A Strange Host Called Poetry

The Watou Summers

The Watou poetry-summers, which take place every year in the West Flemish village of that name close to the French border, knock the usual tedium of a summer in the country clear out of sight. Each year the organiser and poet Gwy Mandelinck combines poetry, visual art and the existing architecture in a new and original approach. Twenty-one years ago Mandelinck’s urge for visualisation became so great that he felt that verses alone could no longer express his thoughts and emotions. From 1983 on he settled on a confrontation of poetry and contemporary art and let the folklore aspect, hitherto a marked feature of Watou summers, go by the board. In 1985 a few artists began for the first time to take full advantage of the local environment, and this became a leitmotiv that has run through every summer since. Camiel van Breedam, an assemblage artist, made a mustard gas burial mound with gas masks; from a distance it looked like a heap of dead leaves. And on the Marktplein the painter Godfried Vervisch put up a shed and had graves dug in it. Then he put his paintings in them.

Since 1991 the poetry-summers have taken on the character that has made them well-known both at home and abroad. As their name indicates, it is always the word that is central, however important the influence of the visual arts may be in the two disciplines’ confrontation. Not by chance did the 1991 poetry-summer have as its title the line by J. Slauerhoff ‘Only in my poems can I live’. It could be the motto of Gwy Mandelinck, who in the winter months withdraws from the artistic world and spends his time reading, writing and selecting poetry. With the approach of summer he then brings that indoor world out of doors, putting up the chosen poems in the strangest places. Over the past decade he has increasingly moved away from canonised Flemish poets in favour of a selection with a more international flavour, including new poets. On top of this, lately work has been commissioned from some poets. In 1991 poetry set its stamp on the proceedings immediately and literally, for a number of streets and squares were given poets’ names which they still bear today. The visitor too is left with memories which seem burnt into the retina. In 1991, for instance, there was the death-house of Paul Snoek, one of the most important post-experimental poets of the Dutch language area. 1991 was the tenth anniversary of Snoek’s death and his sons Jan and Paul arranged a little room in Watou. You had to work your way in through black hangings and then you saw a chair and a table. A lamp hung low over the table, with under it a fly-swat lying next to a poem by Snoek with the lines ‘There’s a tear welling up in the soul of my pen / and the flies have shat on my paper’. On the wall, among other things, the poet’s motorcycling kit, smelling of mothballs.

In 1992 Mandelinck for the first time focused on a single visual artist: the recently deceased sculptor José Vermeersch. His hallmark was stocky people and dogs who looked rather like each other. Alongside those seventy figures, all displayed in Watou’s Douviehuis, Mandelinck installed a great many poems. But it wasn’t just that you could read them; here and there you could also hear poets’ voices. For instance, these lines by Hugo Claus kept ringing in your head: ‘The time is come Goodbye all those I know / As gas rolls near and climbs the breath / Of him who in my body sits unspeaking // The time is come: “Goodbye dog-tamer.” // He says: “Goodbye body like a house”.’ Among a group of figures (women, children and dogs), a motionless audience, you saw Claus on a video screen speaking these lines over and over again. His voice pursued you as you went down the barn’s creaking steps. From 1992 on the poets’ voices became faithful guides through the poetry-summers. Guides to death, almost, for over the past ten years mortality has been a powerful presence in summery Watou. Perhaps this thought strikes you even more quickly when you are confronted with poetry and visual art in tumbledown buildings, in stables or simply in the open air. Not immersed in the comfortable atmosphere of a museum or gallery. In this respect Watou’s poetry-summers are always unconventional and contrary. They ambush your imagination: poetry as a strange host radiating mortality.

In 1994 Mandelinck reversed the roles again: the poet Hugo Claus, who of course harbours in his oeuvre a whole range of poets of all complexions, was the central figure. And kindred souls were selected to complement his work. Traces of that memorable summer when a world-class poet consented to be shut up in a village for a whole two months can still be seen here and there: on the wall of the Wethuis, for instance, the first time that site on the Marktplein had been used.

In 1995 it was the turn of another magician: Jan Fabre. Until then he had always been associated with urban culture, with dark theatres and museums, though his fascination with insects might lead one to suspect that he was capable of other things. And he confirmed that suspicion brilliantly. Fabre took the poems Mandelinck handed him and located them in the space with a fine equilibrium. Unforgettable was the teabags installation in the cellar of the Douviehuis: as you came down the stairs you saw hundreds of teabags swinging in the wind and smelt the wonderful aroma of the tea in the water. And while the teabags mirrored themselves in that water you heard actors’ voices simultaneously whispering and stuttering Guido Gezelle’s poem ‘The Water Scribbler’ (‘Het schrijverke’) about a dancing dragonfly.

In 1998 Gwy Mandelinck joined up with SMAK, the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (Municipal Museum of Current Art) in Ghent. In that year the museum’s curator Jan Hoet brought some choice items from its collection to Watou. Gwy Mandelinck came up with verbal fireworks to match them. This time the title was ‘Before it disappears and after’, a line from the Dutch poet Rutger Kopland who turns up every year in Watou; the result was a real feast for the senses. Among other delights, wintry lines by Kopland were set against a summery tableau vivant by Mario Merz: tables of glass and granite spread with colourful vegetables.

In 2000, under the flag Storm Centres, the poetry-summer voyaged through Europe with a markedly more international choice of poetry. This was mainly because with this theme Jan Hoet wanted to draw attention to smaller countries and language-areas within Europe as centres of turbulence. He selected mainly young, still relatively unknown artists. And again that resulted in a lively confrontation between the genres, with a regular and fascinating fusion. Yet perhaps it was Jan Fabre, again, who provided a high-point, in a little house on the Douvieweg. Here Death — as we already said, a regular visitor who always lies in wait for you in Watou — almost takes your breath away in the oppressive combination of Peter Verhelst’s poems, the claustrophobic little rooms and the voice of actor Dirk Roofthooft, who was responsible for the aural presentation of all the poems. Fabre’s Salvator mundi, a small globe of beetles with a human backbone rising out of it, offered the visitors’ souls little hope of salvation. But then, Watou is not a place for consumers of art to stroll languidly around, for the poetry of its summers is like the dust of the village’s roads: it all looks very peaceful, but the words get into your clothes and stick there, longer than you want.

By Paul Demets
Translated by Tanis Guest

First published in The Low Countries, 2001

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