Poetry is life – why I want poems everyday
Author of the Week: Germany
‘Football is life’ says Danny Rojaz, a fictional character in the strangely touching and wonderfully satisfying soccer-series Ted Lasso. For me this translates as ‘Poetry is life.’ Poetry in every form. It is my reason to create – a lust for life (thanks, David Bowie and Iggy Pop), a lust for words, phrases, drama, feelings, languages and literature. It is my all. My love.
Poetry is the form of literary speech which actually concentrates on small things, as the poets Charles Simic or Volha Hapeyeva argued, not only, of course, but many poems show an obsessive attention to details, to the smell of things, their materiality and often-overlooked meaning.
Yesterday night, sleepless and short of breath I did it again, I skipped my walking meditation because my knees hurt and my feet were swollen. So I translated, I moved words, moved through words. I translated poems by Slovenian writer Veronika Dintinjana, and I would like to share an excerpt from one of them, in her words and in mine, in the hope that the words might touch you, move you:
Ne, poezija ni narejena samo iz besed.
Dal si ji tudi nevihto, rože, solze, kruh, čebele –
Smeji se nama, že ves čas ve:
je, kar je. Vse:
Tudi lepota. Tudi nebo. Tudi čebele. Nevihte.
Kotaleči se hlebci kruha. Rastoče solze.
Revolucija. To telo. Drugo. Midva.
Gram besed, dodan teži dejanj.
Ljubezen do snovnega je ljubezen do nevidnega.
Ko zrak drhti. Ko misel drhti.
Ko solze, nevihte, cvetlice, čebele, kruh.
Ko se praznina krči in širi. Ko – ljubiva.
Nein, die Poesie besteht nicht nur aus Worten.
Du hast ihr Stürme, Blumen, Tränen, Brot und Bienen gegeben –
Sie lacht über uns, sie hat es schon immer gewusst:
Es ist, was es ist. Alles:
Auch Schönheit. Sogar Himmel. Sogar Bienen. Stürme.
Rollende Brotlaibe. Wachsende Tränen.
Die Revolution. Dieser Körper. Das Andere. Wir beide.
Ein Gramm Worte zusätzlich zum Gewicht der Taten.
Die Liebe zum Materiellen ist Liebe zum Unsichtbaren.
Wenn die Luft zittert. Wenn der Gedanke zittert.
Wenn Tränen, Stürme, Blumen, Bienen, Brot.
Wenn die Leere schrumpft und sich ausdehnt. Wenn wir – lieben.
No, poetry is not just words.
You gave her storms, flowers, tears, bread and bees –
She laughs at us, she has always known:
It is what it is. Everything:
Also beauty. Even sky. Even bees. Storms.
Rolling loaves of bread. Growing tears.
The revolution. This body. The other. The two of us.
An ounce of words added to the weight of deeds.
Love of the material is love of the invisible.
When the air trembles. When thought trembles.
When tears, storms, flowers, bees, bread.
When emptiness shrinks and expands. When we – love.
I write in this spirit (mostly, I hope), out of love, and I translate out of this passion. I edit poetry books and anthologies, start festivals, recently I have even co-created (with Miha Kovač) the guest of honour programme for Slovenija at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2023. This involved a lot of work, with the first comprehensive anthology of Slovenian Poetry at its core (co-edited with Amalija Maček and Aleš Šteger) – but it is still, ultimately, a labour of love. But why is writing, translating and even staging poetry still not enough for me?
Perhaps because of my father. My father was a refugee. He grew up with a stutter that prevented him from attending higher education. Reading saved him, thanks to a teacher who gave him a book after a book – Goethe, Schiller, Homer (in Johann Heinrich Voß’s famous translation). My father learnt poems by heart, recited half of the Odyssey to me, or parts of Faust while I was sitting on the lawnmower with him behind me. I remember the smell of the freshly cut grass around us, his proud and gentle voice, the words, the images, the beauty and joy of the rhythm, and how those stories and characters raised deep questions in my mind. Poetry saved my father and created an undying bond between the two of us, and between me and my childhood. This may have brought me to writing, but it definitely brought me to creating poetry vending machines as a means of sharing poems with everyone who wants them.
Insert coin, press button, take poem – read!
In his often-cited Nobel Prize speech of 1987, the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky demanded that poems should be as ubiquitous as petrol stations, and classics sold in cheap editions. They are the mental fuel for the day, an ‘extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe’. As an author and translator of poetry and a promoter of literature, I have time and again taken up Brodsky’s idea and looked for new ways to bring poetry into the city and into everyday life. I started with The Graz Poetry Vending Machines, ingenious poem-dispensers placed in three special locations, intended to whet public appetite for reading and discovering poetry. The texts by 42 authors were only available on site. This was a playful attempt to move people with poems – also quite literally, in the form of a poetic parcourse through the city of Graz. I want to thank my partners, especially Elizabeth Fiedler of the Institute for Art in Public Space Steiermark, for making this wonderful beginning possible.
Poetry vending machines have of course been around for much longer and in a wide variety of forms, for example as playful, aleatoric generation systems. As early as the Baroque period, the idea that one could produce texts or have them produced automatically, captivated various poets. In 1777, for example, in the university town of Göttingen, there were reports of
the invention of a ‘poetic hand mill’ that could produce odes mechanically.
The contemporary German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger also took up the idea of automatic poetry generation. His ‘Landsberger Poesieautomat / Landsberg Poetry Machine’ is an airport-style split-flap display board with six lines, where – at the push of a button – various given sentence elements can be combined at random. Enzensberger himself said of the products of his poetry automat: ‘It’s a game. How far you charge it with meaning depends on the viewer.’
I have always been fascinated by how poetic texts quite literally open up new spaces, not only in their combinatorics, but also very concretely as a surprising encounter with readers.
Every child knows the sense of wonder inspired by vending machines – at railway stations and bus stops, on corners and streets. This awe carries something of the ‘Geheimniszustand’, the state of wonder or mystery that the Danish poet Inger Christensen once described as being the essence of a poem in reference to the poet Novalis. Hidden behind the glass, the metal, the inscription and in the mechanics of the machine, the momentous oracle of the day could be waiting.
In our case, first in Graz, then later in Leipzig, Marbach and Munich, three vending machines that would usually dispense children’s toys, refreshing sweets or condoms had been converted into lyrical spatial in(ter)ventions and served up poetry instead.
Over the course of six months, residents and visitors to Graz were encouraged to take poems from the three different machines. In Leipzig and Marbach the machines stood a year or longer, and in Munich they were meant to be cherished for a longer time. The ‘Fresh Poems’ automat in the Joanneumsviertel contained previously unpublished works by Graz poets; the machine on the Schlossberg (‘Mein Nachbar auf der Wolke / My Neighbour on the Cloud’) was filled with poems by Slovenian poets in both Slovenian original and German translations; and an old condom vending machine next to the entrance to the Forum Stadtpark had especially gefühlsechte Gedichte/real-feel poems by international poets in store. All of the machines were filled with 14 different poems, which could be bought for 50 cents each.
The poems could be obtained from the machines, read, kept or given away until mid-December 2021. The 50-cent price included an opportunity for the readers to become active participants: they could vote online for their favourite poem from the Fresh Poems vending machine in the Joanneumsviertel.
Poems are chests that hold the treasures of the world. They illuminate instantly, with their power to lift us out of sense of failure and grief and conjure up a new world before our eyes using nothing but language. When poems work, they are a wonder – and perhaps our Graz Poetry Vending Machines were little ‘chambers of wonder’ for some new poetry readers.
A very curious case happened in Marbach, where the machine ‘My Neighbour on the Cloud’ with 15 Slovenian poems was stolen one night. It seems that this machine, which stood in front of the Schiller National Museum, was either so loved or so hated that the thieves took it with them, as heavy as it was. Since there was no money in it, they must have stolen it for the poems.
Thank you, thieves for reminding us of the power of poetry!
At the same time, in May 2023, the Leipzig Poetry machines had their closing event at the Book Fair. The Austrian Machine, ‘Liebe aus Österreich / Love from Austria’, was the secret star of Austria’s guest of honour programme at the fair, with poets sitting constantly around it, taking and reading poems from the machine, drinking and celebrating literature and life. I want to thank the poet Andreas Unterweger, editor of Manuskripte literature magazine, and Thorsten Ahrend, the Director of Literature House Leipzig, for creating these memorable events. Thanks are also due to Vera Hildenbrandt, Literaturmuseum der Moderne in Marbach, Ulrike Roos, Bayern liest e.V., Holger Pils, Lyrikkabinett München, Johanna Berueter, Villa Stuck and many, many more. Thank you!
There are going to be more Poetry Vending machines opening this year, in Munich and Frankfurt (as part of the Frankfurt Book Fair guest of honour programme), in Salzburg and Vienna, and next year in the Salzkammergut (as part of the 2024 Europäische Kulturhauptstadt programme). It is a pleasure to be able to create these machines and promote poetry, lure people who might normally not read poetry into reading it.
I have already mentioned that I have been fascinated by how poetic texts open up new spaces, and how I love to create surprising encounters with readers. For me, the poem is an imaginary, but accessible space in which a completely independent architecture of feelings and thoughts develops. Poetry is like love. When I read a poem now, everything becomes more intense. I feel connected again with the things around me – and even when I am sad or even feeling devastated by the situation in the world, this connection gives me hope and joy.
Matthias Göritz is a poet, translator, and novelist. He has written four poetry collections: Loops, Pools, Tools, and Spools; four novels, including Der kurze Traum des Jakob Voss (The Brief Dream of Jakob Voss) and Parker; and three novellas. He has received the Hamburg Literature Prize, the Mara Cassens Prize, the Robert Gernhardt Prize, the William Gass Award and the International Pretnar Award. He teaches at WashU.