Interview: Performance Poet Heike Fiedler
Originally published in CRETUS, 16 January 2014.
Heike Fiedler is a multilingual performer, author, and sound and visual artist whose work probes the tenuous boundary between language and sound. Born in Germany and now living in Switzerland, she belongs to a tradition of performance poetry established by the likes of Hedwig Gorski, Henri Chopin, Franz Mon, and the Beats. Fiedler borrows from all of these, as well as from the rhythms of Samuel Beckett, the repetition of Gertrude Stein, and the Dada (non)sensibilities of Kurt Schwitters. We hear echoes of all three, for instance, in Fiedler’s “Should She,” in which a rat-a-tat rhythm propels an interrogation into an unnamed female psyche, akin to that of Beckett’s Not I:
should she finally yes, she should, she wanted, was it coming from inside or from outside, it was there, it came, it went, it hung, was the point the way out, it could, it should, should she have been able to have wanted to or did it depend on the dust
the red earth had covered all surfaces, coloured the tiles and pushed its way into the pores. destiny was a word made of dough.
I spoke with the artist on the occasion of her performance at the Prague Microfestival, the multilingual intermedia poetry event held in the cavernous student club of Univerzita Karlova, Central Europe’s oldest university. It was Fiedler’s first trip to the city, but the poet could have written the guidebook to Prague 6, the district where her hotel was located. Within the space of a long morning, Fiedler had made perspicacious insights into the neighborhood’s best cafés and wineries, and her arsenal of iPhone architectural photos would put a Fodor’s to shame.
This, I learned, was Fiedler’s way. At fifty-one, she has remained a lifelong student, both of the academy—a student of German, Russian, political science, and gender studies, she completed her university studies in 1997—and of the expanding scope of her own artistic ambitions. As Fiedler has evolved into her role as one of the best-known voices in spoken-word and performance poetry, she has taught herself everything along the way: first music and poetry, then electroacoustics and digital sound engineering and manipulation, as well as the design and manipulation of her video and installation art. Fiedler’s performances are at once investigative reports from the field of intermedia poetry and themselves a series of exploratory questions, largely without answer.
Fiedler and I spoke in a café she had discovered on Kiev Street. It isn’t always easy to find excellent Czech coffee and croissants on the first try, but Fiedler learns fast—and fortunately, she’s willing to share what she knows.
You began to perform your work fourteen years ago. I’m curious to know what you were doing and thinking in the years before that.
When I was still living in Germany I participated in several student performance groups—I was in a pantomime group, I did a clown workshop—so performing was always present for me, even as a child. It is something that links me to this world. When I was very young, I also started to write and when I was a young teenager, I wrote and composed songs for my guitar. Imagine—I still have this little booklet. I took my guitar everywhere I went, even traveling through Italy, playing with other musicians in the streets.
And then I started to get interested in visual poetry and pastiche. I discovered Apollinaire and German concrete poetry. I started to write visual poetry by myself, and of course I was interested in people who performed their poetry, who didn’t just read their poems but used their voices in order to form a relationship between text and voice.
Then I moved from Germany to Geneva, where I studied and wrote my master’s thesis about the German poet Franz Mon. This brought me in contact with people in Geneva who were establishing their own sound poetry festival within La Bâtie-Festival de Genève. I joined them in 1998 for over twelve years. In 2001, we created our legendary association “roaratorio,” promoting contemporary poetry and its border-crossing forms. So I was becoming aware of this wide world, and I saw and collaborated with mostly everyone important in this field—I saw not just other Germans, but poets from America, the Beat Generation, performers from France, Italy, other countries. Poets, men and women, working in the field of poetry performance and acting poetry.
In 2000 I did my first poetry performance. In 2004, I followed a workshop with famous sound poet Henri Chopin at the Vienna Poetry School, directed then by Ide Hintze. This definitely confirmed my hunger for my intermedia approach to poetry, which utilizes the voice and image alongside the text and which extends the conventional meaning of “text” in the field of literature.
And you were a student all this time? What were you studying?
I studied Russian, German, and politics. As student, I was writing novellas for myself. Some text had been published in the student journal at Geneva University. But I did not perform at the time. Also, I ended my master’s [in Gender Studies] in 1997. But I was also the mother of two daughters born in 1988 and 1994 from two different fathers.
Do you see a direct link between your academic and artistic work?
Through my research I got an inside view into sound poetry, visual poetry, concrete poetry—and what was nice was that all my theoretical approaches were linked to my own experience of writing. And imagine how happy I was that I could immediately link my master’s subject to the planning of the festival in the place I had more or less just arrived in. The first person I invited to the festival was Franz Mon.
The theoretical approach was a good tool for my work. Literature is a field that is very close to its own practice, but inversely, literary practice—which means performance—has had no recognition by literary theory for a long time, even nowadays.
How would you advise someone new to your work to approach it? Would you encourage them to try to make a sort of sense of your use of language, to work to extract meaning out of it, or would you encourage a new audience simply to let the sound of the poetry wash over them?
I would say that in many of my texts you can run through the sounds of the languages and approach them like music compositions. But I would say, then, that there is a very deep meaning in all the texts I write. There is nothing that has no meaning. The question is about how the meaning is created—a question complex to answer.
I once had the experience of a woman telling me, “I’m studying your texts with some students, and we see that they are full of meaning.” I was very happy to hear this. Some people say, “Oh, we heard you performing, so we don’t have to read the book,” or, “It is nicer to hear you than to read.” I think the spoken word and the written word form a complementary system, even if you can enjoy them separately. Now I would just add this: read the text, after you’ve heard it. Speak out loud the text you’re reading, so that you can hear it. In both cases you need the book, which is a hint to its importance in my work and the interaction between the written and the spoken word. And when you see me performing, just enjoy the situation, be aware of the text in all its dimensions.
My texts are constructed by different mechanisms. It’s important for me not to cage in or to constrain meanings in words—each text has an overall meaning, it crosses frontiers, even sometimes from one syllable to the next. And this is a very political message: the opening of frontiers, the opening of the mind, the opening to the other, to the different, the various possibilities of life, this constellation of sounds, of languages. My poetry book Langues de Meehr points to this, no doubt about it.
Would you say that in some way your poems are about their own construction, or that they are about their own form?
Some are. They are conceptual, they are concrete, they are formal, they are crazy, they protest, they are. And not necessarily those that mix languages. The poem “Hommage à Eurydice” has a form that is applied by the text, because the words “les mêmes” [the same] are repeated over and over again. Here, the text formalizes the repetition which is concretely verbalized. Or “Sollte sie” [“Should She”]: the question “Should she do this or this?” implies the possibility of choice formalized in the multiplication of those possibilities and the repeated phrase “should she.” I have a lot of texts that repeat. It’s “thinking” the word, to dive in it. They are meditative texts—for me writing is meditation.
Other texts reveal their construction through linguistic combinations. For example, the lines “So me” lead to “So me too of course” in the poem “it isn’t. it ain’t. that’s logic.” (By the way, this is the very only line where I took another writer’s statement [as] even the title of one of my texts. You certainly recognize Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.) Now, the words “So me” are at the same time the word some and this means: I am a part of some, of others. And “So me too” contains of course another interrogation, points to other questions: What is our individual situation, what is the society, the group, the collectivity? What about the conflict between the group and individualism—see? It goes very deep and far! [Laughs.] And sometimes I discover the poems’ meanings by talking about them.
After you’ve written them?
Yes. Very often. Or even when I perform them. And this intention of openness, of opening, I first heard about during my research into poetry at university. Concrete poetry, especially, wanted to free the word, but this liberty includes the danger of being interpreted as everything and nothing. Nevertheless, it offers the possibility of moving away from stereotypes, of opening the word… the world. No, the word. No, the world!
I really enjoyed hearing a piece that you recorded with the Pas Lundi trio, “Hommage à Gertrude Stein,” in which you repeat the same meaningless sound over and over again.
Of course it reminded me of that great quote of Stein’s: “There can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis.” I wonder if you agree with that sentiment.
Of course, absolutely. By repeating something you become aware that it is not the same. We are changing every nanosecond. Everything is changing so fast that we are not even aware of what is changing around us. I am not now the same as I was before I arrived here, and it hasn’t even been so long that we’ve been sitting here. You can say “This is the same,” but it’s never the same. Very often, unfortunately, we go back through time into something that we would have wished belonged to the past, but then it comes again, as the war in Syria, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, a genocide here, another genocide there… unfortunately, we never get out of this shit. It is repeated all the time, but with different emphasis. And despite the fact that many people think they understand what they hear or read about.
Meditative is an interesting word to hear you use about the repetition in your work. You perform your poem “sollte sie” such that, not only does every repetition build upon the last, but also each has a different intonation and a different emphasis. The repetition becomes silly, it becomes absurd, and then it becomes serious again, but it’s never rote, or trancelike.
Yes, I know what you mean, and I’m happy about it. I don’t mean that the poem by itself is a poem about meditation. I hope that it is a provocation. Especially “Should She,” which is a discussion about women and what a woman can be, and what she is able to be, despite being so enclosed in representations in society. I’m playing with the multiplicity of possibilities. The moment when I’m writing is like entering into another state of mind, which I call a meditative state of mind. It’s not meant to be zen, or happy, or to have everything working well. No, it’s really going into a deeper state of mind—and here is its link to meditation—where different neurological processes and regions are activated. I am sure that this is what happens during the process of writing.
You use physicality in your performance, but it seems to me that the driving force behind your work is your sound. Is that a fair statement?
Do you mean the sound of the poem or the sound when I’m talking the poem?
Both. To me they are the same: the sound of the poem and the sound of the performance of the poem are the same in your work. Or are they rather in conversation?
Yes, they are in conversation, absolutely. When I’m onstage, there is a very deep interaction between the space, the public, and myself. So it is not just me reading my poem. Everything that is surrounding and being at this time, in this moment, in this context—all the elements are there. So there is of course the sound of the poem, how the poem has been written, the rhythm. But it’s not disconnected from my body, because my body is linked to all other bodies in the place and all the echoes, and I’m very sensitive to this. For example, yesterday [at the Microfestival] there was a very great public, and that can also influence the sound that you make. You know, sound is a vibration, and vibration creates movements in a space, and the body makes movements, and maybe all of the movement will influence the sound that is spoken and all the people in the space.
Do you often perform with a translator?
I had the first experience last year in Bratislava and the second this year, here [in Prague].
Do you think there is something lost or something gained from all of the languages in your work being translated into Czech, or another language, rather than moving between languages as your poetry is written?
Not at all. I never translated anything until a year ago, and I was surprised what came out. I think it’s interesting to have the translation, especially if someone else doesn’t understand so many of the languages that are inside.
But you must desire some degree of confusion. When you move swiftly between German and French and Spanish and English, very few people in the room are able to understand everything that you’re saying. It seems you welcome misunderstanding, and at least a little lagging behind.
I mean, if you really want to understand, you go and you buy the book. And by the way, poets try to make a living from books that are published and sold. Now, any poem that people try to understand has to be read carefully, and not only once. You know this from analyzing poems. But, as for me, the moment of performance is important, and I have to take into account the fact that a poem may not be understandable. Here fits the comparison to music: you enjoy it, even if you don’t necessarily understand its construction. And this is the reason why I can transform misunderstanding or apparent meaninglessness and make them become an artistic aim. Some people will still say, “I don’t understand it. Why should I listen to something I don’t understand?”
You know, I come from Germany, and I’ve had to deal since I was very young with the history of Germany, the fascism. Everybody understood what had been said. And today, everybody pretends to understand. At least, everybody understands that more than half of the world’s population is dying from hunger, while we, our supermarkets, throw unimaginable amounts of food in the trash every day, and they die, because they don’t have access to medicine, while we’re living and sometimes dying of overmedicalization. Everybody knows about it. That hunger doesn’t have to be, that dying of thirst doesn’t have to be. Everybody knows about it and understands, what I can’t understand. I play exactly with this, using mis- or non-understanding as an aesthetic and an ethical approach. I care if somebody doesn’t understand me, than we can talk. I don’t care if somebody rejects my poetry or performing art, pretending it would not be understandable. Well, if we understood everything, why is the world going as it goes?
You told me the other day that you were surprised to find people laughing in your performances. Could you tell me more about that?
When I write, I never have it in mind to make people laugh. Some writers I know write texts that they know beforehand will be funny and that will get a big laugh from the audience. Which is never my aim. I’m so serious when I’m writing. You’re there, you’re sweating, time is running, and you sit there, you drink water, having books and references close to you, everything is scattered around you—writing is a hard job. And then the text is done and you perform it and people feel it to be funny, joyful. The first time this happened I was surprised because I wrote the text in a situation that wasn’t very funny at all. But then I understood that there is this tension between the creation and the reception which escapes my intention, and this I like.
What do you think they were laughing about?
About the unexpectedness, I think. I think very often in hearing my texts, you make up your mind about what will follow and what that will lead to. And I think this is maybe what makes people laugh, when it doesn’t meet their expectations. I’ve started to play with this kind of confusion.
How important is your nationality to you, and to your work? Do you think of yourself as a German poet? As a Swiss poet? Or as something else?
I don’t know… funny question. When I was represented the first time as a Swiss poet it was strange to me. Because I am Swiss, I have Swiss nationality, I’ve lived there as long as I ever lived in Germany, but it was a kind of funny feeling to be called Swiss. Suddenly I wanted to say, “Where’s my other part? Help!” And then someone said, “She comes from Germany.” But I said, “Yes, but it’s not true, I am not just from Germany, I am also from Switzerland. I studied in Switzerland, and my intellectual life was born there.” Both of them are everything. I could be also French or…Czech! Or Italian, or English. Funny question.