"The idea of what makes a poet has fundamentally changed"

A conversation about today’s poetry

Week of the Festival: Felix Poetry Festival & Poëziecentrum, Belgium

“De toekomst is nu!” (The future is now!) is the slogan of de Poëzieweek, a week all about poetry with different events in Flanders and the Netherlands. For the first time the associated gifted collection of poems wasn’t written by an icon of Dutch poetry, but is an anthology in which ten young poets present themselves. The collection of poems is called “Nu” (Now), which seems like a programmatic title. This is what I wanted to ask MAUD VANHAUWAERT, CARMIEN MICHELS and DEAN BOWEN a couple of questions about.

Wolfgang Tilmanns' Freischwimmer

Questions such as: does this “now” mean a change to watch for in Dutch poetry? What is meant by the poetry of “now”? Is there perhaps a generation or group of new poets? Has poetry changed in the past ten years? Which role does the stage play? Does this have consequences for the themes that are being written about and for the position of the poet? Yet I only asked one question; everything else was automatically addressed during an exchange of thoughts between these poets. After I had asked them their opinion on the fact that the gifted collection of poems from Poëzieweek contained a large number of talented young poets instead of established poets, all I had to do was take notes.

MAUD VANHAUWAERT (MV): In a way, this idea matches the current spirit of our times: the attention to the collective. It also indicates that poets are more connected to each other and that there is a great deal of collegiality.

DEAN BOWEN (DB): This document represents polyphony, a new type of poetry that has not emerged from the polemic with a previous generation, but wants to respond to the dynamic environment. This results in incredibly diverse poetry, but that is what makes it exiting.

MV: Of course, it is very difficult to already say whether we form a generation, whether there is a trend to be found in the literary works that are being created today. I’m inclined to think that there is no line to be found, there is diversity, but when they look back about a hundred years from now, they might notice how these are not poets that lock themselves up in their ivory tower, but are poets that step outside and commit themselves to various causes.

DB: The idea of what makes a poet has changed fundamentally. In the past, this was a smart fellow who kept to himself and made a certain image into something sacred. When people think about “the poet” they tend to have a specific image in mind, but that image has recently been shifting. This is partly because what used to be neutral isn’t neutral anymore: the poet is no longer a middle-aged man who knows and understands it all. There are so many ways in which people experience reality that are all valid to be shown, and that is what’s happening now.

CARMIEN MICHELS (CM): This shift can also be seen with prose authors, who tend to meet less often than poets. Obviously the writer is still concerned with telling a story, but also with the community. This idea especially comes from the poets from the underground and open stage.

MV: Today’s poet is a catalyst, someone who strives to set something in motion, not only in literature, but also within a community. The poet no longer sees himself as a goal, but as the means and the medium.

DB: I think this is triggered by a clearer voice proclaimed by marginalised groups, and has to do with the arrival of the Internet, making it easier for cross-fertilisation to take place. It is easier for communities to expand and go global, which in turn gives rise to social and political movements. This global context brings about the decentralisation of Western values and the European perspective, which forces the poet to react immediately.

CM: At the same time, the position of the poet is such that they have one foot in society, but the other one outside of it. This individualist aspect of poetry itself remains. This also creates a field of tension: on the one hand you are keeping up with trends, but on the other you’re evaluating them critically.

MV: I also want to make a plea for the poet who isn’t concerned about any of this but would much rather crawl into their own head in their attic room. Currently, there is a lot of attention for young talent – our generation – but this cannot be easy for poets of a certain age who are working steadily on their poetry. What makes these dynamics dangerous, I think, is that performance poets will get a disproportionate amount of attention and that socially-engaged art projects will mostly be awarded grants. We should not forget the importance of authors who stubbornly develop their own poetics and are not reacting immediately to the social dynamics.

CM: But also what doesn’t isolate these poets? Whichever way you look at it, they will always be influenced by their immediate environment. To me, a greater connection seems to be made between personal matters and society. At least that is what I’m doing: in my first slam poems I was very explicit about society; now I don’t have to be explicit anymore about my position and I am able to write more subtly.

“I think performance is also about affirmation. When you’re on stage it’s tempting to score.

DB: I understand Maud’s plea for the attic room, but that is also a position; what matters is that we don’t become fixated on people who only make the political aspect explicit, and I share Carmien’s feeling. My first collection of poetry was clearly political, but now I notice how I’m turning inward more. In a next book I want tofurther explore the space that the imaginative aspect can bring.

MV: In my opinion this is a wave-like motion that has nothing to do with age. As it happens, I’ve just read Zon (Sun), a new collection of poetry by Peter Verhelst, which was very political considering his more introspective previously written poetry.

CM: The common denominator of the anthology is that we put ourselves on the map and piqued people’s interest by performing. All of us also often do commissioned work. The question for the future is: how can we deepen our skills and find time to work on them?

DB: Most people included in the anthology became famous through performing rather than through the traditional route. For me, this led to a strong improvement of my performance-side, but now that I’m being seen, I feel like there’s more room for depth. Now that we have the public’s attention, I can go back to what fascinates me: how to say that which cannot be said.

CM: Performance also has a lot to do with affirmation. When you’re on stage it’s tempting to score. You learn to react to an audience and you can feel what’s working. But when I go back to my writing desk, I enjoy the challenge of not focusing on a possible question or reaction, but to search for the questions I may have within myself, the things I care about, the things that hurt me.

DB: That’s funny, I think I might have said the same thing a couple of years ago. Back then I was reacting – now I think I’ve developed something within my performance that enables me to be present, apart from techniques that have an effect. Now I want to understand how that moment influences the poem.

“Now that I have the public’s attention, I can go back to what fascinates me: how to say that which cannot be said.”

MV: The stage and the paper are two different playing fields that each have their own set of rules, but I think that the combination of the power you have on one side and the vulnerability you experience on the other side are the same for both fields. On paper you make the rules, but at the same time you’re confronted with an empty page. On stage it’s the same. When you’re performing you hold a certain amount of power over the audience, because when you speak, people listen, and when you’re silent, a strange sort of silence is created. But you’re also completely defenceless. One of my poems reads: “Ik ben vergeten waarom ik op een podium stond/ waarom zoveel mensen dezelfde richting opkeken/ en ik als enige, andersom (I have forgotten why I’m standing on a stage / why so many people are facing the same direction / and I’m the only one, facing the opposite direction). I find this combination of power and vulnerability fascinating.

CM: I work on my resilience by often practicing yoga and martial arts and training my voice. It’s easier then to show vulnerability because it isn’t part of the body that people are looking at, it is part of what I want to show from within.

DB: I connect it to something simpler: the audience and the performer have to cooperate, that’s what makes it work. I’ve got just as much to take as to give. Now that I’m aware of this, this nakedness feels less naked – we’re all putting something on the line.

MV: To me, the spectator or reader has a great responsibility in the creation of poetry. I don’t view poetry as a genre, but as a quality. When someone says that my work is “poetry”, I’m grateful, but I find it difficult to label it “poetry”. That’s why my collection doesn’t have the word “poems” printed on the cover. They’re just words, poetry is what they become when someone else reads them. I like to use the idea of sticks being rubbed together: it is not the sticks that create poetry, but rather the sparks they create. It’s not about the text nor the reader, but about the synergy. I think this fuels the desire to share your work on a stage: you’re there when this synergy takes place. When you’re publishing, you’re not present when poetry comes into existence.

This also means you can never obtain the status of poet. Sometimes it is assumed that every text from a poet is a poem. In the past, the moment your poetry was published meant your consecration as a poet, which meant that every text you wrote from then on would be seen as poetry. This is problematic because it scares people. I often notice that schools place full responsibility on the poet when it comes to deciding what qualifies as poetry. Those who don’t understand, think: the poet said it was poetry, I can’t make heads or tails of it, but who am I to judge? This is what makes both adults and youngsters steer clear of poetry. I like changing this perspective and giving the reader and spectator the responsibility to decide on what’s poetry.

CM: It is true that published poetry doesn’t necessarily make you a poet. You’re not a poet from the moment you’ve published something and everything you write from that point on doesn’t automatically become poetry. But I don’t agree on the idea that you cannot label your own poetry “poetry”. Sometimes something can be great on stage, and yet it is not poetry. It is the poet’s responsibility to finish their text and to feel whether it’s good or not. You can test that on stage, but the text cannot be finished on stage, that has to take place at the writing desk. It takes courage to decide that it’s poetry. The spark that is created between the reader and the poet is definitely important, but some readers will appreciate a poem while others won’t, so the most important spark is still created during the individual writing process.

DB: There is a difference between the poetic quality and the truth of the artwork. You could say that something is a finished poem according to you, and yet it is not complete because you’re the only one that knows about it. The next step is when the poem starts to exist in the hands, heads, hearts and stomachs of others.

I would also like to know why exactly they chose the poems that have been included in Nu. Is this representative of their artwork?

MV: I would have rather delivered a new poem. It’s been a while since I’ve published a collection and I have plenty of unpublished work for the book that will be published in March. I live inside this new book, while I’ve moved on from older artworks a long time ago. Moreover, it was also difficult to choose a poem from “Wij zijn evenwijdig” (We are parallels) because they are all blocks of text that belong together, not poems. In the end, I chose “the poem” that won the Herman de Coninck Prize. Because they also wanted me to choose a poem from the collection. I then combined a couple of fragments and pretended that it was a poem. I think it is telling about the way I deal with poetry.

DB: I have a tendency to write texts that are rather long, but each poet was limited to one page. That is what determined the choice.

MV: A pity really. If we really wanted to listen to this generation, we should have refused!

DB: I would have chosen a different poem if I had been able to, but with these rules I decided on a poem that shows some of the aspects of my poetics: the musicality and play, and the space I try to break up when I take up the pen and attempt to allude to something. The last part of my collection, “Bokman”, shows these aspects the best. But I had the same problem as Maud: I’ve outgrown that collection. Nevertheless, I wanted to hand in something that is at the very core of my development.

“This also seems typical of this generation: the border between poetry and visual arts is being explored by many poets.”

CM: When I reread my own work from 2013 till now I often find it prophetic, in the sense that I already back then wrote about how I should deal with things, while I only became aware of this years later. The subconscious plays an important role in my writing. For me it was a blessing that we weren’t allowed that much space, otherwise I might have chosen something that reflected my journey, now I chose a love sonnet which contains the themes that interest me currently: being a woman in the city, fleeting love, freedom, the audacity to attack sacred cows. On second thought, it’s a poem that didn’t fit in my previous collection, but actually anticipated the next one.

Which isNu, but what does the future bring?

MV: My role as a city poet ended at the end of January, and in March “Het stad in mij” (The city within me) emerged, for which I also performed a number of times.

DB: I’m currently busy working on a new book and another book I wrote during a writer residency in October will also come out, but I’m currently especially intrigued by the different forms a poem can take. Lately, I’ve been working a lot more with visuals, even though I’m not a visual artist. I’m experimenting with the different forms of a poem. Where will this lead me? I have no idea, but the ongoing state of confusion and discomfort I find myself in must mean I’m doing something right.

MV: This also seems typical of this generation: the border between poetry and visual arts is being explored by many poets – the collection I’m working on is actually even more visual than literary. Perhaps that also has to do with the visual culture we live in?

DB: That definitely plays a role, but I start with the question: what is this “material called language” and how can you use it? Language is sound, form, gesture, emptiness – of all the materials an artist can use, language is the most democratic one, but because of this it is also the most risky one, because there is always the danger of noise, disconnection and confusion of tongues.

CM: I’m working on three different projects at the same time: a collection of short stories, a novel and a collection of poems. For me the musical aspect is more important than the visuals. I look for the music within me, I walk a lot, and play the piano on a daily basis. I want to switch off the language aspect, even though there will be a verbal translation. It is an investigation into my own rhythm, which involves looking for the more lyrical aspect through my body. During my coaching sessions I also involve the body, before we start to write I build up tension through breathing techniques and jam sessions. There is so much planning to be found in language: your brain organises language in such a way that it has an ultimate goal – that is what I want to eliminate in order to discover new possibilities and to break open poetry.

MV: It is characteristic of writers to struggle with language. That is also our motive and that is also what I recognise in you: to see how much we can free ourselves from language. But this is only possible when your heart belongs to poetry. To me, language is like this block to which a tennis ball is connected by a rubber band, where you can hit the ball and it always comes back. My fascination for language is that block and I’m hitting the ball in all directions.


With poems from Akwasi, Dean Bowen, Charlotte Van den Broeck, Radna Fabias, Max Greyson, Carmien Michels, Roelof ten Napel, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, Maud Vanhauwaert and Siel Verhanneman.