Poetry for Southern California
Alistair Noon Guest Editorial
By Alistair Noon
Auden was here for a bit, Isherwood for longer; Basil Bunting got off the train, wrote a poem that described the Weimar-era city as “a consolingly mediocre / neighbourhood without music”, and left again. But after a period in which Berlin figured in the imagination above all as a place of spy swaps, escape tunnels and picturesque dilapidation, the city is again alive with international—including Anglophone—poetic activity.
The annual heavyweights of the Berlin literary year are the Internationales Literaturfestival (ILB) in the autumn and the Poesiefestival in early summer. Both put on a great deal of international poetry, with translations into German. The 2005 ILB, for example, saw readings by US poets Michael Palmer, C.K. Williams, Nathaniel Mackey and Ed Hirsch. The Poesiefestival, organized by the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, kicks off each year with a large open-air reading on Potsdamer Platz, the 2005 event featuring Laurie Anderson. Another regular part of the Poesiefestival is a workshop in which German poets translate poets from guest countries or regions, and vice versa. Visiting teams in the past have included France, Australia, the Spanish-speaking world and Celtic-speaking areas; the 2006 festival (just prior to the start of the World Cup) saw Germany play The Balkans; 2007 was a three-way translation process involving German speakers and Canadians both Anglophone and Francophone. The translation workshops also feed into an enormous online collection of poetry at lyrikline.org, which is doing its bit to slow the progress of global linguicide by featuring such translation combinations as Lithuanian into Catalan, as well as translations into English. The Literarisches Colloquium Berlin has also long been alive with translation activity, as well as readings by the likes of Salman Rushdie. Likewise accessible to those without German is the sound poetry scene, which includes masterly Russian sound poet Valeri Scherstjanoi.
Berlin is home of course to many, many German poets, with a preponderance perhaps of those with East German backgrounds: East Berlin was a hub of literature in its respective half of Germany in a way that West Berlin (neither geographically nor even constitutionally a part of West Germany) was not. Pre-Fall-of-the-Wall East Berlin cast up the political poetry of Volker Braun and the work of the Prenzlauer Berg poets, such as Uwe Kolbe and Bert Papenfuss, the latter now boss of one of the trendiest bars and reading venues in Berlin, Kaffee Burger. Berlin residents from both East and West also include Elke Erb, Brigitte Oleschinski, Gerhard Falkner and Harald Hartung, OULIPO veteran Oskar Pastior (until his death in 2006, just days before he was due to receive the prestigious Büchner Prize), and other experimentalists such as Ulf Stolterfoht, Adolf Endler and Jan Faktor. Post-1989 Berlin has seen its own generation of younger poets emerge (Monika Rinck is one to watch), centred around publishing ventures such as Kookbooks and magazines like Intendenzen and Edit.
As far as locally based Anglophone poets go, Berlin stalwart of thirty years John Hartley Williams was joined here for a while by his co-author of Teach Yourself Writing Poetry, Matthew Sweeney, here on the DAAD stipend that has brought poets such as Xiao Kaiyu (China) or Aleš Šteger (Slovenia) to the city for a year or more. Other magazine or book-published poets who’ve lived in Berlin for periods shorter or longer over the last few years include Catherine Hales, Richard Toovey, Donna Stonecipher, Jesse Seldess, Lance Anderson, performance poets Moon and Anthony Bageete, Daniel Andersson, Josh Robinson, and Topanga Canyon survivor, now back in LA, Pablo Capra. Some of these have read at Poetry Hearings, Berlin’s festival of Poetry in English, which got going in 2005 in the now legendary Cafe Rosa and focuses on Anglophone poets based in continental Europe. Translator and Chicago Review foreign correspondent Bill Martin used to organize a reading series at the Club of Polish Losers showcasing Central and Eastern European poets, the original poems being cheerfully interspersed with English or German translations according to availability. Bookshops with frequent English-language readings include Books in Berlin and East of Eden, and the Ex-Berliner magazine also puts on monthly events in English. Market leaders in the Spoken Word scene are Fuel, emceed by Lady Gaby, and Beat Street, by Robert Grant.
The infrastructure of the Anglophone literary scene was until recently strong on readings but short on publishing. December 2006 was the month when all this changed, with the launch of no less than three English-language publications based in Berlin. First up was a poetry issue, edited by John Hartley Williams, of the magazine Hard Times, featuring the British poets Tim Liardet, Robert Minhinnick, Jeremy Over and Jackie Wills. Cross-fertilizing between the indigenous and Anglo-immigrant poetry scenes, the magazine Lauter Niemand (the name is from a Kafka short story, literally “loads of nobodies” but freely translated as “no man’s land”) collaborated with a team of translators to produce an English-language version of itself. And the first issue of Bordercrossing Berlin, including poetry, prose, features, and round-ups of literary news from other continental European cities came out. It’s been followed by two more issues to make Bordercrossing Berlin one of a number of magazines demonstrating the amount of English-language poetry activity going on outside the Anglosphere. It’s a pretty noisy neighbourhood these days.
This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in Poetry News, Winter 2006/7 issue.
Alistair Noon first came to Berlin in the late eighties and has lived there since 1993. Links to his poems, translations and reviews can be found at www.myspace.com/alistairnoon.
Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin www.literaturfestival.com
Bordercrossing Berlin www.bordercrossing-berlin.com
no man’s land www.no-mans-land.org
Poetry Hearings www.myspace.com/poetryhearings
Beat Street http://www.myspace.com/beatstreetpoetryberlin
East of Eden www.east-of-eden.de