Marcus Speh Interview, with Mia Avramut
(I will not ask him why he writes in English. Must not ask him why he writes in English. Must not…)
MS (reading my mind): You can ask me anything. I may not answer. I'm especially afraid of questions regarding poetry. Questions regarding language, on the other hand, don't scare me. I thrive on language, perhaps too much.
Rest assured, I won’t ask you one single thing about poetry. This question, however, is on everyone's mind: why do you write in English, and what do you think you couldn't possibly express in this language (versus, say, German)?
I don't think much in terms of "could not possibly". If you write at all, this is a difficult position to maintain: sustained writing requires stamina and a particular brand of productivity-oriented optimism: e.g. a belief in one's ability to stay with a story— at least I feel that way. This makes me think of the guy in Camus' "La Peste" who desperately wants to write but who never gets past one first, very long, very beautifully, carefully crafted sentence, because he's so concerned with perfection of expression. I'm not that guy. I write in English largely because I can, and because, at this point of my life, I have a deeper appreciation for English literature than for German literature. At the suggestion of an agent, I've spent the last few months trying to return to German; however, I'm not sure I can, or want to say good-bye to English. I may continue my practice of wobbling and bobbing between both languages, which is what I frequently do when I write.
If the gods gave you the choice, would you return to Ithaka? Or would you stay with Circe, or Nausicaa?
I would return to Ithaka and I would not look back in either lust or anger. I'm very much living in the present moment: too much thinking of past or future does take away energy I need to do all the things I'm doing. I never thought much of Circe, she seems selfish and mean, but I had a great crush on Nausicaa since I was a boy, which I seem to have successfully transferred to the women I've loved, all of whom were very brave, and very intelligent, and also fiercely feminine.
Where wouldn't you return, for all the treasures in the world?
I'd take "all the treasures in the world" if only to see how that feels. It sounds vaguely oriental this turn of words—like something an ancient Persian God-King might dangle in front of me, or a Pharaoh. There's no place I wouldn't return in space — but I have no desire to go back in time: I tend to be very focused on the present moment and the immediate future. I would try time travel as a tourist option, though.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a time tourist, and you sit down with Kafka for a pint. Or a cuppa. Tell him about "Thank you for your sperm" and the genesis of it.
Kafka would be ideal because in photographs he looks like a good listener. Susan Sontag called him "the last storyteller in 'serious' literature," which is fitting, given that the central chapter of THANK YOU FOR YOUR SPERM is titled "The Serious Writer". Because I know that Kafka liked simple drawings, I've drawn the schema of the book for him (see figure below): you can see that TYFYS consists of 80 stories arranged around a triptych of chapters. They were written between 2009 and 2011. The book closes with an interview conducted with me by poet Lucien Quincy Senna, in which I discuss the genesis of a number of the texts as well as some of my literary predilections. I first began to think about the book when Carol Novack, who founded MadHat Press and the older journal Mad Hatters Review, asked me if I didn't want to be one her first authors. I would have loved to work on this with Carol, but alas, she died at the end of 2011. THANK YOU FOR YOUR SPERM is dedicated to her memory. Most of the stories have been previously published, often in abbreviated form, in literary magazines. — I don't know what Kafka would have had to say about all this, except that he was no stranger to the possibility that death might interfere with publication. So he'd probably shake his head sympathetically and seriously.
I've heard, through the grapevine, that you used to be a paratrooper. Do tell.
No common ground with Franz Kafka here, except for the possibility of death. As a young man, right out of school, I joined the German army as a paratrooper. I trained with the US Special Forces at some point and won the "Jump Wings", as they're called, the parachutist badge.
What went through your mind when you jumped? Have you ever mentioned the experience in your writing?
I'm much too fearful and cautious to do this now, but it was a wonderful experience that is very hard to describe: something to do with embarking on a potentially deadly trip with a bunch of boys, all heavily armed and jazzed up for action. It leads to an enormous adrenaline rush in a very short time, much shorter than a roller coaster ride, because military parachuting takes place at low altitudes, for tactical reasons. In practice, it is quite safe, because the first jump is preceded by intense training, until your body becomes part of your brain to help you make life-saving decisions in mid-air. Parachuting has occasionally found its way into my fiction, for example in the nine prose poems called 'Cahiers du Cinéma' that are part of THANK YOU FOR YOUR SPERM. These days, I'm much more likely to bruise myself falling out of bed, than falling out of the sky. My physical life has calmed down, as my internal life has heated up, as a typical hazard of writing.
Are you aware of the fact that Germans stare? Young and old, they stare. Is it an old habit, from the times of no TV, no radio, and limited access to theater venues?
Yes, I'm aware, and whenever I go abroad and come back I become aware of it again: it's marvelous, really, for a writer. To be able without great pains or penalty to look people in the eye: you learn so much more about character in a short time than if you must look away. It does feel like an archaic habit, but if it's archaic it can't have anything to do with TV or radio and there hasn't been a limited access to theater in a few hundred years… Other Northern European nations share this trait, but none as pronounced as the Germans. As a rule, we don't do shame easily, except when it comes to the Holocaust.
Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?
I was pretty out of it emotionally and hardly noticed it, because my mother died that same Fall.
I can relate to this. My mother was dying during the Romanian anti-communist uprising. What did your mother think of your literary pursuits?
I'm sorry to hear this about your mother. My own mother was convinced that I would end up doing something with language and writing. She didn't, however, push very hard for her beliefs, when my parents wrestled for my soul a few years before the Wall came down. I ended up honoring my father's wishes and following the seemingly straight path of science, which led deep underground. Trained to decipher and translate particle collisions into proper gibberish called theoretical physics. Surfaced much later as a writer, wanting to tell tales and teach. I actually put a lot of the tension described here with biographical distance, surrounding a mother's death and a writing son's sadness, into the story "The Serious Writer And His Mother", which is part of THANK YOU FOR YOUR SPERM. It is one of my favorite and most autobiographical tales.
When should we expect a Speh memoir? Will it be Speh, or Birkenkrahe?
I don't like memoirs, to be honest. I like literary biographies (like Richard Ellmann on James Joyce, or Leon Edel on Henry James), but not autobiographies, with one exception: Bertrand Russell. His was my constant companion during my teenage years. This aristocratic English mathematician-philosopher-writer of the late Victorian age made a good companion for me, once I had decided to become a man of science, and a writer myself. Anything literary will be by Speh. Birkenkrahe is reserved for business, research, teaching.
You sit with a businessman, CEO, or similar, for a coffee break. He says: "Herr Birkenkrahe, you published a book. " He shifts in his chair, vaguely uncomfortable. "Georg forwarded me some excerpts. Wowza! There's a penis on every other page! That, I understand. But here's one I can't figure out: We arrived at the Factory of Blind Infants very early in the morning, I saw the dog patrols. I lost a left foot on the first day and my right arm on the second. It didn't matter much because many of the Infants were incomplete. The games we played would have scared me before. Our stories revolved around limbs going around alone, begging their former owners to account for them. They mercilessly drilled what was left of us. After three months, I became an agent.. Just, what in the world did you mean? And what's with those Rites of Spring?”
There's NOT a penis on every other page! You made that up! In the last sentence of this prose poem, the narrator says, "the loudest music comes from within, like water oozing from a stone." The key to strength even in the most absurd, painful and dehumanized situation is the belief in one's own worth and in the meaning of one's suffering — an experience that I first heard expressed like that by Viktor Frankl. It may be hard to hear to that "music from within" but once you do, it's heavenly. If your CEO understands or even resonates with my existential message, it shows what stuff he's made of. All the rest of this piece is poetic buildup to this insight. Where the images came from, I don't know, I'm not sure I ever knew. There is no "Factory of Blind Infants": the expression just occurred to me as interesting and arresting, with potential to be used later on in a longer piece.
I might have exaggerated a bit, I admit. Not on every other page, but every five pages...
Describe your muse. I imagine her (or him) as quite a character, and multifaceted, with enormous literary, artistic, scientific and business capabilities.
No, my muse has only got enormous, pneumatic breasts — like the Venus of Willendorf perhaps. This may shock and displease many readers, of course, but I insist it's true, and I cannot offer any apologies on politically correct grounds. A muse is a very personal attachment, almost an artifact. I think the Muse grows with the artist who pays attention to her and it withers when he takes his attention elsewhere. Some writers have sought them in real women, Bertolt Brecht comes to mind, and Robert Graves, and I used to think of my wife as my muse, but I have lately decided that this is too much of a burden, both for her and also for me. And about those capabilities you mention: it's me who has these capabilities. The Muse provides focus, simplicity and sensibility.
You once remarked that "thinness and the reverence for it is a disease of our time". Would you care to elaborate? Yes, do mention Rubens.
We're presumably not talking about the sandwich (I'm getting hungry just thinking about it)? Right, that's a "Reuben". I've always liked Rubens. "Minerva protects Pax from Mars (Peace and War)" served as a visual prompt for my story "Thank You For Your Sperm" that lent the title to my collection—the story is about a fallen god, Mars. Regarding thinness: with my own paunch I can't be too picky when it comes to size, or let's say: I'm no longer a model for Giacometti's sculptures…
Your online persona- the one I know about - is a winged centaur. One is tempted to speculate on wisdom versus animalistic traits, and instinct versus consciousness, so let's try to shed some light on your choice.
God, must I talk about this?
The centaur avatar is part of my academic persona. I use this avatar for teaching in the virtual 3D world of Second Life. The fantasy shape was probably a (largely, until now) unconscious way of creating a visible bridge between my teaching and my writing. Centaurs are full of ambivalence: their best known representative, Chiron, was a great healer and teacher, but he was also an aberration among this mythological race, a nobleman among creatures known otherwise for their lustfulness and savagery. A conflict perfectly shaped to encapsulate one of the great discontents of civilization, identified by Freud, individual freedom vs. instinctual repression. This is not an interpretation of my avatar that I'm imposing on my students' sensibilities; I merely check that they're dutifully awed and impressed by its size and its strangeness among men. Which brings us back to me.
You have been dubbed a "Renaissance man". What possesses people to call you thus? Do you agree?
In summer camp, as a boy, the other kids called me "Professor". I think they did this not because they were clairvoyant, but because I was a terrible know-it-all. I've written about this time in a flash fiction piece called "Romancing my youth", also part of THANK YOU FOR YOUR SPERM. The truth is that I am of a fairly mature age now, that I've pursued a few different careers and that I couldn't help gobbling up a lot of information along the way — like Ts'ui Pên, I'm sitting in my own Garden of Forking Paths built in a "barbarous country", constructing labyrinths "that fold back upon themselves in infinite regression."
What fellow Renaissance people, dead or alive, do you hold in high esteem?
Jorge Luis Borges is a favorite of mine, as is Bertrand Russell, whom I mentioned already. Regrettably, Gore Vidal's dead now. You're quite right, I have a taste for these 'Renaissance' people as you call them. Not just men actually: Susan Sontag is another, and Laurie Anderson.
Vielen Dank for your answers. I, and most of your readership, still wonder about one more thing, but I’m running out of virtual space. So it’s time for you to read minds.
I do read them. Everyone should focus on sperm some of the time in order to grow out of it. Also, the "Thank You" part implies a helpful, even chivalrous attitude towards the exchange of said fluid. Gender relationships can only benefit from that.
Hour of the hunter
The lights shine upon
Small glistening bulbs
trying to entertain trees.
The books are complaining
that we choose things over people:
spiraling bamboo plants
mechanical toys petrol powered
the great black hole of the
television. The buttocks
of the rudderless poet against
the blue IKEA pillow seeking
lost time capsules. Empty
windows across the abyss
of the neighborhood. Somewhere
Someone plays Wagner.
This is the hunter’s hour
but I’m getting ready
to leave on soft soles.
My greatest transgressions:
indigestion and asthma.
I dismissed my guardian angel
for lack of threats. Now
I trust public transport.
The dusty board games
whisper childhood’s end:
orphaned is the nursery.
Something weighs on me
like a mountain of water on top
of the deep-sea fish but
I can’t find the seer's words.
In vain I look to Plato for
models of the present.
The papers spit poisoned ink.
Shibboleth rules politics.
On the flag blazons the
fist of the archangel who
killed the dragon of desire.
Soon he missed danger.
But it was too late already
the world was defused.
Nothing dangled: all things
left the factories plastic wrapped
everything smelled like
Apple and behind it were
millions of tiny Chinese
yellow miracle workers
(even though the Chinese
are not tiny or yellow).
Panzers roll from one side
of the country to the other.
This is the hour of the hunter
when vaporous odors rise
from the fields and mix
with the stench of the cities.
In the depth of the forest
a deer shakes its head.
How wonderful to grow up in a rose bush
to practice the taming of thorns daily.
The strict formalities of the rose breeder
may seem arbitrary at first
but while our wounds heal
torn skin grows together
our nerves calm down slowly
the inflammation abates steadily
the ichor seeps into the ground.
Now we appreciate the rules
we understand that the spire-like
the sharp and the hurtful
the tooth-bristling inner ghoul
demands gradual domestication
and the wariness of old folk.
So we thank the breeders
the guardians of the rose
from the bottom of our
blood-filled heart bag.
After careful studies
eyed by river nymphs
I pour a magic lotion
on my paper.
In winter, in summer
in fall and in bed:
I write without
morals, with lead
in my feet. I’m
a summer bum.
When I lie on
the couch, I think
of Ithaca. When I’m
in Ithaca, I dream
of Troy. You see:
I’m beyond help
I'm split and dissected
I’m mangled and
my wounds dry.