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Celebrating the oldest cultural forms of humankind on World Poetry Day

Monitoring Desk

March 21 is World Poetry Day: “Poetry has been alive and kicking since its birth over 5,000 years ago,” says the director of Berlin’s House for Poetry.

UNESCO adopted March 21 as “World Poetry Day”  in 1999. To mark the day, we talked with Berlin’s Haus für Poesie director Thomas Wohlfahrt.

Why was the House for Poetry (Haus für Poesie) initiated in Berlin?

The Haus für Poesie is the only state-funded institution in Germany dedicated exclusively to the study of poetry, and in all media formats. Our aim was to give this art a space, a forum. (The Lyrik Kabinett in Munich is another venue for poetry, but it is privately funded.) 

We who work at the Haus für Poesie love poetry — because the poem is an art in its own right; poetry is an interdisciplinary art. Artists of all other forms like to work with poems and with poetic structures; let’s evoke music, dance, the visual arts, and even film or digital poetry.

Why has poetry experienced a rebirth in recent years?

Poetry has been alive and kicking since its birth over 5,000 years ago. It is one of the oldest cultural forms of humankind.

For me, the question is why poetry took a backseat in modern times? Poetry is an independent art form in its own right. The poem stems from oral traditions. It comes, if you will, from the marketplace. It is the lyricism of sound and rhythm that makes the poem appear as a “bound language.” In addition, mnemonic techniques reside in a poem: rhymes and assonances can manifest themselves. Of course, poems also aim to have a meaning, want to communicate something.

But they often convey things differently than we would in everyday language. It’s not about confusing listeners, but rather, an attempt at tapping into complex topics in condensed language and to capture them musically. Nowadays, the poem needs a dual-media presence: both oral and visual. The human voice is the instrument of the poem: it can portray the most pleasant, but also the most horrific. 

For decades, poetry was not regarded as an independent art, but was subsumed under literature and not appreciated as a marginal phenomenon.

The poetry boom that is discussed today has to do with the fact that poetry is increasingly regarded as an independent part of the “ensemble of the arts.”

How have the internet and social media contributed to this?

A lot! Sites for poetry and its distribution have emerged on the internet, while the analog world increasingly rejected poetry for decades. Let’s evoke the period of the 1990s and 2000s, when poetry production was virtually driven into the ground in many publishing houses. (German publishers Suhrkamp and Hanser were laudable exceptions.) As a result, around the year 2000, small publishing houses [in Germany] sprouted up that were dedicated exclusively to poetry, such as kookbooks, poetenladen, Edition Azur.

Haus für Poesie director Thomas Wohlfahrt wearing black glasses, with a garden and building in the background.
Haus für Poesie director Thomas Wohlfahrt

Thanks to the technical capabilities on the internet, the poem, the voice and graphics can appear together.

In our own Haus für Poesie, we started Lyrikline in 1999. Today, institutions from over 50 countries collaborate on this website. Currently, over 1,400 poets can be read there, can be listened to reading their own works, and experienced and understood in nearly 90 languages worldwide thanks to over 20,000 translations from over 80 languages. The communication in social media about poetry is so vast, it’s impossible to keep an overview.

Until the pandemic, did you notice that more and more people were attending events at the Haus für Poesie?

When we held the first “Berlin Summer Night of Poetry” in 1992, we were told we were crazy. “Poetry… who does that anymore?,” they said.

The poesiefestival berlin, which grew out of the “Summer Night…,” is considered the largest of its kind in Europe, attracting about 13,000 visitors in one week. The world’s largest takes place annually in Colombia, in Medellin. [Under normal circumstances], more than 120,000 people attend poetry events there.

Poetry has a very different status in Latin America and other regions of the world than it does in our latitudes. However, interest in poetry is growing steadily in our country, too, and educational workshops for teachers that we offer are sold out very quickly, as are “Mach’n Gedicht” (write a poem) courses for children, young people and adults.

Events for “World Poetry Day” were canceled last year due to the pandemic. How did you survive the year?

Empty auditorium with red curtains pulled closed over the stage.
In the coronavirus pandemic, readings have not been what they used to be

We broadcast purely online and learned a lot! But nothing, no online event, can replace a live one — in person. However, we tried not to look at the digital/online events as problematic, but instead, developed and implemented them better and better by working WITH the medium.

And: all of sudden, poets no longer had an income. Since we immediately started producing for online, we were able to cushion some of the financial impact.

We also tried to get as much as possible out of the federal program “Neustart Kultur” for poets. For example, 70 films are currently being produced for “Gedichte lesen mit …” (reading poems with…), in which poets read poems that are important to them, tell stories about them, and thus promote poetry by communicating it. These films can be used in schools, universities, and ultimately, anywhere.

Letters laid out on the table that look like a crossword-puzzle in German.
The Haus für Poesie offers poetry workshops for young and old

Have there been any silver linings for the Haus für Poesie, despite the pandemic?

We reach a great deal more people online than in analog, and the reach is completely different; namely, worldwide. And: the ephemeral nature of poetry events has been eliminated, and through archiving, they can be enjoyed again and again.

This in turn leads to completely different problems, such as copyright issues. And it gives people the idea that poets [after the pandemic has subsided] supposedly no longer have to perform live and travel around. But that is nonsense, because nothing, as I said, can replace a live performance.

What do you expect from your event on March 21, honoring “World Poetry Day”? Why was the program put together in this way?

Since we have a much broader range online, we expect a significantly larger crowd than those 150-180 people who would normally attend in person.

As in previous years, our program that includes five poetic “positions” reflecting the works by scholarship fellows in residence at various institutions in Germany. To honor UNESCO’s World Poetry Day on March 21, each “residence” sends a poet to the central event. It is a joint event of the House for Poetry and the Brandenburg Gate Foundation, along with the German-branch of the UNESCO Commission, in conjunction with the Akademie Schloss Solitude, the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, the Villa Concordia International House of Artists in Bamberg and the Schloss Wiepersdorf Cultural Foundation.

The engraved characters here are the earliest known examples of Chinese script: what looks like gold-plated bones with Chinese characters.
The engraved characters here are the earliest known examples of Chinese script

The program includes: the Iraqi poet Omar al-Jaffal (born in 1988), in whose texts pain and anger are reflected in light of the crises of our time; German poet Volker Braun (born in 1939) will read from his long poem “Große Fuge”; Great Britain’s Nancy Campbell (born in 1978) travels in her poems to glaciers, arctic floes, frost and snow; Brazil’s Angelica Freitas (born in 1973) critically and powerfully places the female body at the center of her poetry; and Suvi Valli, born in Finland in 1977, has a close relationship to German literature, especially to the Romantic era. It should be an exciting event!

How do you see poetry developing in the future?

I am concerned about the art of poetry, but I am not afraid that poetry will cease to exist, as some doomsayers may proclaim. The power of poetry is evident in its ability to appear as an independent art, as we and poets in general demand that its essence and validity are honored. We aim to develop programs that strengthen poetry in its creation, production, presentation, and distribution.

This interview was conducted for Deutsche Welle by Louisa Schaefer.

Courtesy: DW