Maintenant #10: Donatas Petrošius

Poetry International, in collaboration with 3:AM Magazine, is pleased to showcase a  group of amazing young European poets. Steven Fowler, the Editor of the Maintenant Interview Series, began this project in January 2010 as a result of experiencing the differing, and inspirational, attitudes of European poetic cultures and how they contrasted to the UK. He said “I really thought it was a shame that poets from outside of the English language in Europe were never recognised until they had reached middle age and a certain ‘prominence’ in their own countries. I also wanted to present a truly representative sense of what poetry is for different traditions and methodologies, from the most traditional to the most avant garde. ”

We would like to extend a special thanks to the extensive list of those responsible for making this series possible. In particular, Jan Wagner, Eirikur Orn Norddahl, Jan Pollet, Nikola Madzirov and Damir Sodan.

*****

before you can sense it – there’s no difference,
taste discerns, God levels: he is
like the flavourless foam, like the odour of the
film booth – cement floors and gummy
carpets – just hope he won’t shock you if out of
curiosity you stick your finger between the gear teeth of that
projector, the one that shows this black
and white reality.
from Coffee and Cigarettes trans. Medeinė Tribinevičius

Donatas Petrošius is the arguably the finest Lithuanian poet of his generation. It’s perhaps easy to be complacent and forget the kind of change a nation like Lithuania has undergone in the last two decades. The largest of the Baltic states, in 1990 independence from the Soviet Union was declared. In 2004 Lithuania joined the EU. Within a space of twenty years, as a generation of new poets grew into maturity an absolute change has taken place in terms of poetic freedom and expression. Petrošius is the cultivated figurehead of this new voice and he follows in the footsteps of the grand Lithuanian poet of the twentieth century, Tomas Venclova, who can look eye to eye with Popa, Brodsky, Radnoti et al. Petrošius manages to retain the vernacular of Lithuanian dissent with the colloquialism and freedom of expression and experimentation that should define our own generation. For 3:AM he speaks to SJ Fowler.3:AM: Do you actively select subject matter for your poetry or are you more reflective, more fluid in your creative process?

Donatas Petrošius: In my writing process I use all the possible methods available to me. All the material I can find, everything that fits. Occasionally everything comes from intuition, sometimes it is a rational action. I think that all methodologies are permissible and positive. It seems to me that each time I write I am recreating the lyrical subject matter of my poetry. There is no constant subject. I live in change. My aim is to expand the fields of the Lithuanian language, break the limits of speech, play with grammar, create my own syntax (as far as that is possible) and invent or construct new words or concepts within that language. The Lithuanian language is excellent for experimentation because of its free syntax and the endless amount of possible new word variants with prefixes, suffixes and so on.

For me every poem takes at least three years. The emotion and reflection disappear in the process of recreation. My emotional and biographical reality is not important – only the reality of language.

3:AM: Tomas Venclova has experienced a Western European spate of appreciation in recent years, like Tomas Salamun, Adam Zagajewski, Gyorgi Petri. As a younger Lithuanian poet what is your feeling towards his work?

DP: Tomas Venclova is one of the most important names in modern Lithuanian poetry. He is considered a master to almost everyone who writes poetry in Lithuania. He is legendary. Here in Lithuania we view him between two Nobel prize poets, his friends – Czesław Miłosz (who was born in Lithuania) and Iosif Brodsky (who lived in Vilnius for a while). It seems to me that you find many traditions coming through in Venclova’s poetry (Anglo-saxon, the Russian silver age and so on) and he often shares the same roots as ancient Greek and Latin (Roman) poetry forms. Also stoic philosophy, themes of exile. Tomaž Šalamun and Adam Zagajewski, both great poets, differ from Venclova, because they often use irony. Venclova’s lyrical subjects usually are cold, without foibles or weak points. He is alone and hard as a rock.

3:AM: Are you working in the same direction to him, or reacting against?

DP: Venclova is the one of few poets that I could declare to be my teacher. He is a perfect example how the classical form can subsume modern content. Otherwise, my poetical content is more like Šalamun – with ironical distance. While I am not reacting against Venclova, neither am I working in the same direction – I just do my work. I’m writing jokes, very serious jokes.

3:AM: Why do you think poets from outside of the central European tradition seem to become appreciated when they reach their elder years and not while they are young and still growing as poets?

DP: I’m happy that I’m still relatively unknown as a poet in Lithuania. When you are prominent, the media are constantly disturbing you. It’s better to be unknown. When I received the Writers union prize at the beginning of this year, for a just few weeks I had no peace. Fortunately, it didn’t last. I doubt I’ll ever be known across Europe. Certainly because of the difficulties in translation. It is impossible to translate poetry. You can translate poems, but not poetry. It lives in native Language. You can translate the good poems, but not the best ones. The Lithuanian language is very hermetic, difficult, unpopular. Fortunately there are a few longstanding Lithuanian poets that were born in English speaking countries. If Medeinė Tribinevičius (Canadian born Lithuanian writer/poet) has managed some good translations of my poems – all credit to her. A good translator sometimes makes things better than the original in translation.

The Central European countries were oppressed by communism for half a century. On the one hand – it was good for poetry –poets were taught to write in Aesopian language and masses of people admired poetry. Otherwise poets (the good ones) were outsiders with almost no chance to be known outside the iron border. The Berlin wall fell down in one motion, but to the people the change comes slowly and that’s normal. Irregardless, the fact is that Lithuania cannot find enough money to promote Lithuanian literature. If we had the same support as Swedish, Norwegian or Icelandic writers, more would be known about us.

3:AM: Do you feel you are able to break new ground in Lithuanian poetry, is there a palpable sense you are building a new tradition?

DP: It has been said to me that in anonymous poetry competitions it is easy to guess which poem has been written by me. Maybe I have developed my own way of writing. About building a new tradition – it is difficult to say. In the future we’ll see. There are but a few perfect poets in Lithuania, who have neither epigones nor too many followers (e. g. Antanas A. Jonynas).

3:AM: A reduced western European view might think the Russian or Polish traditions are highly influential on Lithuanian work, is this the case?

DP: To a certain extent Russian and Polish traditions are recognizable in contemporary Lithuanian poetry. But for ages the Russian and Polish cultures were trying to dominate Lithuania and to deny the Lithuanian language and culture. Since 1569 and the Lublin union, when Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania became a Two Nation Republic, the Polish language became dominant. Until the 20th century some Lithuanian born poets wrote in Polish, though some tried to resist and prove that the Lithuanian language wasn’t crude or barbaric. After 1795 and the Russian occupation, Lithuanian books and newspapers were forbidden. In 20th century we had a war with Poland (for Vilnius in the 1920s) and several wars with the Soviet regime and for ages Lithuanians struggled against Polonization and Russification. Therefore only few intellectuals without feelings of national pride could read Polish and Russian literature. Only the dissidents made the connection between Russian, Polish and Lithuanian literature. Therefore for a long time the folklore, the Bible and the psalms were the only sources of Lithuanian literature for the people.

It should be mentioned, that since the 19th century there is a popular theory about the connection between Sanskrit and the Lithuanian language and it’s not a fictional theory. There are some writers who were influenced by Buddhist philosophy, sacred Hindu texts and Zen. Our one of the most influential modern poets, Vytautas Bložė, has for the last thirty years practised as a Krishnaist – but he declares that his poetry is influenced mostly by archaic Lithuanian (Baltic) folklore. Between 1920 and 1940, up until the Soviet occupation, we had a strong modernist and expressionist poetry school influenced by German poetry. There are traces of this still in postmodern Lithuanian poetry. We have Oskaras Milašius (Oscar Milosz 1887- 1939) a French poet and a Lithuanian diplomat. We have many poets, who escaped Soviet occupation in 1944 and moved to the USA, Western Europe, Australia, etc. Russian and Polish literature were great for such a long time but only in the last 20 years can we read them in Lithuania without fear. Now in Lithuania those who are younger than thirty years don’t speak Russian. We are becoming an English speaking country, in terms of a second language. Only a very small section of young Lithuanians can speak or read Polish. That is not good.

3:AM: Has that generation passed then, are you more engaged with Anglo American poetry? You have absolute access in the way previous generations did not.

DP: It is true, access to classic poetry is wonderful but now, if you are looking for something new you can discover in enormous amounts of poetical information. Sometimes I’m exploring Russian poetry sites, sometimes English. Democracy in art is no good. It should be a kind of hierarchy I think. It would be easier for those who are trying to understand. Now I personally am engaged with Latvian poetry (because I am learning Latvian), also Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian. All these young people like us Lithuanians survived the Soviet regime. We survived this everyday absurdity, the ideological lies, the metaphysical evil. The other thing that unites us is the poetry of the free world – in Lithuania and all post-Soviet countries, young poets discover themselves and try to translate Anglo-American, European, Hispanic poetry – and everything from the languages that were forbidden to us in youth.

3:AM: Do you translate poetry into Lithuanian?

DP: Yes. Now I’m translating eight poets from different languages, but because I translate as slowly as I write, I’ll not publish my translations until maybe next year.

3:AM: What is the current reception for poetry in Lithuania with the public? Are you able to live as just a poet?

DP: I think it’s normal, as we have become an almost prosperous country. Poetry readership is around the three thousand mark – average for a country where there is no dictatorship. It’s wonderful when during the biggest poetry festival in Lithuania “Poetry Spring”, which travels to small provincial towns or villages – there are hundreds in the audience. Maybe sometimes there is no intellectual poetry reception but always there is a festival and there is an audience. Of course there are great intellectual poetry readers, we have universities with Algirdas Julius Greimas semiotic schools. We have even have a readership who do not not fear post-postmodernism and there are Lithuanian poets who are able to survive from poetry, translations, essays and criticism alone.

Me personally, I could survive without anything, because – sapienti sat. I can live on poetry alone, unknown or famous. I prefer living unknown. It is better for my poetry. Poetry is a secret way.

Check out the original interview at: www.maintenant.co.uk

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
SJ Fowler
is the author of four poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press), Fights (Veer books), Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA press) and the Lamb pit (Eggbox publishing). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM magazine, and has had poetry commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and the Tate. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London. www.sjfowlerpoetry.com –  www.blutkitt.blogspot.com/ – www.youtube.com/fowlerpoetry

Maintenant #9: Mária Ridzoňová Ferenčuhová

Poetry International, in collaboration with 3:AM Magazine, is pleased to showcase a  group of amazing young European poets. Steven Fowler, the Editor of the Maintenant Interview Series, began this project in January 2010 as a result of experiencing the differing, and inspirational, attitudes of European poetic cultures and how they contrasted to the UK. He said “I really thought it was a shame that poets from outside of the English language in Europe were never recognised until they had reached middle age and a certain ‘prominence’ in their own countries. I also wanted to present a truly representative sense of what poetry is for different traditions and methodologies, from the most traditional to the most avant garde. ”

We would like to extend a special thanks to the extensive list of those responsible for making this series possible. In particular, Jan Wagner, Eirikur Orn Norddahl, Jan Pollet, Nikola Madzirov and Damir Sodan.

*****

The Earth doesn’t yield, it is already prostrate;
I offer it a form,
It wouldn’t resist: it absorbs, straightens.

The stubborn will to form and unwillingness to coerce
are only seemingly contradictory:

I take part,
Equally accidentally –
As the insects lend their bodies to earth.

translation by Pavol Lukáč.

 

The Maintenant series has amply demonstrated the volume and quality of female poets emerging from across Europe and the prominence of women in Eastern European poetry can no longer be in dispute. Mária Ridzoňová Ferenčuhová is a leading light in contemporary Slovakian poetry, an elegant, natural and intuitive poetess, her work is intellectual, precise and retains the clarity and beauty of traditional verse with an ease and freedom of more fluid, current work. Her rigorous poetic methodology and intellectual underpinning overturns, userps and subverts the traditional, lamentable associations of ‘spirit’ and ‘nature’ with a ‘feminine’ poetry. Her poetry is above gender distinctions and yet she courts elements of this gender stereotyping and division with a skill that exposes such pre-conceptions as the falsehoods that they are. Highly regarded for the depth of her two collections (2003 & 2008) for 3:AM she speaks to SJ Fowler.3:AM: Your work appears to consistently feature elemental imagery, that is images of nature, or certainly the vernacular of natural acts (summer, winter, soil, wind, earth, water, forest). Do you use this device to return to a poetic idea of nature and the aesthetic, or is it just to utilise the association of the language itself?

Mária Ridzoňová Ferenčuhová: One can sometimes learn more about his/her own poetry by reading reviews or analysis by critics and colleagues / poets than by rereading the books s/he wrote. I wasn’t really conscious of this elemental imagery in my texts. I always thought I was rather receptive to the artificial elements of the world: the urban landscapes, traces of human impact on the Earth, concepts and constructions, literature and architecture, the concrete (or the glass, the steel) versus the abstract. But indeed, there is this dimension of nature, of elements, it is quite recurrent in both of my books.

But nature and culture are in fact inseparable – human behaviour and activities are deeply rooted in nature. My poetry is not only intellectual (even if the cold intellectualism was the main reproach the Slovak critics made to my first book), all those natural elements surround it and make it universally comprehensible. There is no need to read Foucault or Deleuze to observe the grey soil or a dead cat under a tree, and to receive it. The interpretation of these elements is, naturally, a different topic.

3:AM: There too is the presence of the body often, that is the literal physical presence of the subject or the poet. Do you deliberately return to the body, to the real, in your work?

MRF: Yes, definitely. Frontiers of the body are limits of immediate perception. Imagination and reflection goes further, of course, but the body represents to me the primary perception, the real, if you want. But the body can be also victim of phantom pains, the psychosomatic diseases; it can be subject to the mind’s horsing around. This is what interests me even more. The body is, literally, the physical presence of the subject – you said it – which means the object is the subject and vice versa.

But there is one another problem related to the body in the poetry. The body is often apprehended as one of the elements of “female poetry”. It’s kind of stereotype I don’t like at all. My second book is about motherhood. Obviously I couldn’t erase or avoid the body in this book, that’s why I tried to use it differently to disturb the stereotypical representation of what is usually read as a typically female theme.

3:AM: You seem to create sharp, concrete pictures in your poetry. Do you work from images or a methodology in general, or not at all?

MRF: I studied scriptwriting ages ago and now I teach general film history, and theory of the documentary at the Film and TV Faculty in Bratislava. In many of my texts I deliberately use the cinematographic way of associating or juxtaposing images, I work with pictures conceived as “shots”, with framing, general views, close ups and so on. In my first book, there’s residual presence of the film theory, and plenty of other traces of my specialized readings. In the second book, these references are less numerous. But the scriptwriter’s method is still there.

3:AM: Clearly there are traces of modernism and typographical experimentation in your work. You write in free verse, certainly in translation. Do you conceive of poetry as a linguistic medium of complete freedom? That is, is poetry defined by the poet and not the reader? How are we to relate to the confines of rhyming or verse poetry now?

MRF: Your question leads, more or less, to the roots of the contemporary poetry. My own writings – as far as I am conscious of what influences me – draws from several poetic contexts at the same time. Two of the most important are defined by the paradigm of the 1960s and 1970s: the group of French “Textualists” gathered together by the revue TelQuel and the Slovak “Lonely runners” (Ivan Laučík, Ivan Štrpka and Peter Repka) as well as the Slovak “Concretists“. French Textualists seem to accord an ontological autonomy to the sign and the Slovak poets I mentioned present a very concrete visual, yet intellectualist imagery. Both deal, each in a very different way, with the notion of freedom in / through the poetry and write in free verses. But my first book which is widely influenced by these few groups of poets is actually more knowledgeable than spontaneous. No freedom, just circumspection :). And the second book, concerning its typographical form, is not experimental at all. So I am afraid for me the question of freedom is much simpler than you trace it above. No matter the type of verse, the poetry gives me the freedom to code the message I need to pass. I write poems very rarely and admit it is a kind of therapy for me. Before 1989, the coded poetic messages probably served to a different purpose as well, but for me the poetic code is now exclusively personal.

Rhymes in contemporary poetry are another problem. I accept rhymed poetry in its modern, rather sophisticated form, with hidden or internal rhymes, or as an expression of a kind of retro irony that refers to some older poetic traditions or to a popular culture, as it is performed in the poetry by Slovak contemporary poets like Michal Habaj or Agda B. Pain.

3:AM: I’m interested if you feel there is a definite Slovak poetic tradition in contemporary poetry from the past century?

MRF: This is a question rather for historians of literature; my vision of the Slovak poetic tradition is too selective. But of course, I can depict influences of various older poetic schools in the works of contemporary Slovak poets, with a large prevalence of the 1960s and – a little less – the interwar modernist period. In the poetry written by women, we can hardly speak of a “tradition” – there are very few women who regularly published before 1989 and they are more or less solitaires (Maša Haľamová, Lýdia Vadkerti-Gavorníková, Mila Haugová…). Only by the 1990s we can speak about a generation of Slovak poetesses, inspired especially by Haugová, but also by poets in general.

3:AM: What role does the influence of Western European or American poetry play as an influence on contemporary poetry in Slovakia now more than in the past?

MRF: By the 1990s translations of the Western poetry became more numerous, which had obviously impact on younger generation of the Slovak poets. Before 1989, Western European or American contemporary poetry translations were quite rare, although many western authors of the first half of the 20th century had been translated into Czech or Slovak. During the 1960s, the years of political, social and cultural liberalization, the literary revues had published works of numerous foreign poets of those times, but by the 1970s it was over again. Nowadays the situation is completely different, and not only within the publishing field. Thanks the internet, poetry festivals or translation workshops foreign poetry is now easily accessible. However, I think the influence of foreign poetry is mainly perceptible in the texts written by poets-translators. There are more non-literary sources influencing Slovak poetry, such as music or visual arts.

3:AM: Are there distinct differences in the poetry of Slovakia and the Czech republic since the separation and historically? Is this a palpable factor in the work of the poets from the respective nations?

MRF: I should know Czech contemporary poetry better to answer correctly. First of all, there is a linguistic difference concerning the euphony and the rhythm. Many Czech and Slovak words consist of groups of consonants that make the languages a little sharp and dry. But the Slovak language uses a so called rhythmic abridgement rule, i. e. a long syllable can be followed only by a short one and vice versa. The Czech language doesn’t apply this rule which makes it more melodic and maybe also more suitable for rhyme. I have noticed many contemporary Czech poets use bounded verse with some regularity, while there are few Slovak poets who write in rhymes. This tendency has been perceptible since the 1960s, I think.

But this doesn’t answer your question, does it? The fact is I barely know the works of poets from Prague or the West Czech Republic, perhaps except for the books of Kateřina Rudčenková. I am more familiar with Moravian poets. If I had to judge from this very limited perspective then I would say Czech and Slovak poetic outputs don’t really differ, but from a larger perspective I might be wrong.

3:AM: Is there a sense of poetry being an important part of the cultural life of the wider population of Slovakia? I’ve found responses to this question to be widely varied and it is of course subjective, but for example would the average Slovak have a knowledge or a desire to have a knowledge of poetry?

MRF Hard question. I always suspected Slovaks of rather writing poetry then reading it. I would say statistically lots of women buy and even read poetry, but my personal experience is all Slovaks know their authors (by name, by book titles or sometimes even by book covers), often they are able to characterize their style, at least approximately, but rarely have they read them. They know by heart few verses by the key authors of Slovak poetry of the 19th up to the interwar period of the 20th century because they learned it at school, but that’s all.

3:AM: Is there support for experimental / avant garde or cross media poetry projects in Slovakia, in your experience?

MRF: There are first of all several platforms for the experimental poetry in Slovakia: the revue Vlna, publishing house Drewo a srd or Ars poetica, then some of multimedia festivals. These couldn’t survive without the state financial support. So we can say yes, there is support, but the poetry, and especially experimental or cross media poetry remains at the cultural periphery. Yet it is an elitist periphery and we are all proud to live there ;).

Check out the original interview at: www.maintenant.co.uk

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
SJ Fowler
is the author of four poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press), Fights (Veer books), Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA press) and the Lamb pit (Eggbox publishing). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM magazine, and has had poetry commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and the Tate. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London. www.sjfowlerpoetry.com –  www.blutkitt.blogspot.com/ – www.youtube.com/fowlerpoetry

Maintenant #8: Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl

Poetry International, in collaboration with 3:AM Magazine, is pleased to showcase a  group of amazing young European poets. Steven Fowler, the Editor of the Maintenant Interview Series, began this project in January 2010 as a result of experiencing the differing, and inspirational, attitudes of European poetic cultures and how they contrasted to the UK. He said “I really thought it was a shame that poets from outside of the English language in Europe were never recognised until they had reached middle age and a certain ‘prominence’ in their own countries. I also wanted to present a truly representative sense of what poetry is for different traditions and methodologies, from the most traditional to the most avant garde. ”

We would like to extend a special thanks to the extensive list of those responsible for making this series possible. In particular, Jan Wagner, Eirikur Orn Norddahl, Jan Pollet, Nikola Madzirov and Damir Sodan.

*****

X.

Vikings cry fly-agarics

Male seeks aid for
settlement of kitchen

forgets nothing (all gone)

The Central Bank is not a
house but a state of mind

from ‘Fist or words bereft of sense’

 

As iconoclastic a poet as Iceland has produced since Steinn Steinarr, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl is at the forefront of poetic experimentation and is widely respected across Europe and America for his valuable engagement with sound poetry, concrete and free verse. He is a formidable performer and reader, a frequent essayist and theorist, a member of the Flarf movement and has resided and performed regularly at festivals and events across Europe. His poetry is gregarious and vivid but always retains the clear mark of a skilled and concise practitioner. He engages and subverts the traditional subject matter of the Icelandic artist and in the most loyal spirit of the best work of his home nation is pan-European in his inclusive and distorting methodologies. He is a seminal and groundbreaking poet, and perhaps, he provides a model for the type of figure who will emerge from the aftermath of the experimental revolutions of generations past. His work can be viewed in depth on his extensive website and for 3:AM, he speaks to SJ Fowler.3:AM: It appears you have a definite view of the aesthetics of poetry, do you ascribe poetry a wide dictum in terms of definition and more importantly, in terms of purpose? Does poetry have an ascribable purpose at all?

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl: I consider myself an experimental pluralist. I believe every creative person has to continually rediscover the artform that they work with, continually challenge their own assumptions about what their art should do, what it does and perhaps most of all what it can do. I find this feeling of discovery gets lost a lot, personally and socially – in the macro-sense I see societies of art stagnate and (unconsciously, unironically and therefore bereft of meaning) replicate and rereplicate and in the micro-sense I see myself do it. For me art is this continual rediscovery of the world and without it there’s only decorations.

3:AM: One way of rediscovering is shuffling through the world at a high pace, stopping abruptly and asking: wtf? And then pursuing an answer to said wtf.

EON: I’m interested in your journey into the more experimental realms of poetic output. Did you begin reading more classical verse and grow into using concretism, sound poetry and open verse?

I never read much verse, except as a child in school, and then later after I’d already started experimenting and had become more interested in form as such. I started writing bad love poetry for my girlfriend and being interested in poetry as a sort of joke – the Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning school of poetry. Poetry as the absolutely most boring thing the world could have to offer – or contrarily the most private thing a person could do.

One of my best friends was very much interested in hip hop and thereby alot more lyrically conscious than I was. Although I didn’t share his enthusiasm for hip hop (at the time, that came later) we listened to Rage Against the Machine together and I started picking up more of the lyrics than usually. Then I heard RATM perform Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Hadda be Playin’ on the Jukebox’ and I was ecstatic – I looked up Ginsberg, read Howl and found poetry full of nakedness, sex, drugs and drinking – poetry that I related to, which in and of itself was a great discovery. That poetry wasn’t just horrifyingly boring. We’d been forced to read all sorts of nationalist poetry in elementary school, all sorts of contained, disciplined, quarantined and disinfected poetry. And this had none of that and all of something else. This wasn’t vitamins made to be good for me – this was unhealthy raving nonsense ready to tell anyone and everyone to fuck off at a moments notice, a lot more so than any Ramones record, Kurt Cobain or just about anybody else.

Through Ginsberg I discovered Whitman, William Carlos Williams and later William Blake. I discovered Kerouac and Burroughs, Snyder and Corso and the rest of the Beats. After about five or six years of extensively reading poetry I’d nevertheless started to get really bored – I wanted to rediscover the original feeling that poetry was fun. At this time the internet was there, but it wasn’t half as cool as it is now, so I couldn’t just look up Hugo Ball or anything – I couldn’t find anything my library (in Ísafjörður, pop. 3.500) didn’t have or I wasn’t ready to dish out money for. So I bought some anthologies, mostly of slam-poetry, mostly bad – and for some time I was pretty disheveled about the whole thing, about poetry.

I published my first poetry book in 2002 which was sort of lyrical, partly Ginsberg inspired, and partly Haiku-inspired, but I didn’t really know where to go from there. I’d just moved to Berlin when I started experimenting – because I wanted change, I wanted the rush of discovery and I didn’t know where to go to find it. First I experimented with simple things like Burroughs/Gysin cut-up methods, then I ran into some translation software and started experimenting with that. At the same time I was picking up a lot of language from news stories and the internet in general, and piecing together poetry from all sorts of sentences that I found in some way transgressive, sentences I felt stopped me dead. I also started writing for the stage – we had just founded Nýhil and organized monthly art-parties in Berlin. I was always very stressed about reading and would always read too fast – people would tell me: Eiríkur, you need to read slower. But at these Nýhil parties, with all the drinking and nonsense that came with them, I started reading even faster and using the rhythm as a tool – as well as the audience as a manouvering space for transgression, for stopping-dead. I found that I could channel my stress into the reading by just reading the way I felt like reading, and instead of holding back I’d rush forward. And that’s how the sound poetry started – by reading really fast I found a new way for me to understand my own texts, which again influenced how I would write for the stage.

Most of my experimental work has come to be through similar methods – I find that if I dick around for a long enough time I eventually run into something interesting. And when I run into something interesting I try to stick with it and learn how it functions. I like to work in a space where I feel I’m not familiar with what I’m doing. When I start feeling familiar I try to move on.

3:AM: Does Iceland have a significant history of avant-garde poetry over the last hundred years, though I am familiar with modernism in Iceland, more extreme experimentation is not known to circles outside of Iceland in a significant way.

EON: No. That’s the short answer. Modernism in Iceland is more of the TS Eliot variety than it is of the Gertrude Stein variety – let alone Dada or Futurism. There are single examples of sound poetry, visual poetry and experimental writing in Iceland’s history, but they are mostly odd singularities – there’s no avant-garde tradition in Icelandic poetry, and even those poets that have dabbled in the avant-garde have done so ocassionally as “undisciplined youths” and then abandoned it for more mainstream poetic projects. When avant-garde poetry surfaces in Iceland it is mostly understood as novelty-item, joke or attempted artyfartyism – and dismissed posthaste.

3:AM: In terms of sound poetry, how do you approach the construction of that work? Who has been especially influential to your work in sound poetry?

EON: I worked with Paul Dutton last summer and he told me I shouldn’t call my work sound poetry, as it really was verbal poetry. I disagree with Dutton, but what he meant was that (most of) my sound work is actual words in actual, grammatically correct, sentences. I usually start with a concept and work from there. In the dictator series for instance, I’d noticed that a lot of dictators had interestingly sounding names (Pol Pot, Deng Xiaoping etc. etc.) – probably because many of them are Asian or from other languages whose sounds are very different from Icelandic or Nordic (I’d even dare say Western) languages. And so they’re names could also effect words in Icelandic, feeding them with a strangeness. The project also interested me as a political essay, to take the nonsensical cruelty of dictatorship (as well as the nonsensical weight of these words – Hitler’s the heaviest word in the world, and it’s proven too heavy for me, I still have no Hitler poem in the series) and turn it into a farce of silly sounds. So I took different forms – quatrains, pantoums etc. – emphasized over-alliteration and just ran with it.

3:AM: It seems you are an extremely reputed reader of your work and you have traveled extensively giving readings? Do you approach reading as altogether separate skill than the writing of your work?

EON: I don’t like reading most of my work aloud. But I’ll put it all on a page, more or less. Some poems are written to be read aloud, and some are impossible when quiet on the page. People have asked me why I publish them written at all, as they are obviously meant to be read aloud. The obvious answer is that alot of poetry is best aloud, but that doesn’t mean the poet who wrote them needs to be the one reading them aloud. If I publish them, they can be a part of the readers reading experience – he or she can read them to themselves. I agree that some of it’s athletic, but alot of it’s also much easier when read at half-volume or whispering, but still interesting to a reader (I hope). And many of my poems that CAN be read on the page, are MEANT to be read aloud – I’d recommend it to everyone, if a poem doesn’t seem to be communicating with you, try reading it aloud.

That being said, reading is obviously performative. Most poets feel that they need to take care and rework their poems, over and over again, but wouldn’t give five minutes of practice for a performance. They relegate the actual sound of the poems to a theoretical dimension and ignore the practical application of those sounds. I’m a religiously nervous person and I can’t propose a toast without knowing exactly, word for word, what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it – and this performance neurosis has made it very natural for me to practice. I need to be absolutely sure of what I’m going to do, otherwise it’ll all go to hell.

3:AM: I’m interested also in the more biographical reality of the growth of your work. Were you well supported in Iceland? Did you begin to travel yourself to build up readings? Do you receive alot of requests to travel now you have become established?

EON: I don’t feel that I’ve been well supported in Iceland – not by institutions in any case – but perhaps that’s just ingratitude. I’ve gotten two smaller stipendiums and a couple of travel grants. The first two or three readings I did abroad were through personal contacts, where somebody I knew invited me to come read somewhere and I’d apply for a travel-grant based on that invitation. And from there the ball simply started rolling – somebody organizing a festival in place b saw me perform in place a and so on. I’m not sure how many requests I get a year, maybe one a month. I accept most of them, if I’m not busy.

It’s been a little over 10 years since I decided for sure, rock-solid, that I was going to be a writer no matter what. In that time I’ve mostly hustled – I’ve worked as a nightwatchman, I’ve worked as a reporter (and skipped having a social-life, mostly, working at night instead of watching TV or meeting people), I’ve signed up for school to be applicable for student loans (and then dropped-out, as I was home writing), I’ve collected unemploymant benefit, I’ve worked three jobs for several weeks to be able to relax and write for a couple of months – I’ve been really poor, collected gross debts. In the last three years I’ve twice gotten a smaller stipendium, and I’ve translated several crime-novels and the like, and thus manage an existence where I can “work from home” (or more accurately, from the library, as I have a six-month-old baby at home who makes it kinda hard to work there).

3:AM: It seems too you are adaptable to modern media, that you utilise the vehicles of the internet to maintain a highly consistent and prolific base of poetry and commentary. Is this central to your work, cross media poetry and the consistant contact with a community of communication via the internet? And in so doing do you find yourself growing in your critical discourse, that is your engagement with the thinking of the substance of poetry?

EON: I live in a self-styled exile from the Icelandic poetry world, which takes place in Reykjavík. In the last decade I’ve only spent about twelve months in Reykjavík, mostly living in Ísafjörður, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Norway, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark. I find it necessary to maintain a debate with my colleagues – the Icelandic poets in Reykjavík, as well as the international avant-garde crew – and partake in a thinking, feeling, living community. If I didn’t have an online existance, I wouldn’t be in contact with this living community – and I’m not really a recluse sort of a writer, although I’m a bit of a recluse sort of a person.

3:AM: You have been involved in organising the Nýhil festival. Could you detail the history of the festival and it’s ideal?

EON: In the summer of 2004 I’d moved back to Iceland from Germany. I was in Reykjavík for a couple of days and I called a couple of friends in the poetry world and had them meet me at a café. When we’d sat down I asked: Who’s your favorite, living foreign poet? Suffice to say we all mostly drew a blank – all of us had been active in poetry for several years, some more than a decade, but we didn’t really know any foreign contemporary poetry. Not Danish poetry, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, French, German, English, American – all our knowledge was very superficial. One of us had seen Christian Bök perform, and some of us had some other names to drop. When I got back home to Ísafjörður I went online and googled the names that had been dropped. And found Christian Bök and his sound poetry. I immediately felt that I needed to import this person – the Icelandic poetry world needed to see this. This was something totally different from what constituted (or constitutes) poetry in the school-of-quietude modernist prison of Iceland. I applied for some grants and a few months later I wrote the whole thing off – it wasn’t going to happen, even if we’d get the money I applied for it wouldn’t suffice. But then I got one of the grants and eventually, with the help of my friends in Nýhil, we pulled it off for a ridiculous sum.

So I imported Christian Bök (and a couple of poets I knew little to nothing about) for the first Nýhil Poetry Festival – and kept him for five days. In the car on the way to Reykjavík I explained to him that his main job would be to name-drop and tell us about the world of poetry. And he complied. When he left I googled some more, found some more stuff, started buying books, keeping up correspondances and slowly but surely the world started opening up. Then we had the 2006 festival, the 2007 festival and the 2008 festival – in 2009 I was busy waiting for my son to be born in Sweden, but by then I’d amassed more than enough knowledge about foreign contemporary poetry to keep me busy for a lifetime.

3:AM: You have been involved in Flarf, even travelling to New York to read with those involved in its inception, could you tell me how this came to be?

EON: Flarfist Katie Degentesh came to the Nýhil festival in 2006 and we got to know each other, I showed her some translations of my internet-cut-ups and conceptual work and she suggested I join the Flarf-list, which accepted me and I them. I’ve corresponded with the Flarfists since then. When they were organizing the last Flarf-fest in New York I got invited.

3:AM: Your work seems especially focused on the material given by the literal surroundings of your environment, and with all the more power as the poetic transformation that your work enacts on this source material, for example the Icelandic economic crash, really draws content of value from the action. Do you feel a responsibility, as a public poet, to engage with the material of lived life? Or is it just a naturalistic response?

EON: It’s a little of both. I’ve always felt poetry should be political, and more recently I’ve found reason to demand of myself that it is also humanistic (a word I started despising because of what constitutes humanistic poetry – from SOQ modernism to moralistic slam poetry). I don’t feel this so much “as a poet” as I feel it “as a person”. I want to engage with the world, because I’m human and it’s human, and I believe that in some way we are responsible for eachother. We’re not demarcated beings – what I say influences the people around me, and therefore I’m responsible for the people around me. Not only do I believe co-dependancy and enabling are veritably unchangable facts of human existence – I’m a fan of both. It’s the way I want the world to be. And if that’s the way the world is – I have a responsibility. How I interpret that responsibility is another matter – I’m not saying I want to only cuddle the world. There’s more to it than that.

That being said, when you write poetry by the method of dicking around one is of course always fiddling with what is actually going on in the world – it becomes a method of living and of seeing. I constantly read everything around me, signs and posters, and rearrange the words in my mind, rearrange the letters – and then I take this home with me and it becomes part of what I do.

Check out the original interview at: www.maintenant.co.uk

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
SJ Fowler
is the author of four poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press), Fights (Veer books), Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA press) and the Lamb pit (Eggbox publishing). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM magazine, and has had poetry commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and the Tate. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London. www.sjfowlerpoetry.com –  www.blutkitt.blogspot.com/ – www.youtube.com/fowlerpoetry

Maintenant #7: Jan Wagner

Poetry International, in collaboration with 3:AM Magazine, is pleased to showcase a  group of amazing young European poets. Steven Fowler, the Editor of the Maintenant Interview Series, began this project in January 2010 as a result of experiencing the differing, and inspirational, attitudes of European poetic cultures and how they contrasted to the UK. He said “I really thought it was a shame that poets from outside of the English language in Europe were never recognised until they had reached middle age and a certain ‘prominence’ in their own countries. I also wanted to present a truly representative sense of what poetry is for different traditions and methodologies, from the most traditional to the most avant garde. ”

We would like to extend a special thanks to the extensive list of those responsible for making this series possible. In particular, Jan Wagner, Eirikur Orn Norddahl, Jan Pollet, Nikola Madzirov and Damir Sodan.

*****

Jan Wagner is arguably the German poet of his generation.

Lauded by prize committees and anthologists, his poetry is a firm continuance of the most skilled, exacting and potent German poetry of the last fifty years. Eminently visual, his poems utilise the means of historical proposition, wittling away at images to create extremely neat, adroit pictures of poetic landscape. Winner of the Anna-Seghers-Award in 2004, the Ernst-Meister-Award for Poetry in 2005 and the Wilhelm-Lehmann-Award in 2009, he was also the very last poet to be featured in Michael Hofmann’s seminal and superb Faber book of 20th-century German poems. The youngest in the volume, the last voice, completing a work that included Rilke, Benn, Trakl, Sachs, Brecht, Grass, Enzenberger. It appears to be fact that he is their continuance, and with him as torchbearer, German poetry remains vital.3:AM: Your poetry seems to be often concerned with drawing careful, slight pictures of interaction between people, images of the individual’s environment, be it city or country and reflections. Do you build from specific ideas or images? Do you utilise a deliberate methodology at all?

JW: Anything can turn out to be a starting point for a poem, so rather than applying a certain methodology I try to stay as open-minded and receptive, as curious as possible. A poem may start with an image, yes, with a certain metaphor perhaps that may well be one of the rare gifts one is presented with all of a sudden; the real work, of course, starts right there and is a rather slow process, as far as my own work is concerned at least. It may also start with a particular word or with a pair of words that arouses ones curiosity – say, with the similarity or almost anagrammatical qualities of the words “Beifall” (“applause”) and “Fallbeil” (“guillotine”) – and develop from there or, more often than not, with a scenery, a newspaper article, a historical or long forgotten figure. It does never, though, start with an overall idea and even less with the grand topic which, at least in my experience, tend to be too big a burden for any poem to bear. Starting out to write a poem about peace will most probably result in a very bad and quite predictable text; but concentrating on that lost white glove in the gutter everybody rushes past may well end up being a wonderful poem about peace. So yes, focusing on the specific, on the small and often neglected details may result in a density of imagery and language – and in a development of the poem which might surprise the author as well and take him to places he has not foreseen.

3:AM: You display the rare gift, so often seen in the finest German poetry of the last century, of writing poetry that is led by lines and words that have been turned upon their original meaning to form something pivotal or evocative. This skill doesn’t lead the reader to images, but rather a very specific re-understanding of language. Bachmann, Benn, Enzenburger, they all build of this skill.

JW: As Osip Mandelstam said (though not in these exact same words), “Poetry differs from automatic speech in that it wakes us up, disturbs us in the middle of a word”. An openness to the undercurrents and the ethymological roots of words and idoms and an attentiveness to the possibilities and ambiguities of a word’s sounds and meanings, to its sense and also to the non-sense, are certainly to be found in most of the truly great poems in any language. Even clichés can be turned upon their original meaning, as you say, and can, precisely for being clichés and being normally used in a very automatic and unreflective way, produce something particularly evocative. If you say that you see such an awareness in some of my poems as well I can only be flattered. Still, in my opinion, the reader should not only be led to a new awareness of language but also to images, which are made of these self-same words, of course – and which may in their turn lead to a specific re-understanding of the things they refer to and which surround us.

3:AM: There appears glimpses of something sinister in your poetry. I am reminded here of Peter Handke, perhaps Alain Robbe-Grillet. You construct pictures that leave a hollow which might give the reader a very inexpressible feeling of doubt or suspicion.

JW: I do not mind if they do. At least it is true that I would like to avoid writing poems that leave the reader nothing else to do but to nod in agreement or to turn to the next page. If a picture or tableau in a poem, if the whole poem itself makes me uneasy and creates the sense that there is something else to it, something left to be discovered, I will happily read it again. Speaking more generally, I think one of the beautiful things poetry can achieve is to make us see hitherto banal objects, issues and situations from an unexpected and utterly new angle – which may in itself cause a feeling of unease, though not necessarily with a sinister touch to it. In any case I do hope that the feeling of suspicion that you mention is counterbalanced by a more innocent sort of surprise, a somewhat high-spirited bafflement – and also, possibly, by irony. However, I remember that after a reading I gave at a school some years ago the students, who were about twelve or fourteen years of age, complained about the cruelty of my images and the darkness, the bleakness of the poems – this would, in a way, confirm what you said, but at the time the observation, at least in such an all-embracing manner, astonished me. I tried to point out certain counterweights, among them irony, but they did not see them. “Irony we haven’t had yet”, as the teacher remarked afterwards.

3:AM: Are you attempting to achieve something specific in writing? That is expose banality, or something more aesthetic? Do you question your own motivations?

JW: The only thing I do not question is my stubborn belief that poetry is a fundamental need and a necessity – even though I realize that only a very small minority shares this belief and that most people get along reasonably well without ever reading a single line of poetry at all. No great goal, I have to admit, only the next poem about to be written – and there is, isn’t there, always but this one single poem yet to be written. I do, however, attempt to make this particular poem as perfect as my means allow me to make it.

3:AM: I’m interested too in the practical sense of the influence other poetry has had on you. You are renowned of course for your translation and you studied American poetry I believe. How did your taste evolve? Who influenced you early in your writing? Did you become changed as a poet through reading American poetry?

JW: I did study English and American literature, yes, naturally with a focus on poetry, first in Hamburg, then in Dublin, finally in Berlin. During my years in school before I was lucky to have one of those rare teachers with a deep understanding of and passion for poetry and the talent to awaken this passion in his students as well, introducing us to many English and American authors who would not necessarily have been part of the official school canon. So this education was certainly one of the reasons to intensify my reading of English-language literature. Even before, though, I had tried to find those teachers that everybody starting to write has to find for himself by reading, not in school – poets, in other words, to whose work one is strongly drawn and whose ways and techniques one is trying to understand and to copy, eventually. The first role models, if you will, were the early German and Austrian expressionist poets such as Georg Heym and Georg Trakl, during my years in school, though, I discovered Dylan Thomas’ work and was truly taken by the richness of his language, his imagery. I would say that from then on, at the latest from my first year at university onwards, I was as strongly influenced by a couple of English and American poets as by the classic modern poets from Germany, if not more. I am absolutely sure that I, as you say, became changed as a poet by concentrating on and eventually translating English, Irish and American poetry, an activity which forces you, of course, to study the tricks and particular manners of the poets you choose to translate even more closely than you would while just reading them. Both in form and in subject matter, I think, there would be quite a few features in the poems I write, as far as form ones and subject matter are concerned, that you could trace back to an English or American rather than a German poetic tradition.

3:AM: You translated Charles Simic into German. How was the work received in Germany? How did the assignment come about and was the process especially intricate or straightforward?

JW: Charles Simic was well introduced to a German audience a long time before I ever received the invitation to translate him, because Hans Magnus Enzensberger had both translated and published Simic’ Book of Gods and Devils. Years after that, when Hanser decided to publish a Selected Poems by Simic in a German translation, I was invited to join in on the project, along with Enzensberger, Michael Krüger and Rainer G. Schmidt, which I gladly did, of course. I had translated poems by Patrick Kavanagh and Thomas Kinsella for a special Irish issue of Hanser Verlag’s literary journal Akzente some time before the book was planned, so I assume that is why I came to be among the translators for the Selected Poems, still standing in the hallway, as it were. I ended up translating about fourty-five of the poems included in the selection. The reviews, as far as I can tell, were favourably, and Simic would surely be among the most popular contempory American poets in Germany, although I couldn’t specify on what that means in numbers and actual readers.

3:AM: The Faber Anthology of 20th Century Poetry, edited by Michael Hofmann, is a landmark in the reception of German poetry in England, certainly. Being the youngest poet in the book, and actually being the very last poet, the very last word of the anthology is quite a credit it you, considering the company you keep. How did the inclusion come about? What was the result of being included?

JW: Yes, it was very flattering to be included in this anthology, and it is true that the poem has a rather prominent place in the book, simply by being the last one, although I am sure that this is purely by chronological chance. The little poem called “frogs” (about a nineteenth century German scientist from the romantic period called Johann Wilhelm Ritter) was originally translated for a reading at the Goethe Institute in London which took place in 2002. This translation, done by Georgina Paul, is the same one that Michael Hofmann later chose for the book; I am not quite sure, though, where he saw or heard that translation first, as it was not, to my knowledge, printed in an English language journal before the anthology was published. Michael Hofmann and I did have some readings together, first in Hamburg, later in Heidelberg, so on these occasions I may have read the frog poem, in fact, it may even have been presented in English in Heidelberg, as the reading there was hosted by the university’s English department. However, since Michael Hofmann surely was and still is following the development of contemporary German poetry quite closely, he may well have discovered it somewhere else. As to the result of being included: I truly couldn’t tell you; the poem must have been read by at least some of the people who bought the book, some of them may have enjoyed it, some of them may not, a few might have developed an interest in Johann Wilhelm Ritter, who is quite a fascinating albeit more or less forgotten figure, indeed.

3:AM: You seem to be prolific and certainly your output has been matched with prizes. How well is poetry supported in Germany? Have you been unusually successful in winning so many prizes?

JW: Although I do write most days of the week, although I work quite constantly either on my own poems, on translations, on essays or reviews, I do not consider myself as being exceptionally prolific at all, I have to say. I write rather slowly, as I mentioned before, so slowly, in fact, that I am quite content if I produce two lines a day or one or two poems a month which, it goes without saying, may have taken a lot longer to write than the month in which they were completed. But yes, the books that I was able to publish so far appeared at intervals of three years each, which might account for the impression you have, for a certain regularity – as might the fact that I am working on various fields, reviewing, translating and editing as well. I am, thus, engaged in a sort of literary three-field crop rotation, and thanks to the support you mention I am, at the moment at least, lucky enough to be able to live from what I do. There are quite a few grants, even more residencies and a number of poetry prizes in Germany, and cities as well as regions and the state have means and agencies to support writers with a particular project, their next book, for example. Still, if someone asked whether it is possible to live from being a poet in Germany, the answer, generally speaking, would have to be no, even though there are the exceptions that prove the rule. Obviously, there is not, like in the United States, the option to work at colleges or universities as, say, a professor for creative writing; some universities may offer courses like that, but it has little tradition and is far from being able to provide regular work and income for any significant number of poets. The number of poetry readers is not particularly high, still higher though than the number of people buying collections of poetry; it is no secret, then, that even a published poet could not live from the sales of his books. Readings, however, are often well paid for, sometimes more so, sometimes less, be it in bookstores or, more commonly, in a Literaturhaus, a poetry festival, a café or a bar. Many poets I know decide not to depend on their writing for income, so instead they work at publishing houses or radio stations, in bookstores or elsewhere or, indeed, at the university, though not as a poet but as an academic lecturer on literary sciences, for example.

3:AM: I’m interested in the poetry scene in Berlin. Is it vibrant, matching the other artistic communities in Berlin? Is it factionalised, are their groupings, movements? Certainly there seems some excellent work coming from the city, Monika Rinck, Daniel Falb, Marco Kunz, Sabin Scho etc…

JW: Since ten years or so there has been an extraordinary number of very fine young German poets, each with his or her particular voice and style and adding up to what has been called by some an exceptional era of poetic output, a golden age even. While that may be an exaggeration, it is not a very shameless one and, thinking about it, not all too bold, and many of these younger poets have decided to live in Berlin – although there are other centres of poetry, for example Leipzig. Yes, it is a vibrant scene, I would say so, though not necessarily more vibrant than the art scene or the music scene, the film scene even, which naturally receive a lot more attention, and you could easily throw in a lot more names with those you mentioned. I do not think that there are any explicit movements, at least no manifestos are being written; from the outside, though, it could possibly look as if there were groupings within this larger context of young German poetry – poets having a more openly political stance, for example, poets leaning more towards the experimental on the one hand or the realistic approach on the other hand, if you want to use these rather awkward and slightly old-fashioned terms. I think that the great majority of the young poets writing today is well acquainted with all aspects of modern German poetry and draws from both avantgarde and mainstream; there are tensions, of course, but on the whole I think everybody is far from the ideological battles of former decades and quite aware that you can do both at the same time: Reflect on the material you are using, the processes of your language, its possibilities and impossiblities, and relate to the everyday world outside, have it enrich your poetry.

Check out the original interview at: www.maintenant.co.uk

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
SJ Fowler
is the author of four poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press), Fights (Veer books), Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA press) and the Lamb pit (Eggbox publishing). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM magazine, and has had poetry commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and the Tate. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London. www.sjfowlerpoetry.com –  www.blutkitt.blogspot.com/ – www.youtube.com/fowlerpoetry

Maintenant #6: Tom Jenks

Poetry International, in collaboration with 3:AM Magazine, is pleased to showcase a  group of amazing young European poets. Steven Fowler, the Editor of the Maintenant Interview Series, began this project in January 2010 as a result of experiencing the differing, and inspirational, attitudes of European poetic cultures and how they contrasted to the UK. He said “I really thought it was a shame that poets from outside of the English language in Europe were never recognised until they had reached middle age and a certain ‘prominence’ in their own countries. I also wanted to present a truly representative sense of what poetry is for different traditions and methodologies, from the most traditional to the most avant garde. ”

We would like to extend a special thanks to the extensive list of those responsible for making this series possible. In particular, Jan Wagner, Eirikur Orn Norddahl, Jan Pollet, Nikola Madzirov and Damir Sodan.

*****

Urbane, controlled and rigorously constructed, the concrete and visual poetry produced by Tom Jenks has earned him a reputation as of the Britain’s most innovative experimental poets. Never indulgent, never indecently abstract, Jenk’s work is sure and profound. His poetry inhabits a space of expression which exposes the limitations of elements of traditional lyric or free verse, the framing of words to reveal glimpses, traces of lives, events, conversations and where other mediums can make the experience of the intangible daily discourse seem false or conceited, Jenk’s poetry is powerful, insightful and somehow, by it’s careful demolition of poetic barriers, overwhelming accurate. He is a skilled practitioner of his medium and an exciting presence in British poetry. For 3:AM he speaks to SJ Fowler.3:AM: Did you begin by writing more formally constructed poetry or were you draw into the specifics of your style of expression and concrete / visual poetry from an outside medium?

Tom Jenks: Like lots of people, I started writing as a teenager but it wasn’t until my twenties that I got ‘serious’ about it. My early writing was fairly generic: primarily concerned with personal experience and not at all what you could call experimental or innovative. I eventually ran out of steam with this, feeling that I had more or less written about everything of interest about me and that I was just trying to push the same three or four buttons repeatedly for no real reason. It seemed to me then that I either had to stop writing or find a new way of doing things. I didn’t want to stop writing, so I found a new approach, although it was in no way as conscious or organized as that may sound.

A friend gave me a copy of Children of Albion, a poetry anthology from the 1960s. A lot of stuff in there seems dated now, but in amongst it there is some interesting work. Key for me in this anthology was a poet called Stuart Mills, who died a couple of years ago. He only had two pieces in there – once called ‘In the Low Countries’ and another called ‘Sending Out a Prophet’ but they had an enormous impact on me. They were very short, surreal and abstract in content and minimal in tone. They opened up a new tract of territory for me. I sought out everything I could by him, which wasn’t very much. I got his address and wrote to him and he sent me some fantastic chapbooks. I found some more in the Manchester Metropolitan University library archive. From this, I got interested in imagism and Japanese and Chinese poetry – anything that was doing more with less. This became my aesthetic for a while. Occam’s razor about sums it up: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitate – “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”. At my most extreme, I was almost completely concerned with mood, colour and texture. My first published poems date from this time and although my approach is almost diametrically opposed to that now, they are still pieces I can stand by. Almost all of them were written in less than an hour using what was essentially a lightly edited stream of consciousness method. I wrote entirely by hand at this time, using a computer simply to type up the finished texts.

I think of this as the first phase of my writing. This phase came to an end when I started my MA in Creative Writing in Manchester. I decided to do a Master’s after lengthy deliberation because I thought it would take my writing to another level, which it eventually did, although not at all in the way that I had anticipated. Whether it was the pressure of workshops or just that the ethos and atmosphere of the course didn’t suit me, I gradually found it more and more difficult to write. The only stuff I produced was imitative and really just to get through the course. When I finished the course, I stopped writing altogether.

Eventually, I started again, but found I couldn’t carry on in the same way as before. The old methods just didn’t work. Around this time, I’d started a literary magazine and it quickly struck me how almost everybody was ploughing the same few acres. I became more and more interested in doing things in a different way. I started to experiment with form and with space, using the page as a canvas rather than simply a frame. I began to incorporate images and found text and moved beyond using the computer as a typewriter, exploring the potential information technology offers for the production of texts. I wouldn’t say that I had done any more than scratch the surface in this regard so far, but it is something I remain committed to.

My work changed radically in terms of content, too. Before my guiding principles had been compression and abstraction, with the poem as a small thing of beauty. Writing had been about sectioning off a small area of the world and cultivating it. Now I didn’t (and don’t) want to section anything off. I became interested in producing poetry that was engaged with and about the whole world and all its manifestations – mass media, signage, dialogue, diverse voices and, very importantly for me, humour. As I moved further and further away from the mainstream I encountered writers new to me that I simply hadn’t known existed. Key to this was my friend and later publisher and co-organiser James Davies. Writers often talk about a switch-on moment and for me that was a reading James gave in early 2007 in Manchester which showed me that poetry didn’t have to be “poetry”. It could exist without quotation marks. James was important in other ways too, particularly in including me in his Matchbox series alongside some people I am very proud to be associated with: Bill Griffiths, Tim Atkins and Matt Welton to name but a few.

3:AM: There appears to be an indelible line of pathos in your work to the experience of inhabiting an Englishness, that is the sparks of accidental cultural insight, the broad emotional positions reflected en masse, the flattening of expression. Is your work bound to that element of Englishness?

TJ: Englishness in a troublesome concept. I am English and have never lived anywhere else but England. But I was born and raised in the north-east, which in some ways isn’t really England at all. Certainly, growing up there in the 1980s when pits, shipyards and factories were closing practically every week, you didn’t feel that you were in any way regarded as important as a region. I can’t claim that the great industrial decline touched me much personally (my parents were both teachers) but it was in the air. So I suppose what being English means has always been nebulous for me.

With regard to intention, I would say there is none, at least not on a conscious level. As I alluded to in a previous answer, I am not particularly interested in filtration or shaping: I am interested in the world in its totality. So whatever voice comes through is fine by me. I would say I have not pursued an English voice deliberately but equally I have not made any effort not to be English.

3:AM: That English, lived in vernacular is hard to encapsulate in art forms, it appears parodic in cinema, twee in formal poetry, media constructed in canvass art. Your reappropriations seem to be highly successful in showing glimpses of life through language for an English experience of life. Do you perceive this?

TJ: Vernacular language is something I am interested in, as I am in all mutations and variants of received English. The notion of English as a fixed, codified language is relatively recent concept historically. In the Middle Ages, for instance, English was varied wildly from place to place. I want to reclaim some of that fluidity.

3:AM: But are you not pursuing a distant agenda akin to satire?

TJ: Again this is not something I deliberately do, but I can see it in my work retrospectively. I suppose any satirical elements in my work arise naturally from my political views, which I would describe as left wing and anti-capitalist without any particular affiliation. I admire and enjoy overtly political work in others (Sean Bonney, for example, or Robert Sheppard) but I can’t imagine ever producing work like that myself. I have two small children and I am very aware of the potentially debilitating effect of mass culture. But I am not immune to mass culture myself. I certainly don’t have that thorough going disdain for and hostility towards it that someone like Debord has. I suppose I am operating from within it. I don’t fear it and I don’t feel it has me in a death grip. I don’t see myself as glorifying it in a Pop Art way, but nor do I see myself as its scourge.

3:AM: I’m interested in your work in the North-west, the history of Parameter magazine, which gained quite a reputation for breaking new poets before it ceased publication, and of course, the projects you have ongoing.

TJ: Parameter was my magazine, which I set up in 2005 and published twice yearly until the end of 2009. It’s difficult now to know exactly what my motivations were. A large part of it was certainly to provide a platform for new work, but it was also, I think, a way of remaining involved with writing in a time when I myself was going through a bit of a fallow period. The first few issues weren’t produced with anything else in mind that just doing something and getting it out. Looking back now, they seem unfocused. But then again my own views were pretty unfocused at that time so perhaps the magazine was just reflecting that. Towards the end, I was perpetually trying to wrench the wheel around and set a new course but I always felt that was a doomed enterprise. There was too much history and the content wasn’t pure enough. Having said that, there was some fantastic work in there: Robert Sheppard, Ron Padgett and Lucy Harvest Clarke. I published prose for the first seven issues, too, and there were some strong stories in there, including a couple of authors who have since gone on to much bigger things: Chris Killen and Maria Roberts. The long term benefit of the magazine to me has been on a philosophical level in that it helped me realise what I was for and against – a sort of purifying fire. Plus, I learnt a lot about publishing doing it and more importantly had a lot of fun, particularly when a group of us used to select work together: me, Sarah, my wife, James Davies, Alex Middleton and Rob O’Driscoll. Special mention must also go to Michael Murray, who single-handedly cultivated a huge body of reviews and essays, the vast majority of which he wrote himself. They stand up there amongst the magazine’s finest work.

My new project, zimZalla is in many ways the application of what I learnt doing Parameter and the expression of the thinking I was referring to. This time, I have begun with a very clear idea about the type of work I want to publish. I suppose ‘experimental’ is as good a word as any. What I have left open, though, is the formats this work will be presented in. I have no fixed plans for this. The first ‘object’ was a free PDF by Tina Darragh. The second is a print publication with work by three poets. The third will be a CD of sound poetry by Matt Dalby, who, if you haven’t seen and/or heard him, is one of the most innovative and, to use a slightly 1960s phrase, mind blowing performers around. I really like the idea of being undefined and agile – no schedule, no fixed format – and being able to respond and be open to offers and sheer contingency.

Aside from publishing, the other project I am involved in is The Other Room, a reading series I run with James Davies and Scott Thurston. We are approaching our second anniversary at the time of writing this. Our aim with The Other Room is to bring the best of innovative writing to the north-west of England. I am very proud of the catalogue of readers that we have. On a personal level, being involved with The Other Room has been a magical, energising experience, all the more so for it not being in any way willed on my part. The credit for setting it up must go to Alex Davies and Steve Willey, who ran the Openned reading series in London until circumstances forced it into abeyance recently. I was lucky enough to be asked to get involved at the outset. I view The Other Room as very important, not just for what it is in itself but also for its impact on other people. I could name a few who have quite simply been transformed by its simple existence, like lost droids finally finding the mother ship.

3:AM: What are your thoughts on poetry and its relationship to multiple media, that is whether you think poetry is in dialogue now with art practice outside of more established poetic forms, in any vital way?

TJ: I can’t speak for poetry in general, but for my own work yes, very definitely, other media are important. For me, poetry is of the now, with all that the now entails. I am interested in the possibilities of art, programming, sound – everything. I have long since stopped worrying about whether I am writing ‘poetry’. I am very much informed by art. Keith Tyson, who won the Turner prize a while back, was very important to me for a while in the way that he utilises text. That made me think about approaching the same fusion in a different way, i.e. as a producer of text interested in images rather than the other way around. I want to be feral, not bloodstock. I want it all in there.

3:AM: Do art institutions recognise poetry and it’s capabilities, it’s variance, it’s potential as a medium that differs from just the word on page? Is there a realistic chance of growth of appreciation for hybrid poetic art forms?

TJ: Regarding whether art institutions recognise poetry, it is difficult for me to say as I have no involvement in any such institution. What I would say, though, is that I don’t see it. Caroline Bergvall sparked an interesting debate recently when she talked about artists dabbling in poetry, but not really making any effort to incorporate it into their overall aesthetic. I would go along with that. But then, there might be someone out there doing remarkable things who doesn’t yet register on Google.

3:AM: Do you partake in readings? Do you have a performance methodology as it relates to your work specifically?

TJ: Let me answer this in a Wyndham Lewis way by saying what I hate about poetry readings: bonhomie; anecdotes; detailed explanation of each poem before it is read; advance notice of particular technical tricks; poems about life’s little ironies; faux bohemianism. So these are the things I seek to avoid. My own attitude could be summed up as “never apologise, never explain”. My introductions are minimal, mostly non-existent. I don’t offer any context as I don’t feel it is relevant. I don’t try to establish myself as a likeable person. To return to Wyndham Lewis, a poetry reading for me should be a Blast. Quite often when I read, someone (usually just one person) will come up to me and say that they have never seen anyone do a reading in that way before and it is those people I do it for. I’m quite happy to have a 1/10 engagement/bemusement ratio.

3:AM: Finally, you mentioned Stuart Mills, but I’m interested in those both contemporary and modern who have had a distinct influence on your poetry?

TJ: This list could go on forever, but I will try and keep it brief. I like more people than those I would say have influenced me, if influence means being interested in what someone has done and trying to apply it in some way. I am interested in J.H. Prynne and Geoffrey Hill, for example, but I don’t see them as informing my aesthetic in any way. In terms of my own work, I like people who get in there and mix it up. I love pretty much everything Tim Atkins has done. I love the way he blends all sorts of cultural reference points: Horace one minute, Jordan the next. I love Caroline Bergvall for her willingness to always expand the form. Frank Kuppner is great and important to me in that he is unashamedly funny. I am very much of the opinion that to write, you must read and I am always looking for new people to read. You have never seen it all and it is important not to think that you have. At that point, you might as well slip on a pair of elasticated trousers and go and buy a copy of the Daily Mail.

Check out the original interview at: www.maintenant.co.uk

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
SJ Fowler
is the author of four poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press), Fights (Veer books), Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA press) and the Lamb pit (Eggbox publishing). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM magazine, and has had poetry commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and the Tate. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London. www.sjfowlerpoetry.com –  www.blutkitt.blogspot.com/ – www.youtube.com/fowlerpoetry

Maintenant #5: Gerður Kristný

Poetry International, in collaboration with 3:AM Magazine, is pleased to showcase a  group of amazing young European poets. Steven Fowler, the Editor of the Maintenant Interview Series, began this project in January 2010 as a result of experiencing the differing, and inspirational, attitudes of European poetic cultures and how they contrasted to the UK. He said “I really thought it was a shame that poets from outside of the English language in Europe were never recognised until they had reached middle age and a certain ‘prominence’ in their own countries. I also wanted to present a truly representative sense of what poetry is for different traditions and methodologies, from the most traditional to the most avant garde. ”

We would like to extend a special thanks to the extensive list of those responsible for making this series possible. In particular, Jan Wagner, Eirikur Orn Norddahl, Jan Pollet, Nikola Madzirov and Damir Sodan.

*****

I’d lay my ear to
the cracking of the ice
in the hope of hearing it
retreat
if I didn’t know
I’d be frozen fast

The ice lets no one go

My country
a spread deathbed
my initials stitched
on the icy linen

from Patriotic Poem

To stand apart from the wealth of poetic talent currently working in Iceland requires a unique eloquence of expression. The diminutive north sea nation is not short on artists, musicians and poets. Bearing a unique cultural tradition that emanates from the poetic, that is the written and spoken word of the sagas and the eddas, Iceland is a novum for ethereal, intuitive, organic poetry. Gerður Kristný is as fine an example as is to be found. Her work is cautious and collected, an image driven poetess, hollowing out poems into delicate structures that offer like the climate and geography of Iceland itself, a sense of humility, of beloved uncertainty and an appreciation of that which immediately surrounds. Her fourth collection is soon to appear in the upcoming year. For 3AM she speaks to SJ Fowler.3:AM: Your poetry seems extremely careful in its construction and very much concerned with exact statements. Do you edit your work from longer drafts or write in its form as seen?

Gerður Kristný: Each word is carefully chosen in my poetry. I compose my poems line by line but normally they appear in my books pretty much as I wrote them, I don’t rewrite them completely. My next book of poetry will though be radically different from the three previous collections since I will be telling a story. It’s the story of Freyr, the norse fertility god, who falls in love with Gerður and asks Skírnir, his messenger, to ask her to marry him. She doesn’t want to, so Skírnir threatens to kill her father and brothers and that convinces her. Freyr gives Skírnir his horse and his sword for his service. Freyr’s sword is magical in the sense that the one who holds it will not be killed in a battle and since Freyr has given away his sword for a woman he’ll die in Ragnarok. I wanted to tell this story from Gerður’s point of view. I spent some time thinking whether I write it as a novel or in a poem. I had doubts to whether my poignant style would work in a narrative poem but I’m pleased that it appears to be able to describe the dramatic too. I started working on the book in Stockholm, in October 2008 just as I got the news that Iceland’s financial system had collapsed. Maybe I’m one of those artists that thrives in crises.

3:AM: There seems to be elements of pronunciation in your work, not ecstatic, but certainly celebratory in its themes. Do you see your work as outward or inward? It appears your poetry seems rooted in your surroundings – your family, the climate and so forth, in this regard, are your poems inspirational or contemplative?

GK: I was 24 years old when my first poetry collection, Ísfrétt (Ice Warning), was published. My poetry was rather inward in the beginning. It took me six years to write my next collection, Launkofi (Secret Cabin, 2000). Time worked with me and the difference is obvious. The poems are much more outward and even more so in Höggstaður, (Weak Spot, 2007) my third and latest poetry collection. The frontiers of my poetry have expanded. Now I don’t hesitate to write about my deepest feelings, my family and what ever comes to mind. I can think about the same idea for weeks and months before I realise that it is actually a poem. One small example: my older son was born cross-eyed and had to have surgery in fact. A friend of mine looked at him and said ‘he’s got such beautiful eyes that they are drawn to each other.’ I kept telling people this until I realised that this could be something.

If a pregnant woman
stares at the stars
and the northern lights
the baby will be crosseyed,
says my friend

And look!
Your son
has such beautiful eyes
that they get drawn
to each other

3:AM: Much is said about the Icelandic environment, it‘s uniqueness, geographically, and its effect on Icelandic people, creatively. Physically, just literally, do you think your work supersedes this environmental reality or are you absolutely affected by the nature of Iceland?

GK: As I mentioned was my first poetry book was called Ice Warning and my poetry has always been covered with snow. So yes, Icelandic weather and nature have really affected my poetry. It’s dramatic. Serious weather changes can evoke stories and as do dangerous mountain roads. We don’t have dark woods or wolfs but we’ve got freezing storms and the winter darkness envelops us four months a year. That’s when things start to happen. During the summer there’s light all of the time and no need to sleep. And again, that is something worth telling.

3:AM: And emotionally, there is so much said about the ethereal nature of the Icelandic character, it‘s propensity for unique, poetic expression, it‘s idiosyncratic manner that seems to lie outside the norm of ‘Central European‘ culture. Do you think is a reality, or has it been made into something reductive and perhaps limited? To be more specific, it’s often said that Iceland lies outside of what may be called the Scandinavian tradition, do you think this is true of poetry too?

GK: Contemporary Icelandic poetry is rather down to earth. Last year a few poets wrote books specifically about the financial crisis, but poets that write about love and the landscape are still popular. Strangely there isn’t much love or landscape on the news nowadays and that’s when it comes to poetry. Icelandic readers are open to poetry. In schools we have to study poetry and learn poems by heart. Therefore most people can name their favorite poet. Many writers start their careers by publishing a poetry collection before writing a novel or short stories. Sometimes they publish the poetry themselves which can be a good experience. I chose to be published by a publishing house. I didn’t want to go between bars in the evening selling my books – like some poets did. I had won a poetry competition before I sent the publishing house my manuscript and published some of my poems in various literature magazines so my name was already known to the publisher.

3:AM: Often fascinating cultural and poetic traditions of expression emerge in countries where imported montheistic religions blend and mould with rich pre-existing belief systems, (voodoo and Catholicism in Haiti, paganism and Catholicism in Ireland etc…) Iceland appears to have held a strong connection to the pre-christian beliefs indigenous to the people. Do you think this shows up in the expression of Iceland in poetry, music, writing etc…?

GK: Icelanders have always been proud of the sagas and the eddas, old texts about the vikings and the old nordic goods. We have a small section of the population that still believes in these old gods, and the priests are allowed to marry people, so this is a respected religion. We still write about the viking times and that sort of literature remains very popular. The writer Einar Kárason received the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2008 for Ofsi, a story that takes place in the 13th century and The National Theatre is now showing Gerpla, a play written from Halldór Laxness’ novel about vikings.

3:AM: Relative to it’s geographical size the modern poetic tradition in Iceland is rich. I’d like to know how vital the influence of figures like Halldór Laxness, Steinn Steinarr and Guðmundur Böðvarsson remains on contemporary poets in Iceland?

GK: Halldór Laxness’ and Guðmundur Böðvarsson’s influences on modern poetry have never been that rich even though Laxness’ novels and other writings most certainly have. But Steinn Steinarr’s influences are immense. He wrote poetry about the common people for the common people and he did a lot to modernize Icelandic poetry. When Icelanders are in high school they all read Steinn Steinarr! The poets that have influenced me the most are Hannes Sigfússon (1922-1997) and Snorri Hjartarson (1906–1986). Snorri wrote about nature like no one else ever has and Hannes was one of the big modernists in Icelandic poetry. His poetry is obscure and complex and I always find something new in his work.

3:AM: Much has been made of the Icelandic music scene in the last few decades. Music is of course a poetic medium and often a linguistic one too. Is there interdisciplinary work emerging between the artistic communities in Iceland?

GK: In the 80’s rock concerts often started with a poetry reading. I remember warming up for The Sugercubes, fronted by Björk, at a concert in my high scool when I was 17. The writer Sjón (author of The Blue Fox published by Telegram 2008) often worked with The Sugarcubes and even sang with them. The collaborations between poets and musicians have all but ended. It was fun while it lasted!

(Special thanks to Kristín Viðarsdóttir at Reykjavík City Library).

Check out the original interview at: www.maintenant.co.uk

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
SJ Fowler
is the author of four poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press), Fights (Veer books), Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA press) and the Lamb pit (Eggbox publishing). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM magazine, and has had poetry commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and the Tate. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London. www.sjfowlerpoetry.com –  www.blutkitt.blogspot.com/ – www.youtube.com/fowlerpoetry

Maintenant #4: Monika Rinck

Poetry International, in collaboration with 3:AM Magazine, is pleased to showcase a  group of amazing young European poets. Steven Fowler, the Editor of the Maintenant Interview Series, began this project in January 2010 as a result of experiencing the differing, and inspirational, attitudes of European poetic cultures and how they contrasted to the UK. He said “I really thought it was a shame that poets from outside of the English language in Europe were never recognised until they had reached middle age and a certain ‘prominence’ in their own countries. I also wanted to present a truly representative sense of what poetry is for different traditions and methodologies, from the most traditional to the most avant garde. ”

We would like to extend a special thanks to the extensive list of those responsible for making this series possible. In particular, Jan Wagner, Eirikur Orn Norddahl, Jan Pollet, Nikola Madzirov and Damir Sodan.

*****

kissing him was like kissing a door
slim flat stern with hinges on one side
but moveable on the other
how it swung open how we fell
there were boats and we took them
our nicotine-sour mouths in each other
like an element to shape something from
the bitterness gathered in the hollows
when it wore off we smoked

from Disciple (trans.Nicholas Grindell)

As adaptable, multifaceted and aggressively engaged as any voice in contemporary German poetry, Monika Rinck is a poet of intellect, experimentation and humour. Her work over the last decade has been marked by a singular turn of expression, the profound imbedded in a poetic discourse that disarms the reader, lulls them into the source of the work. It is a careful and precise methodology that can appear expansive and wide ranging. Her work implies poetry has something akin to a responsibility, that it is acts as a trace, a marker that can enlighten the reader by bringing attention to a space before removing itself and illuminating as it does so, to show, in absence, what was not before seen. Her output has been prolific, from the volume of her material to her frequent collaboratiions with artists, musicians and other media. With a burgeoning reputation outside of Germany, through publications in the likes of Shearsman, Litter and the Atlanta Review, she is a German poet who should be recognised for her output now, rather than in a few decades time, as will perhaps be the case. Her begriffstudio project, an everygrowing poetic concern utilising found language and mediaspeak to build a holistic narrative of reflective contemporary poetry, can be accessed at begriffsstudio. For 3:AM, she speaks to SJ Fowler.3:AM: Your poetry appears to emerge from a core idea that seems thoroughly defined. Does that idea – a novum, a paradox even that harks perhaps to Celan’s use of German or Trakl’s Expressionism – act as an embracing of the beyond-expression? Is it an engagement, a love even, of the act of revelling in the sophisticated unknown that poetry evokes?

Monika Rinck: I’m interested in systems of thought, I’m interested in thought in general. The question why we like one philosopher better than the other. What is it that renders a thought appealing? If you break it down to very tiny pieces, they might fall through the grid of pure rational argumentation. Then there’s a kind of logic to dreams and seasons, to mysticism, to emotional deprivation, to depression, to lack, to happiness, to whatsoever one thinks. And if some things or qualities come together as a metaphor in this process, it has to be logical as well, in thought, even though it’s expanding the strict philosophical sense of logic. I’m thinking of O’Hara’s manifesto for personism and the claim that you have to avoid being logical, for pain always produces logic. I recall a friend of mine who reads Hegel’s Logic whenever she feels sad. The process I’m interested in is a bit like working on new logical relations or units, of thought, which don’t produce stupidity or pain. And if they should produce stupidity then they will be like an oasis in the desert, where you stop to water your camels, in a refreshing sense. Maybe what Benjamin was thinking of when he attested a form of “plumpes Denken”, of “crude or clumsy thinking” to Brecht.

3:AM: It seems you often use animalistic or corporeal images to represent this core, as a geist, a fleeting presence.

MR: Yes. They appear as totem-animals. But animals nonetheless. Which means, they are not symbols, or pure allegories, not slaves of signification, but animals still, with all their animal qualities.

3:AM: Yet your poems are also defined by their mobility, the construction seems almost adaptable or interchangeable and alive. The language tesselates around the unspeakable.

MR: Yes, this is one pleasurable part of writing poems. If I may say so, I have the freedom to include 100 Russians in a poem, and a ship which sails above their heads and drives on bottom up, plus a giant rabbit-sculpture of Immanuel Kant and all my friends, and I want the season to turn into winter and night and immediately, all this is viable. It’s not as though I were making movies, or theatre, or opera, where already 20 Russians would pose a problem, not to mention the ship. I don’t want poetry to be about what everybody knows, and I don’t want it to be a mimetic repetition of things that are already joyless and dull in reality (that doesn’t mean, of course, that you wouldn’t be able to write a good poem about joyless and dull phenomena, but please, don’t write about both). “Tesselate”, it’s a nice word. Yes, the value of broken pieces of thought. I had to look it up, then it made me think of this quote from Walter Benjamin in Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels.

“Wie bei der Stückelung in kapriziöse Teilchen die Majestät den Mosaiken bleibt, so bangt auch die philosophische Betrachtung nicht um Schwung. Aus Einzelnem und Disparatem treten sie zusammen; nichts könnte mächtiger die transzendete Wucht, sei es des Heiligenbildes, sei’s der Wahrheit lehren. Der Wert von Denkbruchstücken… ”

“Just as mosaics preserve there majesty despite their fragmentation into capricious particles, so philosophical contemplation is not lacking in momentum. Bots are made up of the distinct and the diparate; and nothing could bear more powerful testimony to the transcendent force of the sacred image and the truth itself. The value of fragments of thought is all the greater the less direct their relationship to the underlying idea, and the brilliance of the representation depends as much on this value as the brillianve of the mosaic does on the quality of the glass paste.” (trans. John Osborne)

3:AM: You seem to use ‘found’ language or colloquialisms often too.

MR: Well, what is NOT found? For example, ten minutes ago a friend of mine called me on the phone to read me her new poem, admitting that she was using a verse of mine, which reads: “you can use your head as a third hand.” This is a phrase a mutual friend once said, when we were talking about assembling Ikea-furniture if you are alone and there is no one to help you. The poem of course has nothing to do with Ikea, it’s rather about a certain praxis, practibility, pragmatism of thinking during tense periods. and my friend was using it differently, in another context again. Puls is Hungarian, and she said: ‘Anyway, you have it from Edit! Edit is a friend of mine, too’, and I said, ‘Of course you can have it.’ So yes, sometimes I use found words and footage. Begriffsstudio is centred around finding. And at the same time it’s a bit like a ‘fitness-studio’ (a gym) for your attentiveness. If you stop finding things, you have a problem. Then you know you have to re-adjust your alertness, your attention.

3:AM: There is a phenomenological intervention here – poetry as instigation of thought, poetry as a reminder of Being. Do you recognise specific philosophical influences on your work?

MR: Yes, there’s Paul Tillich’s book on the courage to be, for example, there is Klaus Heinrich, who was/is my teacher, there’s Hegel and Meister Eckhart, Melanie Klein, Kristeva, some Deleuze and Foucault, there is Denise Riley, Barthes, Avital Ronell, Freud, Bion, Benjamin, Ann Carson, in short: a lot of people. Coming from all different directions.

3:AM: I’m interested too in your relationship with German poetry of this century. It’s such a vast and diverse milieu, so varied. Who are the figures you have found most in reading? Who do you think seems most influential on contemporary poetic discourse in Germany?

MR: Difficult question. Very influential for me is Elke Erb. Not only reading her poems, but also talking to her. Today’s her birthday, by the way. In puberty I read a lot of Benn, Bachmann, Rilke, Celan, Hoffmannsthal… they are still there, like specters, like ghostly soundscapes.. But I wouldn’t recommand anyone of them as much and furiously as I would recommand Elke Erb.

3:AM: You appear extremely engaged with interdisciplinary projects and the creation / presentation of poetry in different media. Is this something that has always been part of your poetic outlook?

MR: Yes, but poetry happened to be the most truthful companion, and stayed, while some other cultural techniques passed by. I like to work with composers, with musicians, i wish i could sing. (I had one year of singing lessons but my teacher turned out to be crazy, so I stopped.)

3:AM: Can you tell me the impetus behind the Begriffstudio project? It seems you are intent on using the internet as a reactive poetic tool, an opportunity too to have an immediate resource of linguistic satire, to reclaim the language of our time, as callous as it can be.

MR: In the beginning I was mailing the Begriffsstudio by snailmail, to 30 to 40 people. It was only after the book came out, (the first 1000 begriffs) I put it on the internet. But most of the begriffs don’t stem from the internet, but from reading, translating, talking with friends, walking around, misunderstanding the radio. Sometimes subscribers are handing in proposals, they are welcome. This of course has been facilitated by the internet.

3:AM: Could you also offer me a history of the Das Lemma group?

MR: The Lemma Group consisted of two poets (Hendrik Jackson and me), a performance artist (Siegmar Zacharias), a composer and musician (Franz Tröger), a theatre-person (Lukas Matthaei), two historians (Katja Augustin and Robert Sommer.) We made whatever we wanted, using everything that was there, but mostly we produced embarrassment or even despair in the audience, which has been interesting as well. But that wasn’t our central motivation (or concern), we wanted to amuse and tell the truth.

3:AM: You studied in the US and have featured with Shearsman and Atlanta review in translation amongst other publications. What has been your experience of reception in the non-German poetry communities?

MR: Different reactions, but I can’t complain. Mostly responsiveness, sometimes even enthusiasm. Then sometimes on international festivals I felt insecure about my writing though. Listening to the poet from Azerbaijan singing his poems out of deeply heartfelt pathos, listening to poets from Africa, from Albany, from Senegal, from Poland, from Russia, (in Russia there is a certain scepticism towards poetry that doesn’t rhyme, I certainly have experienced that) – but what I wanted to say, it made me think there’s much more in poetry than I can ever imagine, and why not write, I don’t know, bigger poems, metaphysical poems? Mountain poems? Not that I could do so in a good way, its just the opening of a space I’ve yet to go, where I had never thought of going. Why not try to approach pathos again? Why not write something drunken people in a small dark worker’s bar would understand and appreciate? I don’t know. I hope I can stay around long enough to try.

Check out the original interview at: www.maintenant.co.uk

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
SJ Fowler
is the author of four poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press), Fights (Veer books), Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA press) and the Lamb pit (Eggbox publishing). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM magazine, and has had poetry commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and the Tate. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London. www.sjfowlerpoetry.com –  www.blutkitt.blogspot.com/ – www.youtube.com/fowlerpoetry