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Carmien Michels, European Poetry Slam champion: 'I hope I can give many people that extra push to go on their own journey of discovery'

The best performers are a few heads taller on stage than in real life. The same goes for Carmien Michels. I knew the writer, performer, slam poet and jack-of-all-trades in cultural life mainly for her legendary performances during the NK Poetry Slam in 2016 and the Night of Poetry in September 2017. Exuberance and presence, which worked right into the back rows of TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht.

At Het Gegeven Paard, the crowded café below that festival palace, it is all much more prosaic. Flemishly modest, as we Dutch call it. And remained so ordinary, which seems to be a plus here in the country. We can also see it differently. Outside the spotlight, Carmien Michels especially wants to be able to live simply.

Fashion designer

'I had started a book when I was 12,' she says, when I ask her if that talent was always there. 'Because of an action at school for street children. I wanted to write about that, so I wrote during every playtime. After that, I preferred to become a fashion designer anyway. I actually always wanted something different from what we had to do. During maths or biology, I secretly read books, under the table. Classics of English-language literature, like 1984. After that, mostly a lot of South American literature.'

Carmien Michels' star is now rising fast. She thundered into the Netherlands in January 2016 with a resounding victory at the Poetry Slam championships, only to finish third in the world not long after. In November of 2016, she won the European championship with flying colours. Michels has significantly boosted the genre of performing poetry, which has long been taken less seriously in the world of literature.

As me observed on this site after that legendary NK final: 'With this historic final, stand-up poetry does enter a new era. The recitation form that some look down on, because it is about winning, about applause meters and about numbers, would only lead to flattening. Friday 29 January 2016 showed that a poetry slam can also be about meaning, silence and emotion.'

Leuven

But who is this Carmien Michels anyway? Perhaps her poems tell us something about it. In November, her first collection was christened in the Netherlands. That collection, titled 'We come from afar', contains some 50 poems, including poems her followers already know from her performances, but also a lot of new work. One of the gems is the poem about Leuven, her hometown.

'September fair attracts fever blisters'

upside down comes an eccentric

to the best insights he down

spit into a dog woman's handbag.'

[…]

Michels grew up in the small university town, but wanted to leave there as soon as possible, she says: 'I soon decided I didn't want to stay in Leuven anymore. I wanted to do an education that could not be studied there. In Leuven, I could do a drama course, but there was no such thing as Word art, which was taught at the Conservatory in Antwerp. So first of all, I was looking for a way to be able to dabble outside Leuven.'

'The course I preferred was because I loved reading and was much into language. I didn't immediately know what I wanted to do with it. The Woordkunst website also said that you had to be good at asking questions, because you also learn to interview and make radio documentaries. That really appealed to me, also because I am known for asking very probing questions. Often I ask things and then people do answer, but afterwards they say, "I have now told you something I swore I would never tell anyone. You took that away from me'."

Podium

At the conservatory, Michels continued to work on her writing talent: 'I was actually very bad at writing. The first two or three years I wrote very nasty stories. Stories to describe the great sadness of the world. They were stories with heavy themes and when I still read them now, I think: Oh dear, so many clichés. But I had to do that to end up writing from a truthfulness of my own.'

The stage animal Carmien also came to maturity quite late, she says: "My first performance outside training was during my master's degree. I then participated in the text on stage competition Frappant TXT. That's where I first came across slam poetry.'

Hook

She entered slam competitions herself, reluctantly at first though. The phenomenon of competition is a bit at odds with the artistic goal of an education.'

And yet you continued?

'I have always been impatient. Always thought: better now than never. A fellow pupil said, "What, are you going to write a book already? You're 21; you have no say in the world yet!" I thought, "What I can't do now, I will be able to do in time." It's the same with poetry. It's scary, so I tell myself to do it now, because otherwise I'll never succeed. I constantly make myself all kinds of challenges. I promise a book of poetry to the publisher and only then think: 'Shit, now I have to write a collection too.'

Your website is packed with projects: radio documentaries, museum projects, lectures, musical theatre. How do you keep time for poetry?

'Oh, that website hasn't been updated for two years. So it's only gotten more so.'

Not only is it a lot, there is a tremendous drive behind everything you do, an uncommon commitment.

'I think you are right. In my first lyrics and in my first novel, there is indeed a kind of agitation, a drive, a commitment. In my book of poetry, on the contrary, I tried to find a resting point. To drop silences. I worked on many of those poems for a very long time to get just that combination between drive and stillness right. That you do feel a need, but not that you have to keep going straight away. I am now trying to find that stillness in my life too. I have been doing yoga for two years.'

PEN Flanders

'I am a workaholic and am always looking for new things. When I throw myself into something another thousand ideas come to mind, which I think it would be a shame not to work out at that moment. Recently I was at the board meeting of PEN Flanders, and I thought: this is what I want to fully commit to: freedom of speech, authors under attack. So I come up with a lot of ideas for that, which I want to implement. Then it's quite annoying that I already have so much planned.'

Many poems were also written during festivals.

'During foreign festivals, I am in residence and don't have much to do outside performing. Then I can answer e-mails or write poems. Then things do pop up. I know how it opening poem from my collection originated: 'Baarkamer'. I was walking through London on my way to Tate Modern. To the rhythm of my steps came the first words and phrases. The rhythm of that poem comes from my odd pace of walking. I don't walk very militaristic, rather very quirky. It is the same with my parlando, which sometimes unexpectedly falters and falters. That does suit my writing style.'

'This is the bier room

here shines my mother

with open legs

book to browse in'

[…]

Every next step is unknown

'I sometimes hear from people that I walk like a weird animal. A goose. As a child, I always liked not knowing what my next step would be. So I would take each next step a bit slower or, on the contrary, faster than I would expect. As a result, I have an arrhythmic pace of stepping. That way, I have my own rhythm and come up with poems more easily. The final work, of course, is at the writing table.'

There is not much peace to write in silence. The psychiatrist would ask: 'What are you afraid of?'

'I'm regularly on a plane for these foreign gigs. It's not that I have a big fear of flying, but I do fear losing control. If something happens to the plane, there's nothing I can do to change it. That causes a reversal: suddenly I feel a kind of resignation. If it were done now, I could be satisfied.'

Yoga

'Not that I no longer have any ambition, on the contrary, but I do everything I want to do. That's why I think that yoga is important. It's good to stop and reflect. Then I have time to speak to myself and not output things all the time to the outside world.'

How do you want to be remembered?

'Not necessarily with a title. Maybe that's it: that as a child I saw people around me living a life and doing things they didn't like. An office job, coming home listless. I also see that in some groups of friends. I really wanted to get out of that.

Additional push

'If I want to be remembered, I mainly want to be remembered by people for whom I have meant something. That's not about helping, lol. Because sometimes you can help out of pity, but then you put yourself above someone else. I don't want that. I hope I can give many people that extra push to make their own journey of discovery. I find it so sad when people don't. When they don't ask enough questions. That's why I ask so many questions. To get to that essential life.'

What advice do you have for someone who is now 18 and has your ambitions?

'Don't become a copy of someone else. Realise that you have a lot in common with other people. Look for the specific way you look at the world. So that you are aware of your programming. Fame and winning competitions should never be an end in itself. Everyone chooses a different path.'

Good to know Good to know

Carmien Michels' anthology is on sale in better bookshops and online.

Want to experience Carmien Michels live? The Writers' Festival 2018 (at Festival Winternachten) will be opened by Carmien Michels reciting one of her poems. Then Arie Storm, novelist and literary critic (Het Parool, Vrij Nederland), will give his views on 'The State of Dutch Literature'.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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