Maintenant #68 – Ulf Stolterfoht
An interview with Ulf Stolterfoht by SJ Fowler.
“Nine Questions, Nine Answers”
Concepts that may link poets from one nation are as fraught as the idea of nationhood itself. The poet who truly understands the nature of his own beginnings, most often by acquiescing to a conceived misunderstanding, perhaps offers the finest representation of his language and his country. Often only in the trace, the fragments, the shadows and the bunkered leftovers of language and expression can the truly analytical, intellectual and philosophically rigorous poet find safe ground. Thus we come to Ulf Stolterfoht , simply one of the most sophisticated and brilliant poetic minds of our generation, conceivably of any generation. Utterly unique, wise, witty and thoroughly considered, Stolterfoht’s work has been a beacon in European poetry for some time, and his standing has been a lightning rod for many poets he might call his peers. In one of the finest interviews given for the series, we present one of the finest German poets of his generation.
3:AM: Your work is marked by an utterly idiosyncratic experimentation with syntax and sentence construction, something you have become renowned for really. It appears by highlighting the words themselves, the sentences as they are found, and nothing beyond, you force a scrutiny that leaves the reader with an altogether new meaning. Is this true do you think?
Ulf Stolterfoht: This question touches many different subjects. First, I think, would it be a fundamental misunderstanding to see “experimental poetry” as critical against language (what is a typical german and austrian way of analyzing it), in fact it is critical against so-called reality or world, in a epistemological sense. For me the fundamental experience seems to be: “I do not know what world is, do not even know what ‘world’ means!” – probably a radical scepticistic point of view. In everyday life and language this does matter, too – but there are concepts of common sense a/o success of communication which make you forget about those problems, but in terms of poetry you can’t. And – just to say it clear – the problem is not reference itself (a typical german and austrian way of handling it), the problem is the object of reference: you can’t be shure that there is one – and if there would be something, you couldn’t know what – and if you – against all odds – could know, you couldn’t tell it somebody else. That’s what Gorgias said, 2 500 years ago. For me this is the basis, you can’t go behind it.
Concerning this you can’t “say” something in poetry, but perhaps there is something to show or demonstrate. So “an utterly idiosyncratic experimentation with syntax and sentence construction” does obviously not mean “to say things in a new, strange, uncommon way”, but just to show it in a somehow familiar way, whatever this means. Indeed I assume (or fear – that’s just the same) that there is nothing beyond, and what you can deal with is mere structure. And that is the reason to see a little difficulty in your “new meaning” – under these circumstances what could still be the meaning of meaning? Maybe some kind of structural meaning, in the sense roman jakobson got it. For me this would be sufficient, at least for the moment.
3:AM:Your poems almost seem to leave a trace of direct meaning, making each reading innately personal, as your word constructions force each individual reader to respond in their own individual manner …
US: I am not sure. Sounds a little bit like Wittgenstein’s private language argument. Terms as innate or natural, private or personal make me feel uncomortable. I do not see a big problem in the definition of language and meaning as something common – and in this sense not individual. My problems rather are: a) to deal with a “meaning” at all (see above) and b) what is “individual” in a highly synthetical and complex context? and: if you use structures as means of demonstration – what is an “individual structure”? (Of course this a good question, not only for neuro and cognitive science, but for poetry, too. But also a very difficult one!)
Nevertheless I am sure that you cannot replace “general / common problems in understanding” with “private / individual possibilities of understanding”. Clearly this happens all the time, unwillingly – but it happens truly outside the system of (my) intentions. Next question: Are there intentions? And so on and on and on …
3:AM: This meaning often seems highly satirical, or at the least humorous. There is a perceptible sense of wit and play in the poems …
US It would be fine if this is true. I think wit and play are the last tools to manage things you can’t manage per definitionem. Other means are paradoxa, very strict production rules as OULIPO does use them: lipogrammata for instance, or rigid metric settings, stanza structures etc. So one could think that Goethe or Archilochos had to face just the same problems – and I am sure they had. A rule is always better than a theme – under any, not only epistemological, circumstances. (No dogma, a daily experience!)
3:AM: Is there a linguistic motivation in your methodology? Are you bringing light to the structuralist notion of words being fluid denominators of meaning?
US: Yes, but not in the suggested sense. French Thinking – or better: the reception of french thinking at the german universities was the torture of my campus days, and “die frei flottierenden Signifikanten” have been the cruel whip. Horrific! Perhaps it is not really a linguistic reference, but a tradition of analytical and language philosophy, starting with Gottlob Frege, then the Wiener Kreis, Wittgenstein and Carnap, Quine, Davidson, Goodman, Kripke etc. My impression was that this tradition gives me a sample of patterns and formal possibilities to deal with the problems above. For instance Frege’s differentiation between sense and meaning, word and notion (“Begriff”) seems to solve so many lyrical problems in such a elegant way – wonderful. And especially Wittgenstein’s “Philosophische Untersuchungen” are also readable as a poetological programm … – but in this sense it wasn’t a genuine “linguistic turn”, maybe something between philosophy and linguistics.
3:AM: I notice you maintain typographical structure while rooting out the rifts in the words themselves. Is this a deliberate act, to make the poem appear neat and formal despite it’s disjunctive content?
US: Yes, i think that is absolutely right. And it is also related to the things above. The word, as a carrier of meaning, is problematic – the syntax (perhaps the stanza, too), as a carrier of structure, is, at least at first sight, unproblematic and fulfills also the word’s duties of meaning.
And of course it plays with the opposition between fine form and rude content.
3:AM: It seems to that your act is an ethical act, a language that uses a language of possibility, one that is fundamentally optimistic recalling in altogether ulterior manner Celan’s “polychrome of apparent actuality”. Do you think this is true? And that this point could be extended, that innovation and experimentation is an act ethical intervention?
US: Puuuuh! If french philosophy is the whip, Celan is the bondage. What you try to produce – if I am right: a relationship between ethics and experimental poetry describes exactly the german scene in the eighties and early nineties. The pure fact that you write poetry or even experimental poetry was seen as a subversive act of highest ethical dignity. That’s what I thought, too. But fortunately the situation changed a lot. For further details see next question, please.
3:AM: It would seem that you are the primary torch bearer of German avant-garde poetry and that with the last members of the Wiener Gruppe passing away, that you may be at the forefront of widely regarded avant-garde poetry for some years to come. Do you think this is the case?
US: No, certainly not! What will come, that is at least my impression and probably my wish, is a renaissance of political poetry under changed circumstances. So not as a comeback of the seventies agit-prop, but as a specific mixture of radical lingual form and radical state of mind. I mean mere avant-garde is over and poetry as a statement (or message in a bottle) is over, too. That seems to be o.k. for me. And I really don’t know which lyrical forms will fill this gap, really no idea, What I know is that Great Britain once more is one step ahead. If you look, for instance, at the poems of Sean Bonney or Keston Sutherland, as well as one or two generations before, at the work of J.H. Prynne or Tom Raworth, you will find most of that I dream of. And it’s just the same in the U.S. – just take the Waldrops, or the development and achievements of the LANGUAGE-scene or, or, or.
3:AM: Is innovative and experimental work being produced by new poets in Germany and central Europe, in your experience?
US: Yes, for sure! But I see a general uncertainty concerning the question how to go further.
Especially in Austria there still is a very lively experimental scene, but it seems to end with writers of my generation. No youngsters! Very good poetry comes from Romania and Belgium. But it is not experimental in a classical understanding. Maybe these are the first signals of the change. And the whole south of Europe for me is terra incognita, although I lived in rome for one year. But I fear the traditions are still very mighty there.
3:AM: You reside in Berlin, which must be seen as one of the centres for contemporary European poetry at the moment. Is the city an important part of your work as a poet? Do you engage with the poetry community in Berlin?
US: Difficult. Berlin is not a important part of my work, absolutely not. But Berlin is the only German (probably German speaking) city where I can live on poetry. The rents are still rather low, you have so many possibilities for (paid) readings, you don’t need a car and there is a network of people who will help you in times of misery! And there is no struggling for career or influence or might. The scene is very solidary, really. Also there are many programs of cultural exchange (for instance the wonderful DAAD-program), so you meet poets from all over the world – what helps a lot. You don’t have to stay a dwarf. The speed is rather high at last. Readings, readings, readings. Many, many young and very young poets. And you can hear how good they are. But it is learning, not fighting. I think it could be possible that Berlin makes you a bit better as a poet. No need to say more.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of two poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011) and Fights (Veer books 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 16th, 2011.