Max Czollek

- Germany -

Max Czollek is a poet from Berlin. In 2009, he was a founding member of the Berlin poetry collective G13. Since 2013 he has worked as the German curator for the Babelsprech project aiming to establish a cross-national network among young German-speaking poets. In 2016, he co-organized the event “Desintegration. Ein Kongress zeitgenössischer jüdischer Position” at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. He has been invited to various festivals, among them the Zeitkunst Festival, the Meridian Czernovitz, the Internationales Lyrikfestival Basel, and the Poesiefestival Berlin. With G13, Czollek published Das war Absicht (SuKuLTuR, 2013) and 40% Paradies. Gedichte des Lyrikkollektivs G13 (Luxbooks, 2012). His own publications include A.H.A.S.V.E.R (2016), Jubeljahre (2015), and Druckkammern (2012), all published by Verlagshaus Berlin. In 2015, Czollek co-edited an anthology of young German-speaking poets Lyrik von Jetzt 3: Babelsprech (Wallstein Verlag).

Living in Berlin last spring, I first encountered the poet Max Czollek as the author of Desintegriert Euch! [De-Integrate Yourselves!] (Hanser Verlag, 2018). This book was the talk of the town. In German public discourse, the prevailing view holds that integration is crucial to the country’s rebirth as a bastion of liberal democracy. But Czollek’s book counters this emphasis on sameness with his own polemical vision for “radical diversity,” highlighting the profound cultural and demographic shifts of the past century. Intrigued by his reputation, I quickly became acquainted with Czollek’s poetry, and then with Czollek himself. I wrote to him to ask if he’d be interested in writing about the relationship between contemporary literature and politics for the German literary festival Hausacher LeseLenz, which had commissioned me to collect and translate short prose pieces by participating authors. His resulting essay,“Instrument  or Weapon: Notes on Contemprory Literature “ was our first collaboration.

In our correspondences, Czollek alluded to another way he departs from the German mainstream (and another key theme of Desintegriert Euch!): his skepticism of the common willingness to gloss over today’s continuities with the nation’s Nazi history. According to Czollek, the poet must confront the past’s obtrusion into language. “It’s undeniable,” he wrote me, “that the German language (like every other language) is filled with references to its past . . . What happens to the tradition contemporary poets build upon if we first need to extract it from layers of the past century’s rubble and debris before we can view it in the light of our present day?” 

Grounded in his own experience as a young German Jew navigating complex inheritances, Czollek’s poetry excavates the German lyric tradition to expose how the same topoi of German Romanticism that yielded so much beauty also facilitated brutality. Indeed, how can one uncritically rejoice in the idyllic Heimat landscapes of the German heartland, wax poetic on the rolling woodlands from the windows of an eastbound train, or lose oneself in a blazon dedicated to the fair-haired, blue-eyed lovers of yesteryear, when these motifs have been forever altered by the legacies of Nazism?

The following cycle of poems, “von der wiederkehr” [“of return”], was originally published in Czollek’s Jubeljahre [Jubilees] (Verlagshaus Berlin, 2015). This cycle—presented below first in the original German, followed by my English translation—is characterized by a lyric voice at once fiercely humorous and defiant. For example, in its reactivation of Claudius’s “Abendlied”—a classic of Romantic poetry—the third poem recontextualizes the long trajectory of German lyric to insist on the enmeshment of present and past. Setting out a vision for the present balanced tenuously between the traumas of history and the precarities of an unwritten future, Czollek reminds us that in the end, what provides hope is not our ability to rewrite what has been, but our willingness to confront the truth of what is.

— Jon Cho-Polizzi