Erik Menkveld (1959-2014)
On Sunday, 30 March 2014, Dutch poet and novelist Erik Menkveld died suddenly of heart failure. Between 1998 and 2002 Erik worked for Poetry International as a festival programmer, and he remained with us as a poet, presenter, advisor, inspiration, and friend. Thanks to Erik numerous people have been able to know some of the most amazing voices from around the world.
On Sunday, 13 June 2004, Erik Menkveld presented a programme at the 35th Poetry International Festival with Kees Ouwens, shortly before that poet’s death. Erik was a great admirer of Ouwens’ work, and warned us at the beginning of his presentation that his introduction would be a bit more personal than usual. What followed was one of the most poignant and beautiful pleas for poetry that I have ever heard. Erik’s introduction and Ouwens’ subsequent reading became one of my best-remembered festival moments.
Erik could inspire wonder like no other. ‘I grew up with wonder,’ he said once. ‘My love of poetry developed from the enthusiasm of others.’ With his Ode to Ouwens, his letters to Coltrane, to the composer Schumann, to Dutch poet Fritzi Harsmen and American poet Louise Glück, he showed himself to be the most convincing, enchanting, and inspiring advocates of art I know. The way Erik shared his wonder with others was never conditional. Erik could inspire wonder with power. ‘If you can’t hear how brilliant this cantata of Bach’s is,’ he would say, ‘I don’t think you can be my friend any more.’ Or ‘If you don’t think that’s a great line of poetry, as far as I’m concerned you needn’t speak to me again.’
If you were to search for a similarity between Erik’s idols, it may well have been that they were all searching for something higher, and that they all failed beautifully at it. Just as the composer Messiaen claimed to hear the voice of God in birdsong, or as Coltrane himself was sure he could speak in God’s voice if only he could sing long and intensely enough in the highest registers. Chasin’ the ’trane.
While Erik pointed us towards his heroes, we stood in increasing wonder of Erik’s own work. Erik was one of the most important poets of his time, with his precise, searching lines of verse, now gushing, now razor sharp. He did it all with an eye for detail, with enough spunk for irony, and with the open-minded and curious gaze of the Dutch lad who roams alone through forests and polders.
Erik is still with us in his words, and in all the words he pointed us towards. He is still with us in fish, in kilos, in bird-friendly dogs, in cantatas, and in saxophone solos.
We’re going to miss him terribly.