Thomas Wohlfahrt speaks about literary censorship, public poetry readings and the growth of poetry films fuelled by digital technology
Thomas Wohlfahrt is the founder and leader of Literaturwerkstatt Berlin. He promotes culture and organises artistic events, including Europe’s biggest ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival. His other projects include the Open Mike award for young authors and lyrikline.org, an online archive of poetry that offers texts and original-language audio recordings of over 700 poets from across the world. Wohlfahrt is coming to Ukraine to present films that have been entered in ZEBRA and which will be shown in the Ye Cultural and Arts Centre in Ivano-Frankivsk on 24 March and in Goethe Institute in Kyiv on 26 March.
U.W.: What are the main activities of Literaturwerkstatt Berlin that you head?
We have been increasingly focused on poetry since 2000 and have become the only place in Germany that does it. Personally, I like it – my colleagues and I love poetry. Moreover, this is a niche. One of the stimuli in 2000 was Marché de la Poésie, an excellent poetry fair in Paris. I saw how German authors could be represented there in translation, but I did not find anyone to do it and so I decided to do something about it myself. From 10,000-14,000 people attend the poetry festival we organize in Berlin over the course of nine days. (Meanwhile, the world’s largest poetry fest, held in Medellín, Colombia, lasts about the same length and attracts 120,000-130,000 people.) We try to present poets from different cultures and combine that with new technology. In particular, we developed p0es1s, a label for digital poetry. (In the digital world everything takes place between 0 and 1.) This is a continuation of what took place in the 1960s through the 1980s – it is visual poetry that continues to develop in the digital dimension.
U.W.: You have held the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival since 2002. How has this field changed since then?
Poetry films are as old as cinema art in general. I thought I knew what the oldest poetry film was – it was based on Apollinaire’s poems and shot in 1910 with his participation. However, we have found even older films based on American Walt Whitman’s poetry and produced in 1905, i.e., in the earliest days of cinema. Poetry is an independent art more closely related to music than prose. Its sound and rhythmic lines resemble music and dancing. In fact, all types of art are present in poetry, and this is what attracts avant-garde artists from other fields. In the 1930s, energetic efforts were made in France to create poetry film – pictures were painted on celluloid tape to lend it poetic meaning. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the so-called Vienna Group, which included Gerhard Rühm and Ernst Jandl, was very popular. They tried to work on the cusp of experimental poetry and film. But a true leap in the development of poetry film came with the advent of the computer when film was finally able to mirror the text in its structure. I do not mean production using a computer, but the aesthetic aspects that were realized. These include switches and leaps from the real to the virtual and back. In other words, the film could not really do what poetry could do 5,000 years ago. It took cinema almost 100 years of growth to become structurally like verse. To me, a good poetry film is not a film that is a screen version of the text but one that matches its structure. It became simpler, easier, cheaper and, most importantly, more aesthetically appealing when done with the aid of the computer.
ZEBRA is a biennial festival. About 1,000 films from over 70 countries participated in the last one and the next one will be in October 2012 and is now accepting entries. Three prizes totalling €10,000 are awarded. There is also Zebrino, a competition of the best children's films. We also give a prize for the best script, best digital adaptation and best video. Our archive contains over 5,000 video works.
U.W.: Are there Ukrainian films among them?
Not many. Thirteen films from your country have been submitted to our festival, and only one was selected for competition – Ihor Strembitsky’s Podorozhni (Wayfarers).
U.W.: At many literary events poets read their works before other poets. How do you attract the public to the Poetry Festival Berlin? It must be a challenge…
Before we launched it, everyone warned us saying no-one would be interested. Initially, we organised a long night of poetry, and this event immediately attracted around 500 people. That meant there was interest. The festival began with what is called the Poets’ Corner. The idea came from poets based in Berlin who said: We want to be popular where we live. It took place in the capital: poets from different districts of Berlin came out and held poetry readings in their neighbourhoods. If it was a success, people also attended other events at the festival. If a Syrian author participates in the festival, we of course try to inform all the German-Arab organisations. Another communication channel is the mass media. Naturally, we put up posters and send out programmes. We are also going to sponsor City, a local newspaper on art in which we will also place our programme and thus distribute 50,000 copies of it. It is indeed challenging work – to get through to people. Cultural life in Berlin is very intensive, and market interest in poetry is quite small.
U.W.: What can poets themselves do to win more public attention? Should they hold poetry slams, recite poetry accompanied by music or throw poems out of helicopters like they did at the last festival in Berlin?
It really doesn't matter. The only right thing that a poet can do is to write a good text. The rest is marketing. And this is not really interesting. Yuri Andrukhovych introduced a number of authors from Ukraine at our workshop over four months. No one knew a thing about them, but many people showed up to listen.
U.W.: We have the National Expert Commission for the Protection of Public Morals. Several years ago, it accused Oles Ulianenko of writing a pornographic novel. Similar accusations were recently voiced against another Ukrainian writer. Are such judgments acceptable in literature?
What you are talking about is, in fact, censorship. And censorship, mostly religiously motivated, is a reason for the state and censors to act. However, it is about something else. Moreover, it is an expression of distrust in people. They can judge for themselves if they want to continue reading or not, period. I remember when we presented the film Zebra at a poetry festival in Chernivtsi. We showed a piece about a homosexual couple – refugees from Iraq – accompanied by a Shakespeare poem. It caused an uproar. Some people reacted poorly, and showed that a taboo had been violated and that things like that were not to be discussed in public. Of course, I think we need to protect young people in what concerns racism and disrespect for personality. But it is always quite hard to do with pornography. If people do not want to read it, they don't.