She made her debut in 2006, at the age of only 30, with the publication of Er hangt een hoge lucht boven ons (There is a tall sky above us), a volume of poetry that was well received by both Flemish and Dutch critics. This was followed by two further poetry volumes and a novel. She is a successful poet, one the best in her country, and has even represented Belgium in the poetry equivalent of the World Cup (more about this later). Top managers are paid well, as are top football players, to say nothing of the salaries of top bankers. What about top poets?
‘Every two years I have to report to the social security office. It’s become a kind of a ritual: I take my books with me, my latest reviews, and the people at the office seem almost apologetic about my having to be there. They do not expect me to actively look for a job. However, I do have another job: I teach creative writing. I admit that it was difficult at first. After graduating, I worked in bars, finding out what I did NOT want to do. Sometimes I still feel I’m stuck in that period, that I should be looking for a serious job, even though I have written 4 books. But it is also a reality check.’
A conversation about money, but not as we know it: you almost certainly do not share her views on filthy lucre. ‘It has almost become an article faith to believe that money makes the world go round.’ Els says. ‘And we think that money is neutral but in actual fact money does not makes the world go round, nor is neutral. I believe that if you try to escape from that system, the reality, you are confronted with the fundamental and philosophical problems you need to become a really good writer, because it forces you onto a higher level. Without being too romantic or airy fairy about it, but in a very concrete way.’
She lights another cigarette, a roll up, naturally. We order a pint. Since this is Brussels and we’re meeting in a cafe, an artists’ cafe in the heart of the city. It’s still empty, which is not surprising as it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon. All self-respecting artists are still asleep.
About poetry: ‘What I think is important about poetry is that it short circuits, do you understand? It forces you to take a different route. In your thinking, something like that. And it does this by means of a kind of musicality, not rationality. Compelled by the melody. It must never be boring, but it can be allowed to fail cheerfully.’ She thinks about this a little more. ‘No, it can never succeed. And it has to affect your energy, the short circuit can release energy, or release something else that would otherwise have become clogged up. But good prose does the same for me. It’s alright for it to be incomprehensible, but I have to get caught up in it. It can’t be just cerebral, do you see?’
‘Do you see’ is something she says often. Maybe it’s the teacher in her, maybe the intelligent woman who constantly has to ensure that her listeners are still following her.
‘Can rap also be poetry?’
It can, but it depends on what you have to say, on what your relationship is with the world. Leonard Cohen was a poet before he became a singer. But you see the same thing with Stromae, a young Belgian artist, whose work is very poetic. Many, many people can connect to him very quickly. In that case, maybe poetry is not in such bad shape after all.
I smell money in this for Els: ‘Why don’t you find a musician to set your texts to music? Your audience would immediately become much bigger.’
She has given this some thought, ‘look, a good singer songwriter can merge text, music and beat, but that wouldn’t work for me, a system in which one person makes music and the other the text. The solution is for me to learn how to play the guitar much better than I do now. I have tried before, with my brother, who’s a musician.’
As for the poetry world cup: ‘It was a three-day poets’ convention in London. Each country was represented by one poet: I was Belgium. All in one hotel – it was hilarious. Young and old. You got into a lift, looked at someone and knew right away: that’s a poet too.’
‘Are there national differences, for example in the status of a poet?’
‘Definitely. In some countries poetry is strongly linked to the universities. And a Romanian poet told me that according to a Romanian saying, everyone is poet. In Germany poetry is allowed to be more intellectual and dangerous, while in Belgium right now you’re expected to be commercial, to go on tour, get up on a stage, and exhibit your talent.’
‘Are you in contact with European poets?’
‘Yes, for example through translation projects that sometimes lead to friendships. You continue to send your work to one another. I was in touch with a German poet, communicating in Dutch, which he doesn’t speak. But he wanted to translate what he thought it meant. He turned it into a completely different poem, which I then translated. Maybe we can do something with that, the mutual misunderstanding. Although my German is better than his Dutch. Who knows…’
Another beer: talking is thirsty work.
‘Brussels is the European capital. What does that means to you?’
She thinks long and hard, takes a sip of beer. ‘That there are many different languages and people here. Including international artists, who come and decide to stay.’
‘Because the European Commission is here?’
‘No because Brussels is relatively cheap and pleasant, and it’s a vibrant place; I wouldn’t call it a city. Did you know that artists and writers have been settling here for a long time, because you can shelter here if you’re not wanted elsewhere?’
‘Name a few?’
‘Karl Marx, for example.’
‘Is he a writer?’
‘Well, let’s call him a thinker. Brussels has long had this reputation, and it has continued to cultivate it. Like Berlin. I lived there for three months, in Kreuzberg.’ Oh man, I was so happy there.’
‘Why didn’t you stay?’
‘Because I have to teach. Stupid, isn’t it? But also because I have to live in the country where my work lives. That’s the disadvantage of language. I should have been a painter.’
Silence, and then I try to raise the subject of Europe again. ‘Is Europe being well-governed by Brussels?‘
‘Well, from talking to the EU employees I sometimes run into, I have gained more respect for their work. For how they try to monitor the measures they adopt. But it seems to be such a mass migration every time. I also see people going from one embassy party to the next, and sometimes wonder if that’s necessary. Sometimes I feel positive about it, sometimes negative. It’s a commercial union, but I don’t know whether or not that is good for all local economies. I hear and read some astonishing things, including how some countries have to contort themselves; I read about this in a book by Frank Westerman, De Graanrepubliek, which describes the complexity of the relationship betweenEurope and local reality. But every now and then the Europe feeling creeps up on me. For example, some time ago when I heard a lecture by the philosopher and cultural commentator Slavoj Žižek. In front of a huge audience of about 2,000. Not in some backroom full of dishevelled people. One of the conclusions was that what binds Europe are the things we really don’t do anything with: Christian civilisation, humanity, culture. Culture, not only for consumption, but also as a kind of think tank. Do you see?’