The Austrian Riveter: Austrian Poetry and I by SJ Fowler

I am in the Notting Hill Bookshop, when it existed, talking with the late Sheila Ramage, to whom in retrospect I owe so much. If my memory doesn’t fail me, she had told me that she had married an Austrian emigré, who had fled from the war. As humbly as anyone can, she told me about regular meetings with Elias Canetti and all the European literary brilliance London housed after the Second World War. I am a year into knowing literature, and poetry. I am starting to write. She gives me a book by Erich Fried. And she sends me to Kensal Green Cemetery.

Here now I reflect on my collaborations with my Austrian poet contemporaries. When I first met many of them, they were well ahead of me in what I sensed I wanted to be doing. They were startling live performers. And could pack out bookshops too. And organised themselves. And were affable, if always self-aware. Fabian Faltin is the best literary performer I’ve ever worked with. Or perhaps Max Höfler is? Or jörg piringer is? Or Robert Prosser, or Esther Strauss? Is Anatol Knotek the best concrete poet of my age? There are a dozen others, two dozen even, who are some of the most inventive, present, resonant and wry poets and performers I’ve met and hosted, in the midst of the thousands I am lucky to meet from all over the world.

The Austrian Cultural Forum (ACF) in London supports my work, consistently, and has done for nearly a decade. It’s a second home in London, their beautiful building. The Kakania poetry project starts in 2014 and lasts two years. I pair many contemporary writers with figures of the Habsburg era. It’s funny, when you think about who was writing and doing and making and thinking in that time and place. Schönberg, Freud, Andreas-Salomé, Wittgenstein, Rilke, Klimt, Schiele, Weber, Mahler, Schnitzler, Kraus … I wonder if this period has an effect on why contemporary Austrian poetry is so exceptional? We publish an anthology, hold nine events. I write a whole book about Kokoschka. I give a lecture on Peter Handke’s poetry for the ‘Rest is Noise’ festival at Southbank Centre. Then I am asked to give another, and share the work of Thomas Bernhard. And another, so Elfriede Jelinek. And another, so Ingeborg Bachmann. Almost no one, in any of those large, public arts centre audiences, has heard of any of those authors as I begin to speak. Handke entirely hypnotises me, in English translation. How can the flat have such sheer drops? Bachmann’s and Celan’s letters are what love is and isn’t. Bernhard, so we are allowed to be so bitter as to be truthful. Jelinek, the anger can be in the language itself … I’ve been teaching them every year since, to students at Kingston University. Why is it that Austrian writers won’t let the lie sit and demand to be heard? Nest besmirchers, I say. The ACF lets me run a new poetry series called Illuminations. Each event we celebrate a living or late 20th-century Austrian author. Those above, and Friederike Mayröcker, Stella Rotenberg, Mela Hartwig, Franz Baermann, Theodor Kramer, HG Adler, Alfred Marnau. Some British poets now get my Austrian bug. 

In 2022 I am with Fabian Faltin again, making soup in front of an audience, at my festival. Then, I am in Einbaumöbel, a venue in Vienna, with twenty Austrian poets who don’t resent me organising a festival in their city; I am stepping on Max Höfler’s head. I am at a fake press conference at the W:ORTE festival in Innsbruck and Robert Prosser is holding my face. I am in Freud’s house, in London, and Esther Strauss is curled up, legitimately asleep on Anna Freud’s real couch, before an audience.

Viennese Actionism. A friend sees me smash a building with a spade in Latvia, on video, and suggests I look up the Actionists, knowing I don’t know them. I see why, and I see why they did what they did. I start attending Bob Cobbing’s writers’ forum after his death but before mine. I hear of his correspondences across the world, at the height of sound and concrete poetry’s first boom. He was close with Ernst Jandl. Oh, the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group) too, then. I copy out H. C. Artmann, Friedrich Achleitner, Konrad Bayer, Gerhard Rühm.

I am, again, being helped on by the Austrian Cultural Forum, and we make a film, Where is Everyone Austria?, during the lockdowns. The Austrian poets send me their footage, I roll around in the ACF bedrooms with a rainbow hippo. It is seen over 1,000 times online in the first few months. I am then performing at the Austrian Embassy, talking, making people laugh, hopefully, then uncomfortably, and the room stretches on like a glossy landlocked state. I am in Belgrade on the day of Brexit, having coffee with a surly Austrian poet, Stefanie Sargnagel. ‘Not a good day to be you,’ she says. I am receiving a hamper of Austrian goods at my home, a gift from a friend, and eat the cake with my hands. I am in Graz, at the Forum Stadtpark. A film of my words is projected in massive letters across a public park. It says, ‘two dates and a line between, that is all there is’.

Who has the chance to be led to such a tradition, that isn’t their own? Who then gets to work with it, now, as an outsider? What a privilege to have built a structure which allows me to invite Austrians to perform in London, and to go to festivals there, and to collaborate. To learn of them through them, and to see their tradition in a way they never will. Envy is inspirational.

I organise one of the Illuminations events in Kensal Green Cemetery itself, to celebrate Erich Fried, where he is buried. I end up being poet-in-residence of this place, the cemetery, for a whole summer. I get to know Fried’s son David, his niece Maeve, his friend, John Parham. They read for me, and us all, in the Dissenters’ Chapel. He was larger in that room, as he was in life. My younger British friends don’t know him. I’ll settle for them watching and reading the Austrian poets of their own age, for they are the ones who carry with them a century or more of something that no other country can, or will, commit to paper or the stage.

SJ Fowler

Read The Austrian Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

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