113 decibels. That is what the elated audience managed to pull off with Nicole Kaandorp (no relation to Brigitte, but at least as talented) at the Pandora. It happened in the first round of the semi-finals in the NK Poetry Slam 2023, the unofficial opening of the International Literature Festival Utrecht, which we call ILFU in English. Fresh people, 20s and 30s, watching other fresh people, the youngest 19, trying to poet themselves to victory.
Kaandorp was a convincing winner with a good bike length ahead of the competition, although number two, Eelco Couvreur, came close for a while. In the final, he had no defence against Kaandorp's surprising tactics. Her love bombardment knocked all weapons out of his hands.
One room up, in the Herz, Meral Polat played the stars from heaven, below was a double queue, tens of metres long, for an autograph from Maggie Nelson. Enough reason to be delighted by TivoliVredenburg, the building as a festival that Utrecht has given itself as a gift, and to feel bewilderment at how, partly thanks to that building, that city is getting a literature festival with the vibe of a pop festival.
The Dream of F. Starik
There is more, of course. On Sunday afternoon, the dream of the poet F. Starik, who left too soon, came true: 1,000 poets will travel the country over the next few days to make their words echo everywhere, right down to the nail salon in Winschoten. Those are the words of Babs Gons, who sent the thousand-strong force on its way Sunday afternoon from the lively book market at Vredenburg, courtesy of the Netherlands' merriest and youngest culture councillor, Eva Oosters. Who did another lovely poem by Ingmar Heytze.
Reciting does remain a thingy for poetic (and writing) Holland. The establishment hates stage poetry, preferring bespectacled mumblers who reluctantly read their linguistic wonders aloud. Others start behaving like standing in the pulpit, and some skip a few verbs and then turn them into their version of Spoken Word. A literature festival can then sometimes begin to resemble a run-down community centre where only unamplified singer-songwriters reluctantly perform.
With Babs Gons as Poet Laureate of the Netherlands, we will fortunately be able to see how things can be done differently over the next two years. Like no other, she combines virtuosity in language with a rocking performance that, thanks to her unmistakable charisma, leaves no one unmoved. Sunday afternoon at the Herz was her party. It was a warm bath. Three of her predecessors were there to give her tips, and give her heart. Esther Naomi Perquin, Anne Vegter and Lieke Marsman each, in their own way, did honour to themselves and their successor by emphasising how important it is not to let the responsibility of the job make you feel small.
The meeting between Lieke Marsman and Babs Gons was made all the more fraught by both their health conditions. Lieke Marsman lost an arm due to severe cancer, Babs Gons was told shortly before her inauguration that Cancer has also taken her in its stride.
This Sunday afternoon in TivoliVredenburg was hard to miss, although the ringmaster on duty managed to make it a cringe moment when she stated that Babs Gons was a poet who was 'colour-crossing'. Confusing, because surely it should be something that, when you add up the whole afternoon and all Gons' work, is exactly NOT what it should be about next. At least, that was the subject of lively conversations afterwards.
Anyway, thanks to the appointment of Babs Gons as Poet Laureate, the predominantly white Dutch literary landscape can finally feel how much we need people who have always stood outside to have their voices heard too.
Babs Gons confirmed her superiority by not answering the embarrassing slip. She remained silent. At 113 decibels.