“There are more fishes than stars.
More wishes than stars.” – Ben Okri
These haunting lines are taken from Okri‘s poem “More Fishes Than Stars,” a poem that is still reverberating in my head almost two years after I heard Okri, the renowned Nigerian writer, perform at the Poetry On The Road festival in Bremen. During a performance that appeared to manipulate time, Okri’s voice opened up over the utterly still audience in the Theater am Goetheplatz like a sky full of celestial bodies, or at least that is what I imagined as I listened to his opening line, “Everyone seems so certain.” At that moment, every single person in the audience must have held their breath, because nothing but his voice and a faint crackle from a distant speaker could be heard.
That balmy night in late May inside the theater, the performances by Ben Okri and eight other poets successfully grabbed my attention to the point that I returned for more readings the day after and the day after that. What can I say, I am drawn to a good line or poem and tend to forget everything else that is going on around me. For what it’s worth, poetry is capable of releasing an avalanche of thoughts, not the depressing and suffocating kind, but the type of thoughts that make you feel as if you just ran a 10k. In a sense, poetry festivals are marathons of the mind. Afterwards you feel exhausted from being surprised and awed for several hours, but at the same time you are euphoric with new ideas.
Poetry on the Road, the yearly festival held at the end of May over the span of five days with readings at many different venues in the heart of Bremen, is perhaps the most successful in inspiring awe in its audience, especially when it comes to the multitude of countries being represented at the readings. In 2014, Ben Okri was one of 26 poets of 19 different nationalities who performed their work not only in theaters across the city but also in unique settings such as the old dome or the Schulschiff Deutschland (the last fully rigged German ship). From the overnight sensation Julia Engelmann and up-and-coming Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson to the acclaimed Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Nobel Prize Winner Herta Müller, the festival offered a handful of lines for all tastes and ages.
Poetry On The Road is now in its 17th year, and thanks to the festival organizers Regina Dyck with The Bremen University of Applied Sciences and Michael Augustin with Radio Bremen, it has become a significant institution in Bremen’s cultural landscape. From May 26th to May 30th, the city will once again be transformed into a poetry haven, and this year’s line up of readers promises to be just as compelling. With Adam Zagajewski, the award-winning Polish poet, and Nora Bossong, a brilliant German novelist and poet who won the Peter Huchel Prize for her book of poems, as well as the prolific Tao Lin from the US, and many more, Poetry On The Road should not be missed. Recalling Okri’s lines, one thing is perhaps certain: poetry has the ability to gather people of different nationalities and languages in one place and spark a conversation that might be remembered years afterwards.
If you are a poetry film fan, this year’s ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival between October 27th and 30th in Münster, Germany should be on your list. In case you live abroad, October should give you plenty of time to plan your trip, book a flight, and persuade your best friend to travel to Germany in October/November. Believe me, fall in Germany with 5 lb. chestnuts dropping on your head and rain hitting your face at 80 km an hour makes it the perfect place to visit. Poetry makes it all the better.
For the past 14 years, the festival has been held in Berlin at the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin/Haus für Poesie—a fitting location, considering Berlin’s large community of poets and filmmakers. Due to the positive resonance ever since, the festival organizers decided to move the festival to Münster in order to attract a larger audience outside of the capital.
Poetry films, belonging to a genre that has been around for quite a while, have probably enjoyed the most attention in recent years through the hard work of organizations such as the ZEBRA Poetry Festival and Moving Poems. For people who are not generally drawn to poetry, poetry films might be worth indulging in, since words are not the sole focus and interpretation takes a backseat while experience takes over. Imagine sitting in a large movie theater listening to Sylvia Plath’s reading of “Daddy.” Does her voice give you goosebumps? Now imagine the whole thing coupled with images of hooves and cobblestones. Did your heart start pounding? If not, try again by watching a poetry film.
At this point, I have to admit that I myself haven’t been able to attend the festival and have had to watch the films on my small screen, but this year the festival in Münster is on my to-do list.
For all the fans and potential fans I am including a link to a piece on the genre of poetry films, which was published on the Slope Editions tumblr in December 2014.
Consider adding this anthology to your reading list this spring! The editors of Locked Horn Press, a publisher who focuses on contemporary issues in literature, were kind enough to include one of my poems in this anthology. I could not be more thrilled to have my writing appear next to that of Richard Siken, Cynthia Cruz, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Jericho Brown, Brian Teare, and many other incredibly talented writers.
What makes this anthology so remarkable is the focus on (the) America(s), meaning perhaps the space between borders, languages, and cultures. As I was asked by the editors to answer a few questions dealing with this concept, I was taken aback. What could I say about America(s)? What could I contribute? I had not even been born on this continent, nor was I resident at the time. However, if America(s) meant crossing borders, stuffing two cultures into the drawers of one home, or the voices of the homesick as Valzhyna Mort asserts in her blurb, I could perhaps contribute something to the conversation.
I have not received my copy yet, and knowing how long it takes to ship a book to the other side of the Atlantic (and how long it takes for literature to cross borders), I will have to wait patiently and hope that in the process no more borders, fences, and walls go up.
Here is the back of the anthology with a list of all contributors and two captivating blurbs by Katie Ford and Valzhyna Mort:
Most importantly, the anthology will have its debut at AWP 2016. Look for it at the Locked Horn Press table!
During The Writer’s Blog Tour I mentioned a little German book I was working on – Das Innenfutter der Wörter. Although these news are already old news, I still wanted to share what I never thought was possible. After ten years in the US, my German had turned so rusty that it was crumbly and filled with potholes. Writing was even more difficult than speaking, and a simple email would often open up this deep crevasse of insecurities.
I worked hard to regain my confidence with the language that was after all my first language and did so by working as a teacher of German. Yes, I was standing in classrooms full of Syrians, Afghans, Hungarians, Serbs, and Romanians who were eager to learn this language with its labyrinth grammar. Unfortunately, I did not know the way out myself. I came to the conclusion that it would take time, in fact almost two years before I could write a German poem that did not sound as if a child had written it.
Thanks to the editorial help and encouraging words of a friend and colleague of mine, Helwig Brunner, who himself is a poet and has published many books, I was able to publish my first collection of German poems with edition keiper in Graz, Austria last spring. Many of these poem had been written in Vienna during my Fulbright, and having these poems appear with edition keiper in picturesque Graz was very fitting. The title “Das Innenfutter der Wörter” (transl. The Lining of Words) was inspired by Paul Celan and his methods of dissecting and transplanting words. Language is organic, always crumbling, growing, and evolving into something new, something I attempted to put into images. If you are interested in this sort of thing, the German language and in particular poetry, you can order the book here.
Read this riveting review of An Instrument for Leaving by Lindsay Merbaum. The review in itself is a beautiful piece written by a very talented writer.
Xan Roberti and I first met in Lisbon, Portugal in a poetry workshop with Kim Addonizio as part of the Disquiet International Literary Program. Xan and I instantly connected due to our poetry sharing a certain restlessness and uprootedness. We had both moved around quite a bit and were in a transitional place where poetry was perhaps the only constant. Our lines were witnesses of this. What I admired in Xan’s poems was her ability to make words race across the page, to stretch her syntax, her metaphors as far as cognitively possible. Xan herself describes her poems as “acrobatic,” and I couldn’t agree more. As only “half” a native speaker, I admire her inventive use of language and playfulness within a line. Thanks to her nomination as part of the MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR, I get to answer the following questions.
1) What are you working on?
I am currently working on a “nautical” series of poems, which are inspired by the vocabulary and terms I deal with on a daily basis. Since I work as a translator of survey reports for a company of cargo surveyors, I come across an abundance of technical terminology. Legal, mechanical engineering and maritime terms, such as the parts of a vessel, are surprisingly interesting and often convey double-meanings that are perfect poetry material. I started to compile a list of unusual words and began incorporating these words in a series of notes written between two individuals—one at sea and one on land.
At the same time, I am working on a collection of German poems, tentatively titled “Das Innenfutter der Wörter” (Engl. transl.: The Lining of Words), which will be published next spring with edition keiper in Graz, Austria.
One of the problems I encounter as a bilingual writer is the inability to write in two languages simultaneously, meaning I cannot work on these two projects at the same time, within the same day or even same week. I have to make time for each language as if those two cannot stand each other. Of course, I have no problem switching back and forth in every day conversation, but poetry is a different story and my brain does not want to be inventive in two languages at a time. My writing schedule works as follows: I focus on one language for a few weeks until I begin to feel neglectful of the other language; that is when I make the switch by reading only in the other language in order to hopefully begin a new writing cycle. It is not always a smooth transition, but even that makes for interesting poetry, right?
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Like the speaker of my poems, my writing is a little anxious at times, cannot make up its mind and travels back and forth between two countries like a child that divides time between divorced parents. I don’t necessarily believe that my poems differ from other poetry written today so much, because in the 21st century not many writers stay in one place, write in one fashion, or are inspired and influenced by only one school of writing. We are all writing different and similar poems.
Maybe what makes my poems different is a blending of cultures, countries, and emotions. It is not always clear where poems are located–in time or space–and gloomy and humorous imagery sometimes go hand in hand. German ancestors immigrate to California and a mother, who is an American citizen, tells her children German fairy tales and cooks German dishes. Everything is upside down like the sister who arranges the puzzle in new ways. While this particular combination, this narrative might be new, the ideas behind it are not. Opposites attract (us)…because we want to feel more than just one emotion. When I read Herta Müller’s poems, I encounter the comic and the horrific in her lines, sometimes simultaneously. Maybe that is the reason why I laugh when I am terrified? I seek the humor in the terrifying experience, and I tend to write in that fashion, too, which is perhaps not so different after all.
3) Why do you write what you do?
I write in order to surprise myself, in order to experience moments in which language slows me down. For me writing also means discovery and figuring out how I can stretch language to treat it less like an everyday tool but more like a sculpture. I always loved languages as a child and discovering new words and their meanings, especially because I had two to choose from. The sound, the texture, the associations that come with language(s), and the differences between them are mind-boggling to me. In fact, for a while I was considering to study linguistics, until literature got a hold of me. Nevertheless, I am still interested in the philosophy of language–limitations, issues, meaning–especially when it comes to translation.
In summary, I guess I write poems, because there is no other way for me to experiment and play with language and to push it to its limits, also to feel human (language is an incredible ability to convey complex meaning…we should show more enthusiasm!) in light of all this inhumanity.
4) How does your writing process work?
For the most part, my writing process begins with reading. I’m always looking for words that trigger new words. The beauty with this approach is that you can find words anywhere. They are always available, always splattering our fields of vision. When I want to write, I focus in on one phrase that strikes me. I have written poems that were triggered by newspaper headlines, by billboard ads, or perhaps lyrics; it’s hard to remember sometimes where images began.
And other times, it has nothing to do with words, but everything with silence. I remember being in a park and witnessing how a boy lost grip of his balloon. The balloon took off immediately, and the boy fell to his knees like a soldier on a battlefield. He might have been crying, but all I remember is the image of him falling and looking up to the sky. The image was so striking that I had to use it in a poem. I usually do not know when an image will be useful; there is a mental drawer and in it I put little clippings of images and phrases for later use. Consequently, my writing process is a mixture of collecting, cutting, gluing, and inventing, perhaps why I love cutups so much. There are an infinite number of word constellations, why not experiment a little?
While this happened a few months ago, I still wanted to share this very thoughtful review by Brandon James Anderson. He also interviewed me about my writing process, influences and the book. The full interview will be published in the Old Northwest Review this fall. In the meantime, a preview of our conversation can be found here.
“The common myth about the past is that it’s over. It’s not. It’s open to reinterpretation. Past as putty, to shape as one chooses. Roll it back into a ball and pose it again. And again.” – Gaughan
Patrick Gaughan reviews my book and wonders how many flights there are over the Atlantic on a given day.
Beautiful and insightful piece of writing on memory, home, Proust, and An Instrument.
Read the full review here!