Interview-Ulrike Almut Sandig by Nandini Varma

Ulrike Almut Sandig was born on May 15, 1979 in Großenhain. She grew up in a parsonage in Nauwalde. She published her first poems in the form of posters on traffic lights, construction sites and electric boxes in Leipzig and other cities. In 2005, she completed her Masters in Religious Studies and Modern Indology in Leipzig and later her Diploma at the Deutschen Literaturinstitut (German Literature Institute) in Leipzig in 2010. Ulrike Sandig has published three volumes of poetry, one novel, as well as two pop audio music books. Besides that in 2015, her new poems on children’s fairytales and fables by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm under the title ‘Grimm’ as well as, a novel by the name of ‘Buch gegen das Verschwinden’ (Book against disappearance) were released. Ulrike Almut Sandig wrote audio books and worked for her speech concerts together with several musicians and composers. Her poetry has been translated often, made into films and also won awards, among others, the Leonce-und-Lena- Award, 2009. Also, for her prose, she has received numerous awards and grants and most recently, the author’s grant from the Berliner Senats 2014. She is a member of the PEN-Zentrums Germany. Ulrike Almut Sanders lives with her family in Berlin since 2011.

1. When did you begin writing poetry?
I wrote some when I was about eleven years old, but until I was twenty all of this was meant to be private. When I was twenty two years old, I co-founded a street art project and named it “augenpost” – eyemail. We pasted our poems on lamp posts, construction fences, wrapped it around traffic light masts, and later on we produced small postcards with illustrated poetry on it. Today I find that this was the start in really doing literature, since it was adressed to a readership other than our friends.

2.What sort of writing and contexts inspired you to write?
My first three books are poetry collections mainly based on my life and experiences. I guess I needed to make clear, at least to myself, who I am and where I come from. I grew up in East Germany, in a Lutheran priest’s household who was against the regime, so my perspective on language was political from the start. Now six books have been published to date, four volumes of poetry and two story collections, there are also three CD albums of poetry with music and various radio plays. This may already reveal my love for the sound of poetry, the audibility of language and literature. I work with themes and images taken from folk tales, folk songs and oral language and fuse them with social and political contexts of the society I live in. But even if my writing is not autobiographical anymore, it is still based on the things I witness and also on my fears, my sorrows, my joy. The title of my recent story collection is “Book against Disappearing” and gathers seven stories in which objects or characters get lost. The fact that we all will disappear is one of my biggest fears and a good reason to write.

3a. Considering that you published your earliest poems by pasting them on lamp posts, construction sites, electric boxes, places massively visible and easily accessible to the public, what was the intention behind this brave move?
It was not meant to be brave at all. Our first poetry poster was addressed to a friend whom we wanted to make it a birthday surprise. She loved it, but so did a lot of other people, too. So we went on. Addressing to a readership who would not attend a reading at all or even buy a poetry book, but who would still enjoy our eyemail (as we called it) inspired us. But we also wanted to add something to the city we loved and lived in, something that didn’t want to sell or persuade or inform about stuff. We were thrilled by the idea that poetry in places where you don’t expect it can change the way you look at the world and what you expect language to do for you.

3b. What were your biggest fears back then? How have they changed over the years?
Well, I did not have a lot of fears about my writing at all. My naivety kept me safe throughout the first years of literary writing, because if I had known about what can go wrong and what to fight against when you want to make your life as a writer, I am sure I would not have dared to try. I had enough private issues and needed to learn how to deal with them by psyshotherapy and the rolling by of years, but literary writing was something I did not have any doubts about. That has changed by now. I know that there is a readership waiting for my next book, and I don’t want to disappoint them. I am proud that I have been making my life as a freelance author and performer for more than ten years now, but I have sacrificed a lot of things on my way, like any financial security, free weekends, public holidays, spare time. But it was worth it! Now my biggest fear is that my daughter who is now four years old might not understand why I travel such a lot. I try to bring her along as often as I can and show her that you can make your life as a woman artist without falling into the gender trap, but the fear that she might prefer an ordinary mum who sacrifices her career for her family remains.

4. You’ve treated poetry in various ways – in the form of spoken word/performance poetry, poetry through audio books, poetry pasted in public spaces, and page poetry. Which one, in your opinion, has created the most impact, and which one have you enjoyed the most?
I couldn’t say! I enjoy performing poetry as much as page poetry, I don’t make much difference between one and the other. I never performed any poetry that would not have a dimension in written language. But I wrote and published a lot of poetry, essays and stories that would not work on stage, because they simpy need to be read by the reader himself, with his own inner voice. Let’s decide the readership and the audience what has the most impact to them, depending on the way their brains function or on the sound settings on stage or just on the good and bad luck of a performance evening.

5. Do you think at this point, there is a need for the mass, especially the youth globally, to find their voice and speak up through their preferred medium, instead of holding back?
Within the last years a lot of democratic countries throughout the world have found themselves at a turning point where the influence of economical structures on political processing pushes democracy out of the game. India has been dealing with nationalism in a different way than other democracies, but it is faced the same challenge as the Western states: the backing of right wing populists by an economical system that is extremely hard to understand and thus to argue against. But at the same time it is the globalised economy who has brought up a youth that is not only connected all over the continents, but that also shares similar values: the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom of movement, just to name a few of them. We are far from living human rights, but we can vouch for them. If the educated youth who is a native speaker of this globalised economy, a generation with an advanced understanding of how to use new media as a means of information, if this youth does not claim their values now, then who will do?

6. In a country like India, spoken word poetry is slowly becoming a medium through which the youth is voicing their opinions, as can be seen in events held at schools and universities, as well as videos and texts published online. How has the reaction of the youth in Germany been to this newest subset of poetry?
In Germany there has been a spoken word scene since the 1980th – initially influenced by the US American beatniks, but more and more finding their own European voice in various open mic locations, f.i. in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg in the early 1990ths. Initially focusing on political themes, against a majority seen as a bourgois establishment, it became a fashion in the late 1990ths when Slam Poetry readings started to attract a large audience that didn’t have much to do with literature at all. By now the spoken word scene has been long found entrance into major publishing houses and reading festivals, thanks to some outstanding Spoken Word artists such as Michael Lentz, Nora Gomringer, Bas Böttcher, just to name a few of them. There are a lot of emerging authors who don’t bother about whether they do spoken word or page literature at all.

7. Do you think there is a desperate need for great translator-poets seeing the emerging number of poets producing important poems all across the world?
One of the advantages of living in a widely globalised world is the fact that poets get in touch with outstanding poetry written in other languages. So why not working on a deeper understanding of each other? Poetry does not necessarily have to be translated by other poets, though. As a poet you might have more freedom to change a correct and faithful translation into a good poem in your language. A translator though might have a deeper understanding of the source language where most translator-poets will always need to work with interpretors.

8. Could you tell us a little about your experience with the Poets Translating Poets festival?
When I got the invitation to fly over to New-Delhi for a translation exchange with Indian poets, I was already booked for some readings in Germany. So I cancelled them and needed to pay a high compensation fee to my German organisers. But I’ve never regretted it, because the Poets Translating Poets festival turned out to be one of the most interesting events I have been given the chance to take part in the last years. In november 2015 I came to New-Delhi and spent seven intense days of work with Mangalesh Dabral and Savita Singh who write in Hindi and the Kashmiri poets Shafi Shauq and Naseem Shafaie. As a university student ten years back I had learned some Hindi which now helped my to understand the structure and imagery of the poems I was asked to translate. In the end I was proud to have a good handful of poems from India, brought into my language. At a reading event in the Max Mueller Bhavan in New-Delhi I was stunned by the new sound of my own verses, being read in Hindi and Kashmiri. Then in summer 2016 Rashmi Dhanvani from the Max Mueller Bhavan introduced me to Alif, a music band fusing their own poetry in Urdu and Kashmiri with an Ethnic sound. I went through all the poems in the sixteen languages that had been involved in this project and picked out some texts that we could bring into music together. Together with Alifs poetry and my own verses we built up a one hour set of poetry of resistance and peace in German, English, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, Kashmiri and Urdu. On 21st november I arrived in Bombay and met Mohammad Muneem Nazir and Hardik Vaghela and Karan Chitra Deshmukh from Alif and their producer Aman Moroney. A great band to work with, full of joy, skill and experience! We laughed a lot and learned from each other – it was hard work and great joy, based on a mutual understanding of how we deal with verses and sound. After four rehearsal days we gave a public concert in Edward’s theatre in Bombay. And can you imagine the joy of standing before an audience that is giving you standing ovations? The day after that I finally took part in two panel discussions and a reading in the Max Mueller Bhavan, because after all the Poets Translating Poets festival was in full process. Together with Hardik Vaghela (keys) and Mohammad Muneem Nazir (lyrics, vocal and guitar) we had the chance to play a short acoustic set in the MMB gallery that gave us the opportunity to listen to some outstanding poets who work with music like Mamta Sagar and Vasu Dixit, just to name two of them. These days Alif and I publish a number of videos from our concert in Edward Theatre, edited and mixed by Flying Carpet Prodution. I am extremely glad and grateful I met this band and am already trying to get them over to play a gig together in Europe. But speaking about poetry, I’ve been introduced to a large number of poems from various South Indian languages that I otherwise would never have given the chance to read or even to translate. Whenever I tell people back here in Germany about this project I end up telling them: India is much more than you’ve read in the news. It is divers, multicultural, multi language, cosmopolitan – and it sounds great.

9. If there is one question you’d like to leave the poets reading this thinking about/reflecting, what would that be?
Take risks. Be critic to where you are from. Be critic to where you wish to be. Work hard. Read a lot. Read literature from your own country. Read literature from all over the works, not just from the English speaking countries. Read translations. Translate. It will train your technics and sensitivity. Value your family’s tongues, learn their metres and verse structures, remember their songs and tales. Work with it. Don’t focus too much on yourself, but value yourself. Don’t only write the texts that come easy, work on the text that you think the world needs. Don’t be afraid of failing. Fail. And then take the risk again.