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10 September, 2011

Drop Poems, Not Bombs

Thomas Wohlfahrt: “Poetry can affect collective consciousness enough to inspire a protest”

PhD in literature and music, Thomas Wohlfahrt is the founder and director of Literaturwerkstatt Berlin (Literature Institute), the initiator and curator of huge international projects, such as Literature Express Europe 2000, and Berlin poetry festival. Mr. Wohlfahrt shared his impressions of the Meridian festival in Chernivtsi where he was invited by Goethe-Institut and his ideas on the role of poetry in life today. 

I’m so happy to have been invited by Goethe-Institut to this festival in Chernivtsi. I’ve come here with my heart wide open. The first thing that surprised me was the town itself: it has virtually no ruined buildings. I think there could be no better place for a festival like this. We’ve met poets from several countries. Some internationals tandems, such as Ukraine and Moldova, turned out to be unexpectedly exciting. 

As a founder of a poetic festival in Berlin, I know how important it is to help everyone understand poetry. I realize this costs you a lot of money and you have no chance to implement it to the full extent. Yet I wish you had more interpretation into foreign languages that would make the show easier to understand. 

As art, poetry is closer to music, you have to hear it. It is the sound and the visual image that determine the quality of the piece. 

I discovered many young poets at the festival. Of course, we know masters such as Serhiy Zhadan and Yuriy Andrukhovych, yet I would love to see a new generation of poets from Eastern Europe. Participating in this festival was a great chance for them. The only thing I can’t understand is who selected the authors and which criteria they used. This is not criticism, just something to think about. It looks like festival directors and founders make this decision on their own.

As we arranged our festival in Berlin, we tried to make poetry meet aesthetics. We had master classes for translation and correct interpretation of poetry. One message would be presented to the public in totally opposite ways in German, Korean and Chinese, for instance. People translate poems for 3-4 days and we present the translation to the audience then. Later we publish books and CDs. We combine poetry and music, and dance. We present something called a long poem, i.e. a piece of 60 or 70 pages. The reading stage is made to look like a theater stage.

The thing is that a poem written on paper is similar to sheet music to some extent. You need an instrument to make it alive. This can be a symphonic orchestra or a rock band. But the human voice is the best instrument to make a poem vibrant. 

Poetry is the soul. Words, aesthetics, the voice and the body are all a shell. It is important to transfer this soul from one shell into another. We arrange training programs for children of all ages. The number of students attending our trainings every week ranges from 10,000 to 12,000, and that’s not the limit.

Even if the author is not great at reading his or her own piece, it will still sound unique.It’s very important for perceiving and understanding the poem. You can give it to a professional actor to read and he won’t do it worse but it won’t be the same. But I’m sure you can’t spoil good poetry with reading. Honestly, I don’t know a single poet who cannot read his or her poems well enough. A reading by an author always makes the poem unique. Of course, reading a poem as a performance takes much more expression, but that’s a different matter. Another important point is the body language that essentially reflects the structure of the poem.

An artist must go to a viewer directly and give the audience what he or she is doing. I’ve seen a huge number of young people, students perhaps. There were few older people. I’m not sure how many of those were journalists. But the audience is mostly comprised of poets at all events I attended. What do we mean by the audience? We must realize two sides of poetry: poetry in books is not isolated or protected but performed by an author is basically a presentation of it. A poem in a book is, as I said, a music sheet for me that needs an instrument, a voice. Note that the authors sell very few books but have huge audiences listening to them reading their poems. The same thing has happened to pop culture recently: artists have had to play gigs all the time and perform in front of people as the CD market has virtually vanished.

Poetry is growing more and more popular these days. And I don’t mean book sales. Poetry is based on the language; it’s the art of language to a greater extent than prose which is more about story telling. Observing poetry helps you see how the language changes and evolves; how words acquire new meanings. I don’t think English benefits a lot from being empirical and used everywhere. Still, virtually everyone speaks English to some extent. 

Poetry can affect collective consciousness enough to inspire a protest.I once watched Zhadan read his social poems to music and young people dance enthusiastically. It was a celebration, these rhythmical moves to the cheerful “Hey, hey, hey!” was a chance to open the mind and the eyes wide! Poetry can do it all! Although this effect often lasts much longer than that. Another example of this influence is Hamada Ben Amor known as El General Tunissa, a reader of political poetry to rap music. He is believed to have inspired the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. He was put in jail while his poetry records spread online moving crowds of young people.  People used his lyrics as slogans at protests. But this is a rare case. 

Chilean and German poets arranged an exciting campaign at the Berlin poetry festival last year – they threw several thousands of poems from a helicopter. That was extremely efficient; like a rain of poetry. Some older people had tears in their eyes. This reminded them of the time when airplanes shed bombs that ruined their cities.


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