Visiting Writer’s Series: Jan Wagner

Visiting Writer’s Series: Jan Wagner

By Vince Granata


In advance of Wednesday’s Visiting Writer event, I had the opportunity to ask Jan Wagner several questions about his new collection of poetry, collaborating with David Keplinger, object studies, the challenge of translation, and dachshunds. Join us on Wednesday to continue the conversation with Wagner and to hear him read from his newly translated collection, The Art of Topiary.


I’ve learned more about the details of your collaboration with David, I’m blown away by the fact that the two of you worked entirely over correspondence and never faced each other across a table. What was the most challenging aspect of this process? Do you think there may have been some advantages to this type of collaboration?

It was a marvelous moment, indeed, when David and I met for the first time in Berlin – after quite a few years of exchanging letters, discussing meter and imagery. I assume that the mere fear that something may get lost in this somewhat unusual process, that some misunderstanding may occur and lead to some terrible mistake, convinced both from us from the start to be especially precise in writing our questions and answers. Thus, I began by giving David a word-for-word-translation (based, however, on the German syntax so that the original movement of the poem was visible, its line breaks etc.) as well as a pattern of the poem’s meter, its stresses and syllables in German, also hinting at puns or innuendos that I thought may pose a particularly challenging problem. And David was as precise, if not more precise in the way that he posed his questions – not to mention the care he put into the actual translations.

As David puts it in his introduction to the collection, “We have tried to create a system of checks and balances that apportion power equally among connotation, form, and literalness.” How do you think about the compromises necessary to achieve this type of balance? When are you willing to see a translation of a poem break with its original form?

I think that every translation of a poem necessarily starts with the experience of loss – something will be lost, no matter what, a rhyme, an allusion, a rhythmic extravaganza, a pun. At the same time, I believe, it is stressed all to rarely that poetic translation can always result in gain as well – because features are added that exclusively belong to the target language and thus were unthinkable in the original poem, features which nevertheless concur with the spirit of it. A translator of poetry has to be daring and willing to take his or her liberties in order to create what ideally should be created – a poem in his or her mother tongue. I think it is possible to save very much of an original poem, and I certainly believe that you can be true to the original poem, but the underlying, beautiful paradox of the whole matter of poetry translation, to me at least, is that as a translator of poetry you sometimes have to be unfaithful to the text in order to stay faithful to the poem.

In “chameleon,” one of my favorites in the collection, you describe the poem’s subject as “astronomer / with one gaze toward the sky and the other / to the ground—thus keeping its distance / from both.” To me, this way of seeing the world—simultaneously looking skyward and towards the ground—captures what I love about so many of these poems, how they’re grounded in observations of familiar entities—a seesaw, a swarm of gnats, a nail—but then move to a much broader way of seeing—a description of that swarm of gnats as “rosetta stone, without the stone.” How do you approach these poems that start with these common objects (I’m thinking of your “essay on _____ ” poems too)? What about focusing on these images drives your work?

I am glad that you like that particular poem. The “chameleon” used to be the opening poem of a German collection published 2007 – and it actually could be said to be a poetological poem (in fact, you are quoting precisely the lines that illustrate that). Personally, I think that the grand subject matters of poetry (love, freedom, death and so on) are always there and keep us busy pondering every day, all of us, not only the poets; so these subject matters, the great concepts, will always come into a poem. However, starting out with these somewhat abstract and impalpable terms more often than not results in a rather disappointing and bland poem – whereas focusing on the detail, on the sensual everyday object, the object all too often seen and continuously overlooked, contemplating it in all its phenomenological and linguistically aspects with care and patience, may, before you know it, result in a spectacular poem about love, freedom, death, also because the abstract concept, by being anchored to a sensual detail, is suddenly filled with new meaning. That, at least, has been my experience.

What draws you to the haiku? What about the form made it essential that the English translations remain faithful to its exact syllabic structure?

The haiku, I think, is a charming form, even if you observe only the syllabic rule, the three-line-seventeen-syllables-formula, because it is open for the most miniscule impression or thought but, with its minimal formal constraint, still forces you to find the most perfect and economical wording.

Two poems that spring from epigraphs (“störtebeker” and “dachshund”) take on unique (and quite different) personae—a prisoner witnessing a beheading and a dachshund. What led you to approach these poems from these points of view? What drew you to the quotations that precede these poems? (note: undoubtedly, in addition to enjoying the journey you take the reader on through a badger’s tunnels, I’m drawn to “dachshund” through memories I have of my godmother, a woman of German descent who raised dachshunds.)

I never had a dog myself, no godmother raising dogs either, so maybe that was one reason for writing the “dachshund”-poem – which actually started out with the quotation I read or heard somewhere and which, I thought, was rather astounding for a developing love affair and cried out for an answer. The “störtebeker” poem is a tribute to the pirate in question who, for every child from Hamburg including myself, is a fascinating figure, but it is also an homage to German poet Günter Eich who, in a late prose poem, describes the scene of the decapitation from a fellow captive’s perspective as well.

Are there unique challenges you see in translating your poems into English? Into American English? Has your work been translated into other languages prior to this collection and were there differences in approach with these other languages?

I am sure that the play with forms, also the subversion of traditional forms, and the play with rhymes and half-rhymes can be rather bothersome – or it can be an invitation to play along. Wasn’t it Robert Frost who said that he wouldn’t play tennis without a net either? There have been quite a few translations into other languages, European and non-European, also another one into English, in fact, which was published in Great Britain a couple of years ago. The difficulties, I assume, were always the same, but the solutions quite individual – and certainly determined by the particular characteristics and unique possibilities in sound, grammar, vocabulary of, say, Swedish, Chinese, Italian or Ukrainian.


Jan Wagner is the recipient of 2017 Georg-Büchner Prize. He has published six poetry collections since 2001, along with two essay collections and translations. He translated the work of numerous American poets, including Charles Simic, James Tate, Jo Shapcott, Dan Chiasson, and Kevin Young. Wagner will read—with AU’s David Keplinger, his English language translator—from The Art of Topiary, a dual-language collection published in 2017. A member of the German Academy of Language and Poetry, Wagner lives and writes in Berlin.


Source image: Milkweed.

Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.


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