Maintenant #7 – Jan Wagner
‘undeterred by respect for his own body’ – an interview with Jan Wagner by SJ Fowler
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.
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 28th, 2010.