In 2017 it was my privilege to be an invited guest of the European Poetry Biennale at Transilvania University in the gorgeous Romanian city of Brasov. It was a truly game-changing experience for me; from being approached for an autograph by a shy young woman with dazzling blue eye shadow in the local kebab shop, to walking the foothills of the carpathian mountains with hungover poets, not to mention being upgraded to first class on the way home! Poetry clearly is a ticket to the good life.
After the fact, I spoke to Romanian poet, Iowa alumnus, journalist and publisher Andra Rotaru about the experience and about my abiding interest in both slapstick humour and the darker notes expressed in the arts of all kinds.
In five parts, because, bite-sized!
ANDRA ROTARU (AR): You’ve been living in Hamburg for a long time. The first poetry volume, entitled “Dream Houses”, was published in the USA by Kelsay Books, in California. How difficult is to write, in general, in another language than the country you live in? What is lost, what is gained?
TSS: I deliberately write in English, despite having lived in Germany for over ten years and speaking the language pretty fluently, I still have a hard time with writing poetry. For me, German is first and foremost a pragmatic language that has to do with dealing with authorities and buying groceries, an everyday language. But my inner world is English, and to externalise this I use the appropriate means. For me, writing poetry in my native language is also about re-centering myself within a language which links me to an earlier life in New Zealand. The depth and meaning of each word in English is far greater for me than the “same” word in German. It has what I think of as a resonance within the language in a wider sense. When I write in English, I feel anchored within the language, and more so with poetry than other forms such as short fiction.
Writing in my mother tongue is also an attempt to find my inner balance again, which can get a little lost if you “live” in a foreign language for a longer period of time. The language itself connects me to my formative years in New Zealand. It’s the language of my childhood fears and dreams, teenage awkwardness and early adult blunders, as such it has a quality of closeness, and it fits my concerns, because I re-imagine this vanished place (childhood, New Zealand) again and again in my poems. It’s a place which could of course be described in German, but to really conjure it up I use the language of the country that formed me, for better or worse.
Aotearoa New Zealand also has a rich tradition of women writers who have written the place itself into their work. I don’t mean they write poems about landscapes, but I mean they communicate something of that place in terms of scale and the puny-ness and weirdness of being a modern human with all of our vulnerabilities and vanities in amongst a place of vast, wild and overwhelming beauty. I read and admire trail blazer (NZ) writers like Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Patricia Grace, but also today’s poets like Hannah Mettner, Hinemoana Baker, Hera Lindsay Bird, Tusiata Avia, and Jenny Bornholdt, Tayi Tibble, the list goes on and on. Regardless of when they were writing, all of these writers have something vital to say about the world they live in, and they say it with a strong New Zealand accent that makes me sit up and pay attention. There’s also a bit of wehmut to use a word that doesn’t exist in English, it means, the nostalgic feeling of happiness, tinged with sadness you get when you see something that you used to be a part of, so, like FOMO but it’s already happened…