Talking into the Wind

An Interview with Maarten Inghels about Poetry and Commitment

/ by Sieglinde Vanhaezebrouck

The Belgian poet Maarten Inghels (1988) has been a part of the Versopolis platform since December 2016. In his own country, he is one of the most active poets of his generation. Striking, in this respect, is his social commitment. Both as the official poet of the City of Antwerp and as coordinator of De Eenzame Uitvaart (The Lonely Funeral), a project in which poets write poems for people who are buried lonely, without family or friends. In January, his fourth volume of poetry, Contact, will be published, which links poetry, image and performance. In recent years, Inghels has been a guest at literary festivals of Istanbul, Nicaragua, Berlin, Paris, Mantua, Hay-on-Wye, Amsterdam and Zagreb.


SV: Since January 2016, you have been the official poet of the City of Antwerp - a title that requires you to write six poems a year on urban subjects.


MI: One of those poems is “The Dark Side of Thought,” which I wrote for The World Day of Mental Health on 10 October. It is also on the Versopolis website. In the poem, I set down my greatest fears and darkest thoughts on paper. After that, using a radio satellite, I sent an audio recording of the poem to the moon, and radio amateurs from all over the world picked up the reflected signal. Earth-Moon-Earth (E.M.E) is a method used by radio amateurs to make connections worldwide via the uneven lunar surface. The result that you can find on YouTube sounds as if I’ve been on Mars. That disturbed and weird poem is perhaps the best metaphor for my poetry.


SV: And one of your poems is entitled “Volksbevraging” (“Polling the People”) which, in 35 verses, asks the reader as many questions about his or her inner feelings, faith and culture. What was your motivation for this? And were you already able to draw conclusions from the reactions?


MI: Brexit! And in Belgium, as well, public enquiries were being undertaken for a while. These surveys often consisted of a single simple Yes or No question, but were actually about much deeper currents and feelings. About identity. But nobody was asking about that.


For the poem “Polling the People,” I took my inspiration from the Proust Questionnaire, the quiz of 35 personality questions that Proust was happy to fill in. My poem also enquires into your dreams and feelings. It comes with a “handy” fill-in form you can use to respond. I shall analyze the answers with the necessary discretion.


I received about one hundred initial reactions to the Dutch version. As a reaction to this, I wrote the new poem “Hunger” - many people spoke about a kind of emptiness and a craving for meaning.


After that, I sought out ten people who each had one line from the poem tattooed in my handwriting. 600 people applied with a body part of their choice. I put the title on myself. Together, these people embody a single poem, and are connected for a lifetime. We are a club of strangers.


SV: In October, you presented the English translation of “Polling the People” at a poetry festival in Istanbul. What were the reactions there? Do you see differences?


MI: Absolutely. I noticed a certain timidity. The special form of the poem confused a number of people, I believe. But ultimately, the poem seems to get a kind of dialogue started. Poetry is disturbed communication, isn’t it?


SV: Maarten, has commitment been important to you from the word go? Since your second volume of poetry, Vigilant, we already see that you are a keen observer of the present time. Does being committed also mean that you have to take a position?


MI: No. Writing poetry, which is actually an almost useless, uneconomic, counterproductive movement, is a commitment in its own right. For that, there is no need to take any positions at all. But my most recent work was perhaps the most committed. I published “The Invisible Route”, a map showing all the cameras (private and public) and the last route to walk through the city without being observed. It was an ode to invisibility, to the art of disappearing, and to the famous poem “Crowds” by Charles Baudelaire, who wrote that it was a privilege to be able to immerse oneself in the masses.


SV: Since 2009, you have been coordinating the Lonely Funeral in Antwerp. Do you see an evolution since the early years?


The number of lonely funerals peaked for about a year, and then decreased to about ten a year. In 2017, I wrote one more poem for such a lonely funeral: For a man who was a professional builder of swimming pools, but who, at the end of his life, thought he was a tree. Nobody came to his funeral.


The idea for “The Lonely Funeral” was originally conceived by Bart FM Droog of the Netherlands, after which I took it over in Belgium. In the past year, I have also been in contact on a number of occasions with Melanie Grütter of Zurich, Switzerland, where she now also organizes “The Lonely Funeral” with a number of poets. The German translation of the book by Edition Korrespondenzen apparently ensures that the project will also be organized in other countries. The English translation of the book should be published in 2018.


The commitment here lies in the act of reading a poem at a funeral where nobody is listening. Talking into the wind: Again, an almost useless act.


SV: Recurring themes in your work include loneliness, the friction between the personal and the collective, private and public, the city and nature... Are your projects a logical consequence of your development as a poet?


MI: In recent years, I have been searching for how poetry can also be an action or arise from an action. For example, for a poem about the river Scheldt, I had myself dropped off at the source and walked to the estuary. A journey on foot of 265 kilometers in 11 days. A long documentary poem came out about this trip, “I follow the river, I am the river.” How can poetry attach itself again to real life? And vice versa?


SV: Do those projects influence your work, your poetics?

MI: My work in the past few years has become more conceptual, and sometimes arises from images and performances or actions. The distinction between fact and fiction becomes wafer-thin because I use essayistic digressions, prose fragments and images. Why? Because I had the feeling that a lyrical poem no longer always sufficed.


SV: From February to the end of July 2018, you’re in New York and Zurich. I suspect you won’t only find yourself behind a desk. What are your plans?


MI: New York is a mythical city where I mainly want to wander around, look at art, read, write. And make public enquiries!

Sieglinde Vanhaezebrouck

studied Art History at the University of Ghent (Belgium). Since 2004 she works in Poëziecentrum (House for Poetry) where she coordinates poetry events and the educational program. For several years she is a member of the Culture Council of Ghent. Since 2014 she is member of “Het Lezerscollectief” a reading community closely connected to The Reader Organization in Liverpool. Once a month she leads a reading group according the “shared reading” principles of TRO.