Ways to pronounce the sea

A poetical archiving of the present in Northern Westhoek

Week of the Festival: Felix Poetry Festival & Poëziecentrum, Belgium

To the question “Who are you?”, the best answer still remains: “Allow me to tell a story”. Just holding a passport isn’t enough, because this only answers the question: “What are you?” 

(Hannah Arendt)

1. 

We consist of stories. Our little lives, bodies moving on trails and roads, they form a complex mechanism. We meet, have conversations, shut down and continue.

Astrid.

In February 2019, I was asked to create a poetical map of Northern Westhoek. The aim was to grasp the “heartbeat of the region” and convey it into poems. An additional theme of the project was “the unseen”, things you can’t see with the unaided eye. Eight municipalities and cities participated in the project: Houthulst, Lo-Reninge, Alveringem, Veurne, Diksmuide, Nieuwpoort, De Panne, Koksijde.

De vaart Nieuwpoort

 

In order to draw a map, one has to delineate and explore a given area. When exploring, it is just as necessary to discover less visible borders as well: the differences in soil, the way the wind blows, the dialects, the stories and rumours, the geniilocorum, the echoes, the diversity of characters and their respective personality traits and habits. To get to know them, one has to observe, meet, conduct interviews and archive everything carefully. That’s how I understand a poetry map: an ever incomplete, always subjective, polyphonic world. In this sense, the creative process is equally important as the result. The process is an organic whole, always flexible, but also self-containing, independent of the final, finished product.  

2.

Partly, my roots are in the Westhoek region. My mother grew up in Nieuwpoort, my grandparents are from Nieuwpoort and Ramskapelle. Furthermore, I have family residing in Oostende, Koksijde, Hondschote – just across the border with France. I remember the region especially from the extensive car rides travelling through the landscapes sitting in the backseat as a child: the clouds packed like cotton wool, the wide, outstretched fields, the old houses with their brown bricks, the winding country lanes, the small village churches, the bakeries, the creeks with pollard willows, preying birds swaying in the wind, raindrops against the car window, waving reed. The canal in Nieuwpoort with its dark grey water sloshing sadly against the sides, the military cemeteries suddenly looming from the landscape. The farms. The monuments in the mist. The silent vastness. There was a melancholic soul resonating through the region, something I couldn’t name as a child, but in which I felt both sheltered and a bit anxious at the same time. 

Years ago, I traded the province West-Vlaanderen for Brussels. Inevitably, I was quickly plunged in what I call the city-bubble. A busy environment full of impulses: people, languages, events, metropolitan ways of thinking and acting. But my heart is still straddled between the city and the countryside — regularly, I’m longing for nature and small scale, overlooking horizons for miles and bare silence. One says that as the gap between the city and the countryside increases, the contrasts at a political and social level grow. Are we really that far removed from each other? Is there still something that binds us? 

I accepted the task without hesitation. I soon realised that this project was going to be more than “just” about writing poems. It was a personal quest for the duality between the city and the countryside, and a possibility to connect. But above all, it was a return, a rediscovery of the elusive rippling through the region where my ancestors had lived — rippling circulating somewhere through my own vains as well. 

A project that was about more than just writing poems.

 

3. 
 

In order to explore the region, I wanted to meet people. I wanted to create a dialogue, to collect voices. In the end, this was not about my story, but about the stories of the inhabitants. Together with them, I wanted to examine the region and its poetical imagination, first and foremost let them think along with me, let them write with me. In doing so, the coincidence required a little push in the back. For every town I came up with a plan, depending on its location, size, inhabitants, and possibilities. I set up events on markets, workshops in schools, a bike tour, creative writing workshops in a hamlet and on an old tram, as well as visits in the local pub. I wrote a letter to the inhabitants and published it in the local newspaper. I organised personal meetings with people, and arranged a boat tour on the Yser river. I arranged a beach cabin with a small table, a few chairs and a thermos full of coffee on the board walk of De Panne. I sat down at the end of the pier surrounded by the lapping of the waves of Nieuwpoort-Bad. I prepared questions, laid out my equipment to archive. But prior to initiating each plan, it mainly remains a shaky, exciting idea. An experiment. One can not easily prepare for a coincidence.  

De Panne

 

4. 


During my fieldwork, I spoke with more than 200 people. Waste collectors, mayors, farmers, sculptors, children, hundred-year-old seniors. I spoke with poets, nurses, carpenters, white witches, clerks, bar owners, postmen, job seekers, hotel owners, teachers, retirees. First they would walk past me, assuming I was a bit suspicious, before retracing their steps back to me. They told me their life story, whispered secrets and jokes, taught me the many ways you can pronounce “the sea” in their West Flemish dialect. Remarkable were the many people who were “recovering”: I talked for example to a woman who was recovering from breast cancer, and who had, since the onset of her disease, wandered around the many little footpaths in the vicinity of Houthulst. On the pier of Nieuwpoort, I met different people who had recovered from burn-outs or depressions. One woman on the market of Lo-Reninge told me how she was slowly resurrecting after the death of her grandson. Often, the theme of suicide was mentioned. In one-on-one conversations, the “hidden” appeared quickly, and the cliché of the secretive West-Flemish was soon invalidated. 

Nieuwpoort

 

Yet, it was also remarkable how resilient, independent and strong many people seemed to be. After the disappearance of the initial suspicion (often due to the helpfulness of the jovial market vendors who reassured their customers about my presence), I became acquainted with proud men and women, stubborn but flexible in response to uncontrollable powers, such as the weather and death. Often, they were unmistakably wedded to their freedom, to space, to nature and its raw beauty. I felt something anarchistic, something that reminded me of the stubbornness of pirates or cowboys, let me do what I do best, let me be. 

During a writing workshop in Oostkerke, a small village next to Diksmuide, the following question was raised: in what way does the place, the land or the soil on which you live, define who you are? Some made the connection between the black, stiff clay soil of the moerstreek, Le plat pays sung about by Jacques Brel, and the adaptability and resilience of itsinhabitants. “The lighter the soil gets, closer to the sea, the brighter the heads of the people.” 

It was striking how one-on-one conversations could be gently expanded by people joining, when the vulnerability of an intimate dialogue slowly but surely evolved into a group discussion. The many children I met also conveyed this connection of vulnerability and pride in their class discussions. They talked about their region fondly with curiosity, spoilt me with a generous inside view of their young souls. If I were a secret, was the first sentence of one of their poems. I was often struck by the sensitivity and openness of their writing. Adults approached me as well – during workshops but also spontaneously — with moving, striking poetry about the region. 

On the basis of these micro-histories, this small data, my dynamic archive grew. Slowly it extended to a collection of organic fragments, a labyrinth of lives. Fertile raw material allowing me to gluttonously dig into after this long andintense period of field work.

5. 

Based on this raw material I collected, I wrote nine poems, each poem belonging to a place. Nieuwpoort got two poems: one for the seaside (Nieuwpoort-Bad) and one for the city centre, their downtown (Nieuwpoort-Stad), two entirely different places. Some texts are based on the accounts of a single person, others embody multiple stories, experiences or a general feeling. All the time I tried to write respectfully and genuinely, as a subjective account of my stay. The poems were collected, gathered and compiled in an online poetry map, available at www.iedereendichter.be. On this website, you can explore the region through poetry, images and film. Together with cinematographer Leonardo van Dijl, I travelled a second time through the area to grasp images of the hidden things I didn’t find words for. 

Encounters.

 

Since besides the poems, the creative process also constitutes a major part of the project, field recordings of the writing workshops I organised are available on the website. Additionally, you can also read the poetry written by the inhabitants and look at the portraits of the people I met. Hence, the poetry map becomes an open library that is multimedia and many-voiced — a complex radar work as is life. 

6. 

In her collected essays  “Changing my mind”, Zadie Smith talks about the concept of “soulfulness”. She describes it as the mood of the soul in which joy and sadness come together. “It is important to sway with this melancholy, because melancholy can transform into something that is beautiful, creative and self-renewing.” These words often came to mind during this project. How can we transform so many stories, this indefinite feeling of heaviness and melancholy in this particular region, into something constructive, something useful, something new?

Mapping the landscape by Gill Van Eeckhout

 

This project started right after the Belgian federal elections of 2019. The week after the election results came out, I went to the Westhoek. When the conversations inevitably dealt with politics, many people talked about their fears: fear ofchange, fear of the unknown, but also fear of solitude and isolation; a growing lack of connection with “the other”. Wouldmore contact between the people from the city and the people from the countryside — in order to get to know the foreign and unfamiliar — be helpful in any way? And is there really less and less space for ambivalent feelings, such as this soulfulness Smith writes about in our individualistic society and digital anonymisation? Can we try to reclaim and create this space through art? 

All these conversations, workshops, poems and their archiving, are an attempt to break the boundaries of houses, gardens,and identities. To bring people closer, to themselves, to each other, and to poetry. To shine a light on the fog of melancholy surrounding the fields and the people, the heartbeat of the region that is passed on from generation togeneration. It is obviously a challenging mission, but every attempt to expose an unknown and undocumented personal story is valuable, just as every individual story is priceless as such. My hope is that this archive will be kept “warm” for a long time, by being used, read, delved into and shared.

Poetical map

I’d like to end with the words of the Danish writer Isak Dinesen: “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them. The consolation to our melancholy lies in a good life together with others, and we manage this by telling others who we are, and who we want to be.”

Two Poems

Alveringem

I sit in the garden eating cherries

and see how this land

has kept my passwords

has kept old bullets, lips of poppies

untouched.

it was a quiet year

says the neighbour

as she does the rounds of the weeds

peers at the pulsating coals on the horizon

do you also feel the falling pressure

that fine dust that has found us after all that

she presses her hands in the earth, and her knees

and her face

it was a quiet year

I listened to my mother who was sad

about my brother who was sad about my father

who was sad about me we were silent

mourning to the rhythm of nature isn’t so bad

says the last farmer who dusts off his invoices against the wall

the animals need me, I give love in the shape 

of a kilo of courgettes, the slime trails of snails

after a storm reassure me

like the fact

that they no longer have to live longer than twelve months

how much lighter, how much freer you would breathe

and does it make any difference

what village, what house

what pride you carry.

Diksmuide

at the junction of clay and sand 

I was born

to a family of scars and wild meat

no plain so flat

that it does not dream of a town

of houses huddled together, a proud garden

to travel in summer to the walnut tree

don’t give me the Costa Brava

I only want a sea in winter

now I walk every day

across the heat of this stone square

under which shards crunch

that the bottom of our hearts

do not simply let be processed

through my spine stream

the melodies of work and money

I look up at the tower, the fist that claims

The right to secrets and wind-blown time

More and more alone

I wander along virtual roads

I fight against the cowardly cadence of my genes.

at the River IJzer I remove my shoes

strew pebbles among the reeds

above the open hands of cold soldiers

each day I look out of the window

make note of the bird and the weather

scrap another word in my mouth

in which I find no more cooling

till everything’s finally still

finally everything’s still

I suddenly see that the walnut tree

has become a cherry tree.