Berlin Poetry Festival
Global Tones

El Congo Allen
El Congo Allen | Photo (detail): © gezett

Outside: a Berlin summer; inside: “No country more beautiful” (Kein schöner Land) – the heading under which the 17th Poetry Festival gathered together 150 poets from 37 countries at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and showed that poetry is capable of broadening horizons and building bridges.

No one reads poems, no one understands poems, no one needs poems – at least that’s what many people think. Yet every year the team from the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin organizes the Poetry Festival. And every year thousands of visitors attend, get stoned on poetry, as it were, and so demonstrate that people do need it.

The venue itself – the Academy of the Arts – is an experience. Former Academy president Klaus Staeck once called it a “worldly monastery”. If you approach the group of buildings from behind, the huge sloped copper-green roof glows through the trees like a spaceship, a poetry spaceship, that has just landed in the foothills of Berlin’s large park, Tiergarten. Outside the midges buzz, the sparrows pick at cake crumbs and people drink a white-wine spritzer. Inside, under the heading “Kein schöner Land”, 150 poets from 37 countries are gathered for the 17th Poetry Festival in Berlin in 2016.

Global themes in artistic abstractions

Festival director Thomas Wohlfahrt opened the first reading by locating poetry in the centre, surrounded the world over by poverty, persecution and commerce. Hence the festival motto: “Kein schöner Land”. Wohlfahrt: “If any country is to be celebrated, then it is the world.” The trumpet player El Congo Allen then played a jazzed-up version of the classic German folksong “Kein schöner Land”, rendering that evening’s heading, “Weltklang” – a global tone, audible. 

The poets were from New Zealand (Hinemoana Baker), Romania (Ana Blandiana), France/Norway (Caroline Bergvall), Senegal/France (Souleymane Diamanka), Germany (Gerhard Falkner, Uljana Wolf), Mexico (Luis Felipe Fabre), Syria (Rasha Omran) and Serbia/USA (Charles Simic). The themes were equally world-spanning and wide-ranging, from women, love and the sea to Schorfheide, water and zombies. 

At the end of the first evening it emerged that the most difficult texts to understand were the German ones. Perhaps this was because they were not “translated” in the small anthology of German versions that each visitor received at the entrance. Or perhaps because abstract verbal art is abstract verbal art, whatever the language.

Poetically overcoming language barriers

Customarily that small booklet of translations of the orally presented texts, available at the entrance, is accompanied by a reading lamp. In the course of the festival, you then wish a remote control were also included so that you could stop or rewind the lyrical presentation on stage to repeat the impact of the wonderful multi-lingual poetry or to be able to listen again to a wonderful line that faded all too quickly.

Such a remote control would probably have been used for “Balkan Balcony” – a reading with a metaphorical view. The curator Nikola Madzirov explained the title of the event by indicating that the broad view of the person sitting on the balcony is important in a region where everything is about borders, or barriers. Kapka Kassabova read in Bulgarian and English, Thedoros Chiotis in Greek, Lindita Arapi in Albanian and German. Ana Ristovic read in Serbian, Damir Sodan in Croatian and Ales Steger in Slovenian and German. So language barriers were being crossed constantly and lyrical bridges built. Were one to assign a mission to the festival, it would be just that.

Smuggling poetry along unusual routes

Another event included that mission in its title: “Vers-Schmuggel” (Smuggling Poetry). The project, funded by the Goethe Institute, involved poets translating poets, albeit without speaking the other poet’s language. Help could be had from literature translators and interlinear translations, i.e., word for word translations of the original texts. 

51 poets took part in smuggling poetry in South Asia. By contrast, the team of smugglers for Hebrew-German was modest: six poets from Germany and six from Israel translated poetry into poetry in a process of symbiotic collaboration. This resulted in texts that dovetailed smoothly in translation. And at first glance the audience in Berlin seemed at one: an auditorium full of poetry fans. Only when the texts were read out – now in Hebrew, now in German –and elicited bursts of laughter, did it transpire that those listening were still divided along language lines. 

That smuggling also means taking unusual routes was revealed by occasional tricks by the poet-translators. Nurit Zarchi’s use of the Hebrew minimization for God became “Gotti” in Marion Poschmann’s translation, just as Hans sometimes becomes Hansi. Poschmann in turn writes about plane trees, which are unknown in Israel. Efrat Mishori writes about foreigners so that Martina Hefter resorted in the German to the term “Alien” – a case of poetic licence. And for his translation of a poem by Gilad Meiri, Nico Bleutge had to get support on the vocabulary of the social media by consulting a poem about Facebook love. Bleutge himself has no Facebook account.

Here too, you got the feeling that the German poets tended more towards abstract concepts, preferring linguistic acrobatics, neglecting accessibility and viewing emotions and things through a prism. Their Israeli colleagues often took a more direct, mellow or entertaining approach. Yet irrespective of all the differences, it seemed that the respective smuggling partners were functioning back to back; had one moved away, the other would fall.