If the essence of poetry is to break with expectations, Mustafa Stitou is conceivably an ideal poet. After walking off with both the VSB Poetry Prize and the Jan Campert Prize for his third collection, Varkensroze ansichten (Pig-Pink Picture Postcards), he was comparatively silent until May 2013 when the collection Tempel (Temple) was published. In an interview with the Amsterdam paper Het Parool, Stitou said, “Apparently I don’t feel the urge to publish a collection every three or four years. [. . .] It’s not automatically the case that winning a prize gives you wings. I am something of a perfectionist and I’m often rather uncertain about what I write. A prize doesn’t really work like a magic wand to help you solve that problem.”
But it’s mainly in Stitou’s actual work that expectations are broken. He once explained his working method to a journalist of the Rotterdam paper NRC-Handelsblad, Ron Rijghard, that “Writing poetry is an adventure for me. I don’t plan everything in advance. I put dissimilar objects on the table and move them around. I then mould an anecdote around that I tell as if I were in a cafe. For instance it excites me to write a poem including the words 11 September, Arab, gold-haired goddess and NSB (the Dutch national-socialist party). That’s how ‘Anton’ came about: a conceptual-anecdotal poem. All these words move around with their various loaded meanings and I place them in an everyday setting.” Stitou calls this liking for combining disparate elements ‘a personal obsession’: “It is a matter of being evocative, of identifying the exalted and the ineffable in the banal.”
Stitou studied philosophy and completed his studies with a dissertation on the sublime in art. He wrote a couple of plays and did an eighteen-month stint as Amsterdam City Poet. He was born in 1974 in Tetouan, Morocco, but moved to Lelystad when still very young. On the dust jacket of his debut collection, Mijn Vormen (My Forms), which appeared in 1994, his publisher at the time stated that, “For the first time a book of poetry of Moroccan origin has been published in Dutch.”
In his poetry Stitou often presents Eastern and Western values and modes of thought as being in conflict, but he does so in an unpredictable fashion. Almost anything can be allocated a place in these poems. It is this medley of the high and low and of different cultures that gives rise to a vibrant tension, while also provoking urgent questions – for instance about identity, which is one of Stitou’s most important subjects. But this is not the empty self-congratulatory identity of the proud and angry immigrant or native Dutch. With Stitou the issue goes much further; in his poetry virtually everything is held up to the light and scrutinized on the basis of whether it is viable. It may be philosophical ideas, as in the poem “Pig-headed” in which Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘Rabbit-Duck’ theory is exposed to discussion in witty fashion, or it can be issues such as everyday racism, plastic surgery or the power of self-help books or religions:
I love myself I’m neither fat nor small nor round I have a soft dick
I have a soft dick lots of love in my pigeon-breast
I no longer fear your wrath father I fear your wrath
no longer father your wrath is naturally cloudy
the hidden is not the hidden father
it is the radiance on animals people things
so why pray on your knees
when I myself am the prayer?
Stitou’s poetry deals as much with the most uncommon as it does with the everyday. It is therefore about people who in reality comply reluctantly with expectations, no matter what they really want. Like Stitou’s poetry, this phenomenon is both painful and hilarious at once.