:: Article

Maintenant #34: Ann Cotten

“If you no longer would like to exist, you may bite the dust” – an interview with Ann Cotten by SJ Fowler

One of the primary motivations behind the Maintenant series was the hope of finding and illuminating poets who, when discovered, appear essential and iconoclastic but who are not only still productive but actually growing into their practice. So often when one discovers new work it is of the past, of a generation that can only be accessed retrospectively and cannot be engaged with organically. Anyone coming across the immense output of the Vienna group of poets will face this situation, both excitement and a sense their work is past. We cannot, or even wish to, find equivalencies. But we can engage with poets like Ann Cotten, one of the foremost young talents in central Europe, let alone Austria. Immensely assured, Cotten, originally born in America, and then raised in Austria, is now part of the extraordinary Berlin poetry scene collaborating with the likes of Monika Rinck and Sabine Scho. Described, perhaps counterproductively, as a Wunderkind and the foremost face of the German poetry jetset, she has a reputation to match her expansive and obstinate talent. Soon to see her first English language work launched by Broken Dimanche press, we present one of the most formidable and gifted young poets in Europe, Ann Cotten.

[Special thanks to John Holten]


3:AM: Traditionally Vienna seems to be recognised as the city representative of the most innovative and experimental poets, while Berlin (and I say this aware of how reductive it is) produces more technically formal poets, even if the content of their work is iconoclastic. Is this still the case in contemporary poetry?

Ann Cotten: Contrasting innovative and experimental with technically formal strikes me as an unusual statement, pleasing of course in that we need not talk about poetry that is neither. I have never thought of it this way before. German poetry of the last decades has, with certain exceptions, seems technically informal to me, even when a lot of care is taken about this informality, as Ignaz Philipp Ingold remarked a couple years ago. I have overheard endless debates on subtleties of word placing, enjambments and alliterations in poems that seem to me formally what an Ikebana arrangement strikes an Iowa pig farmer as, some flowers stuck in a sponge, whereas he can get rather excited over a nice fence pattern (sonnet). I mean to say that you can find blokeness and finesse in any trend, and if there has been a tradition of formal innovation (a tradition of innovation, yeah, just like they say at the Telecom!) in Vienna, there was in exactly that work a large amount of imitation; the distilling method of what now seems to be the patented style they call experimental is also something you can become formally proficient at, it is a technique. And it has its roots. I would say that there is a stronger natural emphasis on content rather than form among the Germans, not only in poetry but also in everyday life and conversation. This often leads to legalism – a blindness to the style of what you are doing, or in a positive sense a genealogy of style from content – which can even be found when discussing screws, and might be traced back to Prussia, or Prussia back to it.

3:AM: What is the influence of the Vienna School on your work? The legacy of Hartmann, Mayrocker, Jandl, Ruhm and Bayer seems to have become absorbed into the field of poetics and poetry worldwide, does it still hold prominence in Austria?

AC: Definitely these are the beloved shrunken heads at the gates of the salon. I would add Liesl Ujvary and Oswald Wiener as interesting figures whose innovation is a bit less easy to feed to the canon, as their work cannot be used in the usual konsum manner, as it does its thing only with introspection, cannot therefore be judged as if it were a finished product.

It would interest me how you see this worldwide absorption. I see a stark line that in some way echoes the line between first and third world, having to do with a kind of trademark irony or self-reflectiveness. Works of art lacking this – I would call it orientation rather than savvy – carry a stigma, and you are always afraid that they might come out with serious problems that spills beyond a cocktail party or a bout of self-discovery. They might decide against the validity of what is taught in art school, and they are really the only ones in the position to do so. Like Zadie Smith wrote in her article on McCarthy and O’Neill, there are experiences that can and need not be had by everyone; and this seems to cross the ideal of equal chances which suggests anyone could write about anything if she only did enough research and found her theme and tone. There is a tendency to see always a movement from an unself-reflecting voice to a self reflecting one, like a century ago one liked to compare some people with children (though they might hunt like three adults), and to see this movement as a kind of progress which the naive languages have yet to achieve to be taken seriously. I am curious about the turn that might come next, as what began in, for example, the Wiener Gruppe as an attempt to be radical, direct and raw has itself become a kind of polish, the kind of quotational polish that can be bought, for example by buying a piece of raw marble from an artist and putting it in front of your bank. It seems like the moneyed art world actively envelopes all bites and ideas.

3:AM: Do you work with concrete poetry as it was conceived during its apex in the 1970s? Do you think it still has life as a poetic medium

AC: Concrete poetry, abstract art in general, is really the most lively of things because it uses you, the viewer or the artist, as medium. It doesn’t do stuff and let you watch, it only works if you allow it to muck around in you and in your life. But then, that goes for good poetry as well.

3:AM: You seem to be written about with certain characteristics delineated in every piece of journalism. Your age, your gender and then the epithets of an enfant terrible of Austrian poetry. Do you feel a reluctance to this encapsulation of your work and persona? Is it a necessary evil?

AC: I certainly don’t feel encapsulated. See I don’t really read newspapers, and what they may write about me all rolls off my back. The things I take seriously are not in culture news. For talking about me, I like the press (ah I almost wrote trash for press) to be as chunky as possible, because when they try to do justice they are odious, little voices screaming how dare you compare Schönberger to Einberger! Nobody needs newspapers to deal seriously with poetry, unless an article is really, really good. (Not that German sensible kind of good, in the sense of not saying anything that can’t be “validated”.)

3:AM: Your background is interesting, birth in the US, growing up in Austria. But you have lived in Berlin for some time. How does that city impact your work? Is there a vibrant poetry scene that you are involved in regularly? On the outside it appears particularly good with the likes of Wagner, Rinck, Falb, Stolterfoht etc…

AC: Well, Kook authors Rinck, Falb, Jackson and Popp and I are just finishing a poetics book together (Helm aus Phlox. Zur Theorie des schlechtesten Werkzeugs. Merve Verlag 2010), and Rinck, Scho and I do the Rotten Kinck Schow, which is a beautiful piece of intimate philosophical research and a lot of fun. And there is Lauter Niemand, and the philosophical football at Altes Finanzamt, and Rumbalotte Continua. Where the shakes hand in the morning (“got the quotes again, eh?” “Ah give me another one thattle help.”). Well and all sorts of international things, like this crazy Irishman John Holten with his Oslo/Berlin Broken Dimanche Press, or the theatre Ausland, etc. etc. and the best is when poets and others mix.

3:AM: You seem to use English idiom in a variant and cut-up methodology throughout your poems. Is there something specific in the language you are trying to utilise?

AC: I couldn’t say exactly what I am doing when I “utilize” English. My English is not natural, but close to the heart; it, well, cuts me up to use it: English words often denote splitting points or watersheds in places where there is no mark in German. Cf different translations of Hegel: is Geist soul or mind? For this reason, English can be used in a German text to bind things together like an iron staple, and vice versa. But I try to be careful and do it less and less the better I become at being a writer; there is nothing worse than unreflected multinguality just for the sake of sounding cosmopolitan or awakening sentimentality by sounding like a pop song; and often, even if a thought initially comes in English, there is a quite serviceable German version to be found, but it’s a bit of work that you can smell, and, as you know, sometimes the flash of vivid understanding you get from poetry has to do with freshness.

3:AM: Could you outline your upcoming collection, Florida-Raume? Has your methodology and poetry in general altered heavily from your first collection, Fremdworterbuchsonette?

AC: Fremdwörterbuchsonette were something rather specific in themselves; Florida-Rooms contains some older and a lot of newer poems. Generally I have done some slip-sliding into free verse, sometimes to the point of pouring a Wikipedia info into a box, I did that once (the sea cow poem), and also trying to become less oriented on idols that I now see as products of petty fears, churned through several layers of wish-logic (for example why does a girl want to sound above all intelligent, well-read, witty, fearless and jaded, spores clicking through the library?). Now my prime idol is I want my poems to do something, not just suggest or designate something. I do a lot of Lautreamont-ish selling of bricks, also in the prose, droll metaphors (but real things, not nonsense poetry!) coming in a speak-talk rhythm, so you know the speech act that is going on by ear, i.e. from the Turkish guys out in front, and it gets filled with something absurd, mystical or philosophical.

I invented about ten figures as the authors of different groups of poems and different prose texts. One of the latter is an actual cut-up, whose author is a chip that sent itself in answer to the advertisement in the front of the book; another is a ghost trying to materialize by talking or writing itself down. Some of the poems, like the ‘Tierbabybingo’, which actually came out of the first Rotten Kinck Schow, were written by a “200kg-friend-of-animals”, some others, the ones I call fables, charming little brick-selling units, by one of the Myrmeleontidae, which might, by the way, have triggered the latest “Jeanne-D’arc” fantasy, because, well, it’s a small creature with a mane, building a trench out of everything in a corner of the universe, thinking she’s pretty dangerous, though almost anyone could beat her in arm-wrestling.

SJ Fowler is a poet and artist.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010.