Michel Delville

- Belgium -

Michel Delville is a poet, musician and essayist born in Liège, Belgium, in 1969. He teaches literature and comparative literature at the University of Liège, where he directs the Interdisciplinary Center for Applied Poetics. He is the author or editor of some twenty books pertaining to contemporary poetics, including The American Prose Poem (University Press of Florida, 1998), Food, Poetry, and the Aesthetics of Consumption: Eating the Avant-Garde (Routledge, 2009), Crossroads Poetics: Text, Image, Music, Film & Beyond (Litteraria Pragensia, 2013), and Undoing Art (w. Mary Ann Caws). His books of poetry include Le troisième corps (Le Fram, 2005), which was translated into English as Third Body (Quale Press, 2009) and Entre la poire et le fromage (2014), which is currently being translated into English by Gian Lombardo. He has also published a para-poetic essay on Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart (Salt, 2006). His awards and distinctions include the SAMLA Book Award, the Choice Outstanding Book Award, the Wernaers Prize for the promotion of research and the diffusion of scientific knowledge and the Belgian American Educational Foundation Alumni Award. As a musician (Delville has played and recorded with Elton Dean, Dave Liebman, Elton Dean, Annie Whitehead, Harry Beckett, Chris Cutler, Ed Mann, Dagmar Krause, Karen Mantler, Robin Rimbaud, The Brussels Philharmonic and many others) Delville creates mixed-media projects featuring poetry laced with music, visuals and electronics. He has set to music the poetry of Gertrude Stein and Robert Creeley and recently developed a “verbivocovisual” adaptation of Stein’s Tender Buttons in collaboration with the British video-artist and poet Marc Atkins and the American drummer Tony Bianco.

Whereas Stein’s work has remained at the center of Delville’s preoccupations as a poet and a poetician, his favorite quote is from John Coltrane: “I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once”, a huge influence on his developing poetics and a strong statement on the reversibility of poetic language. More generally, Delville’s p(o)rose poems create hybrid “narratives of consciousness” which create abrupt transitions between opposite states of being and consciousness, shifting from the conscious to the unconscious, the lyrical and the discursive, the personal and the political. Delville’s growing interest in the poetics of the loop (Boucle et répétition, Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2015) is also reflected in his recent electronic poetico-musical experiments performed with Machine Mass, Robin Rimbaud and the international collective 48 Cameras. By reversing the logic of temporal understanding and consumption of the artwork Delville’s textual and musical loops reactivate the space where complex or elusive lyricity and/or melodicity might have gone unnoticed. With each splicing of the textual tape, it is the ghost of melody which returns with a vengeance, allowing a new stylistic economy to delineate itself, building a narrative of tidal, post-serial and post-metrical complexities and perplexities.


One of Delville’s priorities as a poet and an essayist is to explore the interface between the popular and the experimental, which has always been the site of lasting negotiations between poetry and politics. In Delville’s most recent work, which includes his latest book of poems, Entre la poire et le fromage (a collection of imaginary portraits of modern and contemporary artists ranging from Montaigne to Erik Satie, David Lynch, and Captain Beefheart), he has set himself the task of exploring different methods in addressing the interaction between popular culture and the avant-garde and, more largely, between, culture and social representation. “If you believe poetry has no boundaries”, Ellen Jan Powers writes, “then you'll find stimulating Delville’s fusion of ideology mixed with social commentary and surrealism”. “Delville’s prose poems are mind-bending”, she writes, “and no doubt meant to challenge the tradition of prose poetry but also social thought itself.” The award-winning American poet, translator and essayist Paul Hoover has described Delville’s poetic work as “an exalted, extended, and often earthy meditation upon being” and “an ambitious and brilliantly executed project to examine the state of contemporary being, and thereby the viability of its art.” “The magnificent section VII of Delville’s Third Body”, Hoover writes, “examines the options available to modern art, its strategies of production and consumption, ‘postcards and cream pies,’ the ‘objective surrealism of popular culture,’ ‘bad puns,’ and ‘scandal sheet poetry’”.


Since the beginning of his writing career, Delville has found in the prose poem a medium which allows him not only to play with different genres and registers, but also to integrate a network of public and personal voices into a fluid poetic idiom that allows each of them to be heard. For Gian Lombardo, Delville continues in “the tradition of Belgian prose poetry exemplified by such prose poets as Henri Michaux, Géo Norge, and Eugène Savitzkaya. Delville utilizes the prose poem as a way to access profound poetic sentiments and provide trenchant social commentary through prosaic means. ‘To convert our ideas into material things’: this conversion requires an understanding not simply of the material conditions Delville wishes to elucidate but also the ways in which political shifts play out on an intimate human scale, and vice versa … [His] lush, fervent prose poems masterfully articulate his philosophical concerns, while demonstrating a profound pleasure in using this literary form to express them.”


As Lombardo suggests, the social and political dimensions of Delville’s prose poetry are deeply linked with the influence of Belgian Surrealism. Since Correspondance, the first Belgian Surrealist magazine was founded by Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans and Marcel Lecomte in 1924, the same year as André Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto, Belgian poetry has remained one of the European avant-garde’s best-kept secrets. A quick look at the work of Achille Chavée, the most prominent member of the Groupe du Hainaut (a province in South-Western Belgium), reveals an altogether different approach to surrealism from its French counterparts, one which cannot be separated from the author’s experience of the unfathomable misery of Belgian miners in the early 1930s. As for the irreverent aesthetics of, say, the Piqueray brothers, they were also hugely influential on Delville’s work insofar as it points to a poetics that does not shy away from describing fantasies of infantile regression and puts them to the service of a popular art that delights in imagining how the most banal situations can degenerate into absurdist extremes. Likewise, in Delville’s prose poetry, such manifestations of the excentric, the repellent and the abject create a space where the shock aesthetics of the revolutionary avant-garde meets the verbal games of the poète-farceur who considers poetry as a form of linguistic slapstick comedy. Perhaps it is the sense of being relegated to the margins of francophone culture that accounts, at least in part, for the whimsical and convulsive spirit that runs through Delville’s poetry. As Louis Scutenaire once memorably put it, in Belgium “on boit de la bière et on mange de la viande / Et tout le monde est une bande d’abrutis” (“we drink beer and we eat meat / and everybody is a bunch of morons”).