Taking the plunge

by Katrien Steyaert

Frankfurter Buchmesse
Guest of Honour 2016

Taking the plunge

Residency, Creation, Inspiration
by Katrien Steyaert

The North Sea. History. Culture. Dynamics. There is so much that Flanders and the Netherlands share with each other and their neighbour, Germany. The position as guest of honour is the perfect occasion to highlight what binds us. It is also an opportunity to travel: to new horizons, to fresh words and images, to and with one another. After all, the tagline ‘This is what we share’ is no coincidence.

Flemish, Dutch and German artists and writers have been on the move since last summer. They have been exploring one another’s coastlines and cities of art, taking their experiences with them on their journey to the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. The theme of their projects is residency, creation and inspiration. An overview follows below.

The residency projects are not tenuous initiatives, nor are they not mere objects adrift on the sea. They are like shellfish that grow on seawalls, around for many generations. The ties between the Dutch Foundation for Literature (NLF) and the Flemish Literature Fund (VFL) are strong, and go back many years. Each year, a Flemish writer takes up residency in Amsterdam, and a Dutch writer does the same in Brussels. The Dutch Taalunie, the VFL and the NLF also co-manage a guest writer programme. The reciprocal project with Germany, via the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin for example, is also not a new partnership.

This spring, the Berlin institute welcomed various talented authors from Flanders and the Netherlands: Rachida Lamrabet, Bregje Hofstede, Lize Spit, Niña Weijers and Saskia de Coster, the latter of whom discussed Wir & ich, the translation of her successful novel from 2015, during a book club meeting at the Ebertundweber bookstore. The German readers were not deterred by the book’s typical Flemish personality; on the contrary, they praised the familiarity of the obsessive traits of de Coster’s characters, for example. ‘This is when you realise that universal aspects may also be found in a single detail,’ the writer said.

More than ever
In a hospitable counter-move, last winter and spring, the Dutch Foundation for Literature welcomed the author-historian Per Leo, Karen Köhler - at home in the fields of theatre and illustration - and journalist and novelist Mirna Funk, amongst others. This autumn, the fund will open the doors of its accommodation for writers in Amsterdam to Frank Witzel, winner of the German Book Prize, and Valerie Fritsch, who translates her ideas into words and photographs in her work.

Passa Porta, the international literature house in Brussels, welcomed the German writers Katja Petrowskaja and Eugen Ruge this spring. In late August, Eva Menasse will temporarily leave Berlin where she lives and works to take up residence in Passa Porta’s writer’s flat. These authors are just a few of the fifteen authors on average who are invited by the house each year for residences in Belgium. The organisation also sends its own writers for work-related stays abroad in cities such as New York, Rome and Berlin.

Borders have been crossed for years now, but the guest of honour status shifts it up one more gear. Now more than ever, Flemish, Dutch and German writers and poets are traveling to one another’s language regions, they are getting increasingly inspired by one another’s art and countries, and they are thinking more than ever about the future of literature. They are experimenting with form, asking questions out loud, and looking for answers together.

Beachcombers in reverse
Opportunities are being given to new voices in particular. In 1993, the last time Flanders and the Netherlands were guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, they introduced their great literary talents to Germany and the world. They left treasures behind, like beachcombers in reverse. The time has come for a new wave, for young forces and fresh ideas.

In March of this year, the first wave of Dutch-language authors left for Cologne and Leipzig. They are part of a new literary generation that is not quite as well-known, or even unknown, in Germany, and who create fiction, non-fiction, children’s literature, poetry, comic strips and graphic novels. They are all taking the plunge together.

Residence: far-reaching sojourns
Writers from the three neighbouring countries will travel to each other’s literature houses. These are more than just round-trip journeys; a quick trip to Leipzig or Amsterdam and then back home. They are opportunities to create.

Another good example of this is the Dichters aan zee (Poets by the Sea) project. Three poets, one each from Flanders, the Netherlands and Germany, spent one week at a location on the coast where they had never been. The vibrant Els Moors went to the island Sylt, Erik Lindner - who produces poetry that is simultaneously crystal-clear and mysterious - went to Oostende, and promising newcomer Daniel Falb went to Schiermonnikoog. They spent their time there writing new poems, inspired by the sea, all gazing out on the same body of water that washed up on three different, new locations.

‘Travelling to a new language’ is how Els Moors defines her poetry. Her first collection, Er hangt hoge lucht boven ons (There is a Tall Sky Above Us), is the result of her journey from her place of birth, West Flanders, to Amsterdam, where she lived for six years. Berlin was a later source of inspiration for her, encouraging her to write prose that made its way into her second collection, Liederen van een kapseizend paard (Songs of a Capsized Horse).

Her fresh sea poems will be bundled with the works of Lindner and Falb to create a Dutch-German bibliophilic edition that will be inaugurated in early October at the art centre Vrijstaat O. in Oostende. In that same city, the ‘queen of seaside resorts’, Linder saw corners in the waves, and a low wind that crept into the city from the surrounding countryside. The North Sea rendered him colour blind - ‘shades of grey reign over the surfaces’. He inhaled the sweet scent of the burning sand, the salty aroma of the seaweed.

The work of these ‘poets by the sea’ will also be able to be viewed in the lively, poetic jukebox at the Forum, the guest-of-honour pavilion at the Book Fair. In a quiet corner, students will whisper Dutch sea poems in the ears of the visitors. This is how these poetic residencies will be recorded in a non-stop motion of ebb and flow.

State of the City
Visual artists are also riding the wave. This past winter and spring, six of them spent three months each in three fascinating cities: Stijn Van Dorpe and Levent Kunt in Rotterdam, Karl Philips and Chislain Amar in Frankfurt, and Ani Schulze and Mirte van Duppen in Antwerp. They responded to and reflected on the dynamics of their residency location and created their own ‘State of the City’.

Van Dorpe mobilised 200 hundred volunteers to form a long, human ribbon through the Tarwewijk district of Rotterdam, running right through front doors and into back gardens. He filmed the remarkable journey and will be exhibiting a montage of this at the closing exposition that he will be creating together with five colleagues this autumn at the Basis in Frankfurt. This will symbolise their time at the tidemark. This may sound like an ending, but it really is just the beginning; not a full stop, but a comma.

Creation: encounters as a breeding ground
There is so much more to follow after this comma, a lot more. The Flemish-Dutch House deBuren invites authors and photographers to create unique urban portraits, making these available in text, e-book and podcast form. For Erik Lindner, this was the next stop along his journey. Together with the young Flemish author Carmien Michiels, he was asked to come to  Münster in June. The German-Croatian writer Alida Bremer is spending this summer in the city she calls home and writing about it, and the Flemish photographer Sofie Knijff is capturing it all in 24 images. Maarten van der Graaff, the young man behind Vluchtautogedichten (Getaway Car Poems) winner of the 2014 C. Buddingh’ award, will be focusing on Karlsruhe. He is working with Els Moors and Monika Rinck on this project.

This autumn, this city in the west of Germany will be hosting Art in Europe 1945–1968 Facing the Future, a large-scale exhibition that will be on display this summer in BOZAR in Brussels. Offering an overview of post-war European art, it has also inspired four poets: Peter Verhelst, Monika Rinck and once again Els Moors and Maarten van der Graaff.

At the request of BOZAR LITERATURE and the Flemish-Dutch House deBuren, they studied the paintings and images communicating the re-orientation of Europe during this period. They examined Umwertung aller Werte and what it reflects, each choosing one haunting piece from this unfinished work, and tried to capture the spirit of it in a new poem. The war is never far away in these works, nor is the optimism of progress. During literary late-night events in Brussels and Karlsruhe, they will guide visitors through the exhibition, showing them their favourite paintings and reading their poignant poetry. This will also be included in the literary visitor’s guide to the exhibition.

Armando, visual artist and poet, will also make a contribution. His chilling barbed-wire work of art is part of Facing the Future, and he offers his poem ‘Pain’ as a poetic counterpart. He will also be participating in the late-night sessions, repeating his call for an artistic practice that is not ‘soft’, ‘like the moss on the wall of a church, not religious like a pulpiteer, but sublime, like a cannon.’

Kunst ist, was wir teilen (Art is what we share)
Saskia de Coster, Murat Isik, Suzanna Jansen and Yves Petry also break down the barriers between word and image. At the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig, they made a choice from a bust, a portrait painting, an industrial scene or a modern installation that inspired them to create new, literary reflections, or a full-blown performance.

There are countless other museums in Germany with beautiful collections that lend themselves extremely well for literary performances. At museums in Bonn, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Dresden, a total of twelve authors are creating new texts based on their encounters with visual artworks. Kunst ist, was wir teilen. This is how every residency, every encounter can form a fertile breeding ground for new, groundbreaking and inspired work.

Inspiration: new voices, new avenues
Once a wave starts rising up, it begins to gather strength. It sweeps up things of substance, and breeds potential. It gets people thinking and is a special inspiration for novices who venture out into the waves for the first time, awestruck.

Under the title ‘Drift’, young theatre makers in youth theatre centres in Flanders and the Netherlands will work with the poems of the Flemish poet Maud Vanhauwaert, known for her collection Wij zijn evenwijdig (We Are Parallel) from 2014. During workshops and training sessions, the young people will experiment with verses from Vanhauwaert’s poems, devising creative ways to translate these to the stage. Their presentation at the talent festival Havenwerk in Deventer was a success, and they plan to exchange their experiences with students at schools in Berlin and Frankfurt.

Things will really start moving in Frankfurt this October. In Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, also the location for the Guest of Honour Café, eight students from the Art of the Spoken Word and Creative Writing programmes at Artesis in Antwerp and ArtEZ University of the Arts will present the results of all their hard work. They will explore the possibilities for bringing literature to the stage. How can you translate words to the scene of a play? How can you incorporate these into a showcase? This is a showcase of talented young people who are active across the entire range of literature, looking for innovative forms and methods. Working with fellow students from the Media & Graphic Design department, they will go on a Performing Poetry tour to Antwerp, Arnhem, Leipzig and Frankfurt. They will travel by bus, with plenty of music on board and plans for a fantastic closing party at the beating heart of the Book Fair, the final destination, for now.

Dancing, sharing and debuts
For six weeks this autumn, this same Künstlerhaus will also be the temporary home for top dancers and performers from Flanders and the Netherlands. This will include Rosas, the company founded by the world-renowned dancer Anna Teresa De Keersmaker, the Brussels performing arts collective Needcompany, the Flemish-Dutch actors’ group Wunderbaum, and choreographer Jan Martens. In Frankfurt, Martens will be working on his format ‘The Common People’: social experiment, workshop, installation and performance all rolled into one. He will disconnect people from their computer screens, inviting them to participate in real-life encounters. With the help of dozens of Frankfurt residents, Martens will be working on the preparations for a performance day where they form a ‘duet’ with other residents of the city who they meet for the first time.

STUKschrijven will also be ‘washing ashore’ at the Book Fair, and is possibly the most powerful example of interaction among young people. HETPALEIS from Antwerp and Zuidelijk Toneel from Tilburg organised a joint writing course in which Heleen Verburg introduced three Flemish and two Dutch writers to the discipline of youth theatre, an area they hadn’t yet mastered. Under her supervision, they will be making their debut with new, short pieces for two authors. 

These works are scenes, impulses, provocative attempts, dialogues, real or imagined, between teenagers or people from different generations. Between a grandfather and grandson, for example, who find themselves in a sea of people. The people ‘make room for him, and stroke his cheek as he walks by. All these people have his father’s face.’ There is also a scene between a man and woman who, 16 years later, engage in an emotional dialogue to repair their relationship. A dialogue between a young man who is short of breath, and his caregiver Baba, who is not only full of stories, but also hidden sadness.

The dialogues will be published in a bilingual edition by the Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek, and will be brought to life. The texts will be staged as readings at the Mainz State Theatre in October, the final event capping an entire weekend of children’s and youth theatre from Flanders and the Netherlands.

During all these events, Fien Leysen, a Master’s student of the Spoken Word at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, will be recording all the STUKschrijven activities in documentary form. This documentary will offer the authors the opportunity to express in words what this writing experiment meant to them, and she gives the target group of young people the chance to present and explain the new texts. The documentary will premiere in early October at HETPALEIS.

Anxious anticipation
The conclusion? Even though all these projects flourish on a small scale, they have great potential. These exchanges are worthy of their name, interactions that produce results: sea poems, refreshing youth theatre, poetry that anticipates the future.

We are already anxiously awaiting the effects: the treasures that we will leave behind this time, and the new ones that will wash ashore later. Which poets and young people will engage in a dialogue in the future? Which writers and artists will return to the museum, city and sea? Which literary organisations will take the ideas that developed and run with them? Which new ways of bringing literature to the stage will catch on?

One thing is certain: residencies involve so much more than just sitting somewhere in quiet and solitude and writing. They offer opportunities for modern forms of cross-pollination that become contagious, that can take on more than just one life of their own, and can launch longer projects in all three language regions. Residency, creation, inspiration.