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2014 VSB Poetry Prize nominees

December 06, 2013
Only one collection can win the prize for best Dutch-language poetry of the previous year, but all five of this year’s nominees are worthy of your attention – as are the poets who wrote them. Meet (in alphabetical order) Maria Barnas, F. van Dixhoorn, Micha Hamel, Miriam Van hee, and Antoine de Kom. The winner will be announced on 29 January, making it the first highlight of the 2014 national Poetry Week.
Jaja de oerknal [Yeah-yeah the Big Bang] – Maria Barnas (De Arbeiderspers, 2013)
Jaja de oerknal is an introspective collection about feelings and experiences (fear, memories, the creative spark) which nevertheless presents a whole wealth of descriptions and observations. The use of language is confident, controlled and supple, elegantly tracing parallels between what is said and mentioned and what remains silent or implicit. The individual poems cover a wide range of form registers but create together a thematic and stylistic unity. The images are powerful, evocative but never obligatorily symbolic.
De zon in de pan [The sun in the pan] – F. van Dixhoorn (De Bezige Bij, 2012)
F. van Dixhoorn presents collections with a maximum of two poems. He has no pretensions: here it is definitely not a case of a poet using language to project his personality. It is the poetry that takes precedence, not the poet. No conventional concessions are made to meaning either. A daringly sustained degree of minimalism ensures that it is merely rhythm that is conveyed; that is what the reader must hold on to as he turns the pages so that he can participate in the cyclic event. This collection is a poetic ritual.
Bewegend doel [Moving target] – Micha Hamel (Atlas-Contact, 2013)  
Micha Hamel has discovered gold; so evident and rich is his musical linguistic universe that it really is like something discovered. He drags himself and the reader by the hair along the abysses of modern existence. Every form is queried, thus becoming a moving target. Hamel handles many registers with great virtuosity, with apparent ease and that extends to encompass his negativity and cultural pessimism in relation to the present. He never thematizes any of those things in any conspicuous or blatant way; his collection offers us living poetry.
ook daar valt het licht [there too falls the light] – Miriam Van hee (De Bezige Bij, 2013)
Van hee strikes a balance between finding involvement in the world and reflecting individual loss, between having an eye for major historical events and making intimate observations. With tremendous precision and nuance she is able to conjure up both the abominations of Eastern Europe and the landscapes and personages of her own youth.  All the while she questions, in the subtlest of ways, just how she can relate to that. This poet is an arrow of fire: she sets nothing alight but reminds us that light does exist.
ritmisch zonder string [rhythmic without a string] – Antoine de Kom (Querido, 2013)
Antoine de Kom makes many strange worlds virtually tangible by combining the sensory and powerful quality of visual language with slang and folklore. It is in those worlds that his language explodes to variously wash like a wave, leaps from pillar to post or abruptly come to a halt. At the same time, De Kom reveals a deeply anchored type of involvement. It prompts him to draw attention to harsh reality and to – happily – mock the role of the poet. In fact his poetry is all about ‘reflecting on what is still to come’.

With this year’s incredibly high number of VSB Poetry Prize entries, 115 in total, one may rightly conclude that no expense has been spared where poetry is concerned. The jury found the attention devoted by publishers to promoting poetry to be most praiseworthy. What was also striking was the care given to presentation. On several occasions poets had even collaborated with illustrators. In some cases an impressive front cover failed to dispel the predictability of the poetry in the collection; in yet other cases the sloppy layout did not do justice to the quality of the poetry, surprisingly often, however, there was a good balance between the two.
The jury did read many truly fine collections but was, despite that, somewhat taken aback to see that so much of what had been submitted tended to be much of a muchness in terms of poetic form and the sensibilities expressed. The impression was that Dutch poetry finds itself locked in a field of tension, now almost a century and a half old, that oscillates between the ‘most individual form of expression’ (Kloos) and the ‘imitative compulsions of daily lives’ (Potgieter). Regardless of all the freedom permitted in terms of form and the space for individual vehemence, it would appear that such a generally ingrained dilemma is threatening to become restrictive. For this reason, the vast majority of the poets seem to be actually turning away from the world and cocooning themselves in their own emotions, experiences and memories.

There was a marked preference for nostalgia. Through their descriptions of photos, slowed-down moments of the past, fragments of correspondence and diaries, and with their in memoriams it is as if the poets have banded together to arouse a sense of melancholy. It is no generational matter: whereas such nostalgia might be understandable among older poets it is precisely with younger poets that present-day urban life is being invested with the static nature of the past (in the process, the newest generation of poets tends to veer towards producing samples, disjointed metaphor and making less use of other stylistic poetic devices). The pursuit of such nostalgic effects surely points to a more general sense of ennui that has crept into the poetic culture.
All the more reason why the jury was able to admire the degree of involvement shown by some and their urge to explore through poetry. In radically opting for language and nothing other than language certain poets have displayed great courage. Having the patience to allow one’s work to ripen so that mere individuality can reach out to embrace the universal was also appreciated. In short, such poets had the courage to allow language to be language while simultaneously relating to the world.
The 2014 VSB Poetry Prize jury consisted of:
Ahmed Aboutaleb
Saskia de Jong
Hilde Keteleer
Joep Leerssen
Jan Rock
The VSB Poetry Prize is the top Dutch-language poetry prize, and awards the author of the previous year’s best Dutch-language collection with € 25.000,- and a special glass sculpture by Maria Roosen. The award was instated by the VSB fund in 1993 at the initiative of Huub Oosterhuis, and was first presented in 1994. Since 2011 Poetry International has held the awards ceremony on the eve of Poetry Day. 

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