Ark and Herman de Coninck prizes awarded


Two major prizes devoted to literature and expression have been awarded, one to the founder of The Low Countries and the other to a poet who Herman de Coninck loved to not understand

‘His criticism was merciless’

While the coronavirus crisis has perhaps postponed ceremonies, it has not stopped juries from selecting winners for two of Flanders’ most prestigious prizes in expression and poetry.

The Arkprijs van het Vrije Woord, or Ark Prize for Free Expression, has been awarded to author and poet Jozef Deleu (pictured left), the founder of the journal Ons Erfdeel (Our Heritage). Deleu, from West Flanders, founded the journal in the late 1950s and followed it up with other language volumes, introducing the arts, culture, politics and history of Flanders and the Netherlands to a wider audience.

Decades later, all three language versions – Dutch, English and French – are still being published online. In addition, Ons Erfdeel – renamed De Lage Landen last year – appears in a print version every quarter and the French-language Septentrion twice a year.

‘Unparalleled achievements’

Deleu, now 82, was the director of the Ons Erfgoed organisation and editor-in-chief of all the publications until 2002. He was in his years in the job known for giving rousing speeches in defence of identity, culture and humanitarian policies. Deleu continues to be an outspoken advocate of Flemish arts, culture and heritage, criticising, for instance, the government of Flanders’ recent cuts to the budget of the cultural sector.

“Resistant to any political influence or authoritarian populism, Deleu defended and disseminated the language and culture of the Low Countries for 60-plus years,” said the Ark committee in a statement. “His criticism of deceitful politics is merciless. … His achievements in language and culture are unparalleled.”

The prize will be given to Deleu at a date to be announced later.

If we hadn’t had the proof in our hands, we would never have been able to imagine that someone could do this with poetry

The winner of the annual Herman de Coninck Prize for Dutch-language poetry, meanwhile, has gone to Eva Gerlach (pictured above right) for her collection Oog (Eye). The third in a trilogy, Oog – a title that refers to the eye of a storm – is about community and connection.

The collection traces “the whole process of breaking apart, grabbing back on to each other, wanting to find a connection, but then separating again,” says Gerlach. “What of the world do you take with you, when the whole world is falling apart? It’s about memories: What do you hang onto and what do you lose?”

The poems become more and more intense, until the reader reaches the eye of the storm. “If we hadn’t had the proof in our hands, we would never have been able to imagine that someone could do this with poetry,” said the jury in a statement. “The poems are bundled like a countdown of the Fibonacci numbers, leading us to zero with mathematical precision. The last cycle does not contain a single poem; there we find ourselves in the eye of the storm. On the way we are shaken vigorously, not least by the questions Gerlach is asking us to consider.”

The prize is named after the award-winning Flemish poet Herman de Coninck, who died suddenly in 1997. De Coninck himself was a fan of Gerlach’s work, once writing: “This is the kind of poetry that I love – the kind that is completely clear but still mysterious. It is translucent in its clarity, and yet I do not understand it. And reading it, I do not understand myself – but in a terribly pleasant way.”

Photo Jozef Deleu courtesy Behoud de Begeerte; Eva Gerlach courtesy VPRO Poezie