Jan Wagner
An Interview with Jan Wagner and David Keplinger: “The Art of Topiary”

Jan Wagner
Jan Wagner | Photo: © Lesekreis CC0 1.0

In this interview, during their stop in New York, Jan Wagner and David Keplinger speak about their poetic inspirations, finding the poem’s subject, the translation process and The Art of Topiary, a project eight years in the making.

2017 has been a momentous year for Jan Wagner. This June, the German poet, essayist and translator received the Georg Büchner Prize, recognized as Germany’s most prestigious literary award. Shortly following this honor, Wagner published two poetry collections— Hund und Mond, a translation of the Irish poet, Matthew Sweeney, and The Art of Topiary, an English translation of his own selected work, which he translated in collaboration with the poet and translator, David Keplinger. As he begins to garner the international attention that German readers have known for nearly two decades, Wagner and
Keplinger promoted The Art of Topiary with a book tour across the the northeast United States this fall, including visits to Yale and American University.

Jan, when did you begin writing poetry? Did you have other literary ambitions?

I started writing poetry at about 15 or 16. I read novels, too, but was never tempted to write one myself. I wanted to write poems because my first real thrills in literature were because of poets. So, I read Georg Trakl, Georg Heim, Hölderlin—the classics of course. But also English language poetry; Blake, Donne, Yeats—Dylan Thomas was another poet I loved. So, at 15 or 16 I started writing poetry because I was stunned by what little space you can give for the maximum sound and imagery, like Trakl and Thomas do. That’s why I was never tempted to write a novel. It seemed to me that the real magic was happening in poetry. It’s not so much readers but journalists do tend to focus on prose, and you do get the question occasionally, “when will you finally write a novel?” Or, “when will you be ready to write a novel?”, as if poetry is just a preparation for writing a novel; it’s silly. Poetry is the ultimate expression there is. It’s the best thing that can become of language.

What does your writing process look like now?

[I’m] thinking about many poems at the same time. Certain themes and subject matter that I
feel could be turned into a poem. I carry that around with me and take notes but I don’t simultaneously work on twenty poems. I do collect and try to see what accumulates around those words or images or sounds. Collecting for twenty or thirty poems may take over a year but at a certain point I sit down and write one poem at a time.

“The Art of Topiary” opens with “rhino,” an invitation into the book, and also a sonnet. When did you become interested in writing sonnets?

At the very beginning. One of my self-chosen teachers happened to be Georg Heim, who
wrote lots of sonnets. Lots of Berlin sonnets, in fact. And others, Trakl as well. So all of the expressionists who I like very much were—like their idols Rimbaud and Baudelaire—very keen on the sonnet. So even though they broke with tradition and were wild writers full of energy, introducing the ugly and the brute into poetry, they still, like Rimbaud, held on to the sonnet. It’s a lovely form. I started writing them immediately at 15, 16 and even wrote some Berlin sonnets myself, after Heim, before ever moving to Berlin. I quit writing about Berlin as soon as I moved to Berlin, but before, I wrote many Berlin sonnets.

In addition to rhinos, the book has title poems for an elk, moor-oxen, a dachshund, a doberman, an owl, koalas, a gecko, a chameleon, koi, oyster—as well as the “essay on gnats” and “self-portrait with swarm of bees.” What interests you in writing about animals?

In general I think a poem can be about just anything. Everything is apt and good material for a poem. That’s one of the beauties about writing poetry, that you never know upon what you’ll stumble tomorrow and what cries out loud to be in the poem. It might be a glass of water or an old pair of shoes or some plant. And animals and natural subject matter are good material, just like a nail and a teabag are for me. It’s true, there are a lot of animal poems in the books, generally, which might be because I do like certain authors who are masters of animal poetry. If you want to call it that. Like Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney—so that might be a reason. For example, in John Berger’s book, About Looking, he wrote a marvelous essay on why we look at animals. And of course, it’s a way of looking at ourselves and imagining them looking back at us and what do they see? It’s a way of looking at yourself, at the human being by choosing different perspective. That of a goat or whatever.

The only capitalization in this book is in its title. Why do you avoid capital letters?

For two reasons only. First of all, the words have visually the same weight. No word can be seen as more important than any other word. No noun, which would be written with a capital in German, is more important at first sight than a verb and an adjective would be.
And secondly, and more importantly, you get certain effects at the line-end if you don’t use capital letters because you don’t know if it’s a noun or an adjective—both possibilities are there. So it can take two meanings if it’s not clear. For example, regen (as rain) and [sich] regen (as agile). There are several instances where the extra effect of a double meaning is evident because it’s not clear.

Many of the poems are written from the point-of-view of the plural “we.” Do you intend specific differences when narrating a poem with “we” rather than “I”?

That depends on the poem. Of course, to say “we” is a form of avoiding the “I,” that is true,
or can be. But in my case I think that it’s not true. The “we” is just one of the masks you can choose, as is the “I.” If the “I” appears it’s seldom as autobiographical as the “we” can be. The “we” can be a group and invites the reader to be part of the speaking entity, as it were. But it really does vary.

Are you averse to writing autobiographically?

Poems are always autobiographical. There’s always an element of biography in [them]. Or at least some hidden layer of experience. Like everybody knows the fascination of wells and how marvelous it is to look into a well and imagine how it might be to sit there. The fear and fascination of wells is probably universal but I have looked into a well and felt that as a child. So, in that sense, it is based on my own experience. But I hardly ever write about a scene that has actually happened. One of the beauties though is that it’s boring to write about yourself. The beautiful thing is to escape yourself, to find other roles. How is it to be a camel? And how does it feel to be a chair? That’s beautiful. To find out about that and slip into another existence for the duration of ten or twelve lines and think about it, and learn something about yourself as well. Thinking about how a stone might see the world might help you see the world and yourself and the stone a little bit better. And you don’t have to leave the room to fall into a well.

When did you two first meet and when did you decide to start working on the translation?

David Keplinger: In the summer of 2009 I reached out to [Jan] and asked if he had a few poems that he wanted to share. I was interested in doing some collaborative translations with a German speaker in Washington and so we asked Jan for the permission to translate a few of his poems. That collaboration was fun but it was easier to do the translation directly with Jan. So when I asked Jan a few months later if he would be interested in translating them directly for me, from the literal, they seemed very satisfying, so we kept going. And over the years we put together about fifty poems and then got the contract with Milkweed [Editions].

Describe your translation process with this book. You call it a collaboration. How did it work?

Jan Wagner: In this case, David and I collaborated on all poems, starting with the fact that I had to give a word-for-word translation and talk about double meanings, innuendos, idioms and so on. And the rhymes, the structure, the meter, where the stresses are in the lines, it wouldn’t help reading it if you can’t hear where to mark the stresses, and so on.

David Keplinger: The fact that I was working with Jan made it possible for us to collaborate and sometimes change the literal meaning in order to fit the music,, the connotative quality of the work. The process was different from a typical literary translation where, someone sitting at their desk halfway around the world making these decisions for themselves. Working with Jan gave me the freedom to bend the poem a little bit so that his intention actually came across in English. We could have opened the book with “come near” but instead we chose “come closer” because connotatively it’s a better order. Having that collaboration made such decisions possible.

Jan Wagner: In translating poetry there’s always the point where you have to take a step away from the original because it’s bound to hurt the translation if you stick to close to the original. You have to be
self-confident with your freedoms while staying faithful to the original.

Are you translating anyone else right now?

David Keplinger: I’ve done two books with a Danish writer, Carsten René Nielsen, and we have the same process. That’s actually how I proposed this process to Jan. Carsten is a prose poet, so no traditional forms, no rhymes, no meters—no worries there. Just the personality of the poem. He has a new book called 41 Objects which we’re translating. In fact, Carsten suggested I get in touch with Jan. I asked him if he knew any German poets writing with such a strong emphasis on the imagination and the image and he suggested Jan was the poet of his generation, and Carsten was right.

Can you describe any differences between translating fixed forms versus free verse?

David Keplinger: It’s a different process. Free verse has its form just like a fixed traditional form has its requirements and conventions. And in some ways it’s harder to translate a free verse poem because there’s an ineffable voice that needs to be captured and brought over and reinvented in the English to produce the same kind of outcome as the original intended. With traditional forms, it’s a little bit easier to focus on the end-rhymes and focus on the meter. But I think the free verse poems that we chose, the essay series and the “elegy for knievel” are among the best in the book.

There’s some differences in the haiku at the end of “teabag.” In German, the poem says “five minutes.” In English, it’s “about four to five minutes?” What caused the change?

David Keplinger: Jokes are about timing. Haiku are about timing. Haiku is pressure, pressure, pressure, release—by definition. And five minutes was not enough syllables for the haiku. But, “about five minutes” was, so it’s about timing. “About five minutes” didn’t seem as forceful or as funny as “four to five minutes,” because that’s a dactyl. It has the instructional quality like the back of a teabox: steep for four to five minutes. This was something I talked to Jan about and it was the slightest alteration that makes for a funnier poem. And every time we’ve read it we’ve gotten a laugh, which is a good sign.

Who are you reading right now?

David Keplinger: I tend to read a lot of books at the same time. I just started reading W.S. Merwin’s collected poems, Migrations . And Mark Strand’s collected, which came out last year. I’m also reading Mark Irwin and recently returned to John Ashbery, since he passed away.

Jan Wagner: Well, I bought a couple of books today at the Strand. Lavinia Greenlaw, the English poet, and I bought a book by Mary Oliver. I’m really looking forward to the notebooks of Charles Simic, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth. But for the plane, I have to confess, I bought a book of prose, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. That’s fun reading for the plane.