In April, I spent two weeks on poetry tour in Southern Germany in towns including: Erlangen, Reutlingen, Rosenfeld, Marburg, Giessen, Mainz, Heilbronn and Stuttgart. The trip was organized by German Poetry Slam phenomenon Lars Ruppel, in connection with the US Embassy. I performed at seven poetry slam venues and one school.
I had heard from many sources that Poetry Slam was a thriving art form in Germany, but I was still amazed by what I found there. A few things to know about German poetry slam:
- Poets are constantly touring to cities to participate in slams, which are booked in advance rather than being open for sign-ups they way they are in the US. I was regularly traveling with other poets and at any given slam, only a couple of poets in the slam were living in that town.
- Since poets are booked to perform in the slams, they are given money for travel, provided with hotel rooms and awarded prizes like: books, booze and potatoes. (The potatoes were prizes at the Poesie und Pommes reading where all audience members also get free French fries during the intermission!)
- In Germany, poets are given 5-7 minutes to perform each piece, which the performers refer to as “texts,” since readings include short stories, humorous essays and raps. When I would slip and generically refer to every piece as a “poem,” I was often corrected and told it was a “text.”
- Although there is a high level of performance, Germany has less emphasis on political poems and identity poems than you find in the US. The vibe toggles between a McSweeny’s Reading and a hip hop show. Although I do not speak German, I believe that there is a high level of craft in these performances.
- It’s true about Germans and beer.
I’m excited to see how Poetry Slam is evolving in yet another nation. Perhaps because there is more emphasis on developing certain voices and less stress on the open sign-up, egalitarian climate we have in the US, shows are increasingly well attended in Germany. Every slam was crowded, sometimes with more than 300 people, and some were packed to the gills with audience members standing for up to three hours in hot performance spaces.
Personally, the trip provided intense joys and challenges. The joys were in meeting talented, generous, warm poets who truly offered me every courtesy their country could provide. So many people said, “Do you have everything you need?” that I felt like my mother might have been calling them to check on me. It often felt like there was food on every table and beer in every fridge. We went to the park, played in the river, took paddle boats, stayed up late talking about poetry, rode trains, slept on cots, played drinking games and practiced each other’s languages. There was no shortage of good times.
Lars Ruppel’s house in Marburg served as my home base. Located at the foot of a cathedral which is at the foot of a castle, the Brother’s Grimm lived in Lars’ house. He kindly offered me his own room on the top floor with a marvelous view of Marbug. The time I spent in this town was easily my favorite part of the trip.
On the challenging side, I found it difficult to connect with the German audiences. Many people speak English in Germany, and most told me, “We have to speak English. It is the language of the global economy.” Many people were highly skilled English speakers, but poetry adds a level of challenge and complexity to communications. Poetry often uses words in unexpected ways to surprise the reader and confuse the experience of language. One night, I was called on to explain a line in a poem about the season changing that goes, “Go ahead Spring, pee on my grass.” I found my attempt to explain the line almost made it more obtuse.
There are few more humbling experiences for a poet than performing for 200 middle school students who don’t speak your language on the day before spring break! Or having a judge at a poetry slam explain to you why your piece wasn’t as good as the others, including, “Well, the other poets were really very good and German is a better language for oratory.” Like a lot of artists, I struggle with self-doubt and too much luke warm applause gives me insomnia.
But, I had a good opportunity to remind myself of the motto for Arts Corps, “Make Art Anyway.” It’s probably a good thing to take train rides with your artistic insecurity every year, so that you can easily recognize the voice that whispers doubt into your ears back home.
Despite my self-doubt, there seemed to be a remedy around every cobble stoned corner. It’s been years since I studied in Europe in college and I’ve never had the opportunity to stay with Europeans in their homes and live like they do for a while. This was a blessing and opportunity I hope I can repay sometime. It was truly a chance beyond measure, an experience you could never buy. The poet Josefine Berkholz taught me about a popular German saying. When you are feeling elated, able to do anything, you could say, “What Cost the World?” So, Germany, thank you for teaching me another way to invite the world to offer itself to me.