Interview with Ron Winkler
German Poet Ron Winkler Magnifies the
‘Minute, Exquisite, Everyday Things’
Interview and Translation by Nancy Allison
Ron Winkler is a German poet, writer, editor, critic, and translator living in Berlin. Born in 1973, he studied German literature and language and history at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. He founded the poetry magazine intendenzen, and was its editor for about ten years. Several of his poems have been translated into 20 languages. In the United States, his work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Boston Review, Blackbird, Atlanta Review, Chicago Review, and elsewhere. Winkler is the recipient of the 2005 Leonce and Lena Prize for poetry, Germany’s most prestigious award for emerging poets, and the 2006 Mondsee Poetry Award. In 2010, he served as a writer-in-residence in Córdoba, Argentina; the following year, in Venice, Italy. This past summer he was granted a residence scholarship at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Visby on Gotland, Sweden. His most recent poetry collection is Frenetische Stille (Frenetic Silence), which came out in 2010. That same year, he published a book of flash fiction, Torp. In addition to his work as a poet, Winkler has edited several anthologies: a collection of young American poets; another featuring new German voices; and, most recently, poems dealing with snow. He has translated full-length poetry collections by Billy Collins, Matthew Zapruder, G.C. Waldrep, Jeffrey McDaniel, David Lerner, Sarah Manguso, and Arielle Greenberg, as well as a novel by Forrest Gander. This interview, both conducted in German by Nancy Allison and translated by her, is the first with Winkler to appear in an English-language poetry quarterly.
As a boy growing up in the former East Germany, Ron Winkler learned Russian along with German. He feels an affinity with the language and culture, so where better to meet than in a small bar named for Russia’s space pioneer, Yuri Gagarin? It was a cold spring morning in Berlin, too early for the borscht and vodka on the menu. We fueled up on caffeine instead. The espresso machine blasted off now and then as we set our sights on the planet of poetry.
NA: You’ve recently returned from the International Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicaragua. Do you find that travel brings you poems?
RW: That depends. I would never travel with the goal of making literature out of it. But travel basically feeds my awareness with interesting stimuli, whether positive or negative. It sets my whole sense apparatus into motion. Flora, fauna, social behavior, shapes or smells, architecture, my sensory reactions — all change me and act on my vocabulary as well.
Travel can lead to poems. I don’t force it. It’s enough if my thinking shifts into resonant oscillations, if my perceptual patterns change, my navigational system is given new rooms, structures, additional connections.
God knows, not everything has to be or become a poem. Anyway, I don’t write for an audience. I account instead to poetry, want to mix new combinations of sound and sense, emotions and empathy, syntax and insight. To take snapshots of the power of a sensitive intellect.
There’s also the question: What reliability or relevance does one’s own writing have in another cultural context? In Nicaragua, I wondered whether the poems I’d chosen to read would be too alien in their referentiality to the world, in their humor, their idiom, their conclusions. Would they, in some unsympathetic way, seem insulated, abstract, escapist, maybe? Who knows,
maybe the audience felt that the sound of the poems was enough, and thereby the whole thing seemed worthwhile to them. But one must also be aware that it’s impossible to write 100 percent global poetry.
NA: What sustains you, keeps you writing?
RW: My sense of self changes, interests shift, topics and their associated vocabulary get worn out. Again and again, a new state of mind takes prevalence, whether that’s irony or fury, brevity or surrealism, a desire for subtlety or for formal, weighty language. Eventually, you hybridize a variety of poetic language that you’d either like to cultivate or abandon — to venture away from that familiar Red Riding Hood path you’ve been treading, at the end of which stands your same old self.
Confusion is the foundation of poetry. It’s easier to write if you can recall the endorphins that your body released the last time a new idea worked out. Experience shows that there, where you began something that felt right, a kind of slipstream occurs. You want to go into it, to encounter aspects of yourself you’ve never met before. That can be interesting for the reader. And of course, it’s also a form of individuation.
NA: Do you work to find poems?
RW: Of course. And it’s hard to imagine someone who seems permanently able to do otherwise. The more interesting question, though, is: when and how the work begins. Is it at that very moment when the pure, unadulterated pleasure of writing turns into something else? When, elated with your progress, drunk on your just-finished draft, you start to revise, try alternative phrasing, consciously stop in the middle of your flow to put in line breaks? Because, you realize, it would be even more work to have to come back after it was all over and try and understand what you’d written in your altered state.
There are texts which are more or less already there, which in a relatively short time emerge and are genuine. But these frequently need adjusting, too. And that’s work. Yet it’s still much simpler than beginning a poem from scratch because there aren’t as many decisions to make or things to think about — for instance, meter, line length, imagery, or the clarity of the language.
The genius of creation is always accompanied by the ingenuity of composition. It’s not enough to have plenty of poetic material. Nor will it suffice simply to have a prosodic structure in mind. Something in this constellation always requires time. How idiomatic will I be, how much pathos will I put in, how will I treat redundancy? These are calculated factors that play an equal role at the beginning of the writing process. And when they click, the work is already there.
NA: You’ve translated several books by American poets into German — I’m thinking of Billy Collins, Matthew Zapruder, Jeffrey McDaniel — and edited and translated an anthology of young American poets. Translating poetry has been called “the double labyrinth.” Why enter the maze? And why choose American poets?
RW: Why go into the labyrinth? [Laughs.] Maybe I’m just really annoying. Maybe I suffer from agoraphobia. My interest in poets who stand firmly in the limelight is limited. Billy Collins is an exception. He’s apart from the herd. The still point in the center, if you like, around which “my” other poets move in their own dynamic ways.
I have a passion for authors on the threshold, from newcomer to instigator. For poetry that’s not yet over-institutionalized or smothered in interpretation. It is, I believe, natural to search after spiritual kin, but also, in general, to seek writers who are out of your own frame of reference, to see how they create the present. To me, translating these poets is less an exotic exchange than a way to record the aesthetic camps that thrive within America. Especially as it — although now struggling to keep its status — was for such a long time cultural icon, foster mother, and rock ‘n’ roll cousin to us. In hindsight, a longed-for paradise.
Translating, for me, is motivated by different things: out of a respect for unfamiliar poetics, from a delight in bringing them whole into my native tongue — not as foreign contraband smuggled into my own writing. I translate what I myself am not and cannot do, but admire. That which doesn’t happen here in our climes, yet presumably can enrich us.
But to come back to the double labyrinth: Life itself is a maze. Why should a sub-maze scare us? Anyway, I wouldn’t describe the translator as someone searching for Ariadne’s thread, but rather as someone who casts out a grappling hook.
NA: Let’s get back to your own poems. You received the Leonce and Lena Prize for poetry in 2005 for vereinzelt Passanten (Here and There Passerby). The jury applauded your ability, in that book, “to update the nature poem and make it function as a frame of reference for modern experience.” Were you happy with that statement about your work? Has it affected later poems?
RW: Totally. Initially I was surprised by the “nature poetry” label, because previously, my poems had rather dabbled in the passage of time, dealing with historical icons, epitaphs, dystopias. Yet it was definitely plausible: The source of vereinzelt Passanten was undoubtedly nature. But, aside from my personal delight and expressed emphases, this was nature in a test tube, steeped in contemporary mentality and vocabulary — the same way our perception of the natural is always understood by and rooted in our urban experience of it.
One of my methods was to work with the current changes in the language, bombarding the classical view of nature, as if it were in a particle accelerator, with the foreign atoms of contemporary language. My poetry became increasingly hyper-nature, nature ramped up: more massive and laborious, more absurd. I was itching to crank the volume full blast, in order to make way for something new. My writing is like the movement of a wave: overcharged language followed by minimalist poetics that eventually unfolds into straight sensuality.
NA: When did you know that poetry was your calling?
RW: 1991, 1995, 1999, 2004, and 2007. A little as well in the fall of 2011. [Laughs.] Seriously: The first year mentioned started me off; it was when I wrote my first poem. I was feeling melancholy, in love, and went out to a park and wrote something about trees. That was it for me. In 1995 I published my first poem. Then, in 1999, I won a poetry competition. Fifty lines for a women’s magazine centered around one theme: bad ideas. I had a few. The prize was a new car, a Lancia worth 25 thousand DM [Deutsche Mark ]. I sold the car. In the end, I only got 17 thousand for it, but I saw it as a nudge from fate to start up as a freelance writer in Berlin.
In 2004 my first book was published, and in 2007 my second. In between, of course, I was undergoing psychophysical and dialectical changes. What you refer to as a “calling” isn’t a continuum. There are always doubts, surfeits, and aggravations.
My inner monologue has always been sort of whimsical and peculiar — full of compound words, broken, unconnected layers. My “I” is probably more discontinuous and inconsistent than most brave citizens’. But poetry for me isn’t manufactured artifice. It’s not something I do because it’s admired or sounds good or is successful. It’s natural to me. Poetry isn’t a horse I ride; it’s the legs I have.
NA: As a translator of the late poet David Lerner, you’re familiar with his lines from “Mein Kampf”: “I come not to bury poetry/ but to blow it up.” What do you want to do with poetry?
RW: That changes. But there are a few recurrent themes. For example, to capture the spell of the moment. To try and say things in a unique way. To reflect on what makes us tick. To refer to the inconsistency and discontinuity of the self. As I said before, I love to unify opposites. Contamination is a leitmotif. The blurring of fiction and reality. Once, a critic wrote about poetry by someone that it was “perfect.” But “perfection” doesn’t exist. Still, I strive for something similar. I reach after it. You want a slogan? Here you go: I come to make poetry that magnifies detail in order to reveal being. To intensify the experience of the minute, exquisite, everyday things of this world.
NA: You’ve written a book of prose called Torp, about a curious character whose experiences lead him to question himself and the world and who reports his findings in language that sometimes hides as much as it reveals. Tell me about Torp. Who is he, and how did he convince you to start writing prose?
RW: Torp is my prose likeness. He unburdens me, is a possible form of myself. He represents a world in which other perceptual models apply. The prose that he and his ambient associations depict is micro-fiction. He’s really not so strange a being in my work. He’s a magnet for weirdnesses, even though different ones.
As I’ve said, not everything is a poem, or should be. Which is why there’s Torp — a character who helps communicate very different poetic ideas. Torp is someone who has a strange perspective on the world and who isn’t afraid to make mistakes. He stands for the utopian struggle within a permanent decadence, campaigning with all his eccentricity and disguises, ultimately, for a literary existence.
NA: The poetry slam seems to be a big thing in Berlin. Should poems be spoken?
RW: There is no should. I am happily entertained, but at the same time mistrustful of the exteriority of performing. With songs I am interested mainly in the music, not the lyrics. In poetry I am interested above all in the relationship between the words, not in how someone says them.
As far as performance poetry goes, I’m no expert. I believe that the poetry slam scene here is still very popular, maybe even vibrant. But it’s absolutely separate from what one might call the poetry scene. The thing I admire about performance poets is: They succeed in selling their art as hip in a world where poets are normally seen as parallel-world nerds.
This is an edited transcript.