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A Man and an Angel

In More poetry please on August 2, 2013 at 9:32 AM

Paul Klee
Shoestring Press published a new collection A Man and an Angel by the internationally acclaimed Dutch poet Toon Tellegen this year. The poems enact a battle between a man and an angel, a never-ending fight that is difficult to quantify and yet seems instantly familiar. We witness man under pressure, wrestling with something primal: a volatile, temperamental spirit that is both a plague and a challenge. In the see-sawing dynamics of each encounter, worthy of the best absurdist theatre, Tellegen stays close to the pulse of the emotion, evoking the turbulence of an intimate struggle, where man and angel become interdependent. In the Netherlands, critics have praised the collection as one of Tellegen’s very finest, and the book was reprinted soon after its first publication.

A Man and an Angel was translated by the award-winning Judith Wilkinson who recently won the biannual 2013 Brockway Prize for her poetry translations.

More posts about Toon Tellegen:
About Love (and about nothing else)
Letters to Anyone and Everyone


‘I don’t like to be pigeonholed’

In More poetry please, Pick of the Week on January 31, 2013 at 9:44 AM

Ramsey NasrMichele Hutchison interviewed Ramsey Nasr at the end of his four-year term as Dutch Poet Laureate
© Michele Hutchison, Wednesday 30 January 2013 Poetry International

I’ve just had the pleasure of spending a week with Ramsey Nasr and five other Dutch and Flemish writers travelling around England with the High Impact Tour. It gave me an excellent opportunity to discover the man behind the celebrated actor-poet and to hear his views on poetry, politics and performance.

What is poetry for you?
People think that poems are based on feelings and longings, but that has nothing to do with the poem itself but the effect it has on the reader. When Shakespeare wrote his famous sonnet ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day’ he probably wasn’t moved himself, he was just doing a good job. Prose is a parallel universe but poetry can transport. Nothing happens in a poem, time has come to a standstill and space disappears. A poem consists of nothing but letters, put them in the right order and you evoke emotion. Good poetic technique is about creating that emotion in the reader.

The students we met in Sheffield were preoccupied with understanding poetry.
Yes. People want to understand poetry but you have to let go of that. Language is usually functional. It gets us from A to B. In poetry, language is used in a different way. The meanings of words change, that’s why it is seen as difficult. You think it’s about something and then suddenly it’s about something else. The poet himself sometimes doesn’t know what the poem is about, because things occur through association or rhyme. The laws of the form determine the poem. Poetry puts language under pressure, misunderstandings surface.

Compare it to music. You never think of a song as difficult to understand. You just hear a melody. When I was young, I listened to Michael Jackson and sang along, copying the sounds and vowels. I had no idea what he was saying. We need to be released from the question of understanding or not understanding poetry. Don’t analyse it all the time. Dissecting a rat doesn’t tell you anything about life.

What kind of poetry do you write?
People always ask what kind of poetry I write. They also ask whether I’m an actor or poet and which I prefer. If they threatened to cut off my finger, which would I be? The Dutch in particular like to pigeonhole everything.
I started off as a love poet. My first volume was about a real relationship, or actually several (poor me), but my second was about women I invented. Readers said to me, you’ve had a bad run of it! That’s the thing – the reader can be completely fooled. The poet can create something that isn’t real.
In 2005, I became City Poet for Antwerp where I lived for 18 years. It forced me to write about the here and now. For example, I wrote a poem about the ‘slumlords’ in the city, or about extreme poverty in Antwerp. Four years later, when I became poet laureate of the Netherlands, I continued on that path: I wrote a poem about Geert Wilders. I wrote a poem about child abuse in the Catholic church – and suddenly everyone called me a political poet. I hate being called a political poet actually.

Is there a difference between the poetry you used to write and the poetry you wrote ‘in function’?
There is a difference, although I don’t like to admit it. The poetry I used to write was private, I didn’t write it for an audience. As City Poet or Poet Laureate, it’s like there’s a monster with a thousand eyes looking down on you. It’s not that my ‘public’ poetry is more simple, but I’m much more conscious about what I write.

What’s it like being Poet Laureate?
You have to write a minimum of four poems a year but there is lots of pressure and lots of requests. You’re the Ambassador for Dutch poetry. It’s a full-time honorary function but you can get paid by the newspaper or institute that commissions the poem. It pulls poetry into the society and society into poetry. Having a Poet Laureate is a way of letting poetry open its ears and eyes a bit more. Poetry doesn’t have to just be about love, or the weather.

Do they commission poems from you? How does it work?
I have the freedom to publish what I like. It’s very Dutch, that. In general I view our liberty as a tool that has been used too much. The whole concept has lost its meaning for us; it’s a sign of arrogance. ‘I am Dutch, so I can be blunt’, said our minister of Finance at a EU-meeting. We don’t realise anymore what it is to be free, we take it for granted. I hate the Dutch for being too loud, it’s better to be modest sometimes. We’re a small country. But this freedom as Poet Laureate is a good thing; it is also a risk: the newspaper agreed to publish anything, without censorship.

Nevertheless, it will feel like a release when I can do what I like again at the end of the month. I look forward to writing completely private poetry. Not to anyone in particular, just for myself. It isn’t very poetic to write something current-affairs related with a twenty-four hour deadline. The poem becomes the news. I said that time stands still in a poem, this goes against that. There’s less room for multi-interpretability when you’re writing about child abuse.

Being Poet Laureate is also a great way of getting a much larger readership. In general you’re lucky if a volume of poetry sells a thousand copies in its lifetime. The top sellers might be about five thousand, that’s all. Now 200,000 people might read a poem when it’s published in the paper and if I read it out on a talk show, the audience rises to a million. You reach much more people – the man in the street.. A male cleaner in a hotel came up to me to thank me after I’d written an anti-war poem about our participation in Iraq. ‘Who other than a poet could say that?’ he commented.

How does acting compare to writing poetry?
As an actor you are always present. Your body never disappears, it’s always part of the act. The poet dissolves in language. I don’t like poets who deliberately perform on stage, there’s always a tension between the poem itself and his or her presence. It can also mask the fact that a poem might not work on paper. It has to be good enough in print, in my opinion.

I’ve had people come up to me and say they’ve only understood poems when they’ve heard them aloud. People like listening to poetry. It gives the appearance of it being understandable. Perhaps because it is read with ease. It might be like musical notation, it’s difficult to execute it in your head. Hearing a poem is a similar process of interpretation, the preparation is done for you.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was about four I wanted to be Queen of the Netherlands. We had a queen, so the idea of a king didn’t occur to me. Some years later, I wanted to become Darwin. After that, my ambitions more or less evolved into something more, let’s say, realistic . . . After flirting with the idea of studying Greek and Latin, I finally knew what I wanted to be: an actor. And as you can see, I changed my mind again, ha-ha.

Banipal published Nasr’s Collected poems Heavenly Life, translated by David Colmer.

Leonard Nolens wins Dutch Literary Prize

In More poetry please on December 2, 2012 at 12:08 PM

Leonard Nolens
The Flemish poet and diarist Leonard Nolens (Bree, 11 April 1947) has received this year’s Dutch Literature Prize. It is the most prestigious prize in Dutch-language literature. The award includes a cash prize of €40,000.

‘Nolens makes Dutch sing again,’ said the jury, chaired by Herman Pleij. The jury called Nolens an ‘exceptional poet and a highly-gifted reader’ and characterised his work as ‘a life-long struggle with language and a quest for his own identity and that of others’.

The winner was overwhelmed by the news on Wednesday morning. He was sitting in his study when Minister Smet called. ‘It was if the outside world was coming inside in some ethereal way’.

Since his debut in 1969, Nolens has amassed an impressive oeuvre. His collection of poems entitled Liefdes verklaringen (Declarations of Love) (1990) was awarded the Jan Campert Prize in the Netherlands and the Triennial State Prize in Belgium. In 1997 he received the Constantijn Huygens Prize for lifetime achievement. In 2008, he was awarded the VSB Poetry Prize for the collection Bres (Breach).

Every three years, the Committee of Ministers of the Dutch Language Union awards the Dutch Literature Prize. The prize is presented to the authors of major literary works originally written in Dutch.

Publisher Querido issued a new, expanded monumental edition of Nolens’ collected works on the occasion of his 65th birthday, entitled Manieren van leven. Gedichten 1975-2011 (Ways of Living. Poems 1975- 2011), which forms a diptych together with Dagboek van een dichter (A Poet’s Diary).

An English translation of Leonard Nolens’ work is expected. Nolens’ peotry was selected for the collection In a Different Light: Fourteen Contemporary Dutch Poets (2002, Seren UK), edited by Robert Minhinnick and Rob Schouten and translted by a.o Paul Vincent

About Love

In More poetry please on November 19, 2012 at 9:00 AM

About love and about nothing else - Toon Tellegen

Born in 1941 in Den Briel, in the rural southwest of Holland, Toon Tellegen is one of the best-known Dutch writers of his generation. His span and volume of work is prolific; he has written a series of successful and award-winning books for children, material for the stage, as well as short stories and longer prose for adults. In addition to this, he has also had several highly acclaimed collections of poetry published. A jack of all trades perhaps, but Tellegen has certainly mastered more than one.

His latest collection of poems, Raptors is Tellegen’s second collection of poetry published in the UK by Carcanet. The title, plucked blind from a dictionary, is indicative of a collection of poems which are as dazzlingly original as they are bewilderingly abstract. Read here the review by The Poetry Society. Judith Wilkinson‘s translation won the Popescu Prize in 2011

Wilkinson also translated his collection About Love and About Nothing Else


A man wanted to talk about love.
“No . . . ! Not about love . . . !” everyone cried
and everyone departed or knocked him down,
and death peered through a window:
“About love . . . ? Ridiculous . . . !”

That man put on a pair of wings
like those of a thrush,
but larger and more despairing,
and away he flew and sang about love
and love sang about him, murmured about him –

never did a man go to bed more sorrowful
on the indifferent earth.

We Too, Tiny Titans

In More poetry please on November 17, 2012 at 9:02 PM

Hagar Peeters

Hagar Peeters writes poems about love, a subject she treats with light-footed irony, in language that at first glance looks like everyday speech, but on closer examination appears to be carefully composed, with inventive and effective use of all sorts of poetic devices.“Hagar Peeters takes the lead in poetic community,” wrote the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad after the publication of her second collection, Koffers zeelucht (Trunks full of sea air) in 2003.

For her poem Droombeeld (Dream Image) from Koffers zeelucht, Peeters received one of the three Poetry Day Prizes in 2004. Peeters has won several other awards for her poetry, including the J.C. Bloemprice. In 2008 she was short-listed for Dutch Poet Laureate. Her latest collection, Wasdom, was published in 2011.

Unfortunately the collections by Peeters are not available in any translation, but a few of her poems were translated by John Irons for


We had no clue what it was all about.
We did things just since things are what you do.
Performed our deeds and sometimes read a book
to celebrate that thoughts don’t die on you.We pushed ahead because you must go on
or stopped short at an unexpected look
for there are looks where meaning’s clearly sent,
above all when we wanted what was meant.

We started and we rounded off it seemed
but what was set in motion followed its own path.
We made our plans, though all the while resigned
to things not going as we thought they might.

We just ran out when we had reached the stage
that unforeseen things could not be reversed.
All that we had we left there in the lurch
and searched for that which had abandoned us.

What Water Left Behind

In Books that need to be reprinted, More poetry please on November 10, 2012 at 11:35 AM

Rutger Kopland

The poet Rutger Kopland (1934-2012) made his debut in 1966 and has published over fifteen volumes of poetry, three essay collections and a collection of travel and translation notes. He has won numerous prizes for his poetry, including the prestigious VSB Poetry Prize 1998 and the P.C. Hooft Prize 1988, one of the Dutch-speaking world’s most important literary awards. Kopland ranks high as one of the Netherlands’ best-loved poets. He speaks to his readers in a quiet, conversational style, using ostensibly simple phrases.

In 1996, Vintage Books of New York used five Koplands in its anthology, The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, making Kopland “a world poet”. A collection of his work was published in the USA as early as 1977, in a translation by Ria Leigh-Loohuizen: An Empty Place to Stay and other selected poems.

Other published collections of Kopland’s poetry:

A World Beyond Myself, selected poems was published by Enitharmon in 1991 translated from the Dutch by James Brockway

Memoirs of the Unknownpublished by Harvill Press in 2001. A bilingual edition with a collection of 55 poems, introduced by J.M. Coetzee and translated by James Brockway.

Paul Binding wrote in the Times Literary Supplement (2002) “[A] fine selection….Brockway devoted himself to the translation and prorogation of Dutch writers, counting Kopland, as the love and care that inform these translations attest, among the very best of them.”

J.M. Coetzee selected Kopland for his anthology Landscape with Rowers; Poetry from the Netherlands (Princeton University Press 2004)

What Water Left Behind, a collection of 40 poems published by Waxwing Poems in 2005. The collection contains new translations and unpublished translations by the late James Brockway which have been edited by Willem GroenewegenWhat Water Left Behind was shortlisted for the 2007 Corneliu M Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation.

Poetry from the Netherlands

In More poetry please on November 7, 2012 at 7:48 AM

Landscape with Rowers

But what about the poetry? I can hear you say…The rich poetry of the Netherlands stays more or less a secret for the rest of the world, mostly due to the status of Dutch as a “minor” language spoken by only twenty-two million people. Though the Netherlands has been the site of vigorous literary activity since at least the “Beweging van Vijftig” (Movement of the Fifties) poets.

Nobel prize winner J.M. Coetzee translated six for he most important modern and contemporary Dutch poets (side-by-side with the original text) in Landscape with Rowers in 2004.

His selection ranges in style from the rhetorical to the intensely lyrical, including examples of myth-influenced modernist verse, nature poetry, experimental poetry, poems conscious of themselves within a pan-European avant-garde. The poets represented are Gerrit Achterberg, Hugo Claus, Cees Nootenboom, Sybren Polet, Hans Faverey, and my personal favorite Rutger Kopland.

Eric Ormsby in the New York Sun

“The book has been lovingly and beautifully produced… I was struck by how much more starkly and conspicuously the effort to grapple with the horrific century just past comes through in the writings of smaller nations…Mr. Coetzee’s translations of these cool and astringent poems read well…By relying on slant or partial rhymes, he often succeeds in conveying the music of the originals–no mean feat.”

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