Sunday, June 26, 2011

ramsey nasr:: the dutch-palestinian poet laureate of the netherlands

Ramsey Nasr in literary conversation
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 26 June 2011

The appearance of the Poet Laureate of the Netherlands, Palestinian-Dutch poet Ramsey Nasr, at the London Review Bookshop in central London last Saturday night was a highlight of World Literature Weekend. Nasr was in conversation with the distinguished British poet, scholar and broadcaster Ruth Padel, the author of seven acclaimed poetry collections.

Nasr was born in Rotterdam in 1974 to a Dutch mother, and a Palestinian father originally from the West Bank village of Salfit. He trained as an actor at Studio Herman Teirlinck theatre school in Antwerp in the Flemish region of Belgium, and is a man of wide artistic talent.

Padel outlined some of his activities: “He has written and performed prize-winning monologues, played Romeo in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, directed opera singers in Mozart’s ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail’ alongside a classical Arabic singer, writes essays for Dutch and Flemish media on art and politics, and in 2006 was awarded the prize of Journalist for Peace.”

The Netherlands’ Poet Laureate is selected through public voting. Nasr was elected from a shortlist of five poets in January 2009, for a four-year term. But for someone of part-Palestinian heritage whose poems can cause controversy, it is not easy to be accepted by all as the Poet Laureate exploring Dutch issues through poetry.

Nasr said that people sometimes make comments such as: “Why do we pay subsidies for people like you? Go back to Gaza! Be a poet over there.” (Not that he actually comes from Gaza). He accepts all this good naturedly, and says: “You have to have a thick skin.” He has in any case developed a wide following since his first collection was published in 2000. When in 2005 he was City Poet of Antwerp, in the Flemish region of Belgium, his performances were likened to pop concerts.

The World Literature Weekend was organized by the London Review Bookshop in collaboration with the British Museum and with support from Arts Council England. The overarching theme was the idea of personal and public memory and the way that history leaves its traces on the present. Padel said: “Ramsey’s extraordinary life and work to date seem to sum this up.”

The event included a launch and author signing of the first-ever selection of Nasr’s work to be published in English translation. The anthology, “Heavenly Life: Selected Poems”, was translated by the prizewinning Australian translator David Colmer. It is published by Banipal Books, the book-publishing arm of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation.

The anthology has a foreword by Padel, who writes: “In every form, Nasr’s work speaks of historical context and a historical imagination which is inextricable from his Palestinian descent.” The poet, journalist and editor Victor Schiferli has contributed an illuminating 10-page introduction to the collection.

To coincide with the event, the London Review Bookshop published Nasr’s latest poem “the house of europe” in a limited edition of 250 signed copies. The chapbook-style edition contains within its orange cover the four-page poem in Dutch, and in English translation by Colmer.

Nasr was asked to write this poem on the occasion of the opening on 16 May of the new Het Huis Van Europa - The House of Europe - in The Hague. The House is an easily accessible information hub where people can direct their questions about the European Union and European institutions.

The House was opened by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Vice President of the European Parliament Stavros Lambrinidis in the presence of Queen Beatrix, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and Euro Commissioner Neelie Kroes.

Nasr’s poem celebrates the messy diversity of Europe. The architects of the new Europe envisioned it as a place where “the citizens are civilised to uniformity / rough edges gone and rounded off / like their languages, their coins and tomatoes”. But underneath is “a pit of gaping contradiction”. It is “a hole full of celts and cathars / etruscans, moors and magyars / reeking of milk and manly hides”. The poet needs “a place with discomforts / with old-style corners: badly arranged / draughty and incomplete, but real - / something to grip between cellar and roof”.

The “Heavenly Life” anthology includes poems from Nasr’s three published collections: “27 Poems and No Song” (published in 2000), “awkwardly flowering” (2004), and “our lady zeppelin” (2006).

Nasr’s second collection won the Hugues C. Pernath Prize. It has been through several reprints, the latest of which includes a CD of him reading the poems. His third collection includes the Antwerp poems he wrote while City Poet, and includes old photographs of the city and a commentary.

In addition to the poems from his three collections, “Heavenly Life” contains the poem Nasr wrote when competing for the post of Poet Laureate, and poems he was written since being elected to that position. During the election process, each of the five shortlisted candidates had to write a poem related to the current situation in the Netherlands. The poems were published in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper.

Nasr explained that the poem he submitted, “I wish I was two citizens (then I could live together)”, takes its title from the famous Dutch rhyme “I wish I were two dogs, then I could play together”. His poem is about two very different visions of Holland: the 17th century Holland of Vermeer paintings, and the Netherlands of today. The poet asks: “how did we move so fast from humble to rude / from a glimmer to an omnipresent shrieking crew?”

Nasr’s love of classical music has inspired many of his poems. He is not a musician himself, and says: “For me writing poetry is a way of composing, it’s as close to music as I will get – that’s why my poetry has a large element of music. The distinction between music and poetry for me is that poetry is music with meaning.”

The long poem “Heavenly Life”, composed in his capacity as Poet Laureate, is modeled on Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Nasr says: “I tried to follow the tempo, the atmosphere of the work. I listened to the music all the time.” The poem takes its title from the song in the symphony’s finale. Nasr based the poem on the deep relationship between the Jewish composer Mahler, his friend the conductor Mengelberg, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, over a period of 50 years.

The poem confronts a dark period of Dutch history: the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945, during which Mengelberg was accused of collaborating. Jewish musicians, and the works of Mahler and other Jewish composers, were purged from the orchestra.

A sequence of poems in Nasr’s second collection, “awkwardly flowering”, is based on the composer Schumann’s “Dichterliebe”. This song cycle consists of Schumann’s settings of 16 love poems by Heinrich Heine. Nasr is particularly fond of the late singer Fritz Wunderlich’s performances of these songs.

Nasr has reworked Heine’s poems in his “dichter liefde” (“poet love”) sequence. “What I’ve tried to do is to pick each poem and transport them to the here and now, to see what metaphors would still survive... whether they would mutate, some might become extinct.”

After Nasr’s reading of several of these poems, Padel said: “I love the way you read them, it’s full of music and energy. I was thinking, you’ve really taken romanticism by the scruff of its neck and given it a good shake.”

In his introduction to “Heavenly Life” Victor Schiferli writes: “The question of Israel and the Occupied Territories is a constant thread through Nasr’s work – obviously because of his father, but also because the subject is part of the clash between East and West that has flared up since 9/11.” When Nasr visited Bethlehem, Ramallah, East Jerusalem and Amman, his audiences – to the poet’s surprise – interpreted all his poems, including love poems, as being about Palestine and Israel.

The anthology includes the poem “the subhuman and his habitat” about the routine humiliation of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints. Medical patients suffer particularly badly: “wheelchairs go bouncing through dust / back from the city where they cure the sick / diabetic with cancer in blazing sun / many are old many are sick many are sweating animals / but that’s the whole idea”.

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