Babs Gons

- The Netherlands -

Babs Gons (Amsterdam, 1971) is a writer, poet, performer, and host. She writes poems, stories, columns, and articles. Palabras is the name of the monthly podium for emerging poets and writers, which Gons organized for almost ten years, starting in 2000, in cultural center Paradiso in Amsterdam. She was also the initiator and artistic director of Poetry Circle.

Gons made her debut in 2021 with her collection of poems Doe het toch maar (‘Do it anyway’), which was nominated for the Herman de Coninck Prize and the Poetry Debut Prize. In the same year she wrote the official poem for the Dutch Book Week and she won a Poëziester (‘Poetry Star’) for one of her poems. That same year, her children's book 'It Begins With A Dream' was also published. She was the so-called Free Writer 2021/2022 of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and is a member of the Academy of the Arts. She also wrote columns for the Amsterdam daily newspaper Het Parool for many years; a selection of those columns was published under the title Alles wat je liefhebt wordt mooi (‘Everything you love becomes beautiful,’ 2022). In 2022, she was one of the two winners of De Johnny, an oeuvre prize for performance poetry. Previously she also compiled the collection Hardop (‘Out loud,’ 2019), with the work of 18 Dutch spoken word performers. She is a sought-after performer and recites her work on many stages and festivals in the Netherlands and abroad, on radio and TV. She also hosts the musical-literary show Babs' Woordsalon, in which word artists "speak, write and sing to" current themes. Last April, it was announced that Babs Gons will be the new Poet Laureate of the Netherlands, from September 2023 to September 2025.

In September 2023, poet and writer Babs Gons will start her two-year term as Poet Laureate of the Netherlands. This news spread like a happy wave among poets, spoken word artists and word artists of all stripes. During Poetry International Festival 2023, Babs Gons said that, with this role, her mission will be to make poetry more visible and to disseminate it widely. She illustrated this with the following statement: “My first stop as Poet of this Land of My Mother will be the nail salon in Sassenheim (small provincial town in the Netherlands).”


This mission of Gons is not new. It is characteristic of her motives, work, and oeuvre. Appointing Babs Gons is a milestone, and perhaps an even bigger one than it seems at first glance.


For years, she has been a driving force behind Dutch performance poetry. She has personally put the value of spoken word as a unique form of poetry on the map in this country. From 2000 onwards, she organized the Palabras evenings in Paradiso (Amsterdam) for almost ten years. These evenings celebrated the work of young and/or emerging poets and spoken word artists. With this, she bridged the gap between the spoken word scene and the world of poetry, which at that point were still quite divided. Poetry was said to be elitist and only belonging to a small group, oral poetry was dismissed as 'lesser than'. Spoken word was often dismissed and did not make it to the major stages and newspapers. Gons showed the world that poetry has many forms, each of which has its own value and beauty. She made it her mission to democratize poetry and make it accessible: anyone can read it; anyone can make it a part of their everyday life. And: anyone can attempt to make poetry themselves. This can take many forms: on paper, on stage, or both.


The appointment as Poet Laureate also seems to be a recognition of this mission for the accessible and unifying function of poetry, which can be for everyone. It means that not only the work of Babs Gons is seen and recognized, but also the work of the many poets and wordsmiths who have been given a stage by her. A selection of the work of these creators and writers has been compiled in the collection Hardop, which Babs Gons edited in 2019.


At the start of her career, Babs Gons mainly focused on other poets, wordsmiths and spoken word artists. But at a certain moment, she started releasing her own work. Her words quickly found their way into many readers' hearts.


In the Netherlands, Gons is often described as "the queen of spoken word". Anyone who has heard and seen her perform knows why. It is an experience to see how the rhythm of the words enters her body and voice. How she brings the poem to life. A completely different experience compared to the more traditional way in which poems were recited. Gons herself no longer calls herself a spoken word artist, because her words more and more often now land on paper. She does, however, explain in various interviews how reciting poetry still influences her way of writing. How she writes out loud to hear if the lines work. Working with rhythm is essential to her work, both on stage and on paper.


Gons' poems are extremely socially involved, allow us to dream about a more beautiful world, offer a counterweight in a time which can sometimes be characterized by negativity. A special component of her work is how she can quickly switch from current national or international themes to what this can mean for an individual's personal story.


Gons wrote the Book Week Poem 2021, 'Polyglot', a text about living fully while simultaneously fighting a battle to be allowed to be yourself. The poem is also a loving ode to the disarming power of language, which characterizes Babs' work: the language so bare / that it gives you nothing to cover yourself with / but the sweetest thing is me / the language that so exposes me / if only my skin allows it (rudimentary translation made for the purpose of this essay)


The selection committee of the Poet Laureate praises Gons as 'one of the most appealing poets the Netherlands has right now, with a voice full of fire, burning and warm, both on stage and on paper. She is a poet who knows how to give passionate and committed words to what is going on in this day and age, in a society that she, full of conviction, connects with poetry.”


Babs Gons herself says that she has said yes to being Poet Laureate “because poetry”, for her, “is attention and dialogue. And medicine, and thermometer.” She also knows how to give a surprising twist to serious and negative discussions in society by applying a sense of humor and an original perspective.


For example, in the poem 'Go back to your own country'. She turns this thought around and turns it into something powerful by showing us that everyone carries a country with them, is their own country: maybe sometimes you also need to return to your own country for a while: I am going back to my own country / enter my lands / full of ancestral tales / where the spilled blood / brought forth deep-rooted oaks/ that hold me upright among the / remains of plantations / overgrown with thistles and cover-ups (rudimentary translation made for the purpose of this essay)


The power of Babs Gons' work comes together beautifully in one of her poems most beloved by many listeners and readers: 'Do it anyway'. Moving, hopeful, comforting, and empathetic. With each reading, the words come closer to you: even when you think the world doesn’t notice you / and isn’t holding its breath / for you and your stories / tell them anyway / just do it/ because deep down you know / that this is the only thing allowing you / to live at peace with yourself and the world (translation by Fannah Palmer)


While she spoke earlier about her first stop in Sassenheim –in the land of her mother (the Netherlands) – her father's country (the US) also plays an important role when it comes to her thinking and her reasons for writing about social issues. The color purple is an important book for her because it is about people who look like her and it is set in the area from which her father’s family originates. The unequal treatment of black men is not unknown to her: all her American cousins and brother have been imprisoned at some point. Toni Morrison inspires her to write: miss Toni Morrison / write us a world / in which we fit / and in which we know where we come from / look inside us / then I will too (rudimentary translation made for the purpose of this essay).


It is entirely fitting that Gons wishes to leave us with a critical note. During her lecture at Poetry International, she said: “I would like to talk about that title, Poet Laureate. In this country we say Poet of the Fatherland, or in other words 'The father of the Netherlands and the former colonies'. Is this still appropriate today? If there is anyone who will use language to invent a better denomination for this title, who can change the world a bit, it is Babs Gons.


Written by Shantie Singh