Peter Holvoet-Hanssen puts poetry on the map at Passa Porta festival


The former city poet of Antwerp has created a foldable treasure map to make the literary genre more appealing to younger generations

Poetic wanderlust

The award-winning former city poet of Antwerp, Peter Holvoet-Hanssen, has kicked off a new series to entice new readers, while capturing the essence of the spellbinding literary form. Reminiscent of conventional road maps, Wereld van de Poezië in kaart (The World Map of Poetry) is a collection of foldable treasure maps. But they won’t help you find your way around; these are maps to get lost in.

Holvoet-Hanssen (pictured) created the maps at the request of the Flemish Literary Fund. “In the past, the fund handed out books during Gedichtendag [Poetry Day],” he says, “but it wanted a new medium that would appeal to younger people and connect them with the community of poetry readers.”

On the flipside of the first map in the series, titled Het land van Music Hall, is one of Holvoet-Hanssen’s own texts. And on the front, internationally renowned Flemish illustrator Brecht Evens has drawn a mesmerising poetry landscape that pays homage to Holvoet-Hanssen’s many influences.

The idea is to lose oneself in this genuine land of imagination. One could stare at the vibrant drawing for hours and continue to find new destinations, periods and poets. 

The message is: Poetry can lead down unknown paths, with its hidden layers and unexpected turns. It can help uncover truths, longing or despair, while adding beauty in times of uncertainty. It can take readers to new heights and plunge them into the crevices of the soul.

Tribute to the greats

Wereld van de poëzie in kaart attempts to guide the reader on a voyage of experiences. As you leap from one poet to the next, you begin to look at the world from an entirely new perspective.

Holvoet-Hanssen’s own poetry flows like a river, alluding to other people’s poems and published work. “I love making connections,” he says. “When I was the city poet, I even wrote poetry with people on the street. So I decided that instead of an essay form, which doesn’t always appeal to youngsters, I’ll create an exploratory journey on which anyone will be able to find their own path.” 

Instead of simply reading the poetry, we’re going to drive around Brussels in an old Citroën, stop at several locations and talk to people

- Peter Holvoet-Hanssen

Wereld van de poëzie in kaart, he continues,journeys through the history of poetry that is based on my own inspirations. The title of the first instalment refers to the Flemish modernist poet Paul van Ostaijen’s most popular collection. It’s a place where van Ostaijen is still very much alive.”

That is why Holvoet-Hanssen opted for poems that are musical in quality and are reminiscent of Ostaijen. “He was one of Flanders’ greatest and most striking poets.”

Next year, a different poet will team up with an illustrator to make a second map, and, little by little, Flanders’ poetry landscape will be mapped. A digital supplement to Het land van Music Hall will be released on 21 March – World Poetry day – on Pauekslag, an online portal that aims to promote and protect Flanders’ poetic heritage. It contains video clips, sound bites and additional text, adding an extra layer to the map. 

Holvoet-Hanssen says poetry is essential for humankind, and is more than just a piece of text to be read on special occasions. This is also the message he’s spreading on his ongoing tour of secondary schools, where he’s promoting the map. 

Hitting the streets

“I’m not a conventional poet,” he says. “There are poets who read aloud, and there are those who perform. I’ve never been like that. I like to connect with people and relish the unexpected. Some poems want to be read, others sung, so I usually say I’m a modern troubadour.”

Holvoet-Hanssen sees Het land van Music Hall as a nomadic map through time and space, in which you walk from one period to the next. For the Passa Porta literary festival, which takes place in Brussels next weekend, he decided to do something similar.

“Instead of simply reading the poetry, we’re going to drive around Brussels in an old Citroën, stop at several locations and talk to people,” he says. “We’ll improvise, depending on the mood and location, conjuring stuff up as we go.”

On Saturday, Holvoet-Hanssen will be joined by the experimental poet and performer Antoine Boute. The French-speaking poet Laurence Vielle, with whom he collaborated on a similar performance in Paris, will accompany him the following day. 

Wereld van de poëzie in kaart (€12.50) is published in Dutch by Polis

Photo courtesy Polis

A zoo of thoughts: The Passa Porta Festival

The biennial Passa Porta Festival returns to Brussels with an eclectic mix of local and international writers and a host of literary activities. Outside of the sold-out opening night, which requires a ticket, visitors buy a pass and simply show up to whichever reading, workshop or talk they choose.

Friday’s opening night is with three writers – the Turkish Ece Temelkuran, the Franco-Iranian Négar Djavadi and the Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez – who take the stage to discuss literature and politics. American novelist Paul Auster was originally scheduled to open the festival, but had to cancel his visit to Brussels because of health issues.

The weekend includes activities for children, including writing and storytelling workshops. More mature audiences can sign up for a guided tour of Brussels’ literary scene, organised by the city guide Jan Dorpmans, in English, Dutch or French.

On Saturday evening, Beursschouwburg hosts Duality, an event that sees poets, writers and illustrators pair up to create new work. Taking part will be Danish author Dorthe Nors, best known for her short stories, some of which were published in The New Yorker. The 21-year-old Mexican writer Aura Xilonen, whose debut novel Gringo Champion won the Mauricio Achar award, is also on the agenda.

Vásquez, whose book The Sound of Things Falling won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2014, makes his second appearance at this year’s festival on Sunday. The Colombian author will be at Beursschouwburg to talk about his latest novel, Reputations.

Later, Dag Solstad, one of Norway’s most acclaimed authors, will talk about his life in Berlin and Oslo, as well as his interest in political history. Solstad, who turns 76 this year, won the Nordic Council Literature prize for his novel Roman 1987.

Also on Sunday, in We Can Be Heroes, four prolific female authors – Almudena Grandes, Lionel Shriver, Négar Djavadi and Sofi Aksanen – share the stage to read from their work and discuss what heroism means to them.

Saturday is an eventful day for poetry: In the early afternoon, Bruges poet Peter Verhelst tells Flemish illustrator Wide Vercnocke about his latest book, Zoo van het denken (Zoo of Thoughts), while Polish writer and poet Magdalena Tulli, best known for Dreams and Stones, discusses her new projects.

Later in the day, Flemish poet and actor Maud Vanhauwaert talks with the poet and essayist Geert van Istendael, as well as with Dutch poet Benno Barnard.

Bringing the festival to the close are two interviews with three prolific authors. Annie Ernaux of France tells Belgian journalist Ysaline Parisis about her predominantly autobiographical work, while popular Dutch authors Herman Koch and Connie Palmen talk to Ruth Joos about that which is forbidden. \ Mauricio Ruiz

24-26 March, across Brussels