A friendly match?
Author of the Week: Austria
On the relevance and visibility of poetry in Austria
In 2008, I spent a few days in the city of Tallinn for a reading. It was not my first trip to Estonia. I had been there several times in the early noughties to do research for my master’s thesis on the post-communist transformation process in Estonia and its impact on media and journalism, and it was there that I became familiar with the concept of singing revolution. Singing songs, mainly those with patriotic content, was a popular form of non-violent resistance to the Soviet regime and gave expression to the aspiration for state independence, a tradition dating back to Estonia’s national awakening in the 19th century. On one of those trips, I noticed a building that looked like a half-open mouth, a choir stage on a site called Lauluväljak, which translates as ‘singing field’. The song tradition is related to an equally robust poetry tradition. Therefore, I was not surprised when, in 2008, during an afternoon visit to the Estonian Writers’ Association, I learnt that the national public television broadcast poetry recitations every day before prime time. This idea stuck with me for a long time, and I tried to promote this form of poetry dissemination on every occasion, arguing that it would be possible and inexpensive to broadcast a text recited by a poet every day, which would at the same time fulfil a public-education mandate – I thought that this would sensitise society to poetry as well as to the use of language in general.
Of course, no TV station in Austria has ever implemented the ‘Estonian model’. And what would it still be worth today, in a world of streaming platforms, where the words ‘before prime time’ no longer sound like the magic formula – and media usage patterns in general have changed fundamentally. From today’s perspective, the idea seems almost a little ridiculous to me. It reminds me of a TV programme I liked to watch as a child in the 1980s, in which children sitting on a kind of proscenium stage told stories. Should a poet be put in a peep box and recite a poem every day? And who should be invited to such a poetry show? Who would be responsible for the selection? Would it all (again) be subject to economic and ultimately pragmatic decisions – would only those be invited who could reach the television studio easily, and not those who are disadvantaged in that they would have to travel and stay overnight for filming? Or would the poems be read by actors? And is it not better to receive poetry as a text anyway, without a performative part? Perhaps poetry can be disseminated in a much better way in this day and age, even independently of the book as the primary medium, through completely different channels chosen by the authors themselves.
Maybe the question of how to help poetry should not be asked at all. When I complained about the lack of visibility of poetry in Austria during a panel discussion in 2016, a colleague interrupted me and said that it was precisely in the ‘economic irrelevance’ of poetry that its freedom lay – it was its niche status that made the freedom of form and content possible in the first place. But everything that occupies a niche also wants to be promoted, and every public promotion will depend, sooner or later, on political will, I interjected – so why not create broader acceptance for it? But why, he said, poetry is not marketable like the novel, which has become a purely commercial vessel? Of course, I could agree with that. After all, in many cases there is no longer any distinction between subtleties and trivialities – novellas and short stories quickly mutate into novels under the pretext of boosting sales potential, only to be revealed as what they are by the critics. Poetry, however, is generally not a market-friendly type of text. And conceptual guidelines – if they do not come from poets themselves or emerge from an avant-garde – stand in the way of free lyric poetry. Christian Metz’s 2018 book Poetisch denken (Thinking Poetically) looks at the heyday of German-language poetry that shaped the first two decades of the 21st century in particular, a tight-knit poetry scene that revolved primarily around the Berlin publishing house Kookbooks, founded by Daniela Seel, and poets such as Monika Rinck, Ann Cotten, Steffen Popp and the Büchner Prize winner Jan Wagner. The centre of this scene is in Berlin, and it radiated influence all the way to Austria. Of course, the borders are fluid, but the field of poetry nevertheless developed differently in Austria. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to speak of a heyday, but then, why not?
For a long time, the visibility of poetry in Austria was limited to the classics and the literary greats of the post-war period, such as Ingeborg Bachmann, H. C. Artmann, Ernst Jandl, Christine Lavant or Friederike Mayröcker, among others. Speaking of visibility, we inevitably have to ask to which public poetry is meant to be visible. On the one hand, there is visibility in society, that is, in the media and the public discourse. This is necessarily connected to the teaching of poetry in the education system. What role does poetry, or more precisely contemporary poetry, play in schools? In an Instagram conversation that the poet Siljarosa Schletterer and I had on the occasion of World Poetry Day on 21 March 2023, we both noted that the Lyrikflugblatt (poetry pamphlet), published by the literary circle Podium since 1973, has been an important ‘poetic socialisation factor’ for both of us. During my school years (in the nineties), the Lyrikflugblatt was handed out to the pupils every year in March and I collected it to keep on my bookshelf at home. So this poetry pamphlet could be relied on, and still is.
In 2015, journalist Thomas Weber wrote: ‘I am a shameless beneficiary of the decline of poetry and read a poem every day on the loo.’ This seems like a declaration of love, since reading poetry became a daily routine for him, and he started to observe the ‘comeback of poetry’.
So this would raise the question of the visibility of poetry in the Austrian book market and in the media: do I find contemporary poetry whilst browsing through a bookshop? Are poets featured in the media and are their books reviewed? While media usage patterns have changed fundamentally in the last 20 years, the public that was fragmented into larger chunks at the time of my trip to Estonia in 2008 is now fragmenting further into smaller units, creating echo-chambers, spaces in which only one’s own opinion is heard. This leaves us with a question: is visibility in the public sphere relevant for a lively poetry scene? Or does poetry appropriate the mechanisms of critical reception through language anyway?
In Austria, the form of reception that is conventional in the sense of being widely accepted by society (because it is learnt), and therefore usable, is still the printed book. But as I write this, an entire wall of objections is already building up behind me. In the publishing world, the situation for contemporary poetry is ambiguous. Only a few publishing houses have fixed slots for poets in each season. To name a few: Ritter Verlag, Edition Keiper, Edition Korrespondenzen and the relatively new Edition Melos. And in the bookshops – apart from the booksellers specialising in the genre – usually only the classics reach the bookshelf. In recent decades, the resonance space of poetry has shifted mainly toward literary magazines. Looking at those, it quickly becomes clear that there is no shortage of poets, that Austria is a veritable reservoir of contemporary poetry. The 2022/23 edition of the catalogue Die Literatur der österreichischen Kunst-, Kultur- und Autorenverlage (The Literature of Austrian Publishers of Art, Culture and Authors), published annually by the association IG Autorinnen Autoren, lists no fewer than 44 literary magazines spread across the federal states of Austria, including the well-known ones such as Wespennest, kolik, Manuskripte, Lichtungen, SALZ, QUART and Podium, which have supported several generations of poets in their work.
Creating a reliable platform for poets was my motive for founding the Limbus Lyrik series with the publisher Bernd Schuchter at his Limbus Verlag. Our first publication appeared in 2016, a single volume by the poet Stephan Eibel (known at the time as Stephan Eibel Erzberg) titled Unter einem Himmel. In the spring of 2017, two volumes were published (Lydia Steinbacher’s Im Grunde sind wir sehr verschieden and Cornelia Travnicek’s Parablüh), and now we publish three every season. At the beginning, we considered what the content and formal orientation of such a series could be, whether it made sense to create a focus. The only sensible solution that crystallised over time was to offer space for diversity alone and to restrict as little as possible thematically and formally. The lines of reference, the individual positions are too different for there to be anything like a common denominator. This poetry series is something of an overview, and it has created something of a network.
As for ‘Austrian’, what does that mean? It does not matter. We decided to define the scope of the series as follows: poetry from Austria and its surroundings, and by surroundings we can mean the whole world. Thus some of the Limbus poetry volumes are dedicated to travel, or rather, to images of a world created through travel, such as Isabella Feimer’s American Apocalypse or Cornelia Travnicek’s Assu. Aus Reisen. Another strand of this poetic web is a very Central European one: rivers as connecting lines, as exemplified by Udo Kawasser’s die blaue reise or Siljarosa Schletterer’s azur ton nähe. In addition, the series focuses on different forms of multilingualism and references to art, philosophy and history. Formally, the authors differ in their approaches to such an extent (from playing with classical approaches to long poems) that there are only occasional thematic overlaps.
The Poesiegalerie (poetry gallery), founded by the poet Udo Kawasser in 2018, takes a similar approach – to offer a platform (both online and physical), create a network of poets and make poetry visible through an annual festival and a well-maintained website, with poems, poetry-related articles and reviews published daily.
It may not be possible to promote poetry via easily exploitable channels at all, as can be seen from almost 2000 comments on the poem by Judith Zander posted on social media by the German TV-station Südwestdeutscher Rundfunk (SWR). The occasion was the announcement of the award of the 2023 Peter Huchel Prize to the German poet. The tenor of the criticism was that the poem was ‘incomprehensible’. Poets living in Austria also took part in the discussion, not only defending Zander’s work but also trying to clear up common misunderstandings in the reception of poetry. In a commentary on the platform Poesiegalerie, Udo Kawasser summed up: ‘The idea that there could be a debt to be discharged, that one has to do justice to something or someone by creating the preconditions for an appropriate way of dealing with oneself, has long since ceased to be a matter of consensus. Yet it would be obvious to think that poems in these thoughtless times centred around immediate gratification might consciously refuse to be consumed quickly, that they want to be sand in the gears, because they aim at something else and in pursuing this aim must also be different.’
Apparently, SWR’s target audience as well as the numerous posters on their social media channels were not prepared for contemporary poetry or not ready to accept a text that cannot be consumed quickly and held all kinds of prejudices about what poetry should be like. A similar discussion has raged around contemporary art for decades. And a poem, in a written form, has a different effect than in a performance. But poets can also appropriate the mechanisms of the attention economy and fast-moving consumer culture and redefine them in their own favour.
For several years, Stephan Eibel published a poem once a week in the Austrian newspaper Wiener Zeitung. From this visible position, he proclaimed poetry as a relevant form of communication by appropriating a common term from the news. From ‘breaking news’ he derived ‘breaking poems’. In its original meaning, ‘breaking news’ is a piece of news so urgent and relevant that the programme has to be interrupted because of it – admittedly, the term has long since taken on a life of its own and hardly any segments with this tag still interrupt the current flow of information. Eibel, however, gave poetry priority in terms of relevance. He used several terms from the register of news and reporting as poem titles, such as ‘panic’, ‘private’, ‘post-factual’, ‘information’.
In the poem ‘Global’, the first part reads:
Yes, I’m already there!
Petra Ganglbauer also addresses contemporary events, above all the topics of war, violence and reality, and deals with topics such as the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 and the associated media images. In her poetry collection Gefeuerte Sätze (Fired Sentences), the level of accompanying media perception is always part of the lyrical events:
War (the scatterer)
Enters the house.
The streak of blood on the left edge of the screen.
Art in Ruins.
A random collection
Half humans or animals
Those who leave their heartbeat
To the cameras. Or breath.
(He is still alive & running
In the whirl of words & images).
Jana Volkmann uses the term ‘reportage’ in one of her poetry cycles in which she takes the position of a keen lyrical observer in a wide variety of places from the Lower Austrian border town of Wolfsthal to Yokohama, but also in unspecified locations.
Rhea Krčmářová uses Instagram for an ongoing series of poems reminiscent of diary entries, which she writes in English and German. Although there is also a visual level to the poems in the form of a picture attached to each one, she draws attention to the text level through her striking, concise style with which she appropriates the logic of Instagram’s imagery:
does the evening feel pain /as it lies down / on eyes and on words / on towns and on spires / does the night / that almost always follows / know how to bleed / and how to fake a star / I will hold still / and raise my stubborn lenses / and capture silent planets / and trams / that flutter by (28. 12. 2022)
Jörg Piringer’s volume of poetry günstige Intelligenz should also be mentioned here. Piringer’s ‘hybrid poetry’ can also be understood as artistic research. He sets up his lyrical experiment by describing how he bought access to an artificial intelligence chatbot (GPT-3) for a few euros, and enters into a poetic dialogue with it. Just at the time of the publication of Piringer’s book, the release of ChatGPT-4 triggered a broad social debate about the use of AI.
In his collection of poems titled zu brechen bleibt die See. Ein Plädoyer Michael Stavarič tackles the issue of meaningfulness or relevance of poetry by denying it has any, making at the same time the case that poetry is a means of grasping the possibility of perception in a complex world. For this poetic undertaking, he worked together with 12 authors, who created the volume collectively. The authorship of individual parts of the text is not indicated.
At the end, once again a thought experiment that refers to the ‘Estonian model’, but in a different form. I am not a football fan, but the combination of football and literature is a classic, as the famous professor of German studies Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler knew so well. What if a poem were recited before the kick-off of every football match? Would it start a conversation? If so, would the conversation be about the rhythm of the language, the theme, the performance? Or would no one listen and just wait for the ball to be in play? Let us be more specific and imagine the following scenario: the Austrian women’s national team is playing a friendly match against France. The players enter the field, the anthems are sung, the two teams face each other in the midfield. Then the poet Sophie Reyer, dressed by an Austrian fashion label, steps on the pitch and climbs onto a small podium at the sidelines. Meanwhile, the commentator says a few words about the poet, where she was born, how many books she has written and that this poem is from her new poetry collection. She begins to read. The TV viewers in France can read along with the French subtitles. Let us keep this image in mind for a while. Does it work? Or does it make more sense for poets to keep creating their own podiums and be neither freeloaders nor representatives of national culture?
 Christian Metz: Poetisch Denken. Die Lyrik der Gegenwart, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2018.
 Gerhard Ruiss, et al. (eds.): Die Literatur der österreichischen Kunst-, Kultur-, und Autorenverlage. Katalog 2022/23, p. 201–202.
 Isabella Feimer: American Apocalypse. Limbus Lyrik, Limbus Verlag, Innsbruck, 2021.
 Cornelia Travnicek: Assu. Aus Reisen. Limbus Lyrik, Limbus Verlag, Innsbruck, 2023.
 Udo Kawasser: die blaue reise. donau-bosporus. Limbus Lyrik, Limbus Verlag, Innsbruck, 2020.
 Siljarosa Schletterer: azur ton nähe. Limbus Lyrik, Limbus Verlag, Innsbruck, 2022.
 Judith Zander received the Peter Huchel Prize 2023 for her volume of poetry im ländchen sommer. im winter zur se (published by dtv, Munich, 2022).
 Stephan Eibel-Erzberg: breaking poems. Limbus Lyrik, Limbus Verlag, Innsbruck, 2018, p. 10. Translated by Erwin Uhrmann, the original: ‘Wahnsinn / Wahnsinn / Wahnsinn / Ja, bin schon da!’
 Petra Ganglbauer: Gefeuert Sätze. Limbus Lyrik, Limbus Verlag, Innsbruck, 2019, p. 55, Translated by Erwin Uhrmann, the original: ‘Der Krieg (das Streueende) / Kommt ins Haus. / Die Linie des Blutes am linken Bildschirmrand. / Art in Ruins. / Eine zufällige Sammlung / Halber Menschen oder Tiere / Die den Kameras ihren Herzschlag / Überlassen. Oder Atemzug. / (Noch lebt er & laufend / Im Wirbel der Worte & Bilder).’
 ‘die wahrheit ist nicht zu haben, reportagen’. In Jana Volkmann: Investitionsruinen. Limbus Lyrik, Limbus Verlag, Innsbruck, 2021, p. 25–44.
 Jörg Piringer: günstige intelligenz. Ritter Verlag, Klagenfurt, 2022.
 Michael Stavarič: ‘zu brechen bleibt die See’. Ein Plädoyer. Czernin Verlag, Vienna, 2020. Other contributing authors: Isabella Feimer, Katharina J. Ferner, Andrea Grill, Nancy Hünger, Helga Locher, Hanno Millesi, Martin Piekar, Petra Piuk, Helene Proißl, Tanja Raich, Barbara Rieger, Julia Willman.
Erwin Uhrmann is an Austrian writer and editor. His dystopic novel Ich bin die Zukunft (2014) attributes to a contemporary literature canon of climate fiction. Publications: Poetry: K.O.P.F. (Kartografisch Orientierte Passagen Fragmente), a collaboration with the composer Karlheinz Essl (2021), Abglanz Rakete Nebel with illustrations by Julian Tapprich (2016), Nocturnes with drawings by Moussa Kone (2012); Novels: Der lange Nachkrieg (2010), Glauber Rocha (2011), Ich bin die Zukunft (2014), Toko (2019); Short Stories: Ostseeatem (2008, together with Alexander Peer). Together with Johanna Uhrmann, he wrote several travel books. He founded and curated the literature program at the Essl Museum (Klosterneuburg), is the editor of the poetry series Limbus Lyrik (Innsbruck) that is dedicated to contemporary poetry in and around Austria and writes for the Austrian newspaper Die Presse.
Photo by Julian Tapprich