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The impertinent muse

Ina Hartwig meets Ann Cotten, the Austrian star of Germany's poetry jet set

Every now and then, a wunderkind appears. The phenomenon is always a tad distressing. It's hard to tell if the wunderkind will last. Its future is unpredictable. But this unpredictability is almost reassuring, human. And one can't help but be amazed - in the face of talent that cannot be explained by age, education or biography. How it is possible, how does she do it?

Ann Cotten
Photo: Suhrkamp Verlag

Yes, "she" is the correct pronoun, we are talking about a woman. Her name is Ann Cotten and she writes stunning poetry. But before we go into details, let's make one thing clear: this writer, born in Iowa in 1982, is no nerd. Her family moved to Austria when she was five, and when she started school in Vienna, she showed a rebellious mix of arrogance and refusal. Today she's embarrassed about the way she behaved towards the nice teacher. But she already knew how to read, she says, and the others didn't. And she had yet to learn German. She grins shyly when talking with her Viennese lilt about her first schoolgirl pirouettes.

Ann Cotten moved to Berlin last year. No surprises there. But she didn't opt for the usual jeunesse d'oree life in Prenzlauerberg. Ann Cotten shares a flat in Neukölln, where veiled beauties parade the grey streets and the undemployed lean out of windows - just as they did twenty years ago.

Ann Cotten has asked the journalist from Frankfurt to meet on board the MS Hoppetosse, a boat restaurant anchored on the edge of Treptower Park. She orders white wine and pulls nervously on her cigarette. It is not easy to start up a conversation with the young poet - "I don't see myself as a poet" - which may be due to a natural reticence or possibly the youthful radicalness that Ann Cotten exudes.

Together with a few like-minded individuals, Ann Cotten runs An early bird, the poet published a manifesto dated August 13, 6:14 a.m., which reads: 'Literature is not for entertainment.' But what about the readings she gives at the legendary Kaffee Burger and other venues (photos of her in action are available on the site). Aren't these just a tiny bit entertaining? At any rate, the people that gather here are highly organised and have plenty of fun doing their thing.

The reason for meeting Ann Cotten is not just because she's the poster girl for Germany's poetry jet set. It's a book, or rather a booklet, namely Ann Cotten's "Fremdwörterbuchsonette", which was published as part of the Edition Suhrkamp series last spring. The book has 80 pages, the same number of poems and is more than worth its 8 euros 50. Indeed, these "sonnets from dictionaries of foreign words" make up a cornucopia of virtuoso etudes, nice and nasty feelings, high-speed witticisms and shrewd seductions. The almost impenetrable, yet fantastically rhythmical mix is held - or rather whisked together - by an old-fashioned form: the sonnet. Hence the title, a genre parody by Ann Cotten.

The tone is at times funny and light and vaguely reminiscent of Robert Gernhardt ("Wir stemmen ohne es zu wissen /die kompliziertesten Prämissen" - which roughly translates as "We heave most unwittingly / premises most unwieldy" -ed). Most of the time, however, you can hear the Vienna School in the background. When still a schoolgirl in the city library Ann Cotten stumbled across H.C. Artmann, Reinhard Priessnitz and Liesl Ujvary - who later helped to kickstart her career - and went into creative shock. It was the death of one (linguistic) world for this daughter of an American emigree, and and the birth of a new one.

Ann Cotten's asymmetrical, mildly punky haircut, is being played havoc with by the wind. The Hoppetosse rocks on the Spree. In the meantime, a group of French tourists has found a seat on the deck. Ann Cotten is a searching, softly-spoken poet who seems embarrassed to comment on her poems. I eventually manage to squeeze out of her that she is 'adventurous' in her approach to foreign words. (Of course she is! That's what makes it so wonderful.) At the same time, some of these foreign words are evidently no such thing (any more), but rather the eclectic-lexical remains of associations. They are snippets of words ("intermission/n's ironie-mist" - mist meaning bullshit -ed) washed ashore in the digital-global-anglophonic swamp, and they bring to bear Ann Cotten's bilingualism, her familiarity with American and pop. Two poems placed bang in the middle of the book are dedicated to Daniel Johnston, the depressive genius of a singer from Texas. Her heart-rending excursion to the dangerous line between poetry and illness ends with the line "ich hoffe nur, du schläfst noch unterm Baum da vorn." (I just hope you're still asleep under that tree over there.)"

Some of Cotten's lines may sound a little wise for a twenty-five-year-old: "An etwas, warum dann nicht an dir? musste das Schöne scheitern,/um richtig schön zu sein." ("Beauty had to fail at something/ in order to be really beautiful/why not at you?") Others, on the other hand, brilliantly encapusulate vague youthful drives. "Words can't be separated from their semantics," says Ann Cotten. With her goal clearly in mind, she steers her poetry through the semantic waves of abstraction to return again to kisses agiley exchanged in her sonnets between men and women and between women and women. "Female fantasy is no concept," she dictates to the journalist, adding: "The muse is impertinent."

Indeed she is. As a student in Vienna, Ann Cotten used to work at the British Bookshop every Saturday. During her lunch break she would write her sonnets from the dictionary of foreign words. This went on for a little over a year. She would incubate them during the week, when no doubt she received frequent visits from the impertinent muse.

There's so much more to talk about, like Johann Karl Wezel, the oddball from Thuringia, who was the subject of her PhD thesis. About her plans for prose. And about America, whose double standards disgust her. Sometimes, however, she looks back wistfully at the blistering heat of the people-less Kansas landscape, where a small solitary girl listens to the sound of a train as it disappears.


The article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on August 17, 2007.

Ina Hartwig is the editor of the literature section of the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: Claudia Kotte

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