“I am well aware of the fact that some people regard English as a threat to the Dutch language”

Mia You wrote poem for Poetry Week

© tekening Cheyenne Goudswaard
Unesco's City of Literature Utrecht invited Cheyenne Goudswaard to make an illustration for the poem: yet another form of translation, yet another language added to the mix. © Cheyenne Goudswaard

For the 23rd time, poetry was celebrated during last week’s Poetry Week Netherlands and Flanders 2022. Unesco's City of Literature Utrecht asked university lecturer and literary scholar Mia You to write a poem based on the theme nature. The result is ‘Proverb’. You tell us how it came about.

Difficult to define

For City of Literature, UU-alumnus Rosa de Rijk interviewed various people involved in Utrecht’s literary sphere. Mia You was one of them. “We talked about how difficult it is to define a ‘national literature’”, tells You. “Not only because of the rise of globalization, but also because of the fact that defining Dutch literature simply according to the Dutch language, negates all the other languages used in this country, such as Frisian, Limburgish and Papiamento.” After the interview, De Rijk had the idea to begin publishing work by poets living in, or having strong connections to, Utrecht, who write in languages other than Dutch.

Evolving language

That series started off last Poetry Week. You was asked to combine Dutch and English. “I’m well aware of the fact that some people regard the increased use of English in the Netherlands as a threat to the Dutch language. I think all Anglophones here should be aware of this. That’s why, when I was asked to write a poem for Utrecht, I aimed to write a Dutch or Flemish poem through English”, she says. “So I could show how languages are defined in relation to each other and how they’re constantly changing due to their entanglements.”

Dutch and Flemish inspiration

“My poem ‘Proverb’ is inspired by both a scene in Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs and the neon sign on Hoog Catherijne, ‘Burn the village / Feel the warmth’”, You explains. “I linked those to the Dutch government’s recent decisions about gas extraction in Groningen and the building of the Meta data center near Zeewolde.” In the form of the poem we also recognize references to the Dutch language: it is a double-ended acrostic and a sonnet. The first was the form notably used by the 15th century Flemish poet Anthonis de Roovere, and in the sonnet You used a syllabic meter called a ‘poulter’s measure’.

More information
Read 'Proverb'