The Week Before the Festival: Felix Poetry Festival, Belgium

Poetry? Can You Make a Living From That?

Thoughts from the Ivory Tower

/ by Richie McCaffery

I moved to Belgium from Scotland to be with my Flemish wife in 2015. My “flit,” a good Scots word for “move,” took place in the midst of Brexit mania, and I was glad to be able to escape it. However, I soon found out that, even abroad, I would be called upon by bemused Europeans to explain the thinking behind my compatriots’ Lemming-like dash off the cliff-edge. Later I travelled back to my native Northumberland (on the border with Scotland) just to vote against Brexit in the EU Referendum. Of course, it was in vain and it seemed to symbolically mark my break with England, at least.


Scotland, where I lived for ten years in my early adulthood, remains very much in my heart and in my thoughts. I am so steeped in its poetry and literature that I did a PhD in the Scottish literature department of the University of Glasgow. As a country, it voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, and remains an outward-looking bastion of pro-EU and progressive values, in my eyes. In 2014, I had voted for its independence from England, but again found myself in the significant minority, the almost Jacobite-sounding “45ers.” In fact, since turning 18, every single cause or party for which I have voted has lost, and it leaves me feeling rather disenfranchised, or un-listened-to, but perhaps that is just the fate of the poet who is always in some way a pariah-figure, always on the sidelines in order to observe and report on the human condition.


That all sounds very grand (perhaps too self-ennobling) and, as a poet living in a foreign country, I can’t say this is really what I do as a poet. Much of my time is taken up thinking of my family, trying to find jobs to do and learning Dutch, with poems written along the way. I used to write poems in narrative wholes but now, torn between two countries, I find my work is more fragmented and more of an exercise in trying to unite different images and thoughts. But I feel my writing has changed for the better, for taking me out of my old themes and giving me new ones. A friend recently told me by email that he was “all for” poets going to live in Europe, to expand their horizons and take them out of their comfortable domestic and linguistic assumptions. I had to agree, but I should point out that my time in Belgium is not a mere rite of passage, I am not some sort of literary tourist or dilettante – I am here because I have to be.


We also talked of our love of Dutch and Flemish poetry and its richly playful, colorful and philosophical dimensions. It amazes me that this poetry, which has been partly translated into English, is not taken more seriously in the UK, for its potential to get us looking differently at things. When I reviewed Donald Gardner’s excellent translations of the poems of Remco Campert (Holland’s grand old man of letters), I found that the book had, and still has to my knowledge, only been reviewed in one other English journal.


Certainly, linguistically speaking, Belgium has been a challenge. It’s a challenge to speak Flemish and then maintain a conversation, when the other interlocutor knows you’re a native English speaker. Belgium is much more linguistically fluid and dexterous than many areas of the UK, and there’s generally a great willingness to accommodate to the more inflexible (monoglot) speaker. But one thing that has struck me, as a scholar of Scottish poetry, is how many linguistic similarities there are between Dutch/Flemish and Scots. Some would definite Scots as a dialect. I would define it as a language that has been Anglicized due to the sheer volume of work (creative and otherwise) that exists written in Scots. When it appears in publication, it often needs to be very heavily glossed into English words. There are a great number of shared words between Scots and Dutch. Off the top of my head: “lied” (song), “kirk” (church) and words that sound very similar, such as “oxsel” (armpit) and “oxster.” Not being a linguistic historian, I can only guess that the Flemish/Dutch influence on Scots comes out of centuries of trade and exchange, a sign of Scotland’s ancient internationalist outlook and openness to other cultures.


Another similarity I’ve noticed between Scotland and Belgium is the pride these countries take in their own poetries. In both Scotland and Belgium, poetry has a public presence and is something to be shared, enjoyed and celebrated, without any hint of guilt or embarrassment. Poems appear on the sides of buildings and on public transport. I was at a poetry festival in England a good few years ago, and remember a debate where poets were reluctant to label themselves as poets, for fear they might be stigmatized or thought of as “pretentious.” Perhaps this has something to do with the sometimes unsympathetic way in which poetry is forced into school curriculums in the UK. It’s odd particularly that Scotland is so pro-poetry, because it’s a place where pretentions are usually mocked and egos seriously deflated. But still, this idea of poetry being out of touch and coming from a high-up Ivory Tower persists in the UK.


Perhaps the misconception that poetry is “elitist” comes from a defensiveness inherent in the poetry itself. Like a cornered animal biting back. Poetry usually doesn’t come from ivory towers, but impoverished garrets – we’re always told “there’s no money in poetry.” I won’t lie: One of the major differences between Belgium and the UK I’ve seen is a blatant and almost ideological capitalism. Both cultures are deeply capitalist, but Belgium is more visibly or explicitly interested in money and status. Book sales of poetry in Belgium account for 0.06% of annual sales, and most Belgian publishers have ceased publishing poetry titles, because it is seen as a financial lost cause. In Scotland, many publishers press on with poetry in full knowledge that it will make them little, if any, money.


Going beyond Belgium and Scotland, one of the universal questions a poet faces is: “Can you live off poetry?” or “Do you make money from poetry?” This question typically comes during dinner parties or formal events, where everyone is a manager of some sort with a BMW parked outside, and the question is asked as a means of dealing with the elephant in the room. The person posing the question usually does so with a sardonic grin and the poet, groaning inwardly, must then try to good-humoredly give an “Aha! You’ve got me there!” type of answer. Just the other day, during a spoken Dutch test, my teacher asked me if I’d rather be a successful novelist or a poor poet. No need to guess which way I voted there…


I’ve written before of my annoyance at the co-opting of the word “poetic” by marketing companies, rather like they did with the term “Bohemian” years ago, in order to sell products: “poetry in motion” / “poetic songwriter” / “poetic film.” I think all of this conspires to muddy the water and twist poetry into something it is not. Poetry, for me at least, is not a profession at all, it is not a buzzword and has nothing to do with money. Daring to put something above money in success-driven, capitalist societies is to always ask for trouble. People will naturally throw the “Ivory Tower” accusation at you, sometimes out of fear and misunderstanding, more than anything else. But the kind of poetry I’ve read and steeped myself in is all about the democratic muse – it’s about empathy and solidarity, things that we perhaps need to be reminded of, as we scramble over each other for our next pay slip. The truth is that poetry is my living – whatever I happen to do to earn money to get by does not have my heart invested in it – but poetry does. Without poetry to read and write, for solace and pleasure, my life would be much poorer. Alongside my wife, poetry has given me something to hold onto during the trials and tribulations of my move to Belgium. Even if I never made a widow’s mite out of poetry, I’d still give my life totally to it as an essential emotional, intellectual and experiential pursuit.


I hear the real world knocking – it’s a long way down that spiral staircase to the door! 

Richie McCaffery

(b.1986) lives in Ghent, Belgium, and hails from Warkworth North of England. He lived in Scotland for a decade, where he met his wife. He graduated from the University of Glasgow with a PhD in Scottish literature. He has published two pamphlet collections of poetry – including Spinning Plates – and the collection Cairn . His next pamphlet will appear in October 2017 and he is working on a second collection, from which the poem ‘Ghent’ is taken.