ROSA MILCH by Matthew Sweeney
(Poetry Ireland News March / April 2008)
Not long after writing this piece I will be returning to Berlin, for the publication of a bilingual selection of poems by Berlin Verlag, and a string of readings up and down the country. For these I will be accompanied by my German translator, the esteemed poet Jan Wagner (who studied at Trinity). It will feel like a new stage of a journey that has been going on for some time.
This journey began when I was forced to study German at the boarding school my father sent me to, rather than the French I’d already done a year of at a day school in Donegal. I tried fighting this but I had no chance. It was into the language lab with me, and nothing but oral German for a year – I can still remember a few of those sentences, now quaintly dated. Some years later I embarked upon a German and English degree at a London polytechnic, with one year spent at a German university. During this time, the German half of the degree spoke to me much more strongly than the English. I was writing poems by now, and these were affected by my German reading. In my year abroad, for example, I devoured the poems of the East German poet, Peter Huchel, who’d been banished to the West, after enduring house arrest for years, and these left an immediate mark on what I myself was producing. I soon shook this off but there were older, stronger influences.
I was not aware of this for a while, but I noticed that when I began doing readings in Germany, they went down very well. After one reading in a Berlin university, this old Professor called Schumann took me out with some of his students to a restaurant and said to me 'Mr Sweeney I have been thinking as I listened to you this evening and as I read your poetry before you arrived - and please tell me if this is nonsense - but I have been thinking that you are maybe continuing a line of German literature which contemporary German poets do not.' And I said, 'The line you're talking about is Buchner, Kleist, Trakl, Kafka, Grass, Böll.' He said 'Exactly. Can this be so?' I said 'I studied and I love each of those writers.’ I remembered this interchange much later when I came across a quote from Igor Stravinsky: ‘I have been formed in part, and in greater and lesser ways, by all of the music I’ve known and loved and I composed as I was formed to compose.’
From the late 80s, if not before, poems of mine began to be translated in dribs and drabs, by several different people, but no one translator stuck. Nor did I feel that any of the translations were definitive. It is notoriously difficult to translate poetry, as doesn’t need saying here. Translations began happening in other languages too, and even a few books came out, but none looked likely in German – the one foreign language I was at all competent in. I did have a children’s novel translated and published by Berlin Verlag, as it happens. I also did acquire a more steady translator but she worked very slowly, between paid translation projects, and didn’t welcome questioning responses from me on her work. Nor was much happening in the way of publication. Everything began to seem stalled.
Then I heard I was one of the DAAD (German Foreign Exchange Service) Invited Artists for 2005/6 – one of six writers invited to live in Berlin for a year. I was given a roomy flat and well looked after. A handful of readings were set up throughout the year, at festivals and elsewhere, and in doing these I became drawn into the German poetry world. And the DAAD commissioned Jan Wagner to translate a substantial body of my work, thereby making the forthcoming Berlin Verlag book possible. I should say that Jan welcomed any come-back I had on his draft translations, so what results is in some measure a collaboration.
A number of these translations have appeared in German and Austrian periodicals (I had a small month-long residency in Graz last year) in advance of the book’s publication. A word perhaps should be said about the difference between English- and German-language literary magazines. With a publication like Poetry Ireland Review or the London-based Poetry Review it is unusual for a poet to be featured by more than one or two poems. With the German-language magazines, however, if one is included it is with seven or eight poems, or sometimes even more. Often a literary essay accompanies this sampling, or follows in a subsequent issue. I am not talking about reviews here, though what is written has something in common with a review. The whole effect seems somehow more intellectual.
It is the same with German readings. Long literary introductions are the norm, often with chaired question and answer sessions afterwards. Sometimes German readings go on so long that a visitor, familiar with the Irish or British poetry worlds, might be inclined to abscond to a Kneipe. German poets rarely make introductory comments before reading a poem, something I’ve taken to copying, and in the process attract critical comments sometimes when I read in these islands. German poetry audiences tend to be book-buyers, a habit I hope continues with my Berlin Verlag book. Oh, one striking thing about German group readings or festivals is the range of different types of poets on the same programme – experimental with formal, ranters with more introspective. There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of fencing off into camps that we are used to seeing.
Anyway, it is this different world I am going back to for a while – to read from a book called Rosa Milch (Pink Milk) instead of one called Black Moon. I am looking forward to it, and more than a little intrigued by what will happen.
Matthew Sweeney's latest collection, Black Moon (Cape Poetry, 2007 ), is shortlisted for this year's Irish Times / Poetry Now Prize.