Babs Gons aan Roger Robinson: 'That is what poetry does, gives us the impulse to dream.'

In ILFU Corresponding Stories vragen we schrijvers en denkers van over de hele wereld om elkaar te schrijven over de grote thema’s van onze tijd. Onze penvrienden van maart en april zijn de Britse dichter Roger Robinson en onze Dichter des Vaderlands Babs Gons. Vandaag sluit Babs de correspondentie af. Waarom hebben we het niet over het politieke belang van hoop, van liefde en van verbeelding, vraagt zij zich af.


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Van: Babs Gons
Aan: Roger Robinson
Datum: 26 April 2024
Onderwerp: RE: Corresponding Stories

Dear Roger,

Thank you so much for your letter and the beautiful poem about your father. I just came back from a short stay in the countryside, I was in much need of some rest for my body, mind and soul after the hustle and bustle of the last few months. It was nourishing. Coming back to the city I found your letter wherein you talk about the importance of rest. What a sweet synchronicity!

And what a wonderful idea of yours, the Rest Residency. Sounds good to me! I have been a proud napper since 1994. Not completely by choice for I have been diagnosed with chronic fatigue, but even on good days, I nap regularly. I need the break to get me through the day. To keep my health, my sanity, my power. So yeah, I’m very familiar with Tricia Hersey’s work and I really appreciate her. One of my mottos is ‘Rest is part of the work too’.

Just like you said, it’s such a challenge when to hold on and when to let go, when to resist and when to yield. Like you, I grew up with the notion that hard work is what you should aspire to. Seeing my parents juggle multiple jobs had its influence on me and my siblings, monkey see, monkey do. I’m glad to hear that you found yourself on a journey of embracing rest as a radical act of self-care. I follow you Roger, well maybe I’m a couple of steps behind you, but I’m working on it. Being Poet Laureate doesn’t always make it easy to take care of my relaxation time. At the moment I travel regularly across, and outside of, the country to perform, and when not performing, I’m writing for different locations and occasions. It’s as if the red ‘on air’ button is practically always burning. But I’m improving in my rest management, learning how to close the door and turn the light off.

And then there is that issue of being easily distracted. Even when I was sitting in a rocking chair last week, looking out on a field, enjoying sun, skies, pheasants and partridges, the news seeped in about a racist incident that enfolded in the national media, and my initial reaction was; okay, get out of your rocking chair and…do something, react, write, comment! And then I sank back into my rocking chair telling myself I need this break. I heard Toni Morrison’s words echoing in the back of my head, the function of racism is distraction, it keeps you from doing the work. It keeps you from resting, from your selfcare, your healing. Your creativity.

This brings to mind a project, initiated by two creatives from Sweden, Sonya Lindfors and Maryan Abdulkarim. A few years ago they came to The Netherlands to involve a couple of local artists and thinkers in their project about a post-racial society, called ‘We should all be dreaming’. Its main focus is on the radical potential of dreaming as a restorative and subversive practice. It was set up as a choreographed gathering, with performance and a lecture as an invitation to the participants to spend time together, to listen together and to dream together.

Who would we be in a world not defined by racist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy?

Their shared experience was that many of us don’t know who we are without the struggle. Our daily lives have been so formed by our post-colonial society that we haven’t had the space to imagine an existence outside of it. Who would we be in a world not defined by racist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy?

I feel that this connects to what you said about marginalized groups, never having a break from oppression, and how imagination becomes stifled by the demands of daily life. How to move on from this place of constant struggle into a collective future, where we can co-exist without the need of coherence? Who are we after we reach what we have been struggling for? After reaching freedom. After reaching equality.

It made me wonder what my writing, my bookcase, my friendships would look like. Would I then only write about birds, without using them as a metaphor for freedom? Roger, would you still write? And about what? How would our language change?

I’d like to share this poem I wrote a few years ago with you. It was translated to English by Donald Gardner.


I learned one language after another
the one of the decent clothes
that makes up somewhat for your skin
of the words that are perfectly groomed
that would somewhat seem to forgive you

the language of the head held high
and the straight back
and pretending
no one can touch you
the language of who does she think she is
who do I think I am

the language of love me in spite of this body
the language of love me because of this body
of get your fingers out of my hair
only the wind may go through it
get your fingers out of my mouth
I keep my tongue in my chest

the language that separates
the mouth from the heart
the heart from the blood
the blood from the bones
filing cabinets of lost narratives
in which you sometimes
come across yourself
in the echo of a distant ancestor
the language that sings your soul back home

the language so naked
it gives you nothing to cover yourself with

but the one I love most is
the language that lays me as bare
as my skin allows

I actually wonder how you feel about being called a socially engaged writer. When I am being referred to as one, as happens to me all the time, I know they’re talking about my poems about sexism, racisms and other big -isms, and not about my publications about love, hope, about dreaming and imagination. I regret that there is little emphasis on the political importance of these subjects.

Robin D. Kelley writes in his book Freedom Dreams, The Radical Black Imagination ‘that the catalyst for social engagement has never been misery, poverty or oppression. People are drawn to social movement because of hope: their dreams of a new world radically different from the one they inherited.’ Furthermore, he says that love and imagination may be the most revolutionary impulses available to us, and yet we have failed to understand their political importance and respect them as powerful social forces.’

Amen. And I suggest to add rest to the list. Rest as a fundamental human right, not a luxury. Hoping and dreaming as vital for survival. We need to play, to create, to keep imagining a brighter horizon. Celebrate beauty, joy. Love. Keep dreaming.

That’s where poets come in, as you said. I couldn’t agree more. That is what poetry does, slows us down, gives us the impulse to dream. Our alphabet of hope.

It’s with a little sadness that I’m nearing the end of this letter, the end of our correspondence. It was a privilege to read what is going on in your head, your heart, your writing and exchange ideas. Thank you for your beautiful insights.