If there is any truth in the cliché that Dutch authors are characterised by modesty and control, Ramsey Nasr is an atypical Dutch poet. He enjoys creating long, unfurling verses in which various voices resound, in which humour and tragedy coexist, and in which moralism is not eschewed. It is tempting to explain these preferences by referring to his background (he has a Dutch mother, a Palestinian father) or to the city where he lived from the early nineties to the beginning of 2010 (the Belgian city of Antwerp). But anyone doing so is guilty of a practice that Nasr criticises in his work increasingly vehemently: the custom of presenting human identity as unchanging. Nasr’s recent poems, essays and columns plead passionately in favour of a cosmopolitan, open-minded vision of humans and la condition humaine.
Nasr began his career as an actor. He studied at Studio Herman Teirlinck, a theatre school in Antwerp, which he completed in 1995, and subsequently worked as an actor with Het Zuidelijk Toneel theatre company. He made his debut as a poet in 2000 with 27 gedichten & Geen lied (27 Poems & No Song) in which his theatrical background is still evident. His long epic poem entitled Geen lied (No Song) was performed as a dramatic monologue by Het Zuidelijk Toneel. This text is a rhymless revamp of motifs from the myth of Orpheus, in which Orpheus descends into the Underworld to seek his beloved Eurydice. In his text, Nasr expands the main character to cosmic proportions in order to express the colossal endeavour of the main character and his utter failure: “Nothing among us other than ourselves, nothing between us/ for we are standing on light roads, to the degree than it burns/ inside that I yell thanks to your mouth”. The other poems in the collection are considerably shorter but they exhibit the same sense of romantic irony. Time and again the poet establishes that the world is not as magic as he once liked to think it was: “Again no miracle this morning.”
In the second collection, onhandig bloesemend (inconveniently blossoming), 2004, Nasr partly makes use of the same motifs and styles. However, at the same time, he introduces a new writing style: that of light absurdist irony. This is primarily apparent in wintersonate (zonder piano en altviool) (winter sonata [without piano and viola]), a long poem in three sections about Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich is music-lover Nasr’s favourite composer, as he states in an essay in his collection entitled ‘Van de vijand en de muzikant’ (Of the Enemy and the Musician), 2006. In a stacking of metaphors, the poem entitled wintersonate attempts to sketch the emotional effect of the compositions: “hold me tight/ my honey tree/ my shield fern/ my bleeding heart”. At the same time, the poet presents the absurdity and tragedy of Shostakovich’s life, troubled by the censorship imposed by the Soviet authorities.
After his second collection, Nasr opted, increasingly obviously, to give his works political and social significance, perhaps in emulation of his Russian idol. In 2005, he was elected City Poet of his place of residence, Antwerp. Before he had officially even begun, an article in the NRC Handelsblad (daily newspaper), in which he pleaded for an Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian areas, made him the subject of fervent discussion. The Jewish community in Antwerp spoke of ‘mud-slinging’, and a political dust-up ensued. However, after his election Nasr soon managed to regain the faith of his readers with a(nother) series of (long) poems. Time and again he broaches the subject of identity, in which he never shuns controversy. Nevertheless, his poems were well received in Antwerp, partly because he attempted to promote a dialogue between the indigenous part of the population and the ‘newcomers’. In addition, his poems were cast in a more accessible idiom, with long, vernacular sentences without punctuation, an approach by means of which he sought a wider public. Two books issued from this city poethood: the collection of poems entitled onze-lieve-vrouwe-zeppelin (Our Dear Lady Zeppelin) and the collection of essays Van de vijand en de muzikant (Of the Enemy and the Musician), both published in 2006.
The success of Nasr’s approach was confirmed when he was appointed Poet Laureate of the Netherlands in January 2009. Although Nasr initially continued to live in Antwerp (he now lives in Amsterdam), he immediately committed himself to his role as a tireless commentator on his ‘fatherland’. The texts that he writes in his new function are often long and epic in their tone. Moreover, he frequently adopts a somewhat moralistic tenor, as in the sonnet entitled ‘Nieuwjaarsgroet’ (New Year’s Greeting). Nasr wrote it at the beginning of January 2010 to criticize the actions of the Dutch Minister-President Jan Peter Balkenende: “best wishes from all Iraqis/ destroyed wholesale and liberated in the grave”. At the same time he puts his own moralism into perspective by consistently ironising the theme of (national) identity. The poem ‘mi have een droom’ (me have a dream) is an excellent example of this. It is a so-called monologue by a Rotterdammer in the year 2059. In an inimitable pidgin language of Dutch, English, Moroccan and Surinamese, he looks back on a period fifty years ago when the world was still uncomplicated. He even reaches a racist conclusion: “mi have een droom, vol is vol, belanda boven/ sluiten di shit & alles wordt wider basis controller” (me have a dream, full is full, Hollanda top/ close all that shit & and everything become wider basis controller). The joke is, of course, that a character who would nowadays be referred to as a typical ‘immigrant’ is giving a very narrow-minded vision of national identity in the poem.
In retrospect, Kapitein Zeiksnor, the leading character in the novella Kapitein Zeiksnor en De Twee Culturen (Captain Sourpuss and the Two Cultures; 2001), is also a typical Nasr character. This anachronistic ‘captain’, whose mission it is to show the world its shortcomings and who eventually collapses under the strain, clarifies admirably the commitment in Nasr’s work, certainly the work that he has been commissioned to write. The fact that Nasr consistently mocks his own moralism does not mean that he immediately abandons it. Perhaps Nasr does feel some sympathy for the captain, even if his sense of perspective impedes an all-too naïve realism.
tussen lelie en waterstofbom – The Early Years (between lily and hydrogen bomb – The Early Years; collected poems), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2009
Wonderbaarlijke maand (Wonderful Month; poetry CD), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2009
Homo safaricus (diary), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2008
Van de vijand en de muzikant (Of the Enemy and the Musician; articles), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2006
onze-lieve-vrouwe-zeppelin (our-lady-zeppelin; poems), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2006
onhandig bloesemend (awkwardly blossoming; poems), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2004
Twee libretto's (Two Libretti), Thomas Rap, Amsterdam, 2002
Kapitein Zeiksnor & De Twee Culturen (Captain Sourpuss & The Two Cultures; novella), Thomas Rap, Amsterdam, 2001
27 gedichten & Geen lied (27 Poems & No Song; poems), Thomas Rap, Amsterdam, 2000
Translations of Nasr’s poems have appeared in publications including:
Banipal, ‘Writing in Dutch’, no. 35 (English; review), translated by David Colmer. Banipal, London, 2009
Contemporary Dutch Poets. A Poetry Review Supplement, vol. 97: 3 (English; anthology), translated by David Colmer. Poetry Society, London, 2007
V nizozemsku už nechci žít (Czech; anthology), translated by Veronika Havlíková, Olga Krijtová and Jana Pellarová. Mladá Fronta, Prague, 2007
Winter Sonata (English; CD), translated by David Colmer. St. Altviool, 2007.
Horison: majalah sastra, vol. 35: 4 (Indonesian; review), translated by Agus R. Sarjono and Linde Voûte
Ramsey Nasr’s website (in Dutch, and partly in English)
Nasr on the Dutch Royal Library website (in Dutch)
Nasr's Poet Laureate page on the NRC Boeken website
An interview with Ramsey Nasr on www.nrc.tv
Nasr reading his poem ‘mi have een droom’ on www.nrc.tv
Nasr reading his poem ‘Ik wou dat ik twee burgers was’ on You Tube
Two Nasrs reading the poem ‘Het complot’ on You Tube