Friday, 9 July 2010

My E-Conversation with Roman Graf

Sentinel Poetry (Online) Magazine Monthly...Since December 2002

ISSN 1479-425X

JUNE 2003, ISSUE #7

Nnorom Azuonye

"I condemn hierarchies in religion or philosophy.

I am convinced that everyone is responsible for

his actions and has to find his own philosophy,

meaning, ethics and morality."


Nnorom Azuonye (NA): Hello Roman. Thank you for making the time to talk to me. Let's begin this conversation by quickly going over your background. May I ask when and where you were born, and where you received your education?

Roman Graf (RG): I was born on the 14th of April 1978 in Winterthur, a former worker's town in the vincinity of Zurich. I went to school in Neftenbach a village near Winterthur.

NA: And where do you currently reside?

RG: I live in Zurich, Switzerland.

NA: Do you currently work as a full-time writer or are you involved in another occupation?

RG: Sometimes I work part-time and write, at other times I work full-time like I am doing at the moment as a member-recruitment officer for Greenpeace. This will make it possible for me to take time off, travel for a while and concentrate on writing.

NA: Would you kindly say what other work you did before that?

RG: I started with an apprenticeship as a lumberjack, then I cared for disabled people and later worked as an editor for a weekly newspaper Das Stadtblatt Now I have left journalism for literary writing, however, sometimes I also still write for the magazine Der Tages-Anzeiger on a freelance basis.

NA: What inspired you to start writing poetry?

RG: Life is inspiring. It is all about coming to terms with what happens and to voice these thoughts.

NA: You have said that life inspires you. Would you say that you are naturally philosophical or are your attitudes to life and what happens guided by a religion, or any other organised school of thought?

RG: Of course I have been influenced - by the culture I grew up in. But other than that I am an atheist and I do not adhere to any specific school of thought. I condemn hierarchies in religion or philosophy. I am convinced that everyone is responsible for his actions and has to find his own philosophy, meaning, ethics and morality. Everyone has to bear this burden. This is what I do.

NA: Are there any poets that have influenced or continue to influence your poetry?

RG: The Swiss writer Max Frisch, the Austrian writers Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard and Bettina Balàka and also Paul Auster.

"I can only speak for myself and

for me writing is to demolish walls.

The readers begin to see the world differently,

they are plunged into a different world

an alternative world."


NA:
If you were faced with a challenge to define poetry to somebody who has never heard of it, how would you define it?

RG: Poetry is to turn words into a flower.

NA: Do you have a favourite form of poetic expression?

RG: The newly-invented.

NA: When is it fine for a poet to experiment with form? Are you an experimental poet and if so, what do you wish to achieve with your poetry?

RG: I was always more interested in innovations in form that of content, but every writer must know this for himself. I can only speak for myself and for me writing is to demolish walls. The readers begin to see the world differently, they are plunged into a different world, an alternative world. It is only natural that I experiment with form; I see no reason to restrict and reduce myself to one kind of expression. But despite the fact that I see myself as an experimental poet I do not want to achieve anything with my poems. That remains the readers concern: everyone can see what they like in the text.

NA: How regularly do you read your poems to a live audience? How important is it to you that poems are read or performed and what devices do you apply in order to achieve unforgettable performance poetry?

RG: I give readings regularly. Generally though I believe that all my texts, poetry and prose, should be read and not read aloud. I read poems slowly and for prose scenic reading is often a good idea. I don't give much for performances: performances, poetry slam and the like represent a different kind of literature that bears little resemblance to mine. For me language is all important. It has to be powerful without the need for performance.

NA: Do I understand that once you have written a poem it is like electricity which some people may use to save lives and others may use to kill?

RG: No, it is not like electricity, which some people may use to save lives and others may use to kill. That is all about power, but this is not what I am after. A poem is a poem and it is just there like a tree on a meadow. Everyone can come to the tree and find in it what he wants to find.

"I think that it is wrong that we have been

trying to psychologise everything recently...

When everything that we do is motivated by

deficiency and we know this then our

self-perception will soon be that of inferiority.

Man is reduced to nothing…"


NA:
Surely there must be a purpose or motive to your writing. I recall George Orwell once listed four main reasons he believed drove writers to write, namely, sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Which of these, if at all, comes closest to your strongest motive when you pick up a pen?


RG:
I don't think Orwell is right to set up such types. For most authors all these points are playing a part and probably many other reasons as well. Serious art is always also a form of self-discovery. Such a division into four points is too simplistic - someone, whose writing is politically motivated, would also write because he is personally involved, for example because he lived in Germany during World War 2 or the post-war years. Thus he is automatically also writing for egoistical reasons.


One cannot write about something that is alien to oneself. I could not write about somebody in a third world country because that would be arrogant and not credible. Everybody writes about himself and that is good too as everyone can only speak for himself.

But your question about the purpose to my writing asks for an explanation: how is the writer's motive relevant for literature? I do not know my reasons and I think that it is wrong that we have been trying to psychologise everything recently. The psychologist Alfred Adler once said that the more ambitious one is in a certain field the larger his inferiority complex will be in that same area. This statement may be correct, but what use is it? When everything that we do is motivated by deficiency and we know this then our self-perception will soon be that of inferiority. Man is reduced to nothing and can only define himself in his actions and achievements. And we are getting better and better at this: we have great careers, fast cars and build huge cities and funfairs. Man himself is becoming less important - if it continues like this, he will soon have disappeared. But to return to your question about these four types: the answer lies in literature. The reader of literary works does not need to ask why it has been written.


NA:
That is your view, of course. Let's move on. You work with words. Have there been times you failed to find a word either in German (the language in which you write) or any other language to precisely convey an idea or describe a feeling in a poem? If so how have you managed an approximation, and does this make it hard to look that poem in the eye?


RG:
I have never asked myself this question because I do not express feelings with words but with situations. Of course it happens sometimes that I do not know how the story should continue or that I lack a metaphor or a line of a poem. This problem can only be solved by giving the text some time. I sleep it over, go for a walk ... and suddenly I find the answer.

"...the responsibility for cultural development

is slowly returned to the authors themselves.

Society retreats and the circle of authors

is self-centred and has to provide for itself."


NA:
When you have a subject to write about, what makes you decide that poetry and not prose will be a better vehicle for it to gain life?

RG: I never pick a topic and then decide whether I want to write prose of poetry. For me it the form that determines the content. When I want to write a poem, I sit myself down or I walk along the Zürichsee and then the ideas come up too. Of course it also happens that I come up with a sentence - but in most cases I know immediately whether this is a sentence for a short story or a poem. I just follow my intuition.


NA: How long do you carry a poem inside you before you write it?

RG: I don't really know this. I write when I feel like it but I cannot say how long my unconscious has carried it. Like I said it sometimes happens that I don't know how to continue a text. In that case I just give it time, sometimes it just takes an hour, sometimes a night or a week that is always different.


NA: How long after you have written a poem do you leave it alone, or even forget it, before you begin revising it?


RG: Normally I finish a poem in a day and revise it the following days. Sometimes I also revise texts that are a few months old, but that is rare.


NA: Poetry in translation breaks down the barrier of language. When you see your work in a language you can't read, does it make you uncomfortable, even if you trust that your words and the contexts in which you use them survive in tact?


RG:
Translations are always problematic, especially with poems. So far I never had had any problems with translations, this is because they are new texts by different authors. I do not really identify with these texts but I find it interesting to see what the translator has made of it and how the poem is changed, what it has gained and what it has lost.


NA: What is your attitude to pay-to-enter poetry competitions?


RG: Competitions are there to promote literature that is still unknown or new. This is important because these competitions are often the only way that young authors can draw attention to themselves and critics to their texts. Most of these young authors take part in many competitions because with the masses of entries it is very difficult to win any, not least because good literature is always in the position of the outsider and controversial.

Then there is the fact that young and unknown authors normally don't have much money - and because it is not often possible to make a living from the sale of books, prizes and grants are an important source of income.

Where there are too many pay-to-enter competitions it is no longer affordable for the author and also a loss-making business: many have to reckon with the fact that they will spend more on entry fees than they might receive if they win a competition.

But there is a more important aspect to this question: Today most of the competitions in Switzerland, Germany or Austria are funded by the governments or by foundations and sponsors. In doing so they take on responsibility for the cultural development of a country. Recently pay-to-enter competitions have also come up in the German-speaking area. Therefore the responsibility for cultural development is slowly returned to the authors themselves. Society retreats and the circle of authors is self-centred and has to provide for itself.


That is of course critical, not only financially: the cultural and intellectual significance of literature would no longer be appreciated by the state, foundations and the economy and may even be forgotten. If pay-to-enter competitions became the norm in the German-speaking literary scene then this would be a step backwards.

These entry fees eventually lead to a two-class literary scene: only those who have enough money can establish themselves in literary business. To give a quick summary: pay-to-enter competitions only promote the self-exploitation of authors and therefore I would not say that they promote literature at all but destroy it.


NA: Roman, it has been a nice chat. As I get to read more of your work in English and follow your writing career, I hope that not too long from now, we will talk again. Thank you very much for this conversation.