If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The author of well over one hundred works of poetry and prose, including theatrical and musical productions, as well as children’s books, Friederike Mayröcker has been awarded every German-language prize literature has to offer. With breathless abandon, she has continually expanded her oeuvre and exploded notions of genre and convention, while always getting to the heart of this earthly living by invoking what Friedrich Hölderlin referred to as “poetic dwelling.”
Her first major collection, Death by Muses, appeared in 1966. The book associated her with the Vienna Group—which included her longtime partner, Ernst Jandl—and a poetics concerned with formal stricture that was loosely identified as concrete poetry in the 1950s and ’60s. Mayröcker’s writings after this period can be read as an outgrowth of these earlier conceptual interrogations of literary expression. Her writing about—as in around—the self (a preoccupation Jacques Derrida termed circumfession) animated new approaches remarkable if not astonishing in their singularity. The rush of this work absorbed phrases emitted from the gramophone and telephone, and all manner of scraps from literature and memory, walks, trips, sedentary hours, as well as the rhythms of growth and decay, all put into an orbit of enchanted bricolage.
Mayröcker, now ninety-two, has penned three recent works, études (2013), cahier (2014), and fleurs (2016), which are especially daring in their pursuit of an ever-evolving form to grasp the outer and inner limits of a language for determining whether or how “the time of life is measurable.” Pathos and Swallow is the title of her latest collection, which she had just completed before our conversation.
Jonathan Larson Hello, Frau Mayröcker. How’s the connection? Can you hear me alright?
Friederike Mayröcker Yes, I can hear you so clearly, as if you were in Vienna. I’ve read through your preliminary questions a couple of times and find them quite interesting, though I probably won’t be able to answer all of them. Tell me now, where are you calling from, and what time is it there?
JL I’m in Brooklyn, and it’s around noon.
FM Here it’s already quarter past six in the evening, and it’s so strange—I’m not sure if you know this feeling—once it’s afternoon, the time starts running away so frantically. When it was just five, it’s suddenly seven, and then it irks me that the evening passes so swiftly.
JL The day accelerates as it’s moving along.
FM Yes, exactly. I’m an early sleeper, meaning that I go to bed at half past eight, and it frustrates me because I’d rather be awake for longer.
JL I know that feeling. But this makes me wonder about some of your poems where you‘ve marked the time as three in the morning. Is this because you just happened to stay up that late, or did you get up in the middle of the night to go to your typewriter?
FM I don’t get up. That’s when I write by hand in bed.
JL Oh, right. That actually reminds me of a lovely part in your book The Communicating Vessels, which speaks of a pen scrawling off the page onto the bed covers, scribbling all over them. And you’ve often talked about verbal dreams as starting points for your writing.
FM That’s true. If I wake up early and the dreams are still with me, I write them down by hand. They’re notions I have, probably some kind of dream consciousness, which makes for a wonderful place to start writing from. But that state of mind doesn’t always arise from dreams; often I just find myself in it. I need these spurts, and sometimes they arrive unexpectedly. I really have no idea where they come from.
JL Since we’re talking over the phone, I want to ask about the figure of the telephone itself in your work. It appears again and again, and suddenly with a voice on the other end—of a loved one, a friend, an acquaintance, or maybe even a stranger, such as right now. How does the telephone relate to the written text? Sometimes it seems as if the phone were starting to speak on its own.
FM No, I don’t think it’s like that exactly. When I’m on the phone, whether with friends or with people I don’t know, I immediately write things down, if they tell me something noteworthy. Often these are things that just interest me, or sentences I haven’t heard before, that are still unfamiliar to me, and I make notes to remember them. The phone is very important to me for that reason.
JL Looking over your many works and long career, there’s just so much to talk about. These last books—études, cahier, and fleurs—show the serial development of new writing forms, how they extend and expand, and then are trimmed back again, from a guiding idea. The first sentence of each chapter of your book Still life comes to mind, too: “The book must always start from the beginning again, says Samuel, or be continued.” How do you decide on turning points that close one work and open another? Is it a decision, or is it even more immediate than that?
FM That’s hard to say, since I don’t quite remember. I’ve written so much that I really can’t recall what’s in my books. (laughter) I do remember that sentence, of course, even though the book is pretty old by now. Still life—I’m not sure if it’s about turning points.
JL I thought the repeated sentence might encapsulate both a shift and continuation from the end of one book to the beginning of the next one. It’s as if a future book were budding inside the current one—for example, halfway through fleurs there’s the English line “lyrics or lyrix : title for the next book.” Is this an actual pondering of your next work? Or is it merely a chance direction the writing takes as opposed to a guiding thought or destination?
FM (laughter) I think the direction is something that suddenly comes to me. So, lyrics… well, I have a new book, and I’ll be sending it to my publisher tomorrow. The title will be Pathos and Swallow; I’ve been working on this book for nearly two years. I was very happy while writing it, though I could only do so between interruptions. I was hospitalized for nine weeks this spring and didn’t come home until June, and then kept working on it right away. Writing is my greatest joy, and I can only write at home. Now I’ve finished the book, thank god. The title came to me because there was a big, lovely garden at the hospital. There were so many swallows one could hardly see the sky. The early summer was full of birds, it was so beautiful, and the swallows really comforted me in my misery.
JL And swallows are central to your work. There’s that lovely phrase by Hölderlin—“as free, as swallows, poets are to be”—which returns again and again in études, in various iterations, even as a question to Jacques Derrida. I’ve wondered how the swallow, suggesting unboundedness, might figure alongside the flower, which is another returning presence in the book.
The changing flower in the glass makes me think of several lines from Edmond Jabès’s The Book of Questions where two rabbis comment on a disquisition of freedom: “Freedom awakens gradually as we become conscious of our ties, like the sleeper of their senses” and “You think it is the bird which is free. Wrong: it is the flower.” Could it be that in writing of the flower and the bird we arrive at a better understanding of our limitations, or might it even be a way to resolve them?
FM I really like that phrase, especially since I’m very attached to Hölderlin. Yes, you could say the swallows are free; when you think of it, though, the flower being free is so beautiful, such a wonderful line. I would love to use it in a citation if you don’t mind.
JL By all means! Though the original comes from Jabès. I thought there might be some connection, also because Derrida, who figures prominently in your writing, discusses Jabès’s line at length in his book Writing and Difference. Another way you and Derrida are linked is in your treatment of the self—he also wrote about his life or, better, around it. I’m interested in what you said in an interview once: you insist on your biography-lessness, even though you write about your own life in its innermost and outermost details. Is it that a separation of your biography from the work makes the writing more alive for the reader?
FM What I mean by biography-lessness, is that when the literature is about my life, well, I’d like to avoid having my biography in it, my life, in other words, in literature. I’d rather write as if I were doing so from behind a curtain.
JL So that the writing stands in for life, in a sense? Or steps out into the foreground?
FM Yes, that would be interesting.
JL This summer a musical theater production of yours—OPER!—was performed. How did that come about?
FM Otto Brusatti, a well-respected musicologist who really knows his music, suggested I provide a text that he would find music for, music that was folkloric but at the same time not folkloric. So I gave him eight pages from my new book, which he found inspiring. Astonishingly, he was happy to work with these pages that I had just, you could say, broken off from my book. Thanks to his deep knowledge of music, a musical theater piece was created from this and performed in Semmering.
JL Music has always accompanied your writing. When you started, you were writing poems, and eventually you wrote more and more prose. Throughout, your work has consisted of multiple registers that combine snippets of everyday speech, found language, and what one could call lyrical language. Is this language bricolage an intentional mode, or does it come to you rather intuitively?
FM I understand what you mean. Well, I’ve written many, many poems, but now I’m in a phase—and my new book is included in this—of writing tender prose (zarte Prosa), a kind of gentle, affectionate prose which has a lot to do with poetry. I’m fully immersed in this tender prose and thoroughly enjoy it. I don’t write poems. I’m writing prose that closely resembles poetry but isn’t poetry. And while it’s prose, it’s not a conventional prose. It’s tender prose.
JL That’s fascinating and perhaps it’s what draws me most to your recent works—how poetry is embedded in the prose, or maybe is the prose and gains momentum that way.
FM Yes, poetry gains momentum within the prose, that’s right. I just couldn’t say that I want to write poems now.
JL Or stories.
FM No, definitely not. I’ve never wanted to write stories!
JL After finishing Pathos and Swallow, is there a next project you’ve begun or are looking to begin?
FM All I know is that I want to continue writing this tender prose, but I’ve got to allow myself some time first.
Jonathan Larson is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in Asymptote, The Brooklyn Rail, Gulf Coast, and Lana Turner, among others. His translation of Friederike Mayröcker’s Scardanelli is forthcoming from The Song Cave in 2018.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.