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Melancholy is mandatory

Poet Helga M. Novak talks to Uta Beiküfner about the fascination of socialism and the unexpected blessings of the madhouse.

Helga Novak was born in Berlin's Köpenick district in 1935. She studied philosophy and literature in Leipzig. In 1966, the East German state denied her citizenship. She has since lived in Iceland, West Germany, Portugal, Yugoslavia and most recently in Poland. Her work has been distinguished with many awards.

Berliner Zeitung: Frau Novak, you are a very significant and oft-cited poet, but you make few public appearances.

Helga M. Novak: That's deliberate. I've always kept a distance from the culture industry. I was not interested in readings, because poems have a habit of going in one ear and out the other. You don't usually get a poem quickly, you have to read it two or three times. In addition, the scheduling that readings demand prevents me from getting away. I travelled through all of Eastern Europe before the Wall fell. When Solidarnosc was getting off the ground in Poland, I had been invited to America with some Berlin authors. I cancelled and went to Gdansk instead, I wanted to see that. That's the way it's been, my whole life actually. Something was always happening somewhere, and I wanted to be there.

You've lived in Yugoslavia, Poland and Portugal since your expatriation. Are there political reasons for that?

Oh my. Alright, I was in Portugal for this Carnation Revolution, I wanted to experience that. I went to Yugoslavia because I wanted to know what was behind the other socialism there, behind the workers' self-management in factories. Tito was still alive. I was in Yugoslavia almost every year, then the War came. Now I'm in Poland, not always, but when I need peace, I find it there.

What did you experience in Yugoslavia?

Nothing of that other socialism, nonsense, all corruption. Except the other writers that I got to know, I really liked them. I wandered through all of Croatia on foot, met Serbian and Bosnian colleagues, friendly, entrancing writers, courageous people, funny and cynical.

Since when have you been interested in politics?

Forever. In the last year of the War, when I was ten, my adoptive father gave me his newspaper and I started reading through it out of curiosity. Everyone was wondering what was going on, what was this war? What do they look like, these Russians that we're so scared of? What did the bombs look like, what did the dead look like? I knew already how Berlin looked.

What did this wartime childhood mean for you?

My childhood meant the same for me as for anyone else. My whole school class was blown up during a daylight attack. At a young age we learned a lot about grown-ups, they couldn't pretend as much as they generally do in normal family situations. I left home at 15, I was very anti my adoptive parents. From then on, I had to decide for myself what I wanted and where to go, what works and what doesn't.

You grew up in the GDR. What fascinated you about socialism?

I thought that the appropriation by the state meant that everything belonged to us (laughs), everything that we were in the process of rebuilding. I had chipped away at rocks as a child, I was involved in the rebuilding from the very beginning. Later, when we had to work as part of our schooling, I thought that's not quite right, but we're working for ourselves. I was seduced by the term "the people's property", by the community. I thought we had access to whatever it was that was being made in the factories – whether canons or sewing machines.

You describe the optimism of those years in your autobiography "Die Eisheiligen / Vogel federlos" ("The Frost Saints / Bird Without Wings"). You express on the one hand optimism about progress...

A lot of people felt that way, not everyone. But most young people who had experienced the War believed we were creating socialism.

...on the other hand, you never conceal the problems and where they lay.

That's because I had no family and no relatives. There were no children's birthdays and no Christmas parties, I was not distracted from daily politics by parents, grandparents, uncles or aunts who knew the old life better than the new one in the GDR, who were still talking about the Second World War and the First, about Hitler and Hindenburg. I was in a boarding school, a training ground for new cadres and as such a political education network. We were interested in what was happening and how we could improve life in the GDR. We would get critical in a very different way. We saw how politics was being done, how socialism functioned, how to influence the farmers but also why people were complaining. We knew exactly when there was not enough to eat and how many people had taken off to the West.

You studied journalism, were kicked out for your "anti-socialist position" and married an Icelander. In 1965 you came back to study at the literature institute in Leipzig.

I had finished my first volume of poetry, I had a publisher and wanted to get to know my German colleagues. I was tired of being surrounded by a foreign language.

In 1966 you were expatriated.

The main reason was my friendship with Robert Havemann. They said I was a courier, and that I distributed his writings. I didn't carry or pass anything around, maybe the occasional Spiegel or book by him about his lectures at Humboldt University but I didn't have more than that. That was one reason listed in the Stasi files. The other was that I was having a love affair with Havemann. We had other things to do aside from politics, even though we talked politics a lot, with Wolf Biermann too. Havemann was a long term communist who was always thinking about how socialism might be rescued. He didn't want to say goodbye, nor did Biermann, they were both total believers in communism, because it had to come historically and so on.

Since your expatriation in the 60s you've led an irregular nomadic life. Why?

That has to do with my childhood. My mother gave birth to me and 14 days later, she left. I was picked out of an orphanage by adoptive parents. I learned early what it was to be abandoned. But I was also on the move due to journalistic curiosity. I came from a country where the press was so heavily censored that I couldn't believe anything I hadn't seen myself.

You've been living in a very rural part of Poland for more than a decade. What does home mean for you?

Home means for me the area between Erkner and Fürstenwalde, the Brandenburg landscape of my childhood. It has a particular vegetation, particular trees, a particular smell. A landscape's smell reflects what grows there, what goes on there. Even weather smells. I once ended up by chance in a landscape in Poland that smelled and looked exactly like the Brandenburg landscape, where I know all the plants. Even the dirt under my fingernails felt familiar to me there and so I said: so, I'll stay here for a while.

You rarely identify yourself as a political author but often as an expressionistic one.

Yes, that's true, I've often said that.

Your poetry is very expressive but not expressionistic.

(Laughs) I don't even know what that means. It just sounds as if it suits me. I've often said that but you shouldn't ask for details, you'll blow my cover. I've read a bit about expressionism, I didn't like the sounds of it. The aesthetics, on the other hand, I liked very much and somehow I liked the word.

Does that happen to you often, that words appeal to you independent of their meaning?

Sure, they get used whether they fit or not. Words have a power like melodies. Some songs just stick in your head. It's the same thing for me with words.

When you're writing, do you think about how the reader will respond?

No, I just want to get rid of it, it's exploding in me, I want to somehow force it into language. I want to name it. What the reader says about it doesn't interest me one bit while I'm writing.

In a letter to Hans Joachim Schädlich, you wrote that you discovered your writing style in a mental asylum in Switzerland.

In this mental home I found a way to tell stories not in endless, epic form but rather as a juxtaposition of emotions and reactions, explosions and implosions - in fragments, strung together like film images. I tried that out in the mental home, because I wasn't allowed to write, I was supposed to crochet. As a child I had hobbies like crocheting, so it was perfect for me. At the same time, I had such bad headaches from all the pills that I was literally unable to write long sentences or continuous reports. And so I discovered this method for myself and thought, wow, this works.

Melancholy is a common theme in your literature.

More than half of all writers are depressed. People who've got no melancholy in them, who've never experienced it, have only half lived. It's part of the whole, it's what you need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of another person, to empathise with another person, it's part of the process of giving in to natural impressions. The endless hopelessness that one occasionally feels is also part of it.

Jürgen Fuchs once said you are the poet with the soft eyes and the tough mouth.

That's typical Berlin, that sort of cynicism. Colloquial language is my main inspiration, in how I live and how I write.


Click here for some of Helga M. Novak's poetry.

This interview, conducted by Uta Beiküfner, originally appeared in German in the Berliner Zeitung on December 29, 2005.

Translation: nb

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