A staple product of the Maltese diet has developed from an economic good into a cultural tie between two countries and an inspiration for poets. This is the outcome of the Poetry in Potato Bags project, which forms part of the run-up to the European Culture Capital 2018, with both Valletta and Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland in the Netherlands, sharing the honour.

Malta has a long-standing relationship with Friesland that dates back to around 1850. Every year, around the end of September, the first seed potatoes leave the Dutch province and are transported to Malta. In March, potatoes grown locally from the Dutch seed are exported to the Netherlands.

The Poetry in Potato Bags project started when Froukje de Jong-Krap, producer of the Potatoes Go Wild project of Leeuwarden Cultural Capital of Europe 2018, and Rudi Wester, coordinator and international cultural adviser of Leeuwarden 2018, approached Valletta 2018 and Inizjamed, the local cultural NGO, with their proposal of a potatoes and poetry project.

In September 2014, Frisian poems, with an English translation, were shipped along with the seed potatoes in a specially-designed potato bag to be read by many farmers, their families and others in Malta.

Dutch producer of Potatoes Go Wild project Froukje de Jong-Krap with Inizjamed coordinator Adrian Grima looking at the specially-designed potato bags.Dutch producer of Potatoes Go Wild project Froukje de Jong-Krap with Inizjamed coordinator Adrian Grima looking at the specially-designed potato bags.

The following March, Maltese poems with an English translation were shipped the reverse way to be read by thousands of households in the Netherlands. This exchange of poetry is to be repeated until March 2018.

“It’s a great opportunity for poets to write from a different angle, to experiment with a different vocabulary and voice. The fact that you wouldn’t normally associate potatoes with poetry makes it all the more intriguing,” says Adrian Grima, coordinator of Inizjamed.

“This is the kind of project that challenges our relationship with poetry and its subject matter. It also challenges us to widen our audiences. And it gives us the opportunity to work with other poets, even those who write in very different ways.”

Grima formed part of the first cycle of poets who participated in the project, together with Emmanuel Attard Cassar, Simone Inguanez, Rita Saliba, Claudia Gauci and Walid Nabhan. The subject of their poems was, of course, potatoes and their works were translated into English by Gauci.

“The brief Inizjamed gave to the Maltese poets was simply to write about potatoes. The first seven poets did different things with their poems: they wrote about farmers, about cooking potatoes, about their own past and present experiences somehow connected with potatoes.”

The Frisian poems were just as varied. Grima says: “They tell me a lot about contemporary poetry culture in Friesland, and the Netherlands in general. I’m fascinated by the way they deal with this rather unconventional subject. It’s very refreshing.”

It’s a great opportunity for poets to write from a different angle, to experiment with a different vocabulary and voice

Schools in Malta and Friesland are participating in a parallel programme to the project, which sees the students in both countries exchanging their own poems.

Yesterday, Grima and Saliba, together with Dutch poets Hein Jaap Hilarides and Janneke Spoelstra were invited to read their poems at Qrendi primary school.

“The idea of getting children in formal and non-formal educational settings involved in the act of writing was there right from the start of the project,” says Grima.

He believes that poetry is still appreciated by children today and that they enjoy listening to poems that “engage them”. They also enjoy trying their own hand at writing, which in turn is inspired by what they read.

“When children try to write creatively they often draw on what they’ve read. I think that they become more appreciative of what they’ve read and how difficult it is to write poems which are both entertaining and thematically engaging. Writing requires flair but also skills and discipline.”

The group then visited the fields of potato farmer and exporter Michael Caruana, who visits the Netherlands on a regular basis. Caruana gained some popularity in 2013 after featuring in an online video about potato harvesting, in which he says that he has “potato blood in my veins”.

Caruana was involved in this parallel programme from the very start. In the summer of 2014, he and writers Emmanuel Attard Cassar and Saliba worked with children attending the Dawra Durella summer programme organised by Aġenzija Appoġġ at the Qawra Access centre.

Potato farmer and exporter Michael Caruana.Potato farmer and exporter Michael Caruana.

“Caruana’s is the kind of voice we need to hear,” comments Grima. “ “I’ve had the privilege of working with farmers on various literary projects and they have given me the opportunity to widen my perspective.

“Michael is a young man who comes from an old farming family. What he has given to his family is his energy and his business acumen, his thirst for innovation and his belief in himself and in what his family and culture have given him. Apart from his drive, one of the reasons why he has been so successful at such a young age is his eloquence. So we’ve asked him to talk about his and his family’s experience as potato farmers and exporters. He loves his land and what it produces but he is also very open to the world.”

The ‘poetic potatoes’ project has also led to other initiatives. Filmed impressions of five Frisian poems were presented at an art festival in Leeuwarden in January 2015. A special poetry night is to be organised in the Dutch city, for which Maltese and Dutch poets will be invited. All the poems will be voice- recorded by native speakers in the Maltese and Frisian language. There are plans to illustrate the publication with photographs of the countryside in Friesland and Malta. And a special, multilingual poetry book will be made in Frisian, Maltese, Dutch and English to be presented in March 2018. Eight months later, in November, this poetry will be exhibited in the Nature Museum Fryslân in Leeuwarden.

• Poets Adrian Grima, Rita Saliba, Hein Jaap Hilarides and Janneke Spoelstra will be reading their poetry about potatoes and food in general at Palazzo de la Salle (Malta Society of Arts) in Republic Street, Valletta, today at 7pm. Grima will also be reading other poems from his new collection called Klin u Kapriċċi Oħra, while Saliba will be reading very short stories from her collection Satin. Michael Caruana will be speaking about his experiences as a potato farmer and exporter in Malta. This event is being organised by the Embassy of the Netherlands and Inizjamed in collaboration with the Valletta 2018 Foundation. Entrance is free.

First cycle of potato poems

The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh – Mario Cardona
Il-patata qiegħda f’’ħajjithom – Emmanuel Attard Cassar
Alfa – Simone Inguanez
Il-frotta tal-art – Rita Saliba
Fl-għalqa x-xiħa – Claudia Gauci
Roazemarynblêd – Adrian Grima
Patata – Walid Nabhan

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