30. July 2021

“Language is fundamentally unstable” Ulrike Almut Sandig is the University of Bonn’s tenth Thomas Kling Poetics Lecturer

Ulrike Almut Sandig is the University of Bonn’s tenth Thomas Kling Poetics Lecturer

What does a poetics lecturer do? What’s coming up in Bonn this year? What does our language say about us? How does language change us? An interview from forsch 2021/01.

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You are now the Thomas Kling Poetics Lecturer here in Bonn, as of recently. What sort of activities are coming up in Bonn this year?

I will be holding a workshop on the self and the other, or on the narrative level, the ‘I’ versus the ‘you’. To what extent might the two concepts overlap? Isn’t ‘you’ just the same thing seen from the other side? It’s also about ways of thinking about and interacting with texts—one’s own techniques and those of others. We look at points of intersection between literary works of a primarily poetical nature, poetry itself and other art forms and concepts in the media, natural sciences, performing arts and in video art. In Instagram posts, for example, what works, and what doesn’t work so well? Students will write texts and design an intervention together with Cologne-based composer Jörg Ritzenhoff in the city of Bonn.

Your inaugural lecture took place online, and your talk was produced after-the-fact. Was that more difficult than usual for you, or maybe actually beneficial?

For everybody else it was harder, especially Dr. Fechner-Smarsly, probably, who had to conduct a conversation with me without knowing the content of what I said, aside from a few main points. But I certainly enjoyed discussing the topic: the visibility and audibility of poetry. And my talk was performative. A vibrant lecture always involves responding to the audience’s own responses, taking questions ... and there could be none of that. A recorded lecture does not suffice to substitute for such face-to-face interaction. So I did a performance video which viewers can freely scroll through, replay and comment on. My hope was to compensate somewhat for the deficits and promote interaction with students.

Screenshot aus "Anleitung zum Lachen"
Screenshot from “Instructions: How to Have a Laugh”

The University of Bonn is really lucky to have you on board during the pandemic. You are no stranger to digital formats, as sound, images, poetry, performance and prose frequently go hand in hand in your work. Is this the new normal in literature?

No, it isn’t. Everyone should stick to doing those things they do best. Nothing is worse than a writer forced to go on a book tour even though he doesn’t want to give readings and is no good at it in the first place. It’s betraying the audience to do that. You have to respect any audience you step in front of enough to do your thing properly, or at least as competently as possible. Even if you sometimes fall short.

University of Bonn: Why is it that you have such a relationship with the spoken word, and with song?

My father was a pastor, so as a child I heard a lot of sermons. And in sermon, audible thinking plays a role. I also had a bunch of friends who were really into music. We would be sitting around together and start improvising, and before you know it we’d have a little tune put together.

Screenshot "Anleitung zum Lachen"
Screenshot from “Instructions: How to Have a Laugh”

University of Bonn: Many students see interpreting poetry as irrelevant, so acquiring skill in it is useless. Is encountering or studying language important at all?

Language is what constitutes our world. And language is important to us throughout all of our lives. Certain professions require a degree of language competency—well-trained linguistic muscles, you might say. But the question is, does it make sense to only ever look at language from the perspective of a reader? Isn’t it the better idea to design German lessons, for example, with greater focus on the perspective of a writer, and thus have students write more? In art class, you paint. In German class, literature is mainly understood as something you read rather than something you perhaps do, on your own. And that’s a shame. Students have such creative force, but this then often ends up directed elsewhere, into music, graffiti, art, etc., so literature ends up losing out.

Children love melodies and rhymes, poem and songs. As they get older however, many lose touch with what they once loved. Why do you think that happens?
That very thing just happened with one of my two children, age eight. So I looked into what sort of exposure to poems he had recently had. Poems, rhymes and songs were an everyday part of life back in kindergarten. In German class at schools, poems are often written out by hand. Sometimes when kids practice cursive writing, they do fill-in-the-blank exercises. Whatever writing the kids are supposed to do is prescribed. Now I’m not criticizing schoolteachers of German, they do great work and I wouldn’t want to change places with them. But let’s just say there is room for improvement in terms of promoting creativity, moving beyond rote copying. There is this interesting new lockdown project called POEDU, for example, in which kids write for kids with the guidance of adult writers.

The first POEDU book by and for children has been published by Cologne-based Elif Verlag, which many teachers and education students will no doubt find interesting.

University of Bonn: What might language say about our society, and how can society be changed through language?

Language is an intrinsic part of a society, like religion is, in a certain way. Societal developments are reflected in language usage. Oddly, change possibilities only tend to be discussed in response to demands asserted by minority groups. Similar desires expressed by better-represented societal groups tend not to be taken into serious discussion. That’s kind of sad, but also funny in a bitter kind of way. The way people freak out at the usage ‘gender star’ in contemporary written German, that creates a sort of mental ‘glottal stop’ for some but is only meant to facilitate gender-neutral language. It’s not even a new practice in the German language.

Ulrike Almut Sandig
Photo: Michael Aust, Villa Concordia

University of Bonn: You were born in Nauwalde in Saxony, near Brandenburg. What events in your life have affected you most? The fall of the Berlin wall and German unification? Growing up in a village of only 650 people? Your time as a student in Leipzig?

It does something to you if you grew up in a country that no longer exists. People around my age who are from what we used to call West Germany have a connection to their past on a sensory level that I simply don’t have. That’s because even certain smells and tastes disappeared along with the state. But there are plenty of good aspects to that! I learned early on to perceive language not as something pure or true but rather as a mirror of the world around us, the polarities of which are constantly shifting.

The latent anarchy that emerged in the 1990s was also important to my development, coinciding with puberty for me. What with all the chaos going on—the school curriculum constantly changing, civics teachers teaching English, etc.—we enjoyed a lot of freedom, mainly because the adults were all wrapped up in the goings-on themselves. We were left to ourselves in e.g. handling pro-Nazi skinheads and their ignorant right-wing sympathizers. But being left to ourselves, we were able to try out various things. A lasting impression was left upon me that from one day to the next everything can be different, that everything can be constantly shifting and changing. In ways that’s a healthy view to have. How unsteady things can be in society.
And language is itself fundamentally unstable.


Ulrike Almut Sandig - Gedicht
Ulrike Almut Sandig - Gedicht - Ulrike Almut Sandig is Thomas Kling Poetics Lecturer at the University of Bonn © Sascha Conrad
Screenshot "Anleitung zum Lachen"
Screenshot "Anleitung zum Lachen" - A screenshot from "How to laugh © Ulrike Sandig
Screenshot "Anleitung zum Lachen"
Screenshot "Anleitung zum Lachen" - A screenshot from "How to laugh © Ulrike Almut Sandig
Screenshot "Anleitung zum Lachen"
Screenshot "Anleitung zum Lachen" - A screenshot from "How to laugh © Ulrike Almut Sandig
Ulrike Almut Sandig
Ulrike Almut Sandig © Photo: Michael Aust, Villa Concordia

In the summer semester of 2021 the University of Bonn marks ten years since creation of the special post of Thomas Kling Poetics Lecturer, with the appointment of poet Ulrike Almut Sandig. The distinguished lecturer post was created in 2011 through funding by Kunststiftung NRW (an art foundation of the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia) in fulfillment of policy objectives in the area of literature. The post is awarded to a prominent writer annually.

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