Karenina.it Express - Theories: Sub-Culture, Underground- & Pop-Literature in Germany

On Contemporary German Literature.

Sub-Culture, Underground- & Pop-Literature, Live-Lit., Slam!Poetry and other experimental Issues.


As the title makes clear, the theme of this talk isn `t the so-called “conventional literature”. “Conventional literature” for me means a kind of poetry that happens on the book fair, mainstream literature, bestsellers - all that stuff. Underground, alternative or independent literature - whatever: will then be a kind of literature that you don `t find there. A kind of literature that isn `t published by the big publishing houses, but that takes a part in the literary infra-structure - sometimes it might be only a local or regional phenomon, but it can be (and I want to tell you about this): it can be a national phenomon, too.

I have to admit, that this difference is kind of virtual: in that the boundaries are floating today. So it doesn`t mean at all, that conventional literature is bad, and independent literature is the good one - both can be both. And it doesn `t mean either, that underground literature has to be Bukowski-like, has to do with drugs and drinking and sex - or that “conventional literature” would NEVER treat these issues.

The reason, why I talk about these independent things, is this: to deal with “literature” as a text, it takes a precise text analysis, an exegesis, that `s quite academic and maybe boring for you. So I ´m not talking about the material of literature, i.e.: language, style, form or content - or about some special art works, but about the cultural context in which literary activities are embedded today. So, I want to illustrate the contemporary literary scene in present day Germany, the vivid literary life as it happens everyday in the clubs and the galleries and the festivals. If you want to know something about Günther Grass, the most famous German novelist, you can go to the library, since he will be translated in Japanese.

Do you ever go to a reading? Why or why not?

I don´t know how things are in Japan, but I do know that there some european countries, where people are not used to poetry readings. In Germany, they were, but the art product “reading” became so boring during the seventies and the eighties, that young people weren´ t interested in it anymore. The conventional reading is - a poet, sitting an a chair, in front of a table, with flowers and a water glass. And then there is this silence: nobody in the can say a word.

The only exception was through the influence of the American beat-literature: some of these poets worked together with musicians, some integrated small performance elements in their stage shows.

And there was a German response, too: German beat poets in the end of the sixties, who tried to build up a language of the subculture and proper German underground-literature. They also had the aim to transcend the feature of “conventional reading”. The most important of them was (and still is) Hadayatullah Hübsch, who performed with free jazz groups in the seventies - then, nobody could understand this, because he was the only one to perform in such a weird way. Hübsch developed a certain music-based language-production, it `s quite similar to rap music. Here `s one of him:




The stress lies on the words: “WORK! WORK! WORK! DRUGS! DRUGS! DRUGS! QUEUE UP FOR YOUR MEAL! QUEUE UP FOR YOUR MEAL!!”. Thus, his poetry performance criticizes the hypocrisy of the bourgeois society.

In the eighties when I began these things, there was almost nothing: a desert, complete wasteland (because I even didn`t know Hadayatullah Hübsch at that time). My friends and I were influenced mainly by punk and the guitar music of that time. We wanted to produce literature like punk songs - which is rather impossible, because literature is not so immediate as music. In the beginning I made cut-ups in the tradition of W. S. Burroughs, and a guy used to play trash guitar.

But more and more, we were getting into this form and developing a specific kind of stage literature: “LIVE-LITERATURE” that can also happen without music, that just presents a piece of poetry in a vivid way, so that young people can listen to it and understand it: young people who might rather listen to music than read a book. We were doing so, and then in the beginning of the nineties, some poets from America came to Germany and they were doing very similar things to what we did. They called it Slam!Poetry and all the German newspapers were talking about this new thing from the USA. The journalists were not interested very much in the fact, that several German poets had been doing this for years or as in the case of Hadayatullah Hübsch for decades. They only took it as the influence of the Americans: “Look, there are some German poets, too, who are now reading like this!” That `s the way, the media is, but anyway no problem, because they wrote, and they wrote very much. Literature has become very popular, and it has become hip, a cool thing.

5 years before everybody thought it was no more than an anachronism.

But what is live-literature or slam!poetry, as the Americans call it? I`ll give you an example of MY kind of live-literature:




So that `s only one way, my way, but many German poets are doing stuff: they might read some funny stories, but also experimental poetry in the Ernst-Jandl-style... Jandl is a famous Austrian poet - is he translated into Japanese?

Here is a piece by two younger austrian poets in this tradition, it `s in German: but I think, you will feel the word-playing intensity of the texts:


EXAMPLE THREE: Ilse Kilic - Oskars Moral (exzerpt)

EXAMPLE FOUR: Fritz Widhalm - HUCH (exzerpt)


The first one works with anagrammatic word plays: the whole thing has a sexual meaning, the vowel “a” is signifying the woman “anna”, the “i”-occurrence is usually this one of the man.

Fritz Widhalm `s text is realizing a rhythmic prose, the “huch” is fit in like an off beat.

Many features of conventional literature can be presented, too - the only thing is, that you PERFORM it. That means two things: that you KNOW how to  perform, and that the text is performable.

Because of this “performance literature” poetry events are different as well: the most popular form is a geniune American form, in fact: the Poetry Slam. Is this done in Japan, also?

This is a competition of poets: 10 of them might enter the stage one after another: everybody has 5 minutes, and afterwards the public decides who is the best. He or she is the “winner”, then.

This is quite spectacular, and we organized one of the first events in Cologne (maybe the first one in Germany): “The German Poetry Championship: Poets in the boxing ring!” in 1993 (the most recent one took place in Berlin in 1997). It was what the title says - the performers had to read in a boxing ring, surrounded by the public (not only in front), which is really very hard. And we made everything look like a sports event: the authors wore sponsor-t-shirts, there were a lot of commercials and so on.

Since this time, many, many poetry slams have happened, and it has become a mainstream on its own. Me personally, I miss the ironic effect of these shows, which was very important in our “championships”: people are really taking it SERIOUSLY now: they WANT to win - so it `s no longer an ironic alternative to the establishment and the book market, but it follows the same capitalistic structure.

The good thing is, that because of these new forms of poetry-presentation several young poets, 5 or 10 years younger than I, entered the scene in the nineties, and the intentions of their literary activities differ a lot from the clumsy: serious form, that poetry was supposed to have during the seventies and eighties. In Germany, reading has really become very popular today: you could go into almost every bar, club or discotheque now and tell them, that you want to have a reading next month, and it won `t be a problem. Well, they don `t give you money, but you get the opportunity to perform - making some money with the entrance.

And they will be delighted, because they know, it is good for the place, having poetry events. That `s a big difference from the eighties. In my town, in Cologne, there were two readings every week in 1985. Now there are 5 to 10 a day! This is good, because you can see a lot, and because it makes poetry lose its sublime caracter - this old-fashioned idea of poetry as a “holy text”.

An important new issue in contemporary poetry, which is discussed a lot in German avantguarde-theory-magazines is “pop” - “pop-literature”. Here, you see the close connection again between contemporary popular music and poetry - for people of my generation or even younger generations, music simply is a part of daily life. The question of how to produce a real “pop-literature” and whether some poets manage to fit into such a domaine, is hotly debated.

It is quite easy to explain pop music - music which is popular, but that `s only the surface. The pop theorists don`t think about Phil Collins, Tina Turner or Michael Jackson when they consider the creative potential of popular music. They are talking about very progressive things, which are quite unknown in comparison with these stars of pop music: that means, they are talking about “pop music” that isn `t really popular - a contradiction in itself.

And the same is true for poetry: if pop literature is a very popular kind of literature, this old guy Karl May (that every german child has read with his indian and desert adventure tales): this Karl May should be the “King of German Pop Literature”! Maybe he is, by the way - but what we usually expect of an intelligent pop music and pop literature as well is the irritation - that it is not really clear at all, what might be serious or ironical: this postmodern balance between quotation, annotation and story. These pop literature texts might be artistic products, in which the authentic penetrates the fictional, so that the boundaries between both seem to become permissive.

What is fact? What is fiction? What is faction?

What is the truth - the artistic or the documentary or the artificial? What is the intention: knowledge - entertainment - provocation? Perhaps, something from all...

I ´m sure about one thing, literature won `t lose this special approach toward ironic self-reflection AND entertainment. I think, nobody could stage the role model of the one and only “genius” author (except: if he or she IS THAT ONE!). It was very important for Germany and for german literature to get rid of this ecclesiastical view on literature, because this perspective is one from the last centuries.

At this point, nobody can tell what will happen in the next few years, maybe “pop-literatur” as a literary genre will become familiar, perhaps there will be a rollback, and literature will become the serious: epistemological media again - maybe both.