Emily Ballou on Brussels

October 19, 2011

Does modern European poetry reflect the diversity of this multilingual and multicultural continent? And is poetry a useable tool in bringing together the diverse languages, cultures and people of Europe? Those are just a few of the questions raised by the Transpoesie project by presenting 21 poems from 21 different European countries on billboards in the Brussels metro system in 18 different languages. Each poem has been displayed in its original language, as well as in a French and a Flemish translation. —Transpoesie

Passa Porta House of Literature event: Claudiu Komartin (Romania), Emily Ballou (UK), chair Peter Vermeersch (Belgium), Morton Sondergaard (Denmark)

I have been living on apples here in Brussels. I’d imagined I’d be living on waffles or chocolate, but no, apples. Which seem the better food to accompany this journey to Belgium and Brussels to participate in the launch of poems on the Belgium Underground. Easy to carry in a bag, crisp, tart, sweet all at once, round in the hand, something you can toss and catch, like poetry, with a distinctive sound when you bite through its skin.  It has weight and flesh, and it browns when you leave it too long. Like my words do when I do not write for weeks. Some bites are sharp, you tug off a sharp angle…and then you suddenly, with a spill of black seeds, reach the core… So it is apples this week… of many flavors from many countries. Poets from all over Europe. My host at the B&B says apples are the only fruit Belgium grows well.

I have come here to read my little lizard, who was first brought out into the open, chalked on a wall in Beirut, and has now come here, to Brussels, flattened onto a wall in the underground. He is as quick as you’d expect, and seems to be determined to visit all places starting with the letter ‘B’.

I, Lizard


master of parkour

swift, efficient, heterothermal

traverser and traceur, trail-layer

of space, I negotiate

log or tree or wall or rock

equally, vaulting hills, scaling scarp.

My urban world the realms beneath bird

the realms of dune and sand

darting past the busy commuters

of beetles and ants, gliding from

carcass to hill, carcass to hill.

I am skilful, I am splendid and nimble,

my life

is my only tutor, I am

muscles and breath.

I chase, I escape, I trace

I go fast.


I take heat

then take the most direct path,

my mark, my motto

être et durer

to be and to last.

Yesterday I spent being a tourist in Bruges and took, as my host recommended, ‘one of those stupid little boats’ but how enjoyable to scoot around on the canals, touring the old Dutch buildings in this Venice-like town. It’s one big chocolate shop, and I bought my weight’s worth in shades of black and brown. The water of canals seem dashed with broken bits of emerald reflecting from the cathedral stained glass windows where I catch my boat. The cobblestones and the horses and carriages clomping past, the rhythmic clap of the hooves over them, brings me close to the Emily Dickinson biography I’m reading–her bedroom looking over the Main Street, the drum that permeates her poetry must have echoed through her house and heart.

Then, last night we had the launch of the poems with a flash-mob on the Underground (which I sadly missed) and poems from 21 poets in 21 countries on posters and I’m told, the commuters stopped shopping and peered in closely to read them.

This was followed by an event at Passa Porta, the bookshop famous for its literary events and writer residencies. Seven of the 21 poets were invited to Brussels to speak and read their work. The first group, which included myself, spoke of making public poetry and the difference perhaps in writing for the Underground versus writing for the page. Morton Sondergaard from Denmark unveiled his Poet’s first Aid Kit which consists of packets of aspirin and such, filled with poems dedicated to adjectives or adverbs, nouns or verbs, and the Belgium writer, Carl Norac showed his children’s books which he claim are secretly poems. Claudiu Komartin from Romania spoke of ‘the whisper that is louder than a scream’ which can potentially command more attention than a scream, and how poetry for him is about breath, breathing, it is more a heart beat than the drum of steps. We all spoke of writing while walking, composing to the beat of a step.

Lieke Marsman a young poet from the Netherlands who has recently won many awards for her raw, slightly surreal, metaphysical poetry spoke of translation and how strange it was to read her own poem in a language she knew, like English, but where she didn’t understand some of the words in it, so that it’s affect (“I know this poem, but I don’t know some of the words, so there were these blank spaces”) was stranger than looking at her poem in Romanian or Russian, which she doesn’t understand at all, so it is more like, “it could be a recipe, anything”. Radek Maly spoke of translating poems for children from German to Czech, and finding that Czech children didn’t like or understand them. They became poems for Czech adults, but not children.

I went on the next day to speak to high school students in the British school. Which begs the question of what the new generation of young people think about poetry. Why, their faces seemed to say, should we care? There didn’t seem to be much of a curriculum imperative to the study of poetry, though I made them try out an exercise anyway, in which you take a piece of prose and black out words until, what is left, is your poem. Or a bit like eating an apple, removing bites, until what is left is your particular, unique tooth-marked core.

Emily Ballou is an Australian poet, novelist and screenwriter, currently residing in the UK. Her first two novels, Father Landsand Aphelion, were published by Picador Australia. Her first picture-book, One Blue Sock (illustrated by Stephen Michael King), was published by Random House. Her verse-portrait of Charles Darwin was published by University of Western Australia Press in April. You can listen to Emily Ballou on our podcast.

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