Here the Branches Root
An Interview with Austrian Poet Helwig Brunner

Helwig Brunner holds degrees in classical music and biology. His work has been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies in Europe and elsewhere (e.g. New European Poets, Graywolf Press, 2008; Four Way Review, No Man’s Land, and The Adirondack Review). Brunner has published nine books of poetry (most recently Die Sicht der Dinge: Rätselgedichte, edition keiper, 2012) and some novels, short stories and essays. He has been the recipient of several literary prizes in Europe and lives in Graz, Austria.

Welcome to The California Journal of Poetics, Helwig! We are very pleased to showcase your poetry in translation in our inaugural issue. You are a musician, biologist, and poet all at once.

Naturally, we are interested in how these three disciplines inform one another. It’s not uncommon for your poems to question the human place in nature or for you to employ references to classical music in your poems—as these three poems nicely exhibit. The poem “Knots,” for example, is from your book Schubert’s Cat (Schuberts Katze, 2009), a collection of poems that references musical pieces throughout the centuries from J.S. Bach to Philip Glass and Keith Jarrett. Three poems explore the work of Franz Schubert, the great Austrian composer of early Romanticism. Surely, this is no coincidence, is it?

My personal path to poetry began with music. Playing the technically less challenging sonatas by Schubert, as a violin student, was one of the most formative experiences of my childhood and early youth. The emotional intensity of these compositions and the almost intimate format of the chamber music, at least I believe, have shaped my aesthetic sense and my own desire for expression immensely. Of course, I couldn’t stick with unbroken Romanticism; my own biography prohibits this. So eventually I arrived in the presence, after working my way through the 20th century, in music as well as poetry.

A few years ago, writing the poems for Schubert’s Cat gave me the opportunity to examine the (for me) problematic relationship between music and poetry. I think the writing process had an almost therapeutic dimension: I listened to different musical pieces, which were once important to me or more recently had become important, over and over again at a high volume and wrote everything down that came to mind, without reflecting much upon it. These notes covered many pages and made up my raw material with which I composed the poems.

The poem “Knots” makes Schubert’s sonata form the metaphorical origin of the human biography. Here and there, the beginning subjects of dialogue and unison mark the beginning of a complex development—in general, as well as in the musicological sense of that word. Admittedly, within a contemporary biography, this development will not arrive at a real destination. A certain forgiveness or lenience for human errors supersedes the reprise in the actual sonata.

“Center, branched” is probably one of your more difficult poems; one might think it possible to interpret the poem, but one never really gets there, because new angles and new questions continue to arise in the process. How hermetic, how coherent should poems be, in your opinion?

Sometimes your own lines surprise you, what they begin and what they in turn demand from you. You can only finish poems of that sort by wholeheartedly activating all channels of the mind, emotion and intuition, and of the body simultaneously. Presumably these poems can only be read that way as well. This, however, doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the poem; it’s definitely acceptable to approach a hermetic or difficult poem with suspicion, and a poet should always do that.

Neither surprising or perhaps mysterious imagery, nor complete transparency determine a poem’s quality, rather the surplus it possesses in comparison to narrative or discursive prose; a good poem, I believe, reaches beyond the scope of narration and discourse. This is what makes a poem hermetic; this is where it becomes mysterious. If a poem can be narrated in prosaic terms without losing anything in its statement, then I prefer prose.

Occasionally, a “you” is being addressed in your poems and a “we” is being evoked—this is also the case in “Sleep in a bed of fire.” Do you consider your poems to always be in dialogue, directed at an implicit opposite or even an audience?

In my earliest poems, thankfully they remain unknown to this day, the turning towards an involved and directly addressed “you” was very explicit. Perhaps many poets start out this way. Yet, poems that embrace a “you” or beg for an audience quickly turn presumptuous and blunt. They destroy more than what they create. Because of that, the “you” in my poems started to change fundamentally; it became the subjunctive, a reason to be astonished.

“Sleep in a bed of fire” appears to begin with imperatives; however, they take on everything but one commanding tone and end without exclamation mark. The poem gives only subtle clues as to how the privacy of sleep and dream, in which each of us remains individually, can be perceived together. The form of the “we” and the fire metaphor naturally make the impression of a love poem, but the “you” doesn’t turn into a direct object of an engrossing “I”; on the contrary, it becomes apparent quickly that the poem rather deals with letting go.

Which under-recognized or up-and-coming poet do you recommend to our readers? This can also be a poet writing in another language. Maybe there is someone who in your opinion should be translated as well?

Usually, it is expected to praise a young, up-and-coming poet who is at the beginning of his or her career. Instead, I would like to recommend an older lady, Ute Eckenfelder; she was born in 1938 and lives in Berlin. Her poetry possesses a particular virtuosity and depth, is rich in intellectual and artistic references and at the same time full of spontaneity and intensity in expression. These are poems with a radical demand for what poetry can and should achieve. Many young poets appear very pale by comparison. Although, her work has not been published by a large publishing house, a poetry collection recently appeared in the poetry series of keiper lyrik, which I am the editor of at a small publisher in my hometown Graz. It would definitely be worthwhile to introduce some of her poems into the English-speaking world. However, translating Eckenfelder’s poetry is surely no small feat, and some poems might not be translatable at all.

 


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