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German lessons

A survey of things at work in German literary culture that might suit Americans very well, too... a comparison/contrast between two cities and their literary environments.

filed 11 December 2001 | Chicago
by Kurt Heintz

There are two sister cities, Chicago and Hamburg. Poetry is alive and kicking in both. Their cultural environments have given rise to similar phenomena, and in fact the European city has borrowed much from the example of the American one. However, past a certain point, their literary cultures diverge. As with so many other things, poetry and spoken word can mutate and improve when they are transported to new environments and the artists who practice them have to adapt and improve in order to survive. I'll cite a few examples of how Hamburg's culture may now offer better examples of what Chicago claims to do best through its hometown literary forms. These may point to lessons that Chicago poets would do well to heed.

Poetry near water

When Hamburg presents poetry on the beach, it's not just for the poets and their immediate friends, as it can tend to be here in Chicago. 200 to 300 people come out for a monthly summertime event. They anticipate and talk about in cafés. News about it makes the city papers with color photos. But it's not an open-mike affair, like Chicago's. It's curated, and the featured artists are limited in number, rarely more than a handful of carefully chosen writers. A poet gets to read in it once they've proven their worth elsewhere.

Hamburg's success with beach poetry made me question whether Chicago's local passion for open mike poetry isn't really spoiling the public's appreciation of it. After a while, how many more poetry open mikes does a city the size of Chicago need? And even if there are featured artists, why bother asking random guests to participate? It may be time to reappraise the necessity of the open mike.

Hamburg beach poetry's emphasis is curation instead of inclusion. The public know they won't be bothered by random poets at the microphone, and they know that someone has vetted the featured poets' credentials. Going to Hamburg beach poetry is kind of like going to the movies -- people don't want to spend two hours doing something without some assurance that it's going to be good.

So the curators have an unwritten contract with the public to offer poetry that can prove itself, and they promote the poetry outside the writers' community. Hamburgians value their free time and want an affirmation that they're going to see something worthwhile. The audience know that they -- and not necessarily the poets -- are the point of the show.

Learning by doing

Another Hamburg institution worth considering is in the Macht group. The word "macht" has a lot of meaning in German, and may connote making something, having force, or a having certain measure of gravity on stage. Macht does not run on a weekly basis. Instead, it gathers writers as it needs, with monthly or seasonal programs, irregularly spaced.

Macht backs up their programs with a zine that features poetry and some critical writing, with photos and information about past and forthcoming Macht events. While being careful not to remediate the poetry, the zine helps the public understand it. The zine also keeps the buzz working productively about their shows, and between their shows. A Macht spoken word anthology on CD is in production. Though there aren't any season ticktets to Macht, it's a poetry series you can "subscribe" to. The organizers want the public to know they can make it part of their life, that the series won't trifle with them. But Macht is not stuffy. It presents artists from the whole city of Hamburg, whether they are open mikers, published writers, or performance poets. The major requisite for inclusion is having good work worth showing.

In Chicago terms, the closest likeness to Macht would be the PolyRhythmic group, but the comparison is a bit thin in places. The companies have similar virtues. Both host readings. Both have access to multidisciplinary talents, and like to put that talent to use. Both have a loyal following. Both have a young constituency, though Macht's artists are slightly older and the audience seems a bit more widely distributed in age, also with a slightly older average. Both groups work nightclubs and make no apologies for that; in fact, both thrive because of it. Both build featured readings and performances from their own internal artist base, though Macht tends to pick solo artists from outside its group and present them as featured artists; PolyRhythmic has functioned more like an ensemble, where group performances have sway, and group membership is key to participation. Both publish, though Macht is much more regular at it, having rendered several volumes in 2001 alone.

Unlike Chicago's PolyRhythmics, Macht doesn't touch open mike shows. Like the Hamburg beach poetry series, Macht curates. Total inclusiveness is considered something for other venues, other situations where poets may be trying out their voices for the first time. It's not as though spoken word culture isn't a part of Macht, but that access to their stage -- and by extension, access to their audience's attention -- is not given freely to just anyone. The audience feel a little cherished and considered because of this, much as the beach poetry audience does.

The Macht and Hamburg beach poetry examples suggest that Chicago could use more curation and less poevangelism to kick the level up a notch for our local poets. Inviting everybody to participate is not an answer, unless we all want to remain beginners.

Creating an institution from/for experience

A number of Macht members are based in Writers' Room, a non-profit writers' center and cooperative that puts business resources at the disposal of emerging Hamburg writers. There is no equivalent of Writers' Room in Chicago, so our poets do not necessarily have as reliable (or as broadly accessible) a place in which to learn production planning, promotion, production, curation, and criticism. Writers' Room also operates as a workshop where deeper learning about poetry can take place, apart from the encumbering institutionalism of universities and smokey drunkeness of saloons. It's a clean space for language art and the people who make it, free of distractions.

Such a businesslike environment has professionalized Macht's core membership. The group presents new literature as an entertainment enterprise. Their programs have commercial sponsorship from city newpapers and magazines. So the Macht group are running the show in a flat-out professional way, with strong recognition in the city and the clubs in which it works.

PolyRhythmic are obviously doing their best in Chicago, but have to build or collect all this business savvy from scratch. In the end, this amounts to a relative disadvantage for audience. A good night for the PolyRhythmics is around 100 guests. With Macht shows, twice as many guests are drawn from a city much smaller than Chicago.

Earning and keeping clout

If slam and open mikes are key to raising the public's involvment in poetry, Hamburg is hardly lacking. The city mirrors Chicago's own significance to slam as one of Europe's hubs for the phenomenon. "Hamburg ist Slamburg" is one of continental Europe's longest-running slam venues. Hamburg slam Meisters were instrumental in assembling a network of slam venues across Europe's German language countries. Hamburg was 2001's host to the German language international slams.

The Sister City likeness between Chicago and Hamburg is particularly strong in poetry. Often, we expect that our laurels or precedent alone are sufficient to inspire that very Chicago feeling of "clout." But as anyone who's had clout knows, clout is ephemeral. Clout can fade.

I am making a case here for the advocacy of Chicago's living literary contribution to world culture, that to sustain it (and so sustain our clout) we must learn from others. We can assimilate advances by others into the production and promotion of Chicago literature. It's one way to keep our poetry's gene pool strong. Certainly some of our "Second City" syndrome is self-imposed. When we become too self-absorbed with arcane poetry gossip-mongering and totem-pole ranking, we won't bother looking beyond ourselves for the best in the rest of the world. So that search defaults to others who are willing to ask the hard questions to get the hard answers, with the profit defaulting to them, too.

The examples I cite are merely what I alone observed from visiting one European city and taking some careful notes. Imagine if we collected such overseas experiences from all our city's writers into a single body. What kind of think tank would that build for our literary presenters? What benefits would our writers reap? This makes for a fascinating speculation. Chicago could tap the collected literary ecologies of other cities, and so build the best for itself. It would be a contemporary echo of the great library of Alexandria, only for the collection of critique and theory instead of just the published works of other lands.

Hamburg writers deserve recognition for placing their poetry well beyond their own immediate circle, to be enjoyed by everyday people in their town. The Hamburgians built upon good ideas from Chicago, while inventing a few things for themselves. We Chicagoans must recognize that good ideas can often stand improvement.

Continue reading with the earlier companion essay On translating cultures, a case study of German cultural representation and, by extension, how Americans may want to consider improving their cultural literacy. copyright © 1999-2016 e-poets network
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