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Posts from the ‘Conversations with Writers’ Category

Conversation with Uwe Schütte


Uwe Schütte is a Reader in German at Aston University, where he has taught since 1999. He has a PhD. from the University of East Anglia, where he studied under W.G. Sebald. His new book about the poetry of W.G. Sebald has just been published by Edition Isele in Eggingen, Germany, at the very affordable price of 16 Euros.

Vertigo: Your new book Figurationen is a study of Sebald’s poetical writings. Why did you decide to write about this aspect of Sebald’s work?

Schütte: The book actually came about by chance. For a long while I meant to write an essay on Über das Land und das Wasser (2008), the collection of Sebald’s poetry edited by Sven Meyer, but I never really got round to doing it. Then the opportunity arose to present a paper on Sebald’s poetry at a conference in Cardiff, Wales. I actually couldn’t attend due to illness but nevertheless wrote the essay for inclusion in the conference proceedings volume.

Taking a closer look at the poems, which I had so far only considered to be appendixes to the prose texts, I discovered that they have considerable merits independent of the prose books. In connection with my research, I came across some articles by the Swedish scholar Axel Englund which contained incisive close readings of several poems that stimulated my interest further. Another factor were the often eye-opening explanatory notes provided by Iain Galbraith, the translator and editor of Across the Water and The Land (2011), the English version of the poetry collection.

That in turn led me to also look more closely at the micro poetry written around the time of Austerlitz, which appeared in the collections For Years Now (2001) and Unerzählt (2003), which was published in English as Unrecounted in 2004. I had previously disregarded these small texts as I felt that they seemed too casual in their brevity and also made an odd postscript to Sebald’s œuvre. However, a closer examination of the poems – again – revealed them to be far more meaningful and relevant than initially had assumed.

Having completed the two pieces, I realized that I only needed to add a chapter on Nach der Natur (1988), published in English as After Nature in 2002, to create a book that would cover all aspects of Sebald’s poetical œuvre. Edition Isele was very receptive to the idea of a study on the poetry, so a deal was quickly struck and the book appeared a mere six months after I had started work on the first article.

Vertigo: It’s my impression that Nach der Natur has received more critical attention than Sebald’s other books of poetry – especially the micro poems – in part because it is such an autobiographical book. So let’s talk more about the micro poems and the other late poetry. How do you see the micro poems fitting into Sebald’s oeuvre?  Are they autobiographical in any way?

Schütte: They are autobiographical only in the sense that they display Sebald’s pronounced idiosyncrasy. The micro poems in that sense fit very much into his work for the very reason that they counteract common expectations and public demands. Sebald never really wanted to comply with these. My personal guess is that after Austerlitz he sought to do something completely different. And he did. You have to bear in mind that the very last book published during his lifetime is not the big novel but the “below-the-radar” collaboration with Tess Jaray.

Vertigo: It’s curious that both of these books of micro poems are collaborations with artists. Unerzählt  was done with Sebald’s long-time friend Jan Peter Tripp and For Years Now was done with a British artist, Tess Jaray. Why do you think Sebald wanted to do these books as collaborations?

Schütte: The plan for the collaboration with Tripp actually harked back many years, the pair just never really got round getting it done. At least not during Sebald’s lifetime. Given the importance he placed on the combination of pictures and text it was only a logical step to enter into a collaborative (side) project of this sort. As it turned out then, both books were essentially the product of the respective artists with Sebald only supplying texts – although they are now of course perceived as original Sebald books featuring illustrations by someone else.

Vertigo: Did you interview Tripp or Jaray? If so, what was that like?

Schütte: Tripp (like Sebald) is a digitalophobe. He was terribly difficult to get hold of; I sent postcards that were returned with “addressee unknown” and rang him numerous times, leaving messages, but all to no avail. I got hold of him though after several weeks of trying and we talked on the phone for an hour or so. Jaray was easier. She is on email and responded quickly. I just had to catch the train from Birmingham to London one sunny Saturday in June 2013 to visit her in her new studio in Camden. She was terribly helpful, providing me with lots of highly relevant information on the book. She shared her correspondence with Sebald, too, and I quote from that frequently in the book. Also, she let me have a scan of the autograph of Sebald’s favorite poem that I wanted to have reproduced on the cover of the book. Unfortunately, my publisher decided against that, opting for a rather bland design.

Vertigo: Which poem is that?

Schütte: It’s the one about his beloved grandfather, who died when Sebald was a boy aged 11. This traumatic event, I argue, was the key factor for his melancholic disposition and his obsession with reaching out into the realm of the dead, being far more important than the guilt he felt for the crimes committed by the Nazis. In the German original, the poem just says the smell of the poet’s writing paper reminds him of the smell of woodchips in a coffin. In the English version, Sebald makes the crucial and revealing addition that the coffin he talks about is his granddad’s. To me, it appears as if he needed to write in the foreign language to be able to openly talk about the very origin of his life-long sadness.

The Smell

of my writing paper
puts me in mind
of the woodshavings
in my grandfather’s

[from For Years Now: Poems by W.G. Sebald/Images by Tess Jaray, Short Books, 2001]

Vertigo: What did you discover when you studied the Sebald Archive in Marbach?

Schütte: A truly vast number of unpublished poems, particularly from the nineties! Many of them were – uncharacteristically for Sebald – in a handwriting that was difficult to read. Fortunately, I met a young Sebald scholar from the US called Melissa Etzler who had already researched the vast majority of the poems and showed me her transcriptions, which was very helpful. These days, it is difficult for me to travel to the archive as it is located in a pretty remote and provincial part of South-West Germany – an irony that Sebald would, of course, have liked a lot. So when I finally managed to get to Marbach, the book was nearly completed. Realizing how much unpublished stuff there is, both in English and German, I contemplated abandoning my original book for a while and thought of starting a new one just on the late and unpublished poetry.

Vertigo: In 2011, you published W.G. Sebald : Einführung in Leben und Werk (W.G. Sebald: Introduction to his Life & Works) (Stuttgart: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht). What is the relationship between these two books on Sebald?

Schütte: This general introduction was very much the preparatory exercise for the important project that should finally see the light this year, I hope – a major study of Sebald’s critical writings called Interventionen. Literaturkritik als Widerspruch bei W.G. Sebald (Interventions. Criticism as Contradiction in the Works of W.G. Sebald). It will run to some 700 pages and comprehensively cover the entirety of his non-literary texts. When I wrote the introduction in 2010, I primarily saw it as a way to re-read all prose books and to acquaint myself with the (often pretty dismal) criticism on Sebald; also, I assumed that there would be some sort of commemoration going on around the tenth anniversary of his death in the German papers. Surprisingly, or not, that wasn’t the case. Sebald is truly adored by his readership but still little liked by cultural establishment in Germany. Quite the reverse of the all-encompassing adoration in the Anglophone world. Many important critics as well as highly-regarded writers (such Günter Grass) and a whole bunch of academics have not forgiven him for breaking the cozy consensus by his vitriolic attacks on celebrated figureheads of German post-war literature such as Alfred Andersch, Jurek Becker and others.

I am exploring these and other issues in Interventionen and, to return to your question, I perceive Figurationen very much as a companion volume to the big monograph on the critical writings – both books aim to shed light on neglected areas of Sebald’s œuvre. Don’t forget that he published his first poems in 1964 and his first academic monograph in 1969. Poetry and critical texts, which he then continued to write over the course of nearly four decades, are the background from which his prose texts developed during the comparatively short period he produced his celebrated prose books.

Vertigo: Can we expect more publications by you on Sebald once Interventionen has appeared?

Schütte: I am afraid so. Just as Sebald predicted when I first mentioned that I would like to do a PhD. with him in order to pursue an academic career, the situation of German studies in the UK has much deteriorated, constantly eating away at academic freedom and imposing misguided bureaucratic mechanisms to demonstrate the relevance and so-called “impact” of one’s research. I am under pressure to increasingly publish in English and have already started to work on a contribution to the “Writers and Their Work” series by Northcote Publishers, due to appear later this year or in early 2015. It is not a translation of my German general introduction but rather written from scratch with an English-speaking audience in mind. It will be my fourth book on Sebald in as many years – and I guess I should then declare a moratorium on Sebald research for the time being…

Conversation with Poet Nathan Hoks

Hoks Double page spread

I first encountered the poetry of Nathan Hoks when he read from his new book The Narrow Circle at New Bo Books, located in the hip New Bohemia district of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was intrigued by the poems he read and as he flipped through his book during the reading I was surprised to see images on some of the pages. I bought a copy and started to spend time with it. The more I read the poems and pondered the relationship between his poems and the pages with photographs, the more impressed I was with the individual poems and the thoughtful construction of the book as a whole. In November, I posted a short piece on The Narrow Circle and I emailed Nathan to propose that we conduct a short conversation for Vertigo that would focus on his use of photographs. Here is the result.

Vertigo: First of all, tell us a bit about your intentions for the structure of The Narrow Circle, which is bifurcated into two halves with twenty-two poems each. The first section is labeled The Interior and almost every poem in that section has the word “interior” in the title.  The second section does the same for The Exterior.  How did you arrive at this structure?

Nathan: One summer I simply fell in love with the word “interior.”

Not coincidentally, I was the primary care-taker of my son, thus confined to the domestic interior quite a bit. I was also reading Suzanne Buffam’s wonderful book The Irrationalist, which uses “interior” in a few of its titles. The word possessed a kind of magical spell over me and I found myself not only using it in titles like Buffam, but also orienting my poems in this interior direction. These poems piled up and then I started to worry that I wasn’t being fair to the Exterior. I had no real intent to approach a dichotomy, but I’m a fairly diplomatic person, so I let the Exterior in and the book started to take shape after a lot of back and forth (or in and out)  work. Interior and Exterior became, for me, physical spaces, states of mind, types of experiences, allegorical characters,  and ways of orienting language.

Vertigo: In addition to the forty-four poems, your book contains eight double-page spreads on which you have paired phrases from your poems with photographs.   I notice that these spreads do not have titles and they are not accounted for in the Table of Contents, which seems to make their role somewhat ambiguous. How do these spreads relate to the poems and how do you see their role in the structure of your book?

Nathan: The use of photographs is, in a roundabout way, related to the bifurcated structure of the book. One of my models for working with and corrupting a dichotomy was William Blake, whose poems often coexist with his own visual art. I decided, however, to distance the images from the poems, in part because the poems are not ekphrastic and the images are not merely illustrative. Image and text here are collaborative, but not co-dependent. The pictures, rather, should work as corruption and correspondence, as rifts in the reading process and as routes of potential reference.

Vertigo: When the reader comes to one of these spreads, do you want them to go back to the preceding poems and try to find the place where the quotation came from and think about the poem anew with the photograph in mind?  Or do these spreads stand on their own?

Nathan: Both. I think the spreads can stand alone. The captions, which come from the poems, tag the images and suggest a way of “reading” them, and I very much wanted each spread to have a kind of visual coherence. I wanted the pictures in spreads, in groups of four, in order to provide a bit of relief, a pause in the way that a section break or chapter break does. I hope, too, that they convey a bit of whimsy and lighten the mood (some of the poems seem overly serious to me). However, I hope the spreads also create echoes and provide a visual index of certain motifs. If they do provoke a lot of flipping back and forth for more assiduous readers, that’s great because one of my ideal books would be a book that you can never really finish because linear reading is constantly thwarted by cross-references.

Vertigo: When did you begin to think about employing photographs in some way within the book?

Nathan: They were the last thing I did to the book. I spent roughly three years working on the poems. One of my friends, Chris Hund, read a late version of the manuscript and suggested that, since I was borrowing the contrarian system from Blake, the book might have a visual component, too. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, but I started to amass pictures and before I knew it, they became essential to my sense of the book.The stream of images showed me that the book was finished because they formed a fairly coherent visual index. I could see motifs developing, shapes forming, ideas echoing. They were the finishing touch of a composition process.

Vertigo: The list of credits at the back of The Narrow Circle show that the photographs came from a wide variety of sources, including photographs that you took yourself.  How did you select images and how did you pair them up with the text phrases? Which came first: the image or the line of poetry?

Nathan: Most of the images come from various public domain resources, such as the Wikicommons. The photos I took myself were actually recreations of images I couldn’t get the rights to. The language always came first in this process. I chose images that I felt intervened with, complimented, or distorted the poems and their systems of reference in interesting ways.

Vertigo: Did you have any models in mind for the way you wanted to use photographs in your book of poetry?  Were there any particular books or authors that employed photographs that you had studied or found useful as you thought about The Narrow Circle?

Nathan: I’ve mentioned Blake, who was more of an inspiration than a model. I’ve always been fond of the way Breton deploys photographs in some of his books, namely Nadja and Mad Love. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, for sure. And there’s no shortage of books of contemporary poets who have influenced my thinking about the relationship of image and text — for example, Elani Sikelianos and Claudia Rankine, as well as Pierre Alferi in his book OXO.

Vertigo: What was the reaction from your editor at Penguin when (s)he realized you wanted to include photographs in your book of poems?

Nathan: Paul Slovak was very supportive, and I’m very grateful that he teamed me up with a wonderful book designer, Sabrina Bowers.

Vertigo: I’m always curious about the cover art for poetry books. As a consumer of books, I realize how often I am compelled to examine a book simply because of the cover. But I’m surprised how often I will pick up a book of poems in a bookstore based on the cover and start to read some of the poems only to be puzzled by the relationship between the cover art and the poetry. That’s clearly not the case with The Narrow Circle. Who was responsible for discovering the wonderful cover image by Kate MacDowell? I can’t imagine a more appropriate visualization for your book.

Nathan Hoks Narrow Circle

Nathan: Alison Forner was the designer who worked on the cover, and I was delighted by the cover she created. Paul and I corresponded before they started designing it, and one idea was that there might be an ear on it — the ear is a central motif, maybe even a secret motif, for me, and I’ll just leave it at that. But the sculpture by Kate MacDowell that they found just blew me away. Not only is it stunning and lovely and creepy in its own right, but to me it embodies the way these poems work. When I first saw it, I was disturbed — not simply by the image, but by how right it immediately seemed to me.

Nathan Hoks is the author of two books of poetry, Reveilles and The Narrow Circle, which was a winner of the 2012 National Poetry Series and recently published by Penguin. He works as an editor and letterpress printer for Convulsive Editions and lives in Chicago with his family.