who pass away without a family – elderly people on their own, strangers travelling through, refugees, the homeless, drug smugglers – and compose a poem to be read by the author at the funeral. Both literary and social, this impressive undertaking is very common these days in the Netherlands and Flanders, and a selection of reports and poems from Antwerp and Amsterdam is now to be published under the title “The Solitary Burial”.

“Poetry is teaming up with the Internet, the social media and the visual technologies,” was Geert Buelens diagnosis. Works are transposed, for example, into virtual reality settings and can be experienced with an Oculus Rift. The virtual reality project “Lokroep” (Siren Call) by poet and composer Micha Hamel (b. 1970) and visual artist Demian Albers (b. 1983) was produced by Studio APVIS in several languages, including German, and visitors were able to hear and see it at, for example, the Leipzig Book Fair 2016. Here we can sense that Flanders and the Netherlands have traditionally been a bastion of the graphic arts. It is equally evident in the graphic poems, visual renderings in the form of comic strips or drawings. The literary magazine “Die Horen” uses graphic poems to illustrate its themed issue “Bojen & Leuchtfeuer”, a selection of new texts from Flanders and the Netherlands. The “Book of Hauser” by poets and fine artists Annemarie Estor (b. 1973) and Lies Van Gasse (b. 1983) combines collaborative and cross-media techniques, and the e-magazine “Caleidoscoop”, which publishes Dutch-language literature in German, features it in a special edition. Rozalie Hirs (b. 1965) is both a composer and a poet. Among her interests are digital poetry and interactive poems. Her selection “gestamelde werken” has also been published in German.

Continuing conversations
Bilingual and multilingual translation workshops with German- and Dutch-language poets have been held with great regularity in recent years. The translations usually involve interlinear versions and translation experts to preside over the process. Recent publications have been the fruits of the Belgian Translation Week devoted to “Neighbours’ Poetry” (2011), “Poets Translate Poets” at the Westphalian literature museum Haus Nottbeck (2012), the translation project “Oder und Rhein” (2013) and finally, this year, the volume VERSSchmuggel. Often the participating authors soon follow up with a volume of their own poetry in German translation, as did Anneke Brassinga and Frans Budé:
  • Anneke Brassinga (b. 1948), whose selection is about to be published, is a poet from the Netherlands with a reputation for magical language. She once described the creative process by saying: “The poacher of words sets snares of dreams.” Having translated from several languages herself, she has traced the connections between translating and writing on many an occasion. The richness of her language shimmers between her lines about Rembrandt’s painting: “I love the red of the little Jewish bride / … I scurry through stitched flowers, I adore / the chaste blush, coyly the red robe / clings around her body like / half-dead vine [...]”
  • “The poetry too has a hidden quality about it, a silent world of shifts, of almost soundless movements, where the language generates its own music, a transparent structure of nuances” – thus Cees Nooteboom described the work of the Maastricht poet Frans Budé (b. 1945), whose great themes are transience, history and nature. His poems combine precise perceptions of fleeting moments with anawareness of their fragility and his own mortality: “And all are on the move, the postman passing letters on, /the council sweeping streets. Is this what peace means, / one wants to know. The days roll by amazed [...]”. The cycle “Handgepäck” appeared as a monograph some years ago. A more extensive selection is now available.
  • The Dutch poet and playwright Judith Herzberg (b. 1934) has been published in German for over thirty years. Her reflective texts tend to be written in clear, direct style and draw frequently on everyday experiences. A volume of very short poems – “99 Hoplas” – has been announced for this year.
  • Leonard Nolens (b. 1947), one of the best-known and most distinctive voices in Flanders, has not been published in German since the late 1990s; a new volume of his work has likewise been announced, and it is doubtless long overdue.
“That the old poets were so right is painful and pervasive,” writes the Flemish author Max Temmerman (b. 1975), one of the contributors to the anthology of “polder poetry”. The year that Flanders and the Netherlands are Guest of Honour is also an excellent opportunity to look back and consider the principal pathways along which Dutch-language poetry has evolved. “The hundred best Dutch poems” since 1900 have been compiled by Christoph Buchwald in his anthology “Wir sind abwechselnd Sonne und Meer”. We can also look forward to the rediscovery of Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), whose volume “Augentrost” will come out with an epilogue by Ard Posthuma. Two writers who forged the way for Dutch poetry in the 20th century were Hendrik Marsman (1899-1940) and Gerrit Achterberg (1905-1962), and tribute is paid to them in a double volume.

Finally: the polyphony of Dutch-language poetry

The poet and critic Rob Schouten describes poetry from Flanders and the Netherlands as a “oneness with two faces”.
Flemish poetry is created in a very specific cultural context. This derives from the politics and history of Belgium. At the same time, an important role is played in literature from Flanders by the issue of its independence from literature in the Netherlands and its roots in traditions of its own, including its own avant-garde precedents. In the magazine “poet” I argued that the linguistic and socio-cultural identity of the F
lemish poets finds greater expression in a fine subtle of the absurd.

Whether there really are two faces, or the same face is pulled in different ways, or rather there are very many faces, each of us can now judge for ourselves. What might be instructive is to ask whether the poems from Flanders are merely written in a very specific socio-cultural situation or whether this situation is also inscribed within the texts. Poetry from Flanders, poetry from the Netherlands – both use Dutch as a language, and for all their commonality – the functional shift described above towards public exposure and visibility – they have their own specific contexts. But there are other contexts too which are no less specific, such as those that inform Tsead Bruinja writing in Frisian, the Palestinian-Dutch poet Ramsey Nasr, Alfred Schaffer living in South Africa, the Moroccan-Dutch writer Mustafa Stitou or Rodaan Al Galidi from Iraq – all of them poets who can be read in German this year and henceforth in the anthologies and personal volumes mentioned here. The Dutch-language poetry offered to us is fascinating for its polyphony.

Stefan Wieczorek
is a translator, presenter and cultural mediator with a doctorate in literature. He lives in Aachen. For the present essay series he has already produced the two-part contribution “The stories you have to tell: contemporary literature from Flanders and the Netherlands”. On the occasion of this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair he is editing a themed issue of the literary journal “Die Horen” devoted to the Netherlands and Flanders under the title “Bojen & Leuchtfeuer” as well as the anthology “Polderpoesie. Junge Lyrik aus Flanders und den Niederlanden”, which he has co-edited with Christoph Wenzel.


This essay draws on a number of article by the author, primarily from “Öffentlichkeit! Junge Lyrik in Flandern und den Niederlanden” (in: Stefan Wieczorek and Christoph Wenzel (eds.): Polderpoesie, pp. 363-371.), “Neue Poesie aus Flandern – ‘rette unser land liebe Lassie’” (in: Literatur und Kritik (2014) 487/488, pp. 61-68) and “Mit einem feinen Sinn für das Absurde - Poesie aus Flandern” (in: poet 18 (2015), pp. 140-145). The quote used in the title is by Maud Vanhauwaert and was taken from the anthology “Polderpoesie. Junge Lyrik aus Flandern und den Niederlanden”. The quote by Geert Buelens is from the interview “Dit is niet het einde van de poëzie” in De Leeswolf 5 (2013). Rob Schouten delivered his essay “A delta of poetry, open to the world” on 12 November 2014 during the Poetry Publishers Tour in Amsterdam.

Anthologies and themed editions
Bojen & Leuchtfeuer. Neue Texte aus Flandern und den Niederlanden. Compiled by Stefan Wieczorek. Die Horen, no. 263 (2016).
Christoph Buchwald: Wir sind abwechselnd Sonne und Meer. Die hundert schönsten niederländischen Gedichte. Berlin: Aufbau 2016.
Maarten Inghels and F. Starik: Das einsame Begräbnis. Compiled and translated by Stefan Wieczorek. Wien: Edition Korrespondenzen 2016.
Stefan Wieczorek and Christoph Wenzel (eds.): Polderpoesie. Junge Lyrik aus Flandern und den Niederlanden. Translated by Stefan Wieczorek, Ard Posthuma, Gregor Seferens, Rosemarie Still and Waltraud Hüsmert. Aachen: [SIC]-Literaturverlag 2016.

Rodaan Al Galidi: Kühlschranklicht. Translated by Stefan Wieczorek. Berlin: Hans Schiler 2016.
Anneke Brassinga: Fata Morgana, dürste nach uns. Translated by Ira Wilhelm. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz 2016.
Frans Budé: Gedichte. Translated by Stefan Wieczorek. Berlin: Edition Rugerup 2016.
Andy Fierens: Gambaviecher in fetter Tunke. Translated by Stefan Wieczorek. Heidelberg: Das Wunderhorn 2016.
Judith Herzberg: 99 Hoplas. Translated by Ard Posthuma. Wien: Edition Korrespondenzen 2016.
Constantijn Huygens: Augentrost. Translated by Ard Posthuma. Berlin: Reinecke & Voß 2016.
Rozalie Hirs. Gestammelte Werke. Berlin: Kookbooks 2016.
Hendrik Marsman und Gerrit Achterberg: Gedichte. Translated by Alfred Schreiber. Berlin: Brueterich Press 2016.
Els Moors: Lieder vom Pferd über Bord. Translated by Christian Filips. Berlin: Brueterich Press 2016.
Leonard Nolens: Bresche. Translated by Ard Posthuma. Berlin: Edition Rugerup 2016.
Menno Wigman: Im Sommer stinken alle Städte. Translated by Gregor Seferens. Köln: parasitenpresse 2016.

[Some titles may be working titles.]

Middle Dutch literature
De borchgravinne van Vergi. Edited and translated by Amand Berteloot, Geert Claassens and Jasmin Hlatky. Münster : Agenda Verlag 2015. ( = Bibliothek mittelniederländischer Literatur; vol. 8).
Hadewijch: Lieder. Originaltext, Kommentar, Übersetzung und Melodien. Edited by Veerle Fraeters and Frank Willaert in collaboration with Louis Peter Grijp. Translated by 
Rita Schlusemann. Berlin: De Gruyter 2016.

Translation workshops

Bianca Boer, Tsead Bruinja, Els Moors and Menno Wigman: Afspraken / Verabredungen. Oelde/Dortmund: Edition Haus Nottbeck 2012.
Hans Thill (ed.): Meine schlichten Reisen. Gedichte aus Belgien. Heidelberg: Wunderhorn 2011. (= Poesie der Nachbarn – Dichter übersetzen Dichter; vol. 23).
Kunststiftung NRW (eds.): alles ist! alles ist! alles ist nur was es ist. Lyrik an Oder und Rhein. Ein Übersetzungsprojekt. Düsseldorf: Lilienfeld 2013.
Aurélie Maurin and Thomas Wohlfahrt (eds.): VERSschmuggel/VERSsmokkel. Poesie aus den Niederlanden, Flandern und Deutschland. Heidelberg: Das Wunderhorn 2016.

Dossiers in magazines
Caleidoscoop. Magazin für niederländische Literatur. No. 2 (2016). Dossier Annemarie Estor und Lies Van Gasse “Das Buch Hauser”. Translated by Peter Mioch and Stefan Wieczorek. http://www.caleidoscoop.de/index.php/ausgabe-editie-02-preview.html
Poesie aus Flandern. Ein Dossier von Hans Thill und Stefan Wieczorek. [With poems by Paul Bogaert, Tom Van de Voorde, Els Moors and Marc Kregting]. Translated by Stefan Wieczorek. In: poet 18 (2015), pp. 68-145.
Gegenwartslyrik aus den Niederlanden. Compiled and translated by Gregor Seferens. [With poems by Vrouwkje Tuinman, Victor Schiferli, Tsead Bruinja, Ramsey Nasr and K. Michel].  In: Park. Zeitschrift für neue Literatur 68 (2015), pp. 50-99.
Willkommen zurück. Compiled and translated by Stefan Wieczorek. [With poems by Ruth Lasters, Ester Naomi Perquin, Alfred Schaffer and Peter Verhelst]. In: Ostragehege 79 (2016), pp. 31-51.
Jeroen Mettes: Mond. Sushi. Volvo: Translated by Ira Wilhelm. In: Schreibheft. Zeitschrift für Literatur 84 (2015), pp. 137-162.

Themenschwerpunkt Flandern. In: kalmenzone, no. 9 (2016). http://www.kalmenzone.de/

Virtual reality
Micha Hamel and Demian Albers: Lockruf. Translated by Stefan Wieczorek. VR project. http://frankfurt2016.com/de/veranstaltungen/virtual-reality-aus-flandern-und-den-niederlanden-demian-albers-micha-hamel-2016-03-19-120000-2016-03-19-123000