The South African poet/singer Gert Vlok Nel (Beaufort-Wes, 1963) is an odd man out in the poetry of his own country. This former student of English, Afrikaans and History at the University of Stellenbosch, and a former guide, barman and guard, has only published one collection, but it made him famous overnight. Om te lewe is onnatuurlik (Living is Unnatural; 1993), which comprises a series of poems that are as personal as they are painful, was awarded the Ingrid Jonker Prize. The South African writer Etienne van Heerden has called Vlok Nel “one of our finest talents”.
Om te lewe is onnatuurlik was followed up by the CD Om beaufort wes se beautiful woorde te vergeet, a whole-evening show with poems and chansons. Vlok Nel has toured all of South Africa with it. He has been compared to Bob Dylan, and he claims to be a fan of Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen.
In his debut collection, Vlok Nel paints a nostalgic and melancholy portrait of his youth in Beaufort-Wes, a town in the South African countryside where mainly poor whites live. His father worked on the railways. Vlok Nel's chansons are extremely depressing, enchanting and almost hypnotic, and they are written in a non-everyday, old-fashioned and yet innovative Afrikaans. Antjie Krog has written about him: "Volk Nel's stuttering, uncertain and searching style is inextricably bound up with the working-class environment from which he comes. In his poems he shows himself to be an extremely sensitive observer who, with simple working-class language, attempts to reconcile himself to raw everyday life. The poetic narrator tries to fathom the contrasts in his life and in his poems."
Gerrit Komrij included no less than eight poems by Volk Nel in his anthology De Afrikaanse poëzie in 1000 en enige gedichten (Afrikaans Poetry in 1000 or so Poems). A film-maker, Walter Stokman, has made a documentary about Vlok Nel that has been broadcast by VPRO. Since then, Vlok Nel's star has been on the ascendant in the Low Countries, where he is a welcome and above all listened-to guest.
[Gert Vlok Nel is to appear at the 2009 Poetry International Festival. This text has been written for that occasion.]