:: Article

Deutsche Girl Poets

By Gaby Bila-Günther.

Every time people ask me about what I do in Berlin and I tell them I am a poet, a spoken word performer, they ask me whether I write in English or in German? When I shoot back mentioning English, they ask me again: is there much interest in English-speaking performance poets in this town? My answer to the ignorant is yes, there is!

In fact Berlin’s spoken word scene is growing and events are popping up like mushrooms. A poetry and literature lover can trample across Berlin’s scene and never get tired of it. Events dashing the best performers from slam, to spoken word, to poets and novelists are by the dozens and they never stop developing. Berlin’s events are rich in diversity, the performers come from all over the world, and the stages differ in size from self-made wooden crates to theatrically lit and sound equipped, offering the listeners many events, literary festivals, poetry slams in assorted performance styles.

Each week there are emails and bulletins circulating, announcing the arrival of new writers bearing awards, grants or only talent, searching around for the right stage available and suitable to them, finding their suitable writing nest. The scene is blooming with poets, net-workers, promoters, musicians, writers and wannabes. However Berlin’s not only the home scene to upcoming new talents, but also to old writers who are still here embedded onto beds of poems, novels, short stories and tales of non-fiction. Many use Berlin’s trashy glamour as their main source of inspiration, others lavish the city’s ever changing history as theirs, while many write and rave about their nightly encounters inside this city’s electrifying bars and clubs with crooners and eccentrics. Berlin is famous for its 24-hour nightlife since the roaring 1920’s. One isn’t a Berliner unless they have experienced the Berlin burn-out and have lost a few teeth. A current joke that passes around the dinner table conversations is how one can get alcohol around the clock but with milk, it’s a very different story. Milk lovers beware.

Personally for me, the city’s 24-hour vibes alongside its burly counter culture is what feeds my verses. Berlin is my number one lover that I take to bed each night and I think of every morning when I wake up and begin to write. For many of Berlin’s budding and surviving performers this city serves as their main fascination and obsession. Both sides of the city offer us many opportunities to test our work on audiences, on the city’s stages, we are published instantly. The audience is a melting pot, diverse, multicultural, tolerant, intolerant and rowdy yet, it is an audience that takes an interest in wordsmiths, in performing poets. An audience that can be quiet when in need, a clapping crowd when appreciative or hackling monsters when they must.

While Berlin as a city of action, inspiration and artistic flair unites the writers, poets and other artists, the performance language seems to divide it. No matter how tight the two scenes try to coexist with one another, the language barrier WALL seems to put a rip into it. However, not a serious rip as the English-speaking poets seem to mingle and enjoy the green grass on both sides of this language WALL. The international spoken word scene although it doesn’t float on the outskirts of its German counterpart, it is less official and financially granted than the German spoken word and poetry slam scene. On this note I should mention that the Poetry slam scene is what moves the waves of German literature in Berlin. The Germanic audience loves to participate in any poetic competition, vote for their favourite slammer, or writer. The audience decides who can live their artistic dreams a little while longer or who will die a premature publishing death. Once upon a time when publishing young poets was a trend in Berlin, there were talent scouts at each event, observing, signing, publishing and giving birth to future stars. These days when a poet isn’t slamming on stage but succumbs oneself to self-publishing and blogging poetry as their main occupation and time-consuming activity. The results are positive and blogs and zines seem to draw the audience even closer to the live gigs and stages.

The captain and founder of Berlin’s spoken word and slam scene is Wolfgang Hogekamp. He began by initiating spoken word and poetry slam shows back in the early ‘90s. Inside the infamous grunge and rock and roll bar of fame, located on a side street of the former old West Berlin, Ex & Pop, Wolfgang who worked as a barman there, began popular spoken word and readings events, discovering and showcasing Berlin’s and Germany’s best young authors and performers.

The audience would linger inside this dingy window-less little bar and through smoke and whispers they would be exposed to brilliant performers like Wolfgang and his gang of male writers: Bas Böttcher, Sebastian Krämer, Felix Römer and rapper Gauner. These performers have stuck it out since and have become Germanys spoken word elite. Wolfgang hosts the monthly event, Bastardslam in Festsaal Kreuzberg, Rosislam; he is involved in more than a few monthly slam poetry evenings: The Kreuzberg Slam in the venue KATO where more twenty or so performers report monthly to grace the stage with their words and the cues of audiences outside its doors, are spread out on the city’s graffiti and tagged footpath. Kreuzberg walls are the home to the tag, POET, whom I love and often perform spontaneously in front of, recording in public, my words and sentiments with my mobile phone.

All these events, under his umbrella have become the pop culture scene, spokenwordberlin. Since its early and humble origins, these events have gone national and audiences in their thousands come to vote, clap and enjoy the latest rhymes, rap and spoken word performances. And like a true championship that has become of this, other word champions from major cities in Germany attend and battle it out continuously to win the national slam poetry crown.

Spokenword Berlin isn’t just pop culture in the making, it has become a profesional institution, a label for spoken word cds and poetry clips, all overseen and promoted by Wolfgang. Soon he plans to take his concept to Zurich where the international German speaking slammers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland will oppose each other in their mother tongue to become the European Champion.

‘Berlin’s slam poetry scene is very international’, says Wolfgang, proud of his budding baby. A very true and honest quality of the scene and most recently seen at the first International Kreuzköln (hosted by performers, French writer Kacosonia and German slammer, Tom Mars) where slammers were invited to perform in the language of their choice. (Kreuzberg and Neuköln are two neighbourhoods in Berlin divided pysically only by the canal but have a great deal in common spiritually: most artists and musicians live, perform and hang out in these left wing/cultural neighbourhood hubs).

The audience had to judge them by their performance style, their confidence and their ability to break down the language barriers and make an impact. This took place in January and slammers spat it out, in highbrow or cockney or chav English, German, French and Italian. ‘Whenever I leave Berlin I go to have an affair with London’, slammed out Paula Varjack on her second round. The stage was the tower of Babylon where sounds, rap, spoken word blended into one to charm, impress with success. The winners’ words carried gold in the English language, proving after all that English is the international poets language, accessible to most audience who decided and proved that the words opposed to comical performances only, carried the winning weight.

The English language poetry events in Berlin don’t just attract the expats along, but excite a great deal of performance poetry and spoken word lovers. One of the longest running events that places focus on meaningful, honest, performative and provocative work is Fuel, the monthly spoken word show extravaganza on the second Sunday of each month, now at Schokoladen Club in Berlin Mitte, hosted by me, lady gaby. Since its birth and initiation four years ago, Fuel has grown into the most alive, attention-grabbing spoken word event that presents elite poets who aren’t afraid to experiment or provoke with their words, followed by live music acts ranging from electro, acoustic, singer songwriter duets, electronica or experimental jazz. ‘Please disturb’ is Fuel’s motto and is what I encourage the poets to do. Each month, local and international spoken word performers come to electrify their audiences who in return hollow, bellow, hackle or just simply enjoy the miscellaneous smorgasbord of talents on stage. Since its budding season back in 2005, Fuel has had three homes, opened its creative energy to audiences across three neighbourhoods, has given shine and armour to many aspiring poets who have used Fuel’s stage as their first moments of glory. Fuel guests have arrived from as far as Australia and Canada and since the poetry scene has found its nest and ally on myspace, the international performers are knocking its doors, monthly. Fuel distinguishes itself from many other spoken word events in Berlin by exposing the public to outstanding wordsmiths, superb performing techniques, voice divas with their sundry tones and poetic flavours. The Fuel shows are risky, fast paced, racing through emotions and commenting on social politics, presenting new and unheard-of poets. It doesn’t believe in nepotism, circulating or roasting its poets. It isn’t just a platform for networking but for learning to appreciate and give fresh and talented voices, sparkling and encouraging beginnings. The same concept extended to a new show format, From the Mouth of Dames Shows, making the spoken word female performers as the main towers on stage, with other artistic genres pivoting around them. Before Fuel together with writer Jessica Falzoi we formed the Poets Party where we organised creative writing workshops, poetry and live music events inside unconventional spaces: such as laundrettes, stables, shop fronts, restaurants, old castles outside Berlin. One afternoon inside a public laundrette the poets and musicians took over one of the main rooms of the establishment and turned into our own stage. Spontaneously one artist made an installation of clothes with socks, underwear and feminine attire hanging all around the room. At the end of the poetry show we swapped not only poems but also clothes we told the audience to bring with since the theme of the afternoon was Dirty Laundry. Everyone including the punters who were doing their laundry on that day, participated in this mayhem of poetry, live music (including a drum kit), clothes and books swapping event. These events were always bilingual yet never funded by grants and only by our good will and love for the poets.

New format for poetry shows invent and reinvent themselves on many of Berlin’s stages. Beat Street another very popular event takes places on the last Friday of each month in Café Carma in Berlin F-schain. This event pulls the enthusiastic expat community alongside young German students who attempt to improve their English skills by listening to poetry performances. Beat Street is a poetry purist event, interested in hosting on its stage, only English poets and songwriters who compliment each other well. This event is more for a young beer drinking party audience who often are on their way to clubs but make a stop over at this bursting with energy and youth bar in order to sharpen up their own creative senses and slow down their sobriety. A fun thing to do on the last Friday of each month. Also at the same venue on a different evening, another poetry event the Midnight Poetry bangs its mesmerising poetic shinning bells, exactly at midnight. Two English poetry events under the same roof without hating each other, is what makes the Berlin scene so invigorating and reassuring that here, it is all about culture making a difference.

However, not many are satisfied with playing the role of an audience and would rather be up on stage performing and sipping beer at the same time. The perfect event for open stage slammers and poets is the New Word Order, hosted by one of my favourite Berlin-based American young poet, Mike Haeflinger inside a non-smoking café in Kreuzberg. Since his arrival upon the scene Mike has united more poets and musicians than any other event organiser. This vast event has only one featured writer who receives all the donated and collected dosh inside the organiser’s hat, and usually graces the stage last. Before the main guest onstage, each enthusiastic poet has the chance to be desperate and brave the open stage in order to try his or her performing skills upon a starving audience. This event is fun, candid and sincere and definitely full of surprises. Nobody seems to mind the odd one out, the sod with no talent. This isn’t a competition but a chance to learn to perform and share your words out loud.

The queer scene has its own poetry and spoken word bag and its spreads its wings not only on queer stages but also at feminist and straight bars and venues. Poetry and art magazines such as BLATT have relocated from Prague and are scouting to publish new Eastern European poets in Berlin. Bordercrossings an English literary anthology although short-lived had made an impact and showed the rest of Germany, Berlin’s literary diversity. Spoken word events are even included at stand-up comedy nights. Poets versus stand up comedians or poets who are comedians can receive some extreme laughs and are responsible for jolly evenings during the now weekly events, My English Class, organised by writers Jacinta Nandi, Ben Knight and the musician Rock and Roll Dictator at various venues. This event can pull the most perverse thoughts and dirt upon its audience. At my English Class you should expect, explicit and dirty English Language, sex pep-talks and not just about the birds and the bees, willies and pussies, but explicit porn poetry and saucy, sexy foulmouth, comedy. So not Benny Hill like.

Poetry readings are present at exhibition openings, at book launches, film nights where poetry is alive and ardent on the big screens of Berlin’s small and independent cinemas, inside bars and artist run spaces. Wonderbar in Kreuzberg, an artist’s studio and bar, hosts evenings of spoken word performances even when they have to compete with the World Cup or the city’s summer vibes. Wallywoods Gallery in the far netheraches of the old East Berlin, Weisensee, puts on monthly events combining live music, poetry and action art such as painting chairs, canvases or the venue’s Walls. Paint while performing or performing while drinking. The guests often end their evenings asleep till the next morning on the couches of the galleries, snoring the flavours of alcohol away. ‘Anything here is allowed’, says artist/poet and owner, Paradox Paul who has been painting murals and publishing poetry in Berlin for an eternity.

A new monthly event on the third Thursday evening of each month, just premiered last week, ‘Movin along with VERSES’, that presents on its modest stage, two poets only, rotating their words around in multiple sets. In between the poets, the DJs save our drinking evenings and with bloated lips we eagerly await their return on stage. At this event everything is allowed to accompany the works expect plagiarism and lyrical crap. From mouth harmonicas, to floating poetry pages, to duets with your favourite musician, to rap and hip-hop, to improvised word duels and endless whispering or shouting lips jams.

So respect the Poets, ladies and gentlemen because they have arrived and are here to stay and although many only get paid from kind donations or door takings, Berlin Poets are doing their thing for the love of it. Don’t forget the BEAT Poets or the LAST Poets, but turn the pages of history to contemporary times, economical crisis and respect the new breed of wit, words and performance styles that distinguishes the Berlin Poets and have put them on the world’s map. This city is the experimental ground with its tolerant stages and poets prices everywhere, making it hard not to give your poetic ego, a chance on every open stage this city has on offer.

Freelance writer & curator/spoken word performer/ text-artist/poetry workshops coordinator/ events organiser/dj/visual artistSince May 2007, event organiser in her own studio/bar,Wonderbar in Berlin XBERG, monthly performances of all genres: spokenword, live electronica, electro performances, films, etc.Organiser of monthly performance and poetry event: FUEL @ Schokoladen since February 2008, at Trödler Bar till December 2007 from September 2006 and at hotelbar, March 2005-July 2006, Berlin. Since 2006, Organiser of From the Mouth of Dames a series of shows showcasing women performers in all artistic genres. Curator & anthology editor of SEXFLIES project, launched at Barbie Deinhoff’s in Berlin 2005, relaunched and extended at IG Gallery in Wien, January 2008 and Kunstamt Bethanien in Berlin in May 2008. Co-organiser of POETS’ PARTY, poets group in Berlin 2003-2005 Coordinator of FLUSH, artists group bringing work in public places 2000-2002 Part of URBAN ART, an artists group initiating contemporary art in urban spaces.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009.