Interview: Babs Gons

The woman who many refer to as the Queen of Spoken Word—in Amsterdam and beyond—discusses the ups and downs of pioneering the Netherlands' spoken word scene.

What brought you to Amsterdam?

The lure of the city—I wanted to get away. I grew up in different places in Holland, and the last 10 years of my school life I lived in a small village on the beach. A place where I didn’t really feel at home. As soon as I had my high school diploma I just got the hell out.

Did you discover spoken word at college or have you been writing your whole life?

I have this big, big love of literature and I used to read a lot when I was a child. And also write little stories, little poems. In ‘97 I spent a year in Brazil and when I came back, I went to New York to visit my friend—I stayed there for a month, and I went into the city and I came into Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the Bowery Club and different places, and I saw all these people doing exactly what I wanted to do but I didn’t know it existed. People like me, on stages, telling stories about people like me—it was so recognizable and so passionate, and for me it was like kind of a ‘click,’ you know? I never knew the literature I love could be so vibrant and dynamic.

And then I came back here to Holland, to Amsterdam, and I had the chance to organize something myself, but it was a little harder to find the local talent because spoken word—people didn’t know what it was. It was like a very well-kept secret. People came on those monthly nights and they brought their friends who knew people, and people were surprised because everyone had this image of old, white, gray men with big beards, you know, with little books about the toe of a mosquito and nature and dust! So it was like, the same surprise I had. Every month I saw people looking so surprised that they could be so entertained by a night like that.

But spoken word was still quite new and unknown, and I thought, we need local talent. Because you need to kind of translate it to your own context and stuff. So there was this production house that started up in the east and they wanted to have this really complete workshop program. So we started giving workshops there, and actually that’s where this group grew from, it’s called “Poetry Circle Nowhere.” Sometimes, if we had the chance, we invited guests, workshop masters from all walks of life, and we made plays, and started to get bigger and bigger. I was the artistic leader from 2007 to 2014, and then I thought, Okay. My work is done. It’s happening. There’s a lot of people involved in the spoken word movement—there are hardly any festivals anymore that don’t have a stage for spoken word. So in 2014 I quit and went to work as a solo artist. Because all those years working behind the scenes, building the stages and the organization, prevented me from doing my own thing. And that’s the reason I started in the first place, of course—you know, to be a performer myself.

It sounds like a very organic growth with the spoken word movement here. I guess it was the same thing that you encountered, just that people hadn’t known that that was what they wanted to do until they saw it?

I think so. It’s almost like a new thing, it’s not pure literature, it’s not pure performance art. It’s where they meet. And sometimes it’s also where theater meets. And comedy. And movement. And play, and music, and hip hop—so it’s, to use a very technical term, an interdisciplinary art.

Especially this year I’ve been bombarded with requests of organizations to help them transform the organization, or the magazine, or the platform, or the festival into a more inclusive organization or festival or magazine, because there’s this growing consciousness that there is a group of people in this society, young people from different ethnic backgrounds, with different gender definitions, who are doing this thing that is kind of literature and art. It’s more fit for the people, it’s more inclusive—it’s a form where the stories of people that are never being heard are being heard. There’s a place for them. And why is that? That’s because the rules are different. The rules are no rules, really. It’s telling your story. It’s very personal and it’s also part of a long oral tradition, much more maybe than the classic poetry that we read on pages because this is not only for the pages, it’s more for the telling. It’s the most direct form of having your voice being heard. There’s no editing, you know? And I think it’s a very important, and also a big difference from the classic literature. And I think a lot of young people are discovering that, but also the world of the arts and institutions and maybe even the organizations, they start to value spoken word. It’s a powerful tool as well, and that’s I think why it’s growing so much right now.

Do you think there’s more of an institutional consciousness of the value, or is there just more movement at the grassroots level that is sort of making its own noise?

I think it’s more consciousness from the institutions, and I think even they are the ones sometimes—the funders, the money-raisers, or the money-givers—that tell, for example, the magazines: “We’re gonna give you these grants if you start to include more people from different backgrounds, more spoken word.” And I directly get these questions—not even like, you know, with a nice package or something—questions like, “We are a very white organization, we need to be a little bit more diverse and younger. Can you help us?” Maybe even every week I get a request in my mailbox asking to advise them, and help them, and be some kind of ambassador. I think it comes from both ways. It’s the organizations themselves—they say, “OK, this thing’s happening and we need to be part of it,” but also, like, funding organizations tell them, “We’re only gonna give you this grant if you include more.”

That’s a weird dynamic—it still indicates a sense of ignorance, it seems.

We lack a lot of consciousness in our history, I think. Like, in this society right now, we’re having this basic discussion of what is racist, what is inclusion, what is white privilege or privilege at all. My family is from Texas, from Houston, but here it’s like we’re 50 years back in history. What happens here all the time is, like, a select group of very privileged people kind of feel like they can decide or judge about what is racist or not, and without any form of empathy. So it’s the same with this a little bit—sometimes, I’m just looking at people thinking, Where have you been? The first thing you wanna say is, “You must reflect what you’re looking for.” Some organizations I'm just thinking, Yeah, you want something, but you’re on such a different planet!

I think the most important thing is that people go to places, look at things, dance to things, read things where they find some place of reflection in themselves, you know? It’s like, when I grew up, I read everything that I could find, but it was mostly white writers, Dostoevsky and Chekhov and Shakespeare, until I found Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker—I think most of the books I have are written by black women, Caribbean women, African women, women from the Diaspora, because I find something of myself in those books. Even though their lives are millions of miles apart we have communal experiences. And I think it’s so important to have this.

I have a poem, it’s an ode to Toni Morrison. I performed this poem, and still until this day people are mailing me that I touched them so much and it was so recognizable. It’s so intense how many people have the same history, growing up in this country and not being included in the stories, in the books, in the novels, in the films, in the magazines, in the series on television. It’s changing now, but we all feel it.

Creating the live experience and having that direct connection with people that stirs up emotion must be so powerful.

Yeah. It’s funny, because when I come off stage people wanna hug me, and I have to get used to it. It’s something about being so personal that I think you become some kind of public thing—and it’s amazing because I’m always surprised!

Do you remember the first time you were hugged? Like, the first performance where you had that kind of reaction from somebody?

No, I don’t really recall that first time. But it started happening in the last two years, I think. I think when I started to feel really at home, like, really comfortable on the stage, this started to happen more and more. Also, I guess, because it’s very personal. And it’s nice actually. If it doesn’t happen I’m just like, “What? No one’s hugging me?! What happened?”

You’ve only become truly comfortable on stage in the past two years?

Yeah—in the beginning when I started organizing, so the beginning of 2000, I performed still. But I was a totally different person then. I also did my work in English and I’ve started doing it in Dutch now. I got so much more comfortable in my own language, I think. In your own language you’re much more confronted with the real meaning of every word. You have to be a little bit more selective, you’re not prone to use the cliches and expressions because it’s closer to you. Also, I think English for us is like good Chinese food with lots of sauces on it, you know? Or like a very juicy sushi. And the Dutch language is a little bit more, like, pickle-y. You need to work a little harder to make a nice flow in it. Words most of the time are longer, they sound more technical, they’re harsher. But they’re very close to us.

And yeah, so it’s since 2014—I think then I became really, really comfortable on stage. Really comfortable with my work. All the insecurity I had before was also because I didn’t have the proper amount of time and attention because I was always working for other people, for the stage and the shows, and when that fell away—I now tend it as a garden you tend daily to, you know? It becomes something different. The art is all I have—I pay a lot of attention to it, and I nourish it.

I take this art very seriously, with a lot of humor as well, but I think it’s such a privilege to be able to live from my art right now. I think what’s most important for me is that when I started to perform again, I felt there was a need for me to perform there. Because people responded, and I thought, I have this mission to tell stories of the people, of myself, all the people around me, and the people that make part of my world. And that’s, I think, what I do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.