/ 30 May 2019

Week of the Festival: Poëziecentrum, Belgium, in collaboration with Felix Poetry Festival

Madness in Poetry and Beyond

Review of the poetry collection 'Waanzin Went Niet' (‚Madness does not settle‘‘) by Max Greyson

Madness seems to be the focal point of the debut poetry collection 'Waanzin Went Niet' (‚Madness does not settle‘‘) by Max Greyson, a Belgian artist in his thirties who sees madness as a useful concept to express and streamline his ideas and thoughts. ‚It's not only madness as such,‘ he admits when we meet in his favorite small coffeebar in Antwerp. „It's very much a way of seeing myself in relation to the outer world. I might observe something or someone and realize how mad this world sometimes is.“

 Bright poems, big city

 Writing is intuition. „At first it merely consists of little more than raw gut feeling. Something in your belly roars. You observe the world, and somehow you get touched by some form of inspiration. I‘m always looking for ideas and associations. Sometimes I just scribble an idea on a piece of paper that's lying around somewhere. Other times I stare out the window or get puzzled by some seemingly random thing. Very often it proves to be more demanding and challenging to find the right words for the ideas I try to convey.“

 When asked about the process of writing in 'Waanzin Went Niet', Greyson explains how a lot of ideas developed from the image he chose as the album cover, showing two persons intertwined. Their physical connection is limitless, intriguing. The importance of this particular image is quite heavy, Max confirms. If it weren't for that particular image made by his former girlfriend Carmien Michels (a poet and spoken word artist herself, red.), the poetry collection  wouldn't be what it has become. It's a marvelous and glorious cover, that is pleasing as  well as attractive; a man and a woman, both naked, elegantly bending backwards like dancers, with their genitals touching. Yet they are each facing another direction, whilst forming the shape of an eight or a lemniscate; symbol of the eternal interaction of opposite powers. A dynamic very much present in Greyson’s poems.

 "Waanzin Went Niet" resulted from life in the city. The cycle of poems digs deep into such themes as urban questions, nightlife, physical experiences… The buzz and thrill, the sounds and rhythms of the city are tangible. Greyson: „It's a  part of my life that got documented on paper. The theme reoccurs throughout the bundle: love for the metropolitan lifestyle and social issues, for the nightlife, the bars I frequented with friends, the crazy nights out. But it also covers specific thoughts on romantic love and tells  about a particular journey to Israel.“

Een vrouw staat voor een muur, haar vingers
gevlochten op haar rug, rechts breekt een brug
links slaan vuisten in de lucht een kloof in het beton



A woman in front of a wall, her fingers

Entangled behind her back, on the right a bridge is collapsing

On the left fists are knocking the air a gap in the concrete

(red. translation)

„At first, the poems I wrote were not meant to be published as a collection. I got a chance when people like Joke Van Leeuwen and Ilja Leonard Pfeiffer (both acclaimed poets) oddly enough recognized my work. I finished second in a poetry contest, but they would rather have seen me win. Ilja promoted my work with his publisher, and they asked me to write an entire book of poems.“ 

From the paper to the public

During our conversation, I am oftend reminded of the fundamental interaction between text and performance in Max' artistic working process. A relation that can quite easily be misunderstood or misread. „I'm actually always busy, the writing process of thinking and writing never stops“, he says, admitting it can be quite a demanding practice. “You need a lot of time and space. These are the basic preliminaries.“

 „The texts can be read as a dialogue with the world that surrounds me. That's only one of the ways you can read the poems, at least. But they are organised in such a way that they form quite an organic collection. The making of is also a collective process, with my publisher and myself discussing  the poems and the way they all fit in a whole.“ Greyson composes them from small, very detailed and  precious sentences, almost carved out or chiselled. „I aim for poems that fit within lines and structures, Greyson says. I try to get  them to fit on a single page, although sometimes they tend to be a bit longer. However my favourite poems are quite short. Which allows for public performance.“

Is performing more than reading out loud? „During a performance I sometimes improvise. That can be by just talking. Or by taking time to drop a silence that adds significance. When I perform, it feels like I allow the poems to breathe in some sort of way. I enjoy the creative freedom a stage gives me. I don't necessarily work with a setlist or some sort of scheme. Much depends on the place where you perform; sometimes an intimate setting, sometimes a bigger crowd for a poetry festival. Each context, mood or audience is different and influences the specific performance. 

 It gets really interesting when you get to the point where interaction with an audience becomes possible. Any form of interaction at all. That's when you know and feel both the audience  and yourself are really vibrant and alive, aware of your being and at the same time very dependent on the interaction with the other. But that's not always possible. 

There are times when a public performance  makes it easier and stronger for me to reflect on the ideas and concepts I’m working with. Associations may spring up whilst performing. That happened to me lately when I suddenly felt some poems were, not intentionally, strongly related to the passing away of my dearly beloved grandfather.

Performing like Brel

The poems in 'Waanzin Went Niet' work on multiple levels. You can read them as lyrics, with attention for detail and precision, many metaphors about nature, many parallels between writing and love. But these poems also work as a performance when read aloud. There’s a musicality, a lean and flexible flow about them, they are articulate, rich, energetic and strong.

 When asked about creative and artistic inspirations, the name of Jacques Brel comes up. „Brel was such a gifted and iconic artist. He had a very unique, extraordinary way of performing,“ Greyson points out. „He would keep a very static position on the stage, but his charisma and energy made him an unforgettable singer, accomplishing performances that echoed through the ages.“ 

Other people like the poet/writer Leonard Nolens – one of his bundles is in plain sight during our conversation -  have influenced Greyson just as much, he adds.

‘Wanneer we ontwaken in een boog

van negentig graden, met onze tenen in een kramp

en onze vingertoppen badend in weke huid

hoor ik hoe je luidop een vorm ontwerpt

om op je lichaam te passen’.


‘When we wake up in a curve

Of ninety degrees, our toes cramped

And our fingertips drenched in moist skin

I hear how you are designing out loud

A shape to fit on your body’ 

(Red. Translation)

Cross-over and multidisciplinary

 „It's quite important for me to be engaged in many activities,“ Greyson points out. „It wouldn't work for me any other way. Even though my roots can be found in the world of (slam) poetry, I also work as a performer of texts and poetry and as a writer/columnist/researcher.“

 „I admire dancers. The way they are able to express emotions, even thoughts that are quite impossible for me as a writer. They perform with their bodies, without any words. That's also the reason why I'm always looking forward to collaborating with others. Except perhaps for writers,“ he grins. „I have tried to write together with other people, but somehow I was never fully pleased with the endresult. I write, perform, give workshops, do research. I go from (slam) poetry, often combined with music, to columns, but also work for (dance) theatre and other performing arts. I play, trying to connect words and ideas. Rhythm and sound allow words to be powerful. There's always music in my head, and a need for playing with words. You might say I envy musicians,“ Greysons admits. „I am actually quite jealous of musicians, of their musical skills and ability, how they can grasp an audience without any words. That's partly why I engage in projects like 'Nachtman' or 'Norcestra'. These are both musical gigs that combine my deep love and passion for language and words with a musicality that has jazzy and blue notes.“ 


 As we speak, Greyson’s new collection of poems 'Et Alors' (So what? Red.) is being released. „I guess it’s quite different from "Waanzin Went Niet", working with titles in French for instance. To me it’s remarkable because it somehow reflects my work as a researcher, as I professionally work on themes like inclusion and social/ethnical diversity. I am involved in a project about audiodescription for theatre and dance performances, making them more accessible to people who are visually impaired. It's an important engagement. You try to facilitate art and performance. You might say in a way that it‘s slightly similar to the process of writing. 

Doing these different things all at the same time, is another way of demonstrating the concept of madness. There is some form of madness in everything. I'm engaged in a lot of activities, so I am quite occupied. Things can get really busy and hectic. But then again there's always enough room to breathe or to allow for a little escapade every now and then. 

It has been quite a trip so far. Never before have I felt so strongly that I am on the right track, doing something I enjoy which enriches the lives of others.“

Written by Philippe De Cleen

Photo by Melanie Mrakovcic