Bas Böttcher interviewed by Rory MacLean
‘Spoken word poetry relies on three key ingredients: sound, time and meaning,’ the prince of German slam poetry, Bas Böttcher, told me in a café beside Berlin’s Landwehrkanal. ‘Combine sound and time and you have rhythm. Combine rhythm with meaning and your work has the potential to convince.’
Slam poetry originated in America. In the Seventies and Eighties poets in New York and Chicago transformed their private readings into public performances and then competitions, enlisting audiences to judge the events. They mixed voice, tone and theatre, flirted with hip-hop, drew on the tradition of dub poetry and pushed the boundaries even further by including choreography and beat-boxing in their acts. In the process they invented a breathless, energetic new form of literature. Bas Böttcher was the first German-speaker to bring it to the German stage.
‘My roots lie deep in the 1980s,’ he said, sipping on an espresso. ‘I grew up with the Neue Deutsche Welle, the genre of German music derived from punk rock and New Wave music. I listened to bands like Kraftwerk and Falco. I loved the easy way they handled lyrics.’
Böttcher, a relaxed and likeable 35 year-old, had been awake all night but his lack of sleep betrayed no absence of freshness or enthusiasm.
‘At school I joined the choir – because all the beautiful girls were in it – and learnt how to sing and harmonise and keep rhythm with as many as fifty people at a time. It was fantastic training for later life. Then I started to write lyrics and formed a band with my friend DJ Loris Negro, modelling ourselves on hardcore bands like NoMeansNo. I couldn’t play an instrument so I had to sing, and the band – Zentrifugal was its name – became quite successful. Our audiences danced and partied which was great but, as time passed, I realised what I really wanted was for them to listen to my words.’
Böttcher’s first brush with spoken word poetry was with the ‘hyperaccurate’ Mancunian writer Lemn Sissay. Sissay’s 1993 performance in Bremen blew him away and soon after Böttcher made his first appearance as the support act at the Mojo Club in Hamburg. The event – a kind of poetic maelstrom delivered in both German and English – was so well received that – at the age of 20 – he was invited back for a solo show.
‘Maybe they just wanted to save the cost of flying in another English poet,’ he laughed with a shrug.
Böttcher began travelling, taking his poetry from city to city, building a devoted core audience across the country. In a way he was a nomadic storyteller in the tradition of the medieval minstrels, sharing sharp and often sarcastic observations on contemporary life, but using the very modern web, mobile phones and the express train network. His growing popularity both humbled and exited him.
‘It’s a fascinating moment, standing up in front of two or three hundred people and watching them calm down and wait for the show to begin. I never had a printed text. I didn’t have an instrument. All depended on what I did with the moment. That’s when the adrenaline started to flow, and I could begin to share.’
Böttcher won the German Poetry Slam Prize time and time again. He was awarded scholarships by the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin and the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. He extended his tours abroad, often taking with him his Textbox, a man-size Plexiglas capsule with translation screens which he had designed and built in his apartment. This portable, sound-proof performance space enabled him to entertain headphone-wearing audiences at noisy book fairs in Beijing, Bangkok, Sao Paulo and Frankfurt.
‘Today we live in a cut-and-paste world,’ said Böttcher. ‘Words, music, films – everything can be copied. Only human beings can’t be copied. That’s why live performance is so important. Audiences have a deep need for the original.’
He is wise to the illusions and deceptions of pop culture. As he writes, and performs in his poem Dran glauben (wittily, ‘Er musste dran glauben’ translates as both ‘He had to believe in it’ and ‘He had to die’)
Häng deine Hoffnung an ein Plastikschwein made in Taiwan,
häng deine Hoffnung an ein’ Pflasterstein und andern Kleinkram.
Zur Show gibt es Kitsch,
zum Popstar das Image,
zur Schönheit die Bräunung,
zum Glück gibt’s die Täuschung.
Den Schwindel genießen! ...
Put your hopes on a plastic pig made in Taiwan
Put your hopes on a paving stone and other stuff
For the show there’s kitsch
For the pop star the image
For beauty the tan
For bliss there’s illusion
Believing in it!
Enjoying the hype!...
‘I care deeply about the meaning of words, and how to communicate them most powerfully,’ he admitted. ‘When I am writing, I develop a feeling for the text, as if I’m working the material with my fingers. A writer must respect language. It is such a mighty medium. We Germans especially know what can happen when language is abused. I am aware of my responsibility.’
Today Böttcher continues to develop new ways of sharing his dynamic work including his novel Megaherz, a school text book Die Poetry-Slam-Expedition, his Poetry Clips DVD and now his new collections/CDs Dies ist kein Konzert and Neonomade. He is also ambitious to write for the stage.
‘I’ve always been fascinated by Shakespeare’s concept of the theatre, how he worked with actors, how he wrote words to be spoken aloud. After all, the root of the word Sonnet is the Italian word for sound.’
Over the coming months Böttcher will be performing at dozens of venues across Germany and Austria, in France and Croatia. Come the autumn he’s appearing in London at The Language Show at Olympia. Watch him perform, and hear words and ideas leap off the page.
English translation of Bas Böttcher’s poem by Tatjana Greiner