100 Fragen an die Lyrik, Stefan Mesch

In September of 2014, Literaturhaus Lettrétage invited me to write about 7 poems of British author Ross Sutherland for “comment – lesenistschreiben”, a Berlin-based project that encouraged students and whole school courses to react to contemporary writers.

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Once I was done with my initial 7 statements, Literaturhaus Lettrétage solicited another, final text:

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Over three weeks in September and October, my assignment grew into this essay.

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It is written for (German) high school students and it has some links to Ross Sutherland and the “comment” project.

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Still: You don’t need to know anything about Ross or the project to enjoy my text. I worked with similar lists in the past (link 1, link 2, link 3), and if you want to syndicate this text and / or publish a German translation of it – please get in touch: smesch@gmx.net   

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“Dogs are so tricky!” Does poetry matter?

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Stefan Mesch

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01_I don’t know any people who read poetry… that aren’t poets themselves.

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02_Have you ever spent money on a poetry collection?

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03_Did you ever copy, photograph or forward a poem? They’re easy to pirate / collect / archive / spread around. Why aren’t we doing that – all the time?

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04_Why aren’t there poems in Happy Meals? On street corners? In every issue of Der Spiegel? Poetry doesn’t take much space: Why isn’t it more present in public life?

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05_What’s the use of studying poems in school?

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06_What’s the use of learning poems by heart?

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07_Would you rather read 10 poems by 10 people… or 10 poems by one poet? What’s the difference between reading the first poem by Ross Sutherland and the 7th? Does reading the 7th make you want to read another 7? Or buy one of his poetry collections?

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08_Would you rather meet someone who wrote poems – or someone who read them? Would you rather be known as a poet… or as a reader of poems?

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09_Where can you go to find new poetry? Where can you get specific, personal recommendations? What prizes, festivals, literary magazines, experts, curators, critics, websites and poetry publishers do you know… and trust / like?

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10_Why isn’t there a Netflix- or last.fm-like poetry recommendation streaming service that helps you curate a personal poetry stream?

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11_Why isn’t there a social cataloging site that lets you rate poems? And if there was: What would end up as their best-rated, most popular one? Plucky, affirmative, hopeful poems like Hermann Hesse’s „Stufen“? Christian / religious wisdom? Love poems? Limericks and comedy? Nostalgic rhymes for children?

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12_Imagine you wanted to learn about Japan. Or Poland. Would you learn more by reading 100 Japanese (or Polish) poems – or 100 pages of a novel? By looking at 100 adverts? Or 30 music videos? 100 pieces of photojournalism? What different things could you learn from each format?

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13_The more you know about a culture and a language, the better you’ll be able to understand the nuances of their poems. That being said: Would you rather read poems written by your cousin – or by someone with a completely different home, culture, background?

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14_If you had never heard of Ross Sutherland: Would you have noticed that these poems were written by a man? A young person? A Brit? A white person?

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15_As a German: When you read Ross Sutherland, are you reading “a poem” or “something British”? What stands out: Ross’ British-ness or Ross’ poems-as-poetry?

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16_Name three famous poets… who are still alive.

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17_Name one famous poet still alive… who is famous for his or her poetry: no novelists or playwrights or Bob Dylans who publish poetry on the side!

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18_Close your eyes. Imagine a male poet. Imagine a female poet. Who is younger? Funnier? Sexier? Smarter? More widely-read? Angrier? Dorkier? More confident? More serious? More respected?

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19_If poems are nowhere in our culture – why bother with them in the curriculum? Shouldn’t we study video games, instead?

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20_Are poems “nowhere in our culture”? If not: Where ARE they, actually?

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21_My poet friends seem angrier, more political and disenfranchised than my novelist friends. Maybe because they are used to getting the short end of the stick? Less recognition? Less money? Less respect?

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22_Why are novels more popular than poems, and why are the media more eager to praise and feature novelists? Has it always been that way, historically? Is there a way this could change?

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23_Are movies “more inviting” than novels? Are novels “easier” than poems? Why is poetry considered such a “difficult” and “problematic” format?

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24_Are “difficult” and “problematic” the same thing?

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25_Imagine a poetry reading at Literaturhaus Lettrétage: What would need to happen for you to buy a ticket? (Bilingual would be good. Verses on a projector would be good. Some sort of discussion and Q&A would be great! Also: guests with different positions and backgrounds. Diversity!)

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26_Poet Sabine Scho asks: Why do people enjoy dissing poetry?

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27_I’d counter: Why does poetry leave nearly everyone cold?

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28_It’s time-consuming to pick a favorite movie director, because sampling even one director’s work will take you 90+ minutes. It’s easy to buy a collection like „Lyrik von jetzt“ and start finding favorites. What are you waiting for?

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29_Are poems less present because they are hard to market and commodify? 10 years ago, “personal” cell phone ring tones were a gold mine. Could something similar happen to poems? A digital poetry gift service? A WhatsApp subscription store? Are poems on the fringe because no one has found a way to make quick money from them yet?

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30_But then: Hardly anyone makes money from webcomics, either. And THEY have a huge online presence and millions of passionate fans.

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31_This webcomic audience is pretty young, though: many tweens, teenagers and college students. Do poets reach these audiences? Is poetry TRYING to reach these audiences? Are there poems on Instagram? Poets on Vine? Are there tumblr-famous Young Adult poets I’ve never heard of?

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32_Sabine Scho loves that, because poetry is little-read, she can get crap past the radar: “There is no place you can go wilder, get ruder than in a poem. Their punk potential is enormous! To me, that is enough.” How can poets “go wild”? How would you “go wild” in a poem?

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33_Traditionally, poetry has often been a way to voice dissent and be political. Would poems be more popular if states forbid and outlawed them?

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34_If you had an urgent live-or-die message that had to reach many readers, would you sit down and write a poem? I can see how poetry is essential in regimes where no one can talk openly. But today? Here and now? Can’t we all be blunt? Write down what we really mean?

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35_Where’s the fun in NOT being blunt?

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36_How can poetry disrupt / object / challenge?

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37_Are there people who pirate poems? Should poems be free? Are there copyright fights over poetry? I know that there are fierce legal battles over every word Karl Valentin ever published: His heirs and copyright holders sued many, many people. If you help spread Karl Valentin’s work, chances are good that you will be sued. (Rightly so?)

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38_Are poems elitist? Are poems too complicated? Are poems like posh, sneaky parties in a room that takes 10 keys (and 20 years of education) to unlock? Does poetry get dissed because it’s not inclusive enough? IS poetry inclusive enough?

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39_German readers can compare Ross Sutherland’s original poems to their German “Nachdichtungen”. Personally, I felt that the original poems sounded harsher, more abrupt or less sentimental than their German “Nachdichtungen”. Why? Because to Germans, English often sounds like the “edgier”, less sentimental language?

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40_How does translation change a poem’s tone and atmosphere? As a poet, would you be okay with these tonal changes to your texts? As a reader, do you prefer all original versions to their German “Nachdichtung”?

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41_Would you rather be talented enough to write excellent poems… or have the talent to understand other people’s poetry?

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42_Imagine a magician that sells talent: What should be his price range for a „If I write poems, they will turn out great“ talent? Which other talents would be near that range? What would you sacrifice or invest to create great poetry yourself?

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43_Few people have the money and the resources to finish a movie. Few people have the time and energy to finish a novel. A lot of people can try and write some poems: Why do most of them stop in their 20s?

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44_A publisher friend once lamented that if all people who had written poems as teenagers would be buying new poems today, poetry would be mainstream. Do people love writing poems more than they love reading them?

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45_How would you pick your own poem’s images and topics? Would you research? How? What do you think has been the kernel of most poetry: an idea? A feeling? An impulse? I feel like Ross Sutherland wants to amuse and surprise / astonish.

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46_Do you think classic poems, the ones you read in school, were „more universal“, „aged better“?

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47_On Amazon and rating sites like Goodreads, poetry collections get very high scores: People give more stars to nonfiction, experimental books, “difficult formats” than to novels. But if these “difficult formats” are so much fun – why is hardly anyone reading them? Is there prestige in posting high ratings for “difficult” books? Do you feel rewarded when you read “difficult” poems? If you told everyone in your life that you loved poetry: Who would react? How?

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48_Imagine you could be known by every school kid for the next 100 years for one poem that will be taught everywhere: What would your poem be about?

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49_What’s the best age to read Ross Sutherland’s poems? Does it help to be male? Does it help to be British? Does it help to be born in 1979, be white, know video games etc.? Do his poems have a target audience?

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50_”Why is poetry seen as a problem child? You won’t get rich from dogwalking either – and still, no one says: ‘Dogs are so tricky! There’s something wrong with dogs.’” (Sabine Scho)

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51_How can we be sure that Ross is a true, “professional” poet? What sets him apart from a hobby poet? Is that a valid distinction – is it important?

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52_In an interview, Ross recommends the “big poetry clubs” of Great Britain. “Nights such as Book Slam, OneTaste and Homework in London, Hammer and Tongue in Brighton, Big Word in Edinburgh.” Do places like that exist in Germany? Where can you go to discover young poets? Is there a difference between “poet” and “poetry slam contestant”?

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53_There is a lot of humor in Ross’ poems. I love that – because if you pay for comedy, you want to laugh. Throughout a comedic performance, you might ask: “Is this funny enough? Am I getting what I came for?”. Ross can afford to be more elegant, relaxed – because his humor comes as an extra, an unexpected bonus: It’s not the “main attraction”. Are Ross’ texts funny because it’s not their main goal to be funny?

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54_What is their main goal? Do they achieve it?

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55_Is this a question that should be asked? Can it be answered by readers?

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56_I wish that lots of poetry had links and footnotes – like the ones Simone Kornappel used to complicate and remix Ross’ “Richard Branson” poem.

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57_Poets might reply: “But poetry has links already! The title ‘Richard Branson’ makes you think of Richard Branson! Katharina Schultens’ ‘gorgos portofolio’ poems recall the gorgons of Greek myth. There are huge semi-hidden references in nearly every poem: Try to uncover these connections yourself! You want ‘hyperlink literature’? Poems are hyper-hyperlinked!”

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58_My reservation here is that I can easily recognize a reference like “Zangief” because I grew up playing “Street Fighter II”. I have huge problems with a reference like “Hyperion” because I’m not a scholar of ancient Greece – or an upper-class school boy at a humanistic private school in Vienna, ca. 1880. What is the difference between poems named “Menelaus” and “Lindsay Lohan”? Can I love one – but feel bored and excluded by the other?

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59_If Katharina Schultens wrote a “Gorgos Portfolio” NOVEL, I’d buy it. Because novels taught and reassured me that most background facts I’ll need to know in order to enjoy them are right there on the pages – like toys that come with batteries included. Poems often seem like reactions, comments, references and replies: meta-narration, second-degree writing, texts that needs other text, frustrating on its own. Beiträge zweiter Ordnung.

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60_When I started reading Ross Sutherland’s poetry, I didn’t know about his goals or personal history, his self-image or the standards to which he holds his work. In my analysis, I approached his poems as carefully constructed, deliberately literary texts; delicate strings of words where every nuance matters. How else could poetry be approached? Are we more careful and nervous around poems? Are we too careful? Frightened?

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61_I’m much less respectful with (…or intimidated by) songs: Once I hear music, I feel confident enough to say „These are smart lyrics. These are trite lyrics!“ To me, this comes easier because music brings so many extra layers of information – especially online: the instruments, the album artwork, musicians and their stage personae, the videos and live performances. I feel competent around songs. They are easy to scrutinize. Poems, on the other hand, often seem distant, hermetic, guarded, solipsistic or opaque. They make me turn away and shrug: “Why bother? Who am I to criticize?”

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62_Do you want to know what Ross looks like? If he sleeps with men or with women? If he wins awards? Had a happy childhood? If he’s a not-very-rich poet – or a starving one? Does all this help you understand (and appreciate) his work?

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63_Do you want to know Ross’ intentions? Each poem’s backstory and making-of? His insecurities, personal verdicts and the walkthroughs, user’s guides, interpretations and cheat codes he has been handing out to explain his work?

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64_Should poems “work on their own” – or is that kind of extra information half the fun? Do you wish each poem came with a text about the author’s intentions? Or does that show that Ross’ poems are too meek to stand for themselves?

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65_Why should poetry “stand for itself”? A lot of poets are excellent at writing about their work: Much better than most novelists (…or singers). I love reading poetry-related essays, analysis and discourse in places like Lyrikkritik.de or BELLA triste. In fact, I love these poetry essays much more than I love most poetry!

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66_Compared to journalists and novelists, poets often seem more social, open, more professional and eager-to-network: They are doing performances and discussions, translations and curating work, they write essays and give workshops. Is it because they HAVE to – in order to make a living? Because a community as small as the poetry scene needs strong bonds and a carefully maintained system of give-and-take? Or is their work as poets giving them skills to branch out, connect, experiment, adapt?

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67_Name five things you value in a poem. Here are mine:

1. ambivalence

2. ambition

3. emotion

4. curiosity

5. imagery that, for a while, won’t leave my head

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68_Is it okay if they aren’t there? Some of them? All of them?

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69_Can a poem be too short? Too long? Are two words a poem? One? To me, Ross’ “Experiment to determine the Existence of Love” felt too long – but more because it wasn’t strong / complex enough to hold my interest through all these stanzas.

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70_Is there something a poem shouldn’t be? Didactic? Ignorant? Racist? Branded / commercial? Boring?

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71_I can imagine a dangerous book, a dangerous movie. But I have trouble picturing a dangerous poem – besides ones that reproduce or make light of intolerance: propaganda, hateful or cruel slogans.

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72_That being said: I feel like Ross’ poems are extremely harmless.

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73_Music has rhythms. Paintings have color schemes. But modern poetry mostly did away with rhymes. Are rhymes too banal? Playful? Were they essential to poetry before? Until when? What is essential to today’s poetry?

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74_What makes a text qualify as a poem?

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75_Poetry collections are rather thin. Poems are rather short. Neither have to be: There are reasons that most feature films are long enough to warrant a trip to the cinema. That most paintings are smaller than a garage. That most albums take less than 80 minutes to play. But is there a reason that most poems fit on one or two pages?

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76_I’d love to see poems use pictures, not words. But I guess that would be too… expensive? Hard to stage? Anyone all over the world can write „a sad, pale pink shirt on a frozen riverbank“. But it would take lots of resources to find the ideal shirt – and place it on the ideal riverbank. Still: If there are graphic novels – why aren’t there graphic poems? Sequential images, structured and layered like written poetry?

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77_Because no matter how clear and simple a poet’s words – it’s hard to make people see the “correct” pale pink shirt: Is it frustrating to describe a shirt and have your readers picture 1000 different ones?

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78_I lost a lot of faith in Ross-the-Poet when I saw his poetry films on Youtube: They seemed much simpler, flatter, easy to dismiss – like student projects finished in a rush because everyone involved wanted to go and play air hockey instead. Our standards are rising: It’s often excruciating to manage Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, to blog and be camera-ready and professional if you’re a single artist / freelancer. Still: Ross’ videos looked so haphazard and careless that I wondered how much care this same person invested in their poetry. (Is this a fair question, though? How many poets should we judge by their Youtube accounts?)

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79_”The poems are the bricks, the performance is the mortar”, Ross writes about his career on stage: “Poetry comes alive for me in those situations. To see my poems dead on the page… they look a little lost.” Do you agree? How “dead” and “lost” are Ross’ poems?

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80_What are we missing if we discuss Ross’ work as nothing but text? Imagine that someone stole Madonna’s song lyrics and posted them online, without any context or musical cues: If we talk about these words but stay ignorant about their performer, the stage, their delivery… how much can we really understand?

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81_And what if I’m wrong: What if Ross Sutherland’s biggest goal IS the laughter? The applause? What if he writes poetry to make college-aged crowds in bars cheer and laugh? Would that still be “poetry”? Why wouldn’t it?

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82_I expect poets to place each word with care (…but then: maybe I’m too conventional: it must be okay for poets to be rash, silly and careless, too!). Still – I love texts, essays, novels, translations, tweets by poets because they pick better, more thought- and colorful words than anyone else – and I wonder if this is becoming more important for many non-poets, too: How? Where? What can poets teach us?

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83_All German children spend 9+ years in school. They have more than 9,000 hours of classes. How many of these classes should be about poetry? Poetry writing? Poetry history? Poetry analysis?

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84_I don’t remember if, in 13 years of Deutschunterricht, we ever saw a poem by a non-German author. Even today, I could not name 5 to 10 French, Spanish or Italian poets. We had no Milton in school. No Dante. Plath, cummings, Dickinson and Blake only showed up in my A-Level English class / Englisch-LK.

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85_Because poets know so well how to craft colorful, intelligent, suprising and precise sentences… what kind of jobs or university courses could profit from a poetry-writing class or workshop? Who could learn? And what? Teachers? Copywriters? Journalists? Anyone talking or writing?

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86_Once I google „Why is poetry important“, I get these points and ideas:

language awareness

critical analysis

creativity and enthusiasm

and, in ALL German results: “to talk about the feelings that you can’t express otherwise”

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87_You meet an interesting person. Now… you might want to take a portrait. Do an interview. Write a novel! Once you hear a song, you might want to sing your own version. I understand how people say: “I saw something. It challenged me – and made me want to create a play, a movie, a game, an essay, an intervention.” But what needs to happen to make a poet say: „Oh! I want to take this stimulus… and describe it in ambivalent language in an ambivalent way“…? Poems seems like a more indirect, long-winded, complicated way to react to the world than most other artistic responses.

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88_Because despite all well-picked words, poetry often seeks ambivalence: Words can mean two or three exclusive things. There can be friction and frightening gaps. Where else is that kind of paradox, unclear language possible – and encouraged?

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89_If there’s not one single correct interpretation to a poem… why bother interpreting at all? If anything can mean two or three different things… why go play detective? With most poems, we will never find out the murderer’s motif. Or the poet’s “intention”…

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90_Fantasy literature is much more popular in rural areas: The German publisher of “Lord of the Rings” said that most of their fan mail came from remote German villages. If fantasy is a “country thing” – is science fiction a “city thing”? What about poetry: Are the classic poems (Nature! Romance! Weather!) more popular with rural people? Is modern poetry a “city thing” – colder, fractured and dense?

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91_15 years ago, when German journalist Else Buschheuer started writing about her love for “Sex and the City”, a lot of horrible women approached her and cheered “Yes! I love that show, too! We have so much in common”. Buschheuer says that she has never felt “in worse company” than after she championed “Sex and the City”. Do you know someone who loves poetry? What are they like? Would you enjoy their company? Become “one of them”?

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92_Do you think Ross Sutherland loves poetry? I studied Creative Writing – but many students around me didn’t love books and read very little. What they loved was being a writer. The heroism. The rebellion. The scrappy underdog allure.

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93_I really don’t know anyone who LOVES poems the way many of my friends LOVE novels: Only publishers of poetry… who say that poetry is important. And many poets writing about their poetry friends. But everyone has skin in the game – and everyone seems more passionate about the “importance of poetry” than they are about actual, living poets: “poetry” is beloved. Actual, living poets, though? They are treated like rare birds. Or whales. You want them to survive. But you don’t want them to stay on your couch.

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94_As a reader and literature critic, I often roll my eyes when I discuss publishing: like many readers and critics, I think that there are too many bad or overhyped books – while the good ones are hard to find. On pages like Lyrikzeitung.com, most poets sound equally exhausted about poetry – but while I feel that there is too much [overhyped fiction], most poets feel overlooked. Stefan: „Don’t we spend too much time talking about books that might not be worth that attention?” Poets: „Poetry needs more attention! Now!” I feel like most poets love „all of poetry“ while I definitely don’t love „all of literature“. My aim is selection. Their aim is… promotion? Protection? Survival?

[In German, “Selektion” is a phrase that has strong Nazi implications. If you’re a critic, please don’t talk about “Selektion”.]

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95_How would this discussion, the whole perception of poetry, change if poems became popular again? If there was money for poets and publishers and more people interested in reading and listening to poetry? Would the poems change? Would the discussions change? Would happiness increase?

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96_How can you support poetry? How can you help make poems more visible?

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97_Many authors write down new and little-used words. What would happen if you kept a file and updated it for a full year? How would it change you? Would it be worth your time?

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98_Why would Ross partake in the “comment”-project? Would you enjoy reading hundreds of comments, responses, critiques and conflicting ideas about your work?

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99_I can imagine Ross saying „Wow. There were three German scholar guys [Kristoffer Cornils, Konstantin Ames and me: the Profileser] who immediately started googling shit like ‘School of Broken Necks’ like THAT was the most important aspect of my poetry.” I think that Ross would enjoy a more relaxed, less scholarly approach to his work. Any ideas?

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100_Are poems inspiring? Movies and TV shows make me empathize with difficult characters. Video games inspire me to work hard – or explore. Novels inspire me to shape a story, connect the dots and focus on bigger pictures. Poems, if anything, inspire me to reflect the way I have been using words.

Because every one of these little fuckers… matters. So much.

4 Kommentare

  • vivian

    i need to answer question number 11. First i have to appologize, because of my english it isnt very well but i hope you understand me :)

    You ask why there isnt a social cataloging site that let us rate poems.
    in my opinion nobody is able to rate a poem. poems are emotions thoughts believes. i think if you rate a poem bad you didnt even understand the thoughts of the writer. also everybody sees a poem different. i need to collect it to our geman class theme in school bertolt brecht. he makes some rules for a good poem. he said it need to have a useage and that it just have one when everybody can understand the feeling the poet want us to feel. i nearly think the same. for example if you write about love everybody can connect something with it. but if you write for example that homosexuality is beautyful just homosexual people can identify with it and the poem has just a useage for them.
    whether you like a poem or not is just subjectivity. you cant make really rules for a good poem. poems is literature and this is art and art is free.

    i enjoy your questions maybe i can find answeres for a other one.
    greats vivian

  • Tom Bresemann

    dear vivian, I think the beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. so what about your EYEs? can u really only understand beauty towards things or situations that you have gone through or are going through yourself, in the very second of looking at them? or is there a special problem just with SOME? the example you chose makes me ask.

  • Tom Bresemann

    just 2 be perfectly clear: Do u have to kill somebody to enjoy a murder story? As if empathy was not only impossible but NOT the best tool to understand each other, as the social beings we are …

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