Ryan van Winkle in Berlin - Part 1
The poem Bjorn brought to this project is almost an anti-poem – a poem against the poem and the poet's narcissism. If that sounds turgid or polemical, that is my fault. Because the poem, in the original German, winks, smirks, looks askance with a self-knowing sardonic-ness. If that sounds terrible, that's my fault too. And if tonight the poem sounds terrible that's going to be my fault as well. It is a strange and scary thing to be responsible for someone's English voice, for their representation in another language, and some element of trust and faith is necessary. Bjorn has been very gracious in his granting of permission for my version of his poem which – essentially – is mocking the puffery and preciousness of poets who speak and think too much about poetry. The poem is full of lines like:
I know people who speak openly about their poems are strangers to me.
If I talk about poems, I shouldn’t be talking.
Suffice to say, I can see why we were paired – I don't necessarily like talking publicly about my poem or my processes – it feels aggrandizing and showy. However, in the context of a workshop which necessitates questions like, 'what did you mean by that? And what does a sausage salad mean to you?' the subject matter felt incredibly ironic and it felt awkward at times to ask questions about how the poem was crafted, or what the subtext of a line or image might be.
Bjorn was game for these conversations but you could see he found it frustrating to explain that a sausage salad is sometimes just a sausage salad or that 'when I write poems, I write poems.' means that when the narrator writes, he writes and when the narrator doesn't write – well, he doesn't write. Sometimes Bjorn would fill me in on philosophy and logic by explaining helpfully, 'when I am here,' pointing to the ground, 'I am not there' pointing to Alexanderplatz.
And to be sure this friction over language, style and transliteration went both ways – which is what makes the whole thing exciting and playful. Here you can see Bjorn and our interpreter, the poet, Donna Stonecipher, laughing at one of my poems – presumably as a mark of respect.
And below you can see Bjorn agonizing over a particularly poet-y bit of my poem. If I remember correctly he was trying to come to terms with the idea of a destination being 'stamped' on the front of a train in 'final letters'. I tried to explain that the poem was about certainty and about a person who I was in love with and who wasn't sure if there were in love with me. I explained that, in some ways that very certain, very solid train was me.
I'm looking forward now, to hearing my German voice. I look forward to the opportunity to present Bjorn's complex provocative work in English. And, as always, I'm grateful to everyone at VERSschmuggel who have worked hard to make this collaboration happen.
RYAN VAN WINKLE is a poet, live artist, podcaster and critic living in Edinburgh. He is currently Edinburgh City Libraries' Poet-in-Residence. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship in 2012 and was listed as Canongate's 'Future Forty' in 2013. His poems have appeared in New Writing Scotland, The Prairie Schooner, The American Poetry Review, AGNI, Poetry New Zealand, The Australian Book Review and The Oxford Poets series. He is also the host and co-producer of the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser and the poetry podcast for the Scottish Poetry Library.