The City Poet

For the next three years, student Ellen van der Kolk has a job on the side. She is Wageningen’s new ‘City Poet’. A first.
One of the poems with which Ellen van der Kolk won is about a dream she really had. ‘Only the ending is different. I bring in an element of doubt there as to whether it really was a dream.’ Photo Duncan de Fey

It was bound to happen. With WUR such a big presence in Wageningen, the City Poet was sure to be someone ‘from the campus’ at some point. And that someone is Ellen van de Kolk, a student of Food Technology. She won the title City Poet of Wageningen for work including a poem on the theme of ‘dream mayor’.

She has been writing poetry as long as she can remember, she explains on a stroll around the campus. She published her first volume of verse at primary school. ‘I was 12 at the time. All short poems that I had been writing since I was eight. It was a load of nonsense, I now think. But at the time it was nice to publish it for my family and my friends.’

Writing poetry at eight years old. Isn’t that a bit weird?

‘I am weird! I never wrote a lot. Sometimes I was a bit embarrassed about it. Because I’m not actually the dreamy type. Running, my other passion, is a much more normal activity. But I’ve accepted it by now: this is just the way I am. I do things my own way.’

And after that first volume?

‘At secondary school, I entered a national poetry-writing competition for 12- to 18-year-olds several times. After a while I noticed that the people who reached the finals wrote much longer poems than I did. Then I started writing longer poems. And that worked because I won immediately, in 2015. There is a film on YouTube of my winning poem, Weet je nog (‘Do you remember’), with an animation using little clay puppets. The jury said, Ellen, you really can write very well. I thought, OK, maybe I’m a bit better than I think I am.’

Once she got to Wageningen, the main focus was on running with the athletics club Tartlétos. The high point was representing the Netherlands in the cross-country event in the European championships in Tilburg in 2018. She only wrote poetry ‘in fits and starts’. Until she met Ivanka de Ruijter, the City Poet of the past three years. De Ruijter was working on creating a pool of people interested in succeeding her in the role.

Were you eager to be the City Poet? 

‘I didn’t think it was my thing at all at first. Later I thought it would actually be nice if a student took part. As a student you have a different perspective. I started imagining being picked, and what I would do if I was. In the end, all I wanted was to win.’

You recited your poems for the jury off by heart. Why?

As a student you have a different perspective

‘I like reciting. If you can recite, you can put a lot more expression and variety into it. Like Amanda Gorman – that’s terrific. When I saw her, I thought, what am I doing here?  I am nowhere near as good as that. But I put that thought to one side.’

What is your poem Ik weet het nog gewoon (‘I still remember it well’) about? 

‘I want to tell a story. It’s nice that people are then free to imagine whatever they like. There is a woman in the poem who is wearing red overalls. Do they mean she’s very left-wing? And her green eyes – do they stand for nature? No. I chose red overalls because I always used to wear them myself. And bright green eyes, because brown or blue are so commonplace.’

But you wouldn’t say your poems are about nothing?

‘Certainly not. But I do like leaving room for interpretation. This poem is about a dream I really had. Only the ending is different. I bring in an element of doubt there as to whether it really was a dream.’

What are your plans as the City Poet?

‘What you do as the City Poet is left very much up to you. People will approach me to ask if I can write a poem for an occasion. But generally speaking, I can choose what I do myself.’

Would you like to write poems about events on campus?

‘Yes, I think that would be very nice.’

Also read:

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to write a comment.