Literaturwerkstatt Berlin

Book blogger and translator Katy Derbyshire introduces readers to Berlin’s unique ‘Literaturwerkstatt’

Imagine a space dedicated to promoting literature. Not just any literature, though – national and international emerging writers, and poetry in particular. Imagine a team of eight dedicated individuals working on all sorts of literary projects, from poems raining down from the sky to a prestigious talent contest for young writers. Now put that space and those people into a redbrick former brewery complex in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg – and you have the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin.
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A performance by Reflexus (Barcelona)
Its origins date back to the civil rights movement at the end of the GDR, when activists occupied the East German writers’ association clubhouse, a villa in nearby Pankow. In 2004 it moved to a cosy corner of the Kulturbrauerei, where literature fans now rub shoulders with salsa dancers, concert-goers and film buffs. Although now institutionalised, the Literaturwerkstatt has stayed true to its roots in that it is not an organisation that focuses on the big names. You’re just as likely to find young Croatian poets reading at one of its frequent in-house events as you are to see heavyweight German novelists. And that combination sets it apart in a city where literature is performed and presented live on several different stages every night of the week.
Yet these are not solely the kind of traditional readings that are so popular in the German literary world. Part of the Literaturwerkstatt’s mission is to promote poetry in combination with other arts and media, a very innovative and forward-looking undertaking. It hosts, for example, what must be the world’s most impressive online collection of international poems – currently presents 7,234 poems by 798 poets, written in fifty-six mother tongues, along with 9,658 translations into fiftyfive languages. Recent additions include work by Bahraini poet Ali Al Jalawi in Arabic, German and English; Tomas Tranströmer in Swedish, Macedonian, German and Slovenian; and the Palestinian Hind Shoufani translated from the original English to German by the award-winning German poet Monika Rinck – all complete with audio files spoken by the poets themselves. Poetry translators’ hearts will skip a beat to find out that lyrikline even pays proper translation fees!
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Katy Derbyshire, writer Tilman
Rammstedt and critic Hubert Winkels
Beat poet John Giorno at the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival

Another mixed-media project is the biennial ZEBRA poetry film festival. Held over four days, the festival is a competition for short films based on poems. Although it has inspired imitators since it started out in 2002, it is still the longest-running and most important platform for poetry film. The last round in 2010 garnered more than 900 submissions from seventy-one countries, with twenty-six selected for the main competition. And September 2012 will see new prizes for best debut, best pro-tolerance film and best poetry performance on film.
The Literaturwerkstatt’s most winning formula, however, is the Open Mike. Running since 1993, the literary talent competition has become a career springboard for young writers. A group of professional editors whittle down hundreds of entries to select twenty-two finalists under the age of thirty-five. They then each have fifteen minutes to read their texts in front of the audience and the literary judges. Despite seating one hundred people, the Literaturwerkstatt has to decamp to the nearby Wabe venue for the weekend because the event draws such a huge crowd – agents, editors, critics, writers, competitors’ friends and fans of young writing spend two full days gossiping, criticising, proselytising and actually listening to the readers in a slightly tumbledown atmosphere of faded East German glory. But it wouldn’t be a Literaturwerkstatt production without an element of grassroots democracy: hence the audience jury, a group of mere mortals selected by the taz newspaper, who award their own prize. The author of this piece once had the pleasure of partaking in the jury – a once-in-a-lifetime experience that made me realise how utterly exhausting it is to argue about literature for two days flat. But how incredibly rewarding, too.
The winners are pretty much guaranteed a publishing contract, if they haven’t already got one on the strength of being selected in the first place. There follows a brief tour of German and Austrian venues – a major coup for fledgling writers. Even for those who don’t win a prize, the Open Mike is a great boost. For many of the participants it’s the first time they’ve read on stage, which is no doubt very nerve-racking in front of such a large audience. And the event itself is flanked by seminars and workshops with experienced writers and editors, working closely together on the texts.
German author Tilman Rammstedt won the Open Mike in 2001, going on to publish a short story collection and two novels and also to win the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2008. Last year he was on the jury for the contest. He told NBG: ‘The Open Mike is the great deflowerer of the German literary business. For me, too, it was like first-time sex: I was excited and out of my depth and it was no fun at all, but despite that I look back on it with a lot of gratitude and a nostalgic smile because it was the beginning of something decisive for me. And unlike most deflowerers, the Open Mike keeps on calling you up even years later.’
Like any decent attempt to get people addicted to literature, the Literaturwerkstatt tries to ‘grab ’em young’. Those not yet old enough for the Open Mike can take part in the Poesie verbindet project, sending in their favourite poems with a short essay on why they like them. The winners are invited to Berlin to make a short film, to be presented at a gala in June and broadcast on Polish television. The ZEBRA festival has its own section for children’s and young people’s films – judged in finest Literaturwerkstatt tradition by junior judges. And the annual poetry festival (charmingly named the Poesiefestival) takes poets out to schools as well as inviting adult guests to the venue.
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Graffiti artists at work as part of the Poesiefestival Berlin Poets Yoko Tawada and Aki Takase at the Literaturwerkstatt

The Literaturwerkstatt has an international side, too, showcasing literature from around the world. One project is the Europa literarisch event series, presenting writers from far-flung places such as Malta and Lithuania who would otherwise have little chance of reaching an audience in Berlin. Last year’s Poesiefestival featured poets and rappers of the Arab revolutions. And this past February saw the Tage der irischen Literatur, with writers such as Keith Ridgway and Claire Keegan coming over to give the Germans a rather more up-to-date taste of Irish writing than the classics many of them are familiar with. The Literaturwerkstatt works with embassies, cultural associations, publishers, foundations and the occasional private sponsor to supplement its own budget – in this case the whiskey distillers Tullamore Dew.
And then there’s the translation project VERSschmuggel. Every year during the Poesiefestival, German poets get together with poets from another language or region – Polish, Arabic, Portuguese, Québécois, Irish, Spanish and French have all been represented. The idea is for them to translate each other’s work on the basis of interlinear translations, and seven anthologies of the results have been published. As readers will know, however, a translation process like this can be much more fruitful than just producing a new crop of versions – poets can profit enormously from the creative input and the unusual inspiration of translating work from a different cultural context.
In the summer of 2010, the Literaturwerkstatt cooperated with the Chilean artists’ collective Casagrande on their spectacular project Poetry Rain. Marking the two-hundredth anniversary of Chile’s independence, the project chartered a helicopter to bombard Berlin’s central Lustgarten with 100,000 poems. Work by eighty German and Chilean poets was printed on bookmarks and literally rained down from the sky for half an hour, accompanied by performances by Latin American artists. The idea was to make a statement that was anti-war and pro-conciliation, making poetry accessible to the masses and raising its profile. Similar bombardments had taken place in Santiago de Chile (2001), Dubrovnik (2002), Guernica (2004) and Warsaw (2009), and Londoners will have a chance to share the experience this summer.
All in all, it was a typical Literaturwerkstatt production: a crazy idea with a pinch of naïve megalomania, a little bit of politics, complete disregard for national and linguistic boundaries, a good portion of humour, and of course a huge amount of good literature. If only every city had a Literaturwerkstatt of its own.
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Arnaldo Antunes at Weltklang – Nacht der Poesie

Open Mike winners you may know
The Literaturwerkstatt’s literary talent competition is a launching platform for young writers.
Previous winners include:
  • Karen Duve (1994) Rain/This Is Not A Love Song
    (Bloomsbury; trans. Anthea Bell)
  • Julia Franck (1995) The Blind Side of the Heart
    (Harvill Secker; trans. Anthea Bell)
  • Terézia Mora (1997) Day In Day Out
    (HarperCollins; trans. Michael Henry Heim)
  • Zsuzsa Bank (2000) The Swimmer
    (Harcourt; trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo)
  • Tilman Rammstedt (2001) Der Kaiser von China
    (forthcoming from Seagull Books; trans. Katy Derbyshire)
  • Judith Zander (2007) Dinge, die wir heute sagten
    (see NBG Autumn 2011 for translations of her poetry by Bradley Schmidt)
  • Matthias Senkel (2009) Senkel’s debut novel, Frühe Vögel, is reviewed in NBG.

Berlin poet Nora Bossong regularly performs at the Literaturwerkstatt. You can read English versions of some of her poems in NBG.

Katy Derbyshire
is a translator and blogger based in Berlin: