Hans Magnus Enzensberger by Tracy K. Smith

Poets Enzensberger and Smith discuss politically engaged writing and their fondness for flops. Smith won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Life on Mars.

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Enzensberger and Smith in Paris, 2011. Copyright Rolex/Tina Ruisinger.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger is routinely described as Germany’s most important living poet. But he’s also revered at home and abroad as a cultural critic—someone consistently willing to take a hard look at what is wrong even with what appears to be perfectly right. “I have always been incapable of being a good comrade,” Enzensberger has admitted. “I can’t stay in line. It’s not in my character.”

His Selected Poems first appeared in the US in 1999, and his most recent poetry collection available in English is A History of Clouds: 99 Meditations. Despite changes in subject matter and tone over the years, Enzensberger’s poems always strike a deft balance between the poet’s keen intelligence and his lyric sensibility, employing nimble language, arresting imagery, and nudging the reader toward some degree of revelation. His work is moving, witty, troubling, and eminently accessible.

Enzensberger has also published numerous books of fiction, political analysis, children’s literature, essays, and even, in 2010, something of an old-fashioned “commonplace book” called Album. Recent titles in English translation include Brussels, the Gentle Monster: or the Disenfranchisment of EuropeFatal Numbers: Why Count on Chance?; and The Silences of Hammerstein.

In person, Magnus (as he first introduced himself to me) is a lot like his work: alluring because of the way he manages to marry play with a capacity for deeply serious critique. As my mentor in the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative, he has encouraged me with praise when I’ve needed it, and given me assignments when it seemed I might not know how to keep going on my own. Even when I am working in solitude, his voice is nearby, telling me that I must be patient and thorough, that I must listen for the story that is asking to be told, that I must step outside and beyond myself, even in writing about my own life.

I quite agree with the way Magnus is characterized by the poet Michael Hofmann: “If cleverness had rosy cheeks and a smile on its face, it would be Hans Magnus Enzensberger. He illuminated us. He illuminated me.”

Tracy K. Smith Your career as a writer has led you to so many different places on and off the page. You’ve worked in radio, as a magazine editor, and as the editorial director of a publishing house. You’ve invented a poetry-writing machine; done extensive translating of your own and others’ work; written poems, novels, essays, libretti, children’s books. You are commonly cited as a public intellectual and cultural critic. And this is by no means an exhaustive list. I’m curious to hear you talk about your own sense of the breadth or scope of your career, and the ways in which you have found yourself emboldened to move from one mode or genre to another. Are there terms by which you define yourself as an artist, and terms or divisions you have made a conscious choice to cross or transgress? As an American poet who has grown up in academic poetry workshops—and someone who was often encouraged, officially or not, to “choose a camp”—I am quite awed by the degree of freedom characterizing your career. Would you say it is normal for European writers, or have you made a point of making yourself an exception?

Hans Magnus Enzensberger As a writer, I happen to be right-handed. This means that I have my left hand free to do all sorts of other things. While writing is, as you know, a lonely job, other jobs, projects, and entertainments, like some that you mention, call for company. Since I’m not given to join academies, writers’ unions, or political groups, I prefer ad hoc cooperation with a view to produce things which cannot be done individually, e.g. theater, film, publishing, magazines … or, as in our case, some sort of mentoring—which, of course, is always reciprocal, a give-and-take on equal terms. Defining my own work, I leave to others. I’m afraid I’m not fit to work within institutions, independence being for me an almost obsessive aim. (This may be due to the years I spent living under a dictatorship.) I doubt whether anything valid could be said about European writers in general, although their lot may differ from the joys, temptations, and sorrows of America.

TKS It seems that your concerns as a writer have always been wrapped up in your concerns and convictions as a politically engaged citizen. You came of age during the Nazi era in Germany, and after the war you became quite active in the opposition to social and political modes of oppression or suppression. You were a member of the pro-democracy literary organization Gruppe 47, and founded the magazine Kursbuch, which took interest in anti-authoritarian movements worldwide.

I wonder where populist uprisings like the Arab Spring (and summer and fall), or Occupy Wall Street, fall on your radar. Does the role that social media like Twitter and Facebook have played in each of those movements serve as an example of what you were talking about back in 1970 when you wrote (in “Constituents of a Theory of the Media”) that “[f]or the first time in history, the media are making possible mass participation in a social and socialized productive process, the practical means of which are in the hands of the masses themselves. Such a use of them would bring the communications media, which up to now have not deserved the name, into their own”?

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Enzensberger and Smith in Paris, 2011. Copyright Rolex/Tina Ruisinger.

HME Tchou En Lai, when asked about the French Revolution, famously said: “It’s too early to say.” In a way, you are always participant AND observer at the same time. There are people who prefer not to be in the fray, and I don’t blame them. But I am keen to read the signs, and if that is your temperament, you will probably interfere to the extent of your capabilities, even if you are too old for marches and occupations in front of the White House or the Central Bank.

The web has created a new situation, and it’s clear that governments, monopolies, policemen, and gangsters are struggling to dominate it. But hopefully, they are not alone, and hundreds of millions of people will not let them get away with it.

TKS One of your newest projects is entitled “My Favorite Flops.” What is your sense of the value of failure? Are there personal failures or flops without which you might not have become the artist that you are? And are there public flops, past or present, that you recognize as necessary or worthwhile on a broader social scale? Are there flops-in-the-making that have captivated your imagination?

HME I rather value my flops. They provide me with important insights in the industry. No matter whether it’s publishing, the press, film, theater, opera, TV, or whatever, you have to count on all sorts of tricks. What we call culture is partially a mug’s game, full of outrageous lies, broken promises, and silly pretense. So a flop serves as a warning device, even if you yourself happen to be the mug. Hapless is the author who ignores the alarm. Like in science, we learn by failure. Complaining about the risks involved in what we chose to do is not helpful.

TKS I think that the willingness to risk more and more comes from a foundation of confidence. Since you and I have been acquainted, I’ve been working in a different genre, and on much more overtly private material, and the risks involved in that have caused me no small amount of anxiety. Writing prose as opposed to poetry, I feel a little like a stranger in a new realm, concerned with survival in a way that has made it more challenging for me to figure out how to give more away, or take elaborate risks. Thanks to your encouragement, I’m slowing down and literally learning how to do my job as a writer of prose, which has aided in distracting me from the anxiety of looking at themes like race and family and God.

But you’re an old hand at so many of the things a writer might endeavor to do. I wonder if fear is something that ever grips you as a writer or if it ever has. Are there places you have feared, even only initially, to tread? Are there projects that have caused you noticeable anxiety? If so, how have you negotiated that feeling? And if not, maybe you could talk a bit about why that might be.

HME There is every truth in what you say, Tracy. Quite apart from some projects which I had to shelve, because they turned out to be more than I could cope with, there are many things which I have always shunned, avoided, run away from. The whole terrain of autobiography. Too intimate, too self-centered, too risky for me, I’m afraid. The confessional tone. Religion. Self-censorship. The vanity of “memoirs” with their built-in tendency to improve your own recollection. And so on. The only way I can bear to write about all this is in poetry, which, for me at least, is never about “facts,” never explicitly claims veracity, and allows language to move outside the orbit of the ego. The word “I” in a poem does not refer to myself, which I find an advantage.

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Smith and her dog Shaba at home, Brooklyn, New York, 2011. Copyright Rolex/Tina Ruisinger.

TKS Whenever you and I get into this territory, I feel exceedingly vain for working on a memoir of my own. But a big part of my motivation stems from wanting to step outside of my poetic “I,” with all of its safety and malleability, and grapple in a different way with my recollections of a particular place and people, to make a claim on a particular history and a particular way of life. Race, for example, is something I’ve only fleetingly explored in my poems, but it’s a theme that I live with, and putting myself into contact with the “facts” of my life (as filtered through memory) has made a space for an exploration of race to enter into my work. It’s a private pursuit, motivated by my desire to connect differently to the material of my life, though the side effect of publication is exposure.

The more I think about what is at stake for me, the more I fear not writing my way into the whole mess. But look at all the pronouns in that last sentence.

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