/ 4 July 2019

The Week of The Festival: Hausacher Leselenz, Hausach, Germany

Word Paper Sound

Writing as a Game of Rock, Paper, Scissors

Many people know a hand game which consists of only three or four elements—their meanings formed with the fingers: rock, paper, scissors, well. The game has different names in different countries. But in all places, there remains the fascination which has made this game so universal. The hands sway to and fro three times, then all players flash a sign. The different elements have different strengths. Winning and losing may not even be central to playing the game, but rather the anticipation: not knowing which elements the others will select, not knowing in what relation your own element will stand to those of the other players—whether stronger or weaker—or whether someone else will choose the same element as you.

I think with writing, at times something similar occurs; the words brought into the game receive their meaning from other words. In the hand game, the well can be covered by paper and lose. But this is a different well than that into which the scissors fall—that well wins.

The well on paper, in a text, is an extremely variable and hard-to-pin-down thing. Not even a thing. A backyard well tells the story of water which has dried up, or of the years during which someone spent their time drawing heavy buckets, sometimes with a frog as stowaway.

And yet, even though this well on paper can always transform into something else, regardless of how often we write the word well, it nevertheless manages to tell us something of ourselves, as well—about the lives we lead or would lead, about the lives we dream. Sometimes, I think, a broken well ring in a poem can say more about a world than all those who pass it by each day. And at the same time, the well leaves behind this supposedly familiar world. The well in a text is also related to the water we drink, and is in each moment something political, even if one doesn’t speak of that—in writing the word well, I should at least have an idea of its implications And perhaps, then, the impulse to further inquiry, to research. And in this moment, the well becomes independent, takes us with it to another place of which we knew nothing before. The game with rock, paper, scissors, and well is perhaps a primeval form of that which occurs on paper through writing. Producing relationships, allowing words to transform until they carry weight.

In addition to everything I could write in answer to your question—what happens to a poem on stage—it must first be said that a poem cannot and should not be “ground flat,” as Eugenio Montale has said. To write an essay concerning what a spoken poem can achieve seems to presuppose an evaluation—but for me, a poem is also just as much internal, quiet speaking: a verse, a line, which reaches me without a stage, a spotlight, or a public. Perhaps it sounds old fashioned, but a poem must first stand on its own.

To extend beyond that into listening, speaking, to the border line and further beyond where music and poetry meet can mean expansion—something else coming into play in the truest sense of the word.

On stage, particularly when reading poetry, the game becomes infinitely more complex: the voice, the room, the others, the audience.

For me, it’s often about bringing the rhythm, sound, and unique composition to light which are all already part of the written word. All the more, when music is part of the game; the text receives a different scope entirely—in this harmony, pauses and omissions can be molded, elaborated upon. The word enters a space where voice and modulation are unexpected, are something different than text alone: a kind of speaking where I, as author, can withdraw far behind the text. The text sways in its sequence, the words manifest themselves differently, appear in relational occurrence: not merely with one another and the reader, but also with the voice, authorial setting, sound, instruments—these transform like the elements in the hand game and this enthralls. The poem, even when we think we know it, becomes something strangely new, starts again from scratch; there is a new beginning.

In the past months, I’ve worked closely with contrabassist Sophia Scheifler, often rehearsing for multiple days at a time, and what occurred was perhaps not very different from that which happens in the hand game: The word transforms in harmony with the tone, increases its space. And the game grows loaded on both sides. The bass can narrate something without illustrating the well, but when both the word well and the bass stand together, a new space opens up. The game which may have begun on paper becomes distinctly more complex.

Rock, paper, scissors: It is like suddenly becoming aware of further layers of language which we perhaps would not have noticed otherwise at all. It is a game of shifting meanings and sound, it is rhythm, it is everything that words hold together on an invisible plain.

And incidentally, the word well does not occur at all. 

English translation by Jon Cho-Polizzi


Anja Kampmann (born in 1983) is a German poet and author. She was awarded the MDR-Literaturpreis, as well as the Wolfgang-Weyrauch-Förderpreis. Her first collection of poetry, Proben von Stein und Licht [Samples of Stone and Light], was published by Carl Hanser Verlag in 2016. Her novel, Wie hoch die Wasser steigen [High as the Waters Rise] (2018), was awarded the Mara-Cassens Prize for the best debut novel, as well as the Lessing-Förderpreis, and was nominated for the German Book Prize. She was selected 2019-2020 Writer-in-Residence of Bergen-Enkheim. Her works have appeared in Akzente, Modern Poetry in Translation, Poesia, and words without borders. She lives in Leipzig.