Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Anja Utler
By Yeow Kai Chai
The energy in the room changes whenever German poet/translator Anja Utler takes to the stage to unleash her poetry.
It does not matter whether you understand German, Utler enters into (proto) language, wrestles with it, wringes it, teasing out a myriad of syntax and semantic permutations. You feel muscular tensions – a tug here, a pull there, and then… the gaps. A soothsayer, she rolls out sybilline lines, or rather refractions of them, and one glimpses slippery, alternate realities.
Born in Schwandorf, Bavaria, in Germany, in 1973, she studied Slavic and English Literature as well as speech therapy, and currently shuttles between Regensburg, where she is involved in a research project on poetry, and Vienna, where she teaches at the University of Applied Arts.
Her 2004 collection, münden — entzüngeln (2004), received the coveted Leonce-und-Lena Prize for poetry. Brilliantly translated into English by Kurt Beals as engulf – enkindle, it was a finalist for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award in the US.
Utler's other works include the poetry collections jana, vermacht (2009), brinnen (2006), and aufsagen (1999), the poetological essay plötzlicher mohn (2007). Her latest book, ausgeübt. Eine Kurskorrektur (2011), is a poetic exploration of prose.
She was a 2014 honorary fellow of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, and will be the German Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin College, Ohio, in Spring 2015.
She took on the Proust Questionnaire in the last days of the Iowa Fall Residency before winter set in.
1. What are you reading right now?
A book with the beautiful cover image: 00:00, red on white. Title: Time Reborn, author: Lee Smolin, topic: physics, presented for people like me. It's exciting, weird, and I don't have to make my mind up as to whether I think it's good or not. I'm not a physicist, I have no idea. I just enjoy the thought.
Plus I'm reading a book I found via a review a few days ago: Nell Zink, The Wallcreeper. It starts off with a truly creepy combination of sentences. First it shows this quote: "I kill where I please because it is all mine. TED HUGHES", and on the next page it goes on with "I was looking at the map when Steven swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage." Scary.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I think the most interesting literary characters are those I would definitely not want to be. The ones you can feel with, while you are perfectly aware they're doing the wrong thing. The ones whose lives end before they die, and who, in some act of desperation try to undo the years of their suffering. As Kriemhild, a queen from German 'Nibelungensage' from mediaeval times. She is betrayed by her family, they kill her husband. She cannot forgive and they don't give her a reason to. After decades of rage, she lures them into a trap and slaughters them all. I'm glad I don't have to be her.
If I should be her, though, I would also demand being her husband. Before being killed, he gets all the fun stuff. Sneaking around in a cloak of invisibility, boat and horse trips, slaying the dragon, taking a bath in its blood, which gives invulnerability, except for the spot between my shoulders, where the leaf of the lime tree fell on, small spot of misfortune, getting Kriemhild, beautiful, passionate, true Kriemhild, who will never ever be able to forget, yes, wow!
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
Probably the greatest misconceptions are some I don't even know about. A bad one I know about, though, is the idea that my poetry was "about language" and showed no connection to "the world". How could this be? Isn't "language" our super-tool for dealing with the world, including ourselves? Don't we negotiate relations with about everything in language, and produce them, don't we shape and get shaped? Isn't language a bodily, emotional thing, colliding with the non-language parts of self and others? So what a hollow and anaemic thing would a poem be if it was "about" an abstract "language" from which "the world" had, whichever way, been subtracted! Pitiful.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
I don't identify with authors.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Oh, I wasn't aware writer's block was a deity you could or could not believe in. I thought it was something to experience. I feel, sometimes the term "writer's block" is used to designate a phase in which a writer is not sure about what to write. That, for me, does not qualify as a block; it's a phase of reflection that will keep the writer from producing utterly superfluous stuff. These phases may last quite some time and the only thing you have to do is to try and not get talked into worrying about those bleak "the block"-stories. If, however, reflection is done, a person knows what he should write but finds herself unable to do it, then, I feel, it's serious. And I'm sure it exists. But I, myself, have never been there.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
The willingness to take risks. To take a position that is insecure and contested. To say things that may be unpopular. The awareness, that just telling a story smoothely is not what something called "literature" was developed for. The awareness, that the reader is just as knowing and clever as the writer. Empathy.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
The first stanza of the Marina Tsvetaevas poem 'Naklon' (which means something like "inclination"). "Материнское — сквозь сон — ухо. / У меня к тебе наклон слуха, / Духа — к страждущему: жжёт? да? / У меня к тебе наклон лба, / …", in transcription "Materinskoe – skvoz' son – ukha. / U menya k tebe naklon slukha, / Dukha – k strazhdushtshemu: zhzhot? da? / U menya k tebe naklon lba /.…" These lines and the stanzas to follow are densely structured in sound and meaning. The poem is about love – and links love to the gesture of leaning towards someone, a gesture which oscillates between the maternal and the love of lovers. And it links love to gravity, to the inevitability of one thing falling towards another thing. And it has the words fall into each other, the sounds seem to attract one word to another. Translating just the "sense" while leaving "the sound" out is utterly pointless here. Not just something, everything would be lost. I've repeatedly tried to come up with a translation. And failed. But this poem keeps leaning towards me.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
feel attracted to Roulette tables. Which is why I've never been at one and hopefully never will be. I fear I would feel certain I knew the number to come up next. And if the numbers were stubborn that particular night, they'd most certainly show more compliance on one of the nights to come.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
A tragedy. I take an interest in things that cannot be resolved. I'd adore the film, though, if it also succeeded in giving me some of the comic and the absurd aspects of the tragedy.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
I think picking favourites is a very sad thing. You pick one and in this very action you are being unfair to the others. Therefore I adore prefixes. In themselves, they are almost nothing. But then they produce bunches of verbs! You can watch how they change the meanings of the verbs, make them lean this way, and that way, with one being just as beautiful and important as the other. Compared to those processes, something like the word "prefix", is of no concern to me. What I do care about, however, is the sentence "that's of no concern to me." Although it might be a sentence that offers protection, it hardly ever seems to be used that way. I usually stumble into it in contexts, where it can become a killer.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: plunger, earlobe, lazy chair.
Logically impossible task. This is an idle exercise. Rhyming suggests there is poetry involved. Poetry is never an idle exercise.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
The body, including the brain. The computer. A room to be in. A space to walk out into. The spot, where I'm trying to get to – in the brain, and in its conjunction with the signs on the screen.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
Whenever I am awake. I mean: awake-awake. Which can be at any time.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Jesus Christ! Gaia. Buddha. They will be able to provide some insight into the main issues of that evening. Discussions among the three of them might also prove distracting.
16. What are you working on?
I've just finished a text on the way we understand poems when we listen to them. Now, I'll be going back to the primary thing. I don't know yet, where it will take me.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
Name, date of birth, date of death.
QLRS Vol. 14 No. 1 Jan 2015