Maintenant #4: Monika Rinck
tell me, oh blessed master, should I add water?
Monika Rinck interviewed by SJ Fowler.
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.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 7th, 2010.