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This interview is taken from PN Review 146, Volume 28 Number 6, July - August 2002.in conversation with Evelyn Schlag
Evelyn Schlag was born and raised in Waidhofen an der Ybbs in Lower Austria. She studied German and English literature at the University of Vienna, and taught in Vienna for a time before returning to Waidhofen, where she divides her time between teaching and writing.
Schlag has written seven volumes of prose fiction, a book of essays, a translation of Douglas Dunn's Elegies and four collections of her own poetry. In this interview she talks about her development as an artist and the writers who have influenced her style. The conversation took place on 7 November 2001, during Evelyn Schlag's month-long stay in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as Dickinson College's Max Kade Writer-in-Residence.
BEVERLEY DRIVER EDDY May I start by asking you what you think poetry can achieve?
EVELYN SCHLAG: I think what I associate with writing has been influenced by the reason why I learned to write. Now, obviously you learn to write because you simply have to. In my case, I was five and pre-school. My parents were in New York for a year. This was 1957. My father was an intern in a hospital and tried to pick up as much about anaesthesiology as possible, because at the time there were no trained anaesthesiologists in Austria. He watched the birth of Caroline Kennedy from the third row. Meantime I was staying with my grandparents in their home; they lived on the first floor, we on the second, so it wasn't much of a move. But I missed my mother terribly and wanted to write to her. So my grandfather taught me, and I wrote on the back of the many photographs that he took of me, chronicling my growing up, usually with a cat in my arms. So in my mind writing has always been associated with longing, and with what you call 'herbeischreiben' in German - not only imagining very vividly and conjuring up the presence of my mother while I was writing to her, but also effecting her return, and not by asking her to come home soon, but by the power of language. The words that I set on those postcards in capital letters had a power of their own. They were magic. I still believe in the power of love poems. I still want to prove Auden wrong, that poetry does make something happen.
Your grandfather features quite often in your poems.
He was a wonderful man. A very handsome melancholy man who had been forced to take over his father's shop - selling leather, little wooden nails, lots of little things the farmers would buy when they came down from the villages on market day. As a child I used to sit at his desk hidden by the suitcases that were piled up and listen in on people's stories. I liked to write things down and run the blotting cradle over the words so the ink would get soaked up. He was an avid reader, he'd sit there at the table, cigarette between his slender fingers, like one of those 1950s actors in the programme you got in the cinema. He died when I was six.
When did you first know you were going to be a writer?
Actually in secondary grammar school, when I was seventeen, we had somebody come from Vienna who tried to give us some careers advice (Berufsberatung). I cannot remember any of the questions we had to answer on those yellow sheets (which looked old even then) or how they tried to find out about our talents, but I know we had to give our 'dream job' and the job we thought we would likely end up with. For my dream job I wrote 'writer', and for the other one 'editor'. But although I had been very good at composition and had cowritten an Animal Olympics, I didn't pursue the idea further at the time. I began writing poems when I was in Vienna, studying German and English Literature. I had a wonderful Polish teacher at university who encouraged me to write. Another professor actually set the direction for me when he learned that I had won a prize in a literary competition. I had written a fairly surrealistic text about Felix Austria. He congratulated me on the prize and said, 'Why don't you become a writer?' He may have had second thoughts about my academic career: I was already working on my dissertation about 'The Presentation of Women Characters in Contemporary English and American Novels'.
Did you ever finish that?
No. I started teaching part-time and began to write seriously. My first book was a short novel called Nachhilfe (Tuition, published in 1981) about a woman who engages a private tutor for her kids and learns some lessons about life herself. It had three narrative levels, I wouldn't do with less. What I still like about it is the way I made that young man, the tutor, point out the beauties of observation to the female character. I admired Peter Handke and made the tutor a flâneur of sorts.
It seems to me that one of your favourite themes in your prose writing is how people unexpectedly meet and make something miraculous out of this encounter, teaching each other to see the world differently. It comes up again and again. Another theme that occurs quite frequently, in both your prose and your poetry, is illness.
Well, with a doctor for a father you may be predisposed to certain fields of interest. I have had a chronic disease (diabetes) since I was thirteen, which pretty much influences a lot of what I am doing. I also had tuberculosis twice, and that accounts for my love for Katherine Mansfield as a writer and as a person. She is a presence in my novel Die Kränkung (which was difficult to translate when it was published in the USA, 'Kränkung' means something that causes an injury of the soul but containing the adjective 'krank', of course, which refers to physical illness). When I was asked to give lectures in Literature at the University of Graz I decided to talk about Literature and Illness, under the title of 'Nobody ever asks me what I need this illness for', this being a quotation from Die Kränkung. I lectured about various aspects of illness - about doctor writers such as W. C. Williams and Dannie Abse, about the idea of tuberculosis as transformed love, about elegies for deceased loved ones, and many other things.
Perhaps we can return to this theme when we speak about your most recent poems. First, though, I'd like to move in a fairly rapid (and chronological) way through your published volumes of verse. Is that agreeable to you?
I wonder if you could speak a little about your experimentation with form. For instance, in the section of Ortswechsel des Herzens1 entitled 'Orpheus, Weiblich' I noticed you used punctuation as you had in your previous volume,2 while in 'Septemtriones' you didn't, but worked instead with fixed stanzas.
I did use punctuation in the beginning, yes. But the thing about punctuation is that I just don't like interruptions. I have poems where I use punctuation, but these tend to be more narrative poems. I like to keep lines running on, you know, I don't like lines to be that fixed at the end. You might notice when I read a poem how I split the sentences and how they end, and you might ask why I don't break the lines the way I read the. But that would be too crude for me; I think one line needs to go freely to the next.
Tell me about 'Septemtriones'
The term is made up. 'Septemtriones' means seven stars. When I started writing these poems I didn't know, of course, that there would be so many of them. They started out as six-line poems or eight-line poems, but not longer. So I thought, since the number seven is something magical, I would write them in seven-line stanzas, but in a very open form. That is, I would use some internal rhyme wherever it could be managed, and also, since there are 84 poems, again a number that's divisible by seven, I would give it an arrangement something like a constellation, because it is a constellation of two figures, you know, two persons, two characters. There is a poem at the beginning that is not written by me, that was written by the person to whom these poems were addressed, that is just signed 'K' and to whom I don't refer more specifically than stars in a constellation.
This was the poem that got you going, then?
No, this was written well into the whole process.
In Schnabelberg,3 in 'Versuchungen' you turn from internal rhyme to end rhyme, and write sonnets.
Yes. Although I don't like sonnets.
Did you decide that only after you wrote them?
No, the thinking that got me going was that I had translated Douglas Dunn's poems, and so I decided I just had to get used to sonnets, to work with them. And I thought, why not try them myself? Of course I had read lots of sonnets, but never with the intention of writing one. And since then, I haven't used this form much. I really don't like it a lot, because it goes along too much with one's expectations. It's just too predictable for me.
Are those the only poems that you've written with end rhyme?
More or less, yes.
Is that part of what bothers you about sonnets in terms of predictability?
The rhyme scheme? Yes, but then again, it's exactly the rhyme scheme and what you have to do that makes you come up with words that you'd never have thought of. This is the thing that might turn something predictable into something original. But at present, it's not really a concern. And then - I moved away to more narrative poems, but I tended to dislike them, too, because I think they can be too open in a way, too blunt. And then I have also written other kinds of poems, I've written short poems, in a very dense language.
Certainly dense in terms of metaphor and use of language.
Yes. I've always liked those very short, lyrical poems. That sort of poem generally hasn't had very good press, lately, but I've always written them. They tend to be less accessible, of course. One reason is that I use a lot of images that are - syntactically - open at both ends. You can connect to the sentence preceding as well as to the one following. I don't do that much anymore. Although I'd hope that there will still be readers who just surrender themselves to that particular kind of poetical language and let themselves get carried away word by word, because the words are not arbitrarily placed where they are, they do have a logical sequence.
How did you develop this style of poetry? Were you influenced by any particular poets?
I think if there was a poet who influenced me at the time I started writing poetry it was Ilse Aichinger. It was certainly Ilse Ainchinger. I like the way she was always looking for the simple words, you know, 'einfache Wörter, schlichte Wörter, die schlechten Wörter' - but at the same time her words were obscure.
Are there any special techniques you employ to achieve this combination of simplicity and obscurity?
One that I employ - not always consciously at first - is taking words literally. Since there is an abundance of idioms in German that work with physical images, this often makes sensual sense of words. In my poem 'Fischblut' (fish blood),4 for example, what you would associate with the word fish blood would be their metaphorical meaning; you would expect a poem about somebody very cold and reckless, and in fact it turns out that there is such a character in the poem; but, at the same time, it means the actual blood of a fish. The speaker is a female fish who follows the voice of her seducer upstream, and this following upstream, while it clearly relates to the salmon's wanderings (even though the fish is not a salmon), also makes use of the idiom 'jemanden in seinen Strom ziehen', 'to draw somebody into one's stream or current'. The female fish, the female lover, the woman, ends up in a smokehouse, so her fish blood gets dried up, and at the same time the man who has lured her upstream has shown he is a fishblooded character.
Of course this makes for a poetry that is not easy to translate, since it works so closely with the ambiguities and the hidden meanings of the original language.
Do you think of this as something uniquely German?
I think that this way of using the German language at several levels is something very characteristically Austrian. There is a double meaning to a lot of things we say. Our daily language is very often one of wordplay, much more so I think than with Germans. There is a subversive power in the way Austrians use language, because very often we have that underdog feeling vis-à-vis a German speaker.
The syntax in 'Orpheus, Weiblich' is difficult in spite of the punctuation in these poems.
Well, you see, quite a few of the poems in that sequence deal with the possibility of loss of a beloved person and its consequences. They are syntactically disrupted, the syntax mirrors the shattering. In the first poem of the sequence, for example, I begin with 'Fur dich würde ich mich' 'For you I would'. Sentences get cut off, words get stuck before they can be uttered. 'Die Umarmung des Gehsteigs' 'the embrace of the pavement' - I want this to be felt by the reader, how the pavement approaches you when you fling yourself out of the window and finally embraces you with its concrete arms.
More recently my poems have become more accessible syntax-wise. This has a lot to do with reading so much American and English poetry - Louise Glück, to mention one. And Elizabeth Bishop.
Let's move to some of these more recent poems. In your latest published volume, Das Talent meiner Frau, you have a sequence of war poems. This is a theme quite new to your work.
I was inspired, of course, by the wars in Yugoslavia. I was in Belgrade when the whole thing began, when Milosevic came to power in 1989. There was a literary conference, and writers from all over the world were invited. The strange thing was that the subject of that conference was 'Heroic Epics'. Now all the writers were wondering, who would do that now? I remember talking to a Dutch writer and asking 'Have you encountered a heroic epic recently that really matters to you?' But the Serbian writers went on and on about sublimation, and we got parts of these poems translated, and I couldn't believe my ears, because at the time - this was 1989 - they had had this anniversary of the colossal battle on the Amselfeld5. That's when the whole war propaganda started, and of course nobody knew what it would lead to. It was actually the beginning of a new kind of nationalism, and the strange thing was that writers and intellectuals and journalists would join to a high degree.
And of course the wars were really quite close to where I live. At one point there was actually some firing across the border when Slovenia was the first state to become independent. It was a rather quick affair, fortunately.
You present a novel viewpoint of the war, particularly in 'Die Kroatinnen' ('The Croatian Women').
Yes, my idea was to take a group of women, of Croatian women who are watching TV in a refugee camp, and they recognise their husbands, their friends, and men they know on the TV screen. And these men suddenly seem to be totally different figures. It's a process of alienation, like seeing a man in a very different situation who is suddenly doing things that you never thought he was capable of doing.
So it's all about recognition, and of course the women's reactions are very different, according to their temperament. Take number 5, for example. The woman is outraged, because her friend, her husband, or whatever, is standing over a dead man, a person he has probably killed himself. And she says, 'Was glaubst du denn wer du bist' ('Just who do you think you are'). But then she realises, if he were not standing, he would be lying there.
Or look at number 6. It has always amazed and astonished me how tender and gentle men can be toward machines, you know, how they touch machines and move their arms. I've often seen people at filling stations lift the windshield wiper very gently, so as not to hurt this thing. And in a war situation, when you see a man doing these things, well, it reminds her, you know? And it gets really scary.
In your most recent poems you seem to be continuing your interest in experimentation with forms and syntax. If I understand it correctly, your next volume will include a sequence of Laura's Songs and of Summer Elegies.
Yes, these are two very different sequences. With Laura's poems - I first invented poems, in a way, and then I invented a poet, who had written them, a poet called Laura; she is the protagonist in a novel that I finished recently. And these are very simple poems that I think could be set to music. They are basically four-line stanzas that do not rhyme, I don't know what else to say abut them other than they seem like sixteenth-century songs, you know? And they have titles like, 'When she gives him orders' or 'When she's flying over him', so this woman is speaking in these poems in a very oldfashioned way.
There's a playfulness to this, too. Was that intended?
I think the Laura poems are sort of a mask really. Although they're very autobiographical, as well. But they give me a strong sense of having a persona, you know? And I can invest her with as much of my biography as I want to. And I can make her do things that I wouldn't do.
The Summer Elegies appear to be more personal.
The Summer Elegies are very autobiographical poems. They are a sequence of seventeen poems of different lengths, of different forms. I wrote them over the past two years or so, mostly in the summer of 1999. Initially the title was going to be The Summer That Was Ages Too Short, but my English publisher suggested I change it to Summer Elegies. They are dedicated to my husband.
What makes them elegies?
They are elegies both for the summer of 1999 and for a friend of mine who died during that summer. It was the summer of the solar eclipse, which was clearly visible in the part of Austria where I live. And it was a very strong experience. Recently they have become elegies in an unforeseeable way. My husband and I had rented a wonderful farm for twenty years. It was actually a manor house with a large park, beautiful old trees. I used to spend summers there writing. The place has taught me most of what I know about nature. The lease has not been renewed. The trees have been cut down.
I like the way they are imbued with awareness of time passing even as you capture the moment, of holding fast to certain seconds and realising they are passing, too. I found a line from an earlier volume that I think could serve as a preface to the elegies: you write about 'Gier nichts Kleineres; auch du hast//nicht mehr endlos Zeit' ('Greed nothing less; no longer have you endless time'). It seems to me that this is captured in these poems.
Yes. Certainly when you get older you cherish time more, with each day. And the Elegies are really also for the summer - the summer of life.
Perhaps that comes through strongest in Elegy XI, where you're standing behind the chapel with its pews carved for men of 'a different age,' and then getting to the erotic moment of the last line and the suddenness of making love. It's very startling, because you have this sense of history and you being part of the history, and then the intensity of the moment at the end.
Yes. It was the strangest thing. There was a little chapel in the park of the manor house, and you could actually feel it in your limbs when you sat down on these benches that those people must have had shorter legs, or else they were just forced to sit very uncomfortably, which I don't think was the case. So you see - it's a very strange sense of time having passed.
In these Elegies, too, you have a tremendous variety of settings. Was that a deliberate way of supporting your theme, or is it just coincidence that in trying to capture the moment, you have all these different settings?
I know what you mean. Like the one poem about Ferrara and the other poem about the Czech landscape. No, it's also landscape of memory and the landscape of places where my husband and I like to go.
And Wales. Had you gone to all those places that summer?
We had been to Ferrara, but the trip to the Czech Republic was an earlier memory. We went there, my husband and I and a friend - actually the friend who provided me with a lot of material about the Baroque writer Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg6 - and we went to this little place to the north of Austria beyond the border in the Czech Republic, because, for one thing it's the birthplace of the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, and for the other, there was a gorgeous view down this valley where the Vltava - the Moldau - flows, and where part of the valley is flooded, so the path of the old river only shows when it's freezing. When it's very cold and when all the water freezes, it somehow freezes in a different white. But it's still difficult to make out the lines, we were standing there for a very long time willing ourselves to see it. And then we thought we did, and I took dozens of photographs. The reason why I mention this Baroque writer, Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg, is that she was a very religious writer, and she believed that God was showing up in nature, so that we could read it and find signs from God. And I thought this was something she would have liked much, you know, it was a strange and strong sign.
Is this a point of identification between you and the Baroque poet?
I think so, yes. I may in fact be a 'religious' writer, not in any confessional way, but in the sense that I keep reading nature for signs, and conceive of natural phenomena as emanations from - whom? But I seem to be more interested in the message than the sender. What I want to say is that anthropomorphism for me is not only a technique, but very much my outlook on the world. For one thing, it makes communication with the seemingly mute easier. It makes you a good listener. Of course, most writers are good listeners, because they are always out for stories. Attributing human qualities to seemingly inanimate things - one might say that it is either a very primitive way of colonising the material world, or else that is a very naïve and childlike point of view. I think it is a rich source, and anyway it's second nature to me. Elegy XII says at the end: 'In the oven the logs settle themselves/ They give off little sounds of relief.' Or in Elegy XIII, which is all about the sense of hearing and ultimately the fear of becoming deaf, the car 'stalks its way across the gravel'.
Elegy XIII was the poem that, at the first reading, struck me as the most remarkable of the elegies. You emphasise the visual in so many of your poems, but here you introduce the auditory and bring in a whole new aspect of sensory perception.
It struck me as strange, too. Because I think it's very unusual in my poetry.
Would you call the Elegies confessional poems?
Not with the reputation that the confessional poem nowadays has, which is a very bad one.
What do you mean by that?
I think that the term has suffered from too much feminist theory being connected with it. Nowadays I think you would associate the confessional poem with a woman moved to write herself into - not into the mainstream, but into some kind of accepted poetry by women, you know.
On the other hand, a writer always confesses. The moment you use language, you confess. I guess I dislike the term confessional, because, and this may have to do with my own Catholic upbringing, it implies confessing sin. Now, I'm not confessing sin, I'm being truthful, I try to make my language as truthful as is possible.
In Elegy III you have an interesting three-line stanza. Why did you choose this?
Well this poem is all about movement - of the sea, of the ocean, movements of people, of these two persons moving towards each other and missing each other almost, and this seemed to me to be the most appropriate form of stanza, to imitate waves, really.
I find the whole treatment of landscape in your poems to be especially striking, in that you incorporate nature in ways that create inescapable images. Yet, in Elegy VIII, you seem to question your ability to do this.
What created this poem was in fact the line 'That first winter in Wiltshire' which is from a poem by Elaine Feinstein, and it struck me when I was reading that poem that I saw the landscape immediately, even though I hadn't been there, and I thought that this English landscape was just so big and so important and so charged. And then I compared it to what would happen if I wrote 'that first winter in ' and then filled in some of my places. And that set off a kind of meditation about how I have been watching my landscapes for so many years now, and I do this very intensely and purposefully. So I go places a hundred times and pass certain routes over the hills. The poem is broken up into two pieces, with my husband answering. It's a poem about patience, it's about how long it takes to learn to read the landscape, to read a person.
So we're back to time again...
Sure. It's very much about time. But it sees time in a positive way, because it's sort of a consolation, that there is always something more to learn about somebody you think you know, a landscape you know.
- Ortswechsel des Herzens. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1989.
- Einflüsterung nahe seinem Ohr. Wien: Edition Maioli zu Wien, 1984.
- Der Schnabelberg. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1992.
- From Das Talent meiner Frau. Salzburg and Vienna: Residenz Verlag, 1999.
- Where the Serbians were defeated by the Ottoman Turks on 28 June, 1389.
- For her story 'Die lustwählende Schäferin' ('The Hedonistic Shepherdess'), from her collection Unsichtbare Frauen (Invisible Women), Salzburg and Vienna: Residenz Verlag, 1995.
This interview is taken from PN Review 146, Volume 28 Number 6, July - August 2002.