Dear Poet, Stay in Your Lane

Feature by Laurine Tavernier

Does poetry stop where politics begin? Well it does, according to Nabilla Ait Daoud, a politician for the Flemish-nationalist right-wing party N-VA and member of the Council for Culture of Antwerp. She recently rejected one of Ruth Lasters’ poems, Losgeld (‘Ransom’), as a “city poem” for the city of Antwerp. In her poem, Lasters critiques the stigmatizing character of the school system in Flanders, which Ait Daoud decried as being more of a political manifesto than it was unifying.  

‘A’-Labels and ‘B’-Labels 

Every two years, Antwerp chooses a so-called “city poet” (or poet laureate). This writer, usually someone with a personal connection to the city, composes a number of poems to present during official ceremonies and to display around the city to bring art and culture to the people. In February, Antwerp announced that, for the first time since the introduction of the city poet in the early years of the 21st century, instead of one, a group of five poets will represent the city. Lasters was one of them, but following this recent controversy, they are now down to four.  

Aan Vlaanderen een vraag: wanneer ligt de maatschappij volledig plat?
Is dat wanneer de notarissen en de senators staken of als de loodgieters,
de bakkers en de havenarbeiders niet opdagen?

In Losgeld, Lasters calls for more attention and respect for the craftsmen in our society. She traces this back to the classist and elitist nature of the Flemish educational system, in which a child around the age of twelve chooses between a more academic and general education (ASO) or a more technical, specialized and profession-based education (BSO and TSO). Lasters argues that if the child chooses the latter, they will be labeled and stigmatized for life since the “A”-label or ASO is seen as the only label for academic success: 

Olie-, oliedomme staat die leerlingen vanaf twaalf jaar 
nog altijd letterlijk met ‘A’ labelt of ‘B’. Welkom in het middelbaar!

Lasters herself has been a teacher in an Antwerp school for more than twenty years, where she primarily teaches students in BSO and is confronted with this societal problem every day. She wrote Losgeld together with her students to give them a voice in the debate on education and for others to hear their suffering from the ingrained discriminative labels for B-students. For that voice to be silenced now, by Ait Daoud and the Council for Culture of Antwerp, only further deepens the wound. In light of the decision, Lasters decided to resign from her position as city poet in order to protect her integrity as a teacher and a literary writer.  

The Death of the City Poet? 

The incident provoked a heated debate about the freedom of the (city) poet, censorship, and whether political opinions should be expressed in city poetry or if it should solely be something aesthetic. From the moment the city council announced that they would have multiple city poets instead of one, various literary figures raised their concern that this might lead to less space for critique. Their fears came true. Tom Lanoye, writer and first-ever city poet of Antwerp from 2003-2005, feared this dilution: “Are they taking out every critical sting now, only to have the entire city poetry program die a quiet death in two years? We are not so provincial, are we?” By having various city poets instead of one, the council has a multitude of poems to choose from, which leads them to be even more selective. And if one of the poets resigns, it wouldn’t rock the boat. Or so they thought. The remaining four city poets echo Lanoye’s worries. In a public statement, they declared that they understand and support Lasters’ decision to resign from her position. They rightly expressed their concern about their artistic freedom, which they say is crucial and a prerequisite to continuing their duties as city poets in the future. 

Though the city has not given a clear explanation on why the poem has been rejected, they have said that “it was not what they had ordered,” claiming that the city poet is supposed to write on a commission basis. This, however, is nonsense. The work of the city poet has always been a combination of poems written by assignment and propositions by the author. When Lasters wrote a piece about the well-loved, late Antwerp writer Herman de Coninck, they did not reject the poem because “they had not asked for it”. It is only when a writer becomes critical that someone rings the alarm bells. When the committee of the city poet-ship announced the selection of the poets, they stated that they chose these authors because they believed that through their writing they could bring “poetry that introduces both difference and connection”. It turns out, they do not want too much difference in their poetry.  

The question remains then: how much value does the city still place on these poets? What sets poetry apart from other literature is that by dint of its distinctive form, it expresses feelings on an intense level that cannot be compared in other forms of writing. If poets can only write on commission about the topics they have been assigned, and if they cannot translate the critical voices of society, then does this not undermine the creative freedom of an artist? Poetry exists beyond praise and likeability, it transcends an aesthetic art. As T.S. Eliot argued, poetry always portrays a “fresh understanding of the familiar,” a new perspective we might not have considered before, which can help us “enlarge our consciousness or refine our sensibility”. Poetry should be allowed to challenge our existing ideas. By no means are we obliged to agree, however, we deserve the opportunity to make up our own minds.  

Lasters reacted strongly to the fallacies provided by the council in an attempt to justify their choice to reject Losgeld, and made clear that she stands behind the poem and the message it portrays: 

When the city refuses even an educational poem that addresses discrimination against thousands of young people, it is obvious to me that city poems serve purely as a promo for the city and not as an expression of culture or literature. I am not a promo writer. I am a poet and literary (translation mine).

Poet or Promo Writer? 

Despite all the backlash, Ait Daoud continues to defend her decision. She emphasizes that the freedom of every poet is absolute and therefore, in her opinion, there is no question of any kind of censorship. After all, a poet can still decide to share the poem himself. He does not need the city to do so in his place. Although what Ait Daoud says may not be untrue, it does undermine the value of the city poet. It might not be censorship, but it does imply that the city poet works for the city as more of a marketer than an artist, as Lasters claims. This is especially striking if we cast light on the fact that Lasters is neither the only, nor the first, to suffer from restrictions during her tenure as city poet. Ex-city poet Seckou Ouologuem states in an article in De Standaard that his poetry too was met with resistance from the city government. Words or phrases were altered in some of his poems, and others were outright refused. “As long as there was nothing critical in my poem, there was no issue,” he says.  

And that is exactly the problem. The city poet has all the artistic freedom he wants, until he critiques. Then, all of a sudden, there are all these “rules of the game” that come into play. Could it be that the Council for culture reacted so resolute because they felt personally attacked? In her poem, Lasters flips the coin and raises the question of whether the ministers would like to be defined by an A- or B-label: 

Wij moesten maar eens over A- en B-ministers praten. Dan zouden ze misschien verstaan hoe het aanvoelt. Alsof wij tweede keus zijn, alsof een stiel leren slechts een plan B kan zijn voor als de A-richting iemand niet ligt, niet gaat.

For Ait Daoud, however, a city poem should connect people, rather than divide. And ultimately, she concludes, the decision on whether a poem is a city poem lies with the council of Antwerp. She argues: “A city poem should certainly not be a megaphone for denunciations or politics,” and goes even a step further by stating: “If [Lasters] wants to engage in politics, she should get into politics. A city poem is not for that.” Ait Daoud is clearly not a writer, or else she would know that culture and politics are more often than not intertwined. Moreover, many of the works in the Dutch-Flemish canon are precisely canonical because they dealt with the social problems of their time. Think about De leeuw van Vlaanderen (‘The Lion of Flanders’) by Hendrik Conscience, which tells the story of the Battle of the Golden Spurs and contributed immensely to the Flemish Movement in the 20th Century. Conscience’s novel ultimately led to the equal status of the Dutch language in Belgium. One can only conclude this: saying that literature stops where politics begin is preposterous. If it did, the city council of Antwerp would be speaking French today and there would be no Flemish city poets to begin with.  

Zolang gij, Vlaanderen, niet ook de vakman slim noemt 
In kranten, in spelprogramma’s en journaals, 
Zijt gij de A’s in uw naam VlAAnderen niet waard.

Unfortunately for Ait Daoud, all this fuss is having the Streisand effect and is actually drawing even more attention to Losgeld and the social problem it raises. By resigning, Lasters makes a clear signal to all her fellow city poets and to poetry readers that she will not stop defending the message of her students. Nor will she bend to fit into the mold Ait Daoud and others like her are trying to push the city poet (and poetry) into. She will not stay in her lane. 

Laurine Tavernier is a MA Literature Today student at Utrecht University. During her BA in Applied Linguistics she studied in Antwerp, Granada and Oviedo. Previously, she has written for online magazines and KU Leuven University, and she currently works as a freelance translator. She has a keen interest in a wide variety of literature, especially mysteries and translated world literature.

Works Cited 

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