Sylvia Geist

We are bringing you an interview with one of the most interesting German poetsses

The interview was created as part of the European Poetry Forum project.

1. Poetry, a little alien? Why care about it?

You mean this as question, right? OK, let me reply with Allen Ginsberg: "Poetry is one place where people can speak their original human mind."

2. Who are (is) you as a poet?

Always the same diverse person, sometimes able to face the fact of her unity and its partition. Or: able, sometimes in the state of poetry, to be one enough with my self to take part in its diversity – my goodness, simply this person, standing up in the morning, drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette, reading the paper, writing on the edge, and so on – whoever else can I be, then?

3. What kind of literary tradition, particular authors or modes of literary thinking have you found inspirational for your work?

I´m not fixated on a sole tradition. For several years, Gottfried Benn was very important to me for his bipolarity, the vibrant ampitudes between the poems of his "Phase II" (in his definition the anew phase of Expressionism) and the more harmonizing forms, for instance in "Statische Gedichte".
Further Inger Christensen´s work is a kind of lodestar by it´s relation to natural science, and for its emotional intenseness. In the same moment, a poet like Adam Zagajewski was not less significant to me in different matters, by his capability of poetic narration. Recently, I read Giorgio Caproni and felt happy to meet one of the symbols being fundamental to me: the beast in the figure of a big, black dog in "Il conte di Klevenhuller". Comparable to Ariadne´s thread, elements like this guide me throughout several traditions. So, there is a number of connecting factors, regardless of modes.

4. Please give several examples of contemporary European or international poets that you believe are most significant (in any possible sense) and comment briefly on their merit.

I´d rather name a few great poets, like Friederike Mayröcker, Judith Herzberg. Les Murray, John Ashberry, or – even more, to me – Michael Palmer. Olga Sedakova and Jelena Schwarz. I won´t dare to talk about significance.

5. If asked about transnational influences in today's international or European poetry, what examples would you most readily account for?

We have to think about the conditions of "fluence", about the access readers need to notice poetry in foreign languages. Possibly, we have to recognize the same patterns of both political and cultural issues, not to mention economical correlations, in the face of their effect for one literature´s impact. There is a powerful influence of literature in English, despite the fact that more people speak Mandarin-Chinese. Without translation, nothing can happen. But in translation, what exactly can be transmitted, and is it strong enough unfolding a noteworthy influence? On whom: a minuscule circle of adepts? And yet, there is the necessity to take cognizance of so called "smaller" literature for readers in US, for example, developing their mindset, expending the mental borders, widening their imagination. (There is the same necessity in Germany too, but we have a different translation-culture, I guess. And we have still the price fixing for books ...) On the other hand, transnational influences might come over, into contemporary poetry enhanced on the way of daily-life´s experiences, by traveling or just by using the internet. But the hermeneutic problem remains effective: At first, one needs knowledge of something to be enabled to ask for it.

6. In all likelihood, some of the innovative patterns in contemporary poetics have not yet reached the acknowledgment of either the national or international literary canon. Can you provide some examples of specific authors or poetics that you believe are still undeservedly flying below the radar screen of broader critical community? What makes these patterns innovative and makes them supersede established modes of writing and/or reading?

Poetry has its special difficulties to reach a broad acknowledgment, even – or more than ever – of the literary canon, for the factor of time alone. (When is a poetic voice part of a canon? I am afraid, this term often means a literary afterlife.) In a specific frame beyond the high feuilleton yet, the chance to reach a young, passionate audience is getting better maybe. Today, there are more options to push innovative or experimental concepts than in earlier times, the power of young, independent publishing houses, magazines and organizers is increasing, especially in literary key cities like Berlin, Frankfurt or Leipzig.
So, we get a great plurality of poetic concepts and voices. Nonetheless there will always be underrated authors, in Germany for example Paulus Böhmer, the contemporary, German Ginsberg (save that he is completely different, of course). I consider his main work, "Kaddish", an epochal, powerful-voiced long-poem. And there are many undervalued female poets, like Caroline Hartge, to name but one. Her poetry refuse to consider the urban patterns usually discussed in the majority of current poetics, but scoops from existencial as well as common experiences, conceptualizing them in fairy-tales-metaphors sometimes, also in images of nature with timeless beauty. It´s exactly this refusal to be "modern" on the surface of a poem, that I like. Hartge also finds her very own tune, expressing basic emotions from a female point of view. Nota bene, not from the perspective of a young woman. Instead of that, her poems are often focused on loneliness, frustration and loss, or how it feels to be not the coveted anymore, not demanded in a social sense as well – thus, hard themes in an equivalent, direct or actually tartly sound.

Sylvia Geist: Morning Blue Animal And Other Poems
Sylvia Geist: Morning Blue Animal And Other Poems

7. Are there any influences or inspirations emanating from the poetries and poets from the former "communist countries" that you have been able to recognize as having an impact in the countries of "the West"? If yes, how would you describe this inspiration and the possible reasons for it receiving acclaim or resonance in certain artistic or social communities?

Not least, intellectual and poetic patterns depend on the reality someone experiences every day. I don´t believe in a limitless portability of inspiration, because it´s not about formal aspects at first. In Germany, we have seen an influence emanated from the work of poets from eastern Germany, certainly. Several of the most important voices look back on a youth in GDR, for instance Durs Grünbein, Kathrin Schmidt, and many others. Younger poets like Tom Schulz brought a fresh view on the relevance of politics – or a sharper awareness of, and a new style to deal with it. To bear in mind, that there are different reader´s biographies too, fetching different traditions from the eastern European literature and transposing them in contemporary, very lively ways of poetic speech. For example, my first reading encounter with Tristan Tzara happened, when I worked as an editor in the early nineties, animated by a couple of Ivan Strpka´s poems, not in the course of my German studies.

8. How do you see the poet–reader relationship's current state and its evolution in the contemporary cultural landscape? Please share any possible examples of that very relationship as being alienated, or, on the opposite side enlivened, re-energized, or newly franchised.

There´s a theory that in any society the same number of readers have an interest in poetry, about three percent of all community members. That doesn´t sound that encouraging, but probably less people are interested in mathematics. But for all that, mathematics impacts our life, if we know about it or not. In other words: taken as a whole, the poet-reader´s relationship is neither alienated, nor enlived, notwithstanding that something has changed, maybe. Backwards reading´s visitors were predominantly in their sixties, nowadays the notorious three percent are considerably younger. Without a doubt, we see a renewed drive in franchising via internet, but this notion is banal. Less banal is to ask after the economical implications for publishers and poets, but that´s a whole new ball game ...

Sylvia Geist
Sylvia Geist
(graphyc desight: Lívia Kožušková)

9. What kinds of fresh genres or types of poetry do you see emerging in today's international landscape? Can you see any identifiable new kinds of "ars poetica"?

Too many to list here. (And doesn´t this fact reduce the question to absurdity? Although it will be partly responsed below.) Just one point: I was impressed by a few poems under the motto "Ecopoetics" I recently read in translation, by poets from various countries, so it might be a issue with international potential (beyond the old topics like vanity, love, and so on). I wonder, if it could be more useful, in this context, to ask for issues than for types or styles, perhaps?

10. Both the discourses of poetry and politics seem to carry an aspiration to win human hearts and minds, or even change lives. What examples do you see of fruitful interaction between political and poetic discourses and agenda?

I don´t know how much fruitful interactions between poetry and politics can be at all, I see rather the danger of harnessing. This year, I had the opportunity to meet some poets from South-Africa and Zimbabwe, writing poems which convinced me in artistic regard. How much virtue they can envolve in political respect – who knows. Mugabe has been re-elected once again, and will probably rule the country for the next five years, while Chirikure and others did their work.
The problem is the fine line between poetry and propaganda (and where the line is not that fine, you get bad poems). Compared to propaganda, poetry is swooning. What does a poem provoke, what can it prevent? Although, its fainting might be its greatest potency, because the merits accounting for a good poem – complexity, sensitivity, veracity – also turn it into a samizdat with best chances of survival. And again, poetry can work as subversive, corrosive, possibly like rust, mould, sprout, virus-like yet ... Or why are so many poets jailed?

11. How would you envisage an optimal cohabitation of the two "pos" (poetry & politics) that would be beneficial to your co-citizens?

Independence is indispensable, for any art as well as for journalism. We should be awake, clearly, distinguishably critical whenever necessary, and shouldn´t forget the many ways of political engagement as citizens.

12. What kinds of values and qualities do you think media poetry (sound poetry, visual poetry, kinetic poetry, digital poetry and poetic performance) can offer in comparison with poetry conceived of as a traditional written fixed text form? Please exemplify.

Tools, instruments, fittings manipulate our perception and our mind. Some of them make our faculties increasing, others do interfere. Media alone cannot create a poetic idea; interactive poetry, for example, seems to be more a social than poetic experiment, at least in the sense I understand the poet´s role. Again, hypertext poetry offers a couple of fresh options to show the "motions" of and "links" between verses I would like to make visible in some poem-series I wrote. But for me, that´s not the germ cell of a poem, but something like a translation of the fluctuation, or of the "self-thinking" flow a poem carries in itself.

13. How would you describe the difference between the kinds of creative inspiration that you may experience as generated by your imagination as opposed to the potence emanating from the appropriative process of handling meaningful contexts and patterns already existing?

Inspiration is a mixture sputtered out of all kinds of sources. Hard to say how the creative process exactly works, or how much of the ostensible own imagination is already tinted with earlier inks. Montaigne said, either something were so far of him that he forgot it immediately, or it were so close that he assimilated it totally – and then forgot from where he got the point. Or, to modify Christine Gledhill´s definition of meaning, the poetic process "is neither imposed, nor passively imbibed, but arises out of a struggle or negotiation between competing frames of reference, motivation and experience." (And sometimes, the same idea comes up at places far apart, autonomous but depending on similar causes.)

14. Would it be fair to say that we have witnessed a gradual shift in a broader understanding of the very notion of (creative) writing due to the rise of the media and programming?

I don´t think so. Or do you mean the option to "write" with "copy" and "paste"? I have no idea of programming, but the concept of automatic writing is older than the first version of "Windows". The brainwaves of Dada, Surrealism, Konkrete Poesie, or the adventures of interdisciplinarity and of "networking" between individuals and arts: all those ideas already contained basic structures of qualities which new media transferred into a – granted, faster – but often, at the bottom, poorer version. The poetic subject alone is so much more alive, more articulated and arcane than any game-character, and every talk face to face is so much richer of impressions than any online meeting; that´s my opinion after more than ten years of taking part in online forum-projects. Indeed, it´s available now to communicate with readers, fellows or friends on the other side of earth in real-time. But letters are not to be spurned, either. On the other hand, there is another effect: In times media teach us to mistrust the picture, there is an occasion to examine the authenticity of syllables, terms, sentences under new, harsh conditions. Not the poorest premise for poetry.

15. What kind of unique experience does media/experimental poetry mediate to you (your mind and body) that you would not be able to find otherwise?

Any period has its own definition of what "experimental" means, and poetry is a fruit of its period´s mood and rhythm. The poetic experiment in principle isn´t something new, it just gets (and got) many faces. It is always an intellectual, mental and spiritual "experiment with the truth" of a specific era, the present, as far as we are able to conceive it.
In the end, the human being is the one, coining poetry. The most interesting experiences are common, that´s why they are of importance, and the media experience is a common one. Yes, it is part of our lives, and it creates some particular forms of communication and even of emotive transmission. But the decision-making thing is not media but this transmission itself. And what else has been poetry´s function and skill, all along, than transmitting experiences, thoughts and emotions, making us more alert, compassionated and – hopefully – smarter? By the way, I´d like to ask for the extend, media is an additional form of metaphor, shaping mental processes as old as the Homo sapiens´ brain.

16. What do you think poetry stands for today? Has the recent advancement in the natural sciences and humanities influenced our very understanding and possibilities of poetry?

A huge subject ... Maybe I´m allowed alluding to some notations about, here:

17. What makes a poem a poem? Has this apparently notorious question been in any sense reinvigorated or revisited in the wake of the rise of the global and globalized civilizational experience?

Beyond that: The recognizability of what´s real. The chance to share the common secrets.
In this day and age, many of us are constantly on our way anywhere, at home in waiting-lounges, and guests in umpteen homes. At the same moment, we become witnesses of life-realities we couldn´t observe or even take part in them otherwise. Sometimes, this is barely to stand, because it makes us – like anyone – responsible for coherences we cannot adjust. But the awareness of this might be one of the most prolific impulses to keep writing poems.



Ars Poetica – European Poetry Forum

Sylvia Geist
Morning Blue Animal And Other Poems