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Live poetry is something else

By news editor, on 13 June 2013


Ester Naomi Perquin (Photo: Henk Brinkman)

pencil-iconWritten by Stefanie van Gemert, PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at UCL.

Over the past few weeks, I got to know someone special. It sparked off as an online encounter – an email trail about translations.

Her name is Ester Naomi Perquin, and she is an award-winning Dutch poet. I was invited to translate her work for the Contemporary European Poets series.

Translating someone’s poetry is a slightly schizophrenic experience. While weighing Ester’s words and analysing her work, I felt I was peeking into her brain, aligning my thoughts with hers. I quickly realised her poems were products of literary craftsmanship: with depth and a refreshingly humorous side to them, though often heavy in subject matter.

However, when Perquin flew over last Thursday to present her poetry for the first time in London, I realised that to meet the poet Ester Naomi Perquin in person is something else. This live bi-lingual poetry event allowed for an inspiring dialogue about literary translations, and poetry, as a means of erasing the poet.

Perquin’s observant, almost distanced outlook on, for instance, a shooting in a shopping centre may come from her endeavour to get rid of all individual connotation. Poetry goes beyond the personal, she says: “I write to erase myself. A good poem has nothing to do with me.”

Erosion of the self also rings through in a poem in which Perquin describes a response to a misdialled phone call by a woman who asks for “a Richard”:


There are people from whom I differ less than a number

but their mothers do not know me, will never call

You are wasting your time, I merely exist out of partial voices

partial faces, not worthy of a Richard, not a dog

have I ever brought more than hesitant semi-presence


But Perquin introduces and reads out her poetry in such a personal and engaged style. She readily admits: “It’s a difficult process; I simply cannot not be myself.”

She returns to the seemingly contradictory ideas of both erasing oneself and the individual poet’s creative approach, when discussing gender: “I do not approach writing poetry ‘as a woman’. But I can’t help being a woman. I understand that women have more, and more complex, social layers than men; I appreciate that. But a thing that women often do is to pretend these layers aren’t there.”

Perquin beautifully expresses her awareness of social pretence, among a group of teenagers on the beach, in ‘The Girls’:


Untouched from tip to toe

there they all lie, with the same voice

discussing the same mother.

What they are sums up all of their

eternities. This silent and sunlit sharing

of age, body, sun lotion.


Perquin’s work has been translated into English previously and some of these translations are available online.

Her ideas about translation are well-defined, and at the same time modest: “Translation enables me to look at my work afresh. I am lucky to understand enough English to comment on some of their work, but I have to trust my translators and let go. A good translation is a work of art in itself.”

Of course, she says this in exceptionally good English. Then she starts reading out her verses in Dutch, and an absolute silence reigns among the mainly English-speaking audience.

To listen to poems in a foreign language, live, is surrendering to a new rhythm, foreign sounds, feeling at loss for a moment. Before you capture what has been said in translation, you briefly inhabit a lyrical landscape of in-between. Live poetry is something else.




Listen to the British Library audio recording of the event. A reading of the poem “The Girls” (original version, followed by the English translation) starts at 22mins 41secs.

Audio recording copyright © The British Library Board, 2013.


The Contemporary European Poets series is an initiative of the School of European Languages, Culture and Society at UCL, in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Poet in the City.

It brings to London celebrated poets from Hungary, Holland, France, Germany, the Faroe Islands and Italy, for showcase events at Europe House. This specific event received funding from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in London.

Stefanie van Gemert is currently writing up her PhD in Comparative Literature and she is a research assistant in UCL Dutch. Her research focuses on the reception of postcolonial literature in the Dutch and English literary fields.

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