The technical challenges of poetry have usually to do with meter, rhyme and form. In Mons this year, the greatest poetic achievements have all been around measuring buildings and tracking down their owners. By the end of December, the results will be 10km of verse painted onto the city’s stony grey facades.
This single, sinuous line, by multiple authors, began to snake through the streets at the beginning of 2015, just as Mons began its stretch as European Capital of Culture 2015. It comes and goes from all four corners of the scenic Grand Place and runs a ring around the city’s imposing prison. And, as it begins and ends at the station, it is the first and last of the attractions that visitors see.
Locals, meanwhile, will live with the well-chosen words and find they change meaning along with the individual’s mood and the weather. During my visit, there was a drizzle in the air and the poetry took on an air of rainproof defiance. It may not be a good idea to read a book in the rain, but stopping for a poem of hope on the damp walls of a prison is recommended.
The instigator of this project is author, artistic director and journalist Karelle Ménine; she told me a bit more when we spoke on the phone. “I deeply believe we have to rediscover our own literature. We have to try to rebuild the link between literature and the people,” she says, with a passion that must have been needed to plan and execute the world’s longest line of poetry.
Ménine and her team, which includes graphic designer Ruedi Baur, were faced with contacting 400 landlords with varying fondness for the business of verse. “Maybe it would be impossible to create this kind of project in any other place than in the Capital of Culture,” she muses. Meanwhile Baur was faced with typesetting 250,000 characters for some 77 streets.
Gritty, urban typeface Garaje was chosen for the project and letters have been stretched to grab the attention of passersby. “If you want to read it, you absolutely have to slow down. You can’t rush, as usual. You have to walk. Walking pace is the right speed to catch this poetry and memorise the line”, says Ménine. Much of this verse was composed before cars were the dominant mode of transport.
So who are the poets now lining the streets of Mons? Well, they all have connections with the city. Best known is Paul Verlaine, who spent two years in Mons prison after he shot Arthur Rimbaud, in Brussels. “When he was in jail, he wrote so many beautiful poems which changed French Literature really,” says Ménine. “It was an important movement for poetry, the presence of him in this jail”.
Then there are the poets of surrealist group Rupture who were writing between the wars. Poet and resistance fighter Marguerite Bervoets. plus Flemish poet and local resident Emile Verhaeren can also be rediscovered on the walls here. During WWII, Bervoets and prominent surrealist Fernand Dumont were also detained in the prison, which was for them both, sadly, just a stay of execution.
“It’s not two worlds. It’s the same world, in or out,” says Ménine of the prison. “Literature maybe can be a kind of common thread.” She tells me that as part of this unifying project, which goes by the singular name La Phrase, the team has organised workshops to re-introduce prisoners to the comforts of reading and, “also to give them the ability to realise that they really need literature”.
So the literary pedigree of Mons, which will come as a surprise to many, could this year earn the Belgian city comparisons with Prague (with the 19th century prison as Kafka’s nightmarish Castle). Ménine, however, thinks that visitors to the Czech capital often fail to go to the texts which have made the city famous, happy just to visit cafés where Kafka is said to have frequented.
“The thing which we tried to do is to open the book and to offer you the opportunity to read these poems, these writers, this movement, and because we are here for one year we offer you also the possibility to read it every day,” the project director explains, offering the wide Belgian skies as the changing context for her chosen authors.
Put that way, the setting is indeed more favourable to poetry than advertising or municipal signage. “Public space is a fabulous blank canvas, a fabulous opportunity to show something very important,” says Ménine. At the moment this space is invaded by advertisers, a fact which the director bemoans, before adding: “If you want to take a pen and write the word freedom on the wall it’s forbidden. It’s called graffiti”.
“I don’t think that literature is superior to anything else,” she insists. “I just think that literature is really in danger.” Her energy for the project appears to stem from this awareness. La Phrase is a mission to restore books to an audience which doesn’t even know what it’s missing. “Putting literature into the city is giving people the chance to feel the necessity of literature,” she says.
But whereas a billboard might occupy a site for many years, most of these lines of poetry are due to be erased in January. The programme director tells me this has been a political decision rather than an artistic one, but she remains positive. She hopes locals will miss the verse, and respond by visiting libraries and bookshops: “to take the further step,” as she puts it.
If a single poem can change a life, the work of 40 poets can surely change a city. In one voice, this year, they speak of a love for Mons and the vitality of the written word.
Mons remains European Capital of Culture for less than a month. Plan your visit soon!