Maintenant #45: Aleš Šteger
‘There the smell of mint grows out of bone,
Out of a neighbor’s thumb and a stranger’s shin’ – an interview with Aleš Šteger by SJ Fowler.
Simply one of the most enjoyable poets to read in Europe right now, Aleš Šteger is a cultivated and often brilliant poet. He maintains an air of philosophical sophistication while imbuing his work with a laconic satire and aberrant minimalism that makes it distinct and vivid in the memory. A leading light in the rich Slovenian poetry community, we are very pleased to introduce Aleš Šteger as Maintenant edition Forty Five.
3:AM: Your poetic style is extremely distinct – incisive, contained and exact. It reads with an ease, yet it feels as though every word or line were crafted. It is a truly unusual and vital achievement. Do you attempt to write a philosophical exactness?
Aleš Šteger: I am somewhat suspicious about the expression “philosophical exactness”. Take, for example, Deleuze’s and Guattari’s fascinating A Thousand Plateaus. One could hardly speak about exactness there. Rather, the book delineates a certain energy of thinking, one that requires a vast space for its concepts to be expressed in a precise way. A great majority of contemporary philosophical books are commentaries to older philosophical texts. Yet, many contemporary philosophers seek a new role for philosophy, often attempting to bring philosophy closer to mass media or at least some sort of cultural criticism. It is a common thing that if one speaks about abstract concepts, few will listen, yet if one speaks about the war in Afghanistan or Wikileaks one could expect a full auditorium. What has all this to do with poetry? I believe that poetry is gaining back some of the grounds that it has lost to critical thought after WWII. Generally speaking, poets (with a few exemptions) did not play the role of public commentators as much as philosophers (like Bernard-Henri Lévy, Peter Sloterdijk, Slavoj Žižek and others) have done in the past. In present France, for example, poetry appears to be distrusted, regarded almost as an outlived form of expression, something that was appropriate in the times of Baudelaire, but not today. And yet, both ways of thinking and writing, philosophical and poetical, were once understood as sharing the same grounds in exposing and crafting abstract thinking. Heraclitus’ texts, for example, may be read both as philosophy and poetry. With philosophy transforming and taking a path towards journalism, poetry has much more free space than it had decades ago.
To answer your question. There is no doubt that exactness is mother of art. But there are different kind of exactnesses and different goals that could be achieved through attempts at precision. Although rational, my poetry is not preoccupied with highlighting exact logical procedures. Rather, it aims at throwing light at dark corners, gaps, broken meanings, abysses between ideas, words, showing the failure of speech, the wreckage of language. Writing for me is an act of constant failing of language to become a firm exactness. My texts hope to enable and explore places where these failures can happen.
3:AM: There is a great atmosphere of humour or satire underwriting your poetry, is this a deliberately evocation?
AŠ: There are certain traditions of black humour in some East European literatures (especially in Czech, Romanian, Serbian) that are truly unique. They reveal a special and often paradoxical aspect of our existence. I use humorous form sometimes in order to address the most drastic and dreadful notions like wars in former Yugoslavia, or concentration camps, etc in a more direct and less moralising way. I am not doing it in order to rewrite histories. I simply want to escape certain traps of politicisation, ideologicalisation and instrumentalisation of language. I am not interested in writing poetry that would read like propaganda pamphlets. My experience, though, is that this type of humour is not always understood outside the cultures, where it forms part of the everyday life. I have been criticised in the past for this approach, usually by people lacking the knowledge of contexts and traditions that I have been trying to address. That in itself is a good thing, a sign that the poems have managed to stir certain emotions and prejudices, and punctuate certain neuralgic spots.
3:AM: Your poetry maintains a rhythm that seems based on short, sharp, extremely memorable images, that you sculpt with your words. Do you write from these images or do they form around the poems as you write?
AŠ: I used to think about the process of writing as an exploration of space. First there is a very vague notion of a limited space that contains no language. The space is felt atmospherically, like a neurological sensation, if you wish. It is not an image, neither a sound, but it does have something of a still, hidden structure and with it all the exactness of a finished poem. The next step is to bring this structure out to light, where it can be examined, explored. Precisely here lies the distinction, in my view, between art and craft or science. The process of verbalisation of a poem has no and cannot have any codified method. It is always the art of improvisation, the search for a unique method, the quest for the most appropriate, precise, surprising, fresh approach at the time. It is always a kind of work that is against a method that requires repetition of style or effect. The experience of filling up the space with language, with unpure, unsecure, detached words, at first usually feels like putting a dead mask to the structure of space. With time, however, the structure starts to live.
3:AM: Your work evokes the tonality of Beckett, Ionesco, perhaps even Queneau, Cendrars? Are you influenced by poetry of the absurd, by the Surrealists, Dada, Oulippo?
AŠ: I love many of the texts of the authors that you have mentioned, especially Beckett. I grew up reading the French surrealist, but also reading Spanish and Latin American poetry from the first half of the 20th century. Later I have begun translating poets like Pablo Neruda, Olga Orozco and others. The first Slovenian translation of Poemas humanos by César Vallejo, the great Peruvian poet, that I co-translated, will be published in Ljubljana any day now. But there are many others poets and poems to be mentioned. The Balcan avandgardist, the Zenit circle from Belgrade, German and postwar Polish poetry, Benn, Celan and, of course, the great Slovenian avantgarde poet Srečko Kosovel, the black magician of Slovenian poetry Dane Zajc or the religious and philosophical Edvard Kocbek. And, perhaps, above all other Slovenian poets, I really love the poems of Gregor Strniša, which still await their translation into English.
3:AM: Your titles are fantastic too, utterly immediate and reduced. Do you desire that affect from the outset – a swathe of humour and poetic reduction?
AŠ: It depends on the structure of the book I work on. In The Book of Things there was the need to put an emphasis on the titles. In my latest poetry collection, The Book of Bodies (came out in Slovenia in 2010), there are no titles anymore. In the last decade or so I went through several processes that gradually transformed my relationship towards poetry. I have started to work not only on single poems but on entire books, spinning parallels and structures, that reach beyond the individual text. On the other side my attitude towards other literary forms has changed too, especially towards the essayistic writings. Ludwig Hartinger, the Austrian critic and editor, created a special German term for what I was writing in my last two books of essay-like texts (Berlin, 2005, and With Fingers and a Heel, 2009). He named this kind of texts poessay. It is a kind of crossing over of genres, texts that are neither long poems nor essays but have certain characteristics of both.
3:AM: You have read across Europe over the last few decades, it seems you are invited regularly to international festivals. Is there a community of poets in Europe who meet regularly at these events and develop relationships across the continent from these readings and meetings?
AŠ: Certainly there exist more or less connected communities of poets. These loose frameworks get more and more international. The process, that is being initiated through this is beneficial to the English language because the lingua franca is English and quite many of these poets try to get their work translated into English. Of course internet plays a significant role too. All one has to do today is to have an internet connection and time to read. We often forget that merely 25 years back people were dying in some parts of the world because they were possessing forbidden books. And we too often forget that there are many places in the world where this oldfashion kind of censorship is still in place. There is a new kind of internet censorship everywhere, but, fortunately, it does not affect poetry yet – because poetry appears to be out of the view of the political opinionmakers of the western world.
3:AM: Slovenia is statistically one of the most literate nations in Europe, is this reflected in the popularity of poetry? Does poetry have a wide readership?
AŠ: Decades ago, Hans Magnus Enzensberger made a remark that there are approximately 1354 readers of serious poetry per language, regardless of the number of its speakers and the trends of a specific era. The statement is of course an exaggeration, but it does make a point. It is true that in Slovenia poetry has a substantial audience and a relatively wide readership. A number of poetry festivals, reading series, translation workshops and other kind of projects make it a truly interesting and vital place for literature. This is a rather new trend, though. Twenty years ago there were fewer literary circles and less organized events. On the other hand however there was a strong tradition of literary criticism, which is often missed today. Importantly, many foreign poets get translated in magazines and books and these translations are much read in Slovenia. All these factors create an open, dynamic space where both Slovenian and foreign poets and poetry readership may thrive.
3:AM: Yourself and Tomaž Šalamun seem to have an enormous affect on contemporary Slovenian poets, and younger poets? Is there a distinct relationship with such established and regarded poets as yourself and the generations coming through?
AŠ: A certain restructuring of the social space of poetry and poets took place after Slovenia got independance. Before 1990’s, literary criticism focused on a few poets regarded »central« to the Slovenian literary heritage. The politics of the time also served as a kind of a glue for writers, who otherwise nurtured very different poetics and opinions about art. The last two decades saw a dramatic change in this respect. A number of interesting poets are in constant dialogue not only with Slovenian, but often with poetry in translation. This creates a kind of fragmentary space, where influences often cannot be traced down straightforwardly and where there are interesting opportunities for poetic and language surprises.
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, January 16th, 2011.