Poetry International at Stortemelk, Vlieland: Holland - August 2016

My first reading in Holland, and an utterly unique place to give it – the island of Vlieland, a poetry reading on the Stortemelk holiday camp. All thanks to Tsead Bruinja and Bas Kwakman, and Poetry International, for letting this beautifully idiosyncratic mini-festival tradition – poetry readings for those on holiday on the camp, in the dying days of the summer season, nearing its tenth year of happening – be my debut in Holland. More than that, I had a really wonderful experience meeting some remarkably hospitable, intelligent and generous people.

Another grand result of Tsead and Bas’ invitation was the chance to have Tsead translate a dozen or so of my poems. We spent some hours working on this, one of the most comprehensive and rewarding translation processes I’ve been through, and Dutch is the 20th language my poetry has been translated into. So Tsead and I had chatted plenty before I arrived in Amsterdam to begin the journey north, to the sea. I had a night in the city, amidst rainstorms, in an Airbnb not conducive to rest, before I met Tsead early and we began catching busses across country. Friends from the first, the sensibilities Dutch and British people share, the dry, barbed humour most of all, we chatted for hours until we caught the ferry from Haarlingen to Vlieland. The island has a tiny population, it is a well known holiday destination but genuinely removed from the mainland, a culture unto itself. And as part of the reading’s tradition, the poets contributing get to stay in tents as part of the sprawling Stortemelk complex. I was led to my tent, the first time for a poetry event, and got to reunite with Bas, who I’d spent time with in China, Germany, Scotland, and meet the wonderful Saskia Stehouwer, Ries de Vuyst and the others in what became a temporary, extended family/friendship group to which I was immediately included. Just beyond the tents, over one large, lengthy dune, was the expansive white beaches and the north sea. I had a chance to ramble, and be cooked for, before hitting my tent, exhausted.

My one full day on the island was really memorable. I had the chance to sit in the camp café and watch the families on holiday rumble, and meet the young Dutch who work the camp, an impossibly friendly, athletic group of 16 to 25 year olds, who have some sort of internal system of gentle hierarchy that clearly leaves them well deposed to the world and returning every year. Nearly everyone I spoke to had been coming to Vlieland for most of their lives. The atmosphere was uniformly friendly and calm. I managed to get a run through the island’s extensive forests and up the sand dunes, dying. Then off on a long walk for three or four hours, hugging the coast, following the beach from the camp round to the ‘town’ part of the island, up to the lighthouse and back. I returned to eat with the group, now including Anneke Claus, a poet, and her partner Victor, and this is the tradition, when a poet is invited, they get to bring their loved ones, enjoy the hospitality of the camp for a holiday. Then to the reading itself.

The camp has a history of arts and theatre and music, many bands having played in the camp and it being a sought after destination in Holland. Such a world apart from holiday camps in the UK. We had a full room and an intimidatingly attentive audience. Great to watch Anneke, Bas, Tsead read, watching their body language and audience response so carefully because I don’t understand Dutch, and witness the music of Ries de Vuyst. My work seemed to go down well enough, clearly Tsead’s translations were excellent, and there's always palpable sense that there’s far more rope in Holland, in Europe in general, for my kind of work, which I think is playful, but is clearly rooted in the relatively dense modernist poetry tradition. Certainly loads of people were lovely to me about it, and that went on until I left really, people coming up to me in the café and on the ferry home even, to say they enjoyed my work, and perhaps my patter in between poems, apologising for the fire of 1666 on Vlieland, where the English burned the island. Another nice footnote in our history. 

After the reading we were given the famous post-performance reward, known as the Potemkin, by Jan and Judith, who run the camp, and who were so attentive and friendly, even with so much going on around them. The Potemkin is a giant plate of fried foods. Many types of fried cheese. I resisted and struggled to bed. The following day, taking the ferry back to mainland Europe, Inevitably sad to leave  but perhaps all the more memorable a trip for the intensity of the experience, my time on Vlieland was something far more than a poetry thing, as I like all things to be - rather it was the beginning of friendships and collaborations and a beautiful experience where poetry was just the excuse.