Variations on a Theme: Carolina Schutti & Joanna Walsh on Poetic Prose

"Poets have long been questioning the usefulness/uselessness of the label 'prose poem.'"

When I was invited to create a miniseries of semi-regular author events as translator in residence at the Austrian Cultural Forum London, I wanted to make sure that the Austrian author would always be in dialogue with a British counterpart about something they have in common in their writing. My motivation is to juggle the foreignness and uniqueness of German-language literature with where it meets and overlaps with literature written in English in order to show that writing comes from a specific linguistic, cultural and literary context, but one that connects and communicates with others. As journalist Judith Vonberg summed it up in her review of the event for Literaturhaus Europa: “it’s a simple but unconventional idea. Instead of highlighting the differences between British literature and literature made on the continent, the starting point is similarity, which opens up far more interesting discussions.”

The first of these events brought Austrian writer and musician Carolina Schutti and author and illustrator Joanna Walsh together to discuss poetic prose and how poetry permeates their writing in terms of language, effect and form with me in the ACF London’s Salon back in February. As a writer of both poetry and short fiction, I’m interested in why sometimes one form does and then other times won’t do at all, and why it sometimes happens that I can read the poetry and prose of others interchangeably as if in the other form. What are the markers and where is the boundary?

Last year, Carolina Schutti won the European Prize for Literature for her novel einmal muss ich über weiches gras gelaufen sein (‘once I must have trodden on soft grass’) and her most recent novella Eulen lautlos fliegen (‘Owls Fly Silently’) explores domestic abuse from a young boy’s perspective that grasps what he sees through a fixation on imagery and detail and which mimics his preoccupations through masterful repetition and emphasis. Joanna Walsh’s latest short story collection Vertigo (And Other Stories) offers a variety of intimate tales—some short moments, some expanding ruminations—populated by thrillingly honest, assured, perceptive and largely female voices and I had been struck with how tempted I was at times to read them aloud as if they were poems.

Both authors have either been described or have self-affiliated as writing “poetically” in a few senses and I wanted to get to the bottom of this. Poets have long been questioning the usefulness/uselessness of the label “prose poem,” and the description of an author’s prose as being “poetic” has now fallen into cliché. xWalsh has been described as being “poetic,” of having stories that are “poetry” and a review of Vertigo in The Irish Times even stated that the stories were like “prose poems.”

“I’m wary of identifying my work as ‘poem-like’ because most of the poets whose work I admire are continually remaking poetry, and questioning the idea of ‘poetic’ language—I particularly like Sam Riviere’s series of essays about this at The Quietus,” Walsh clarified. “I’m not sure what forms the border between poetry and prose. It might be something to do with use of certain forms, and the forms I use are prose forms – essay, short story – even if I mess around with them.”

We discovered during the discussion that writing “poetic prose” isn’t as kitsch in German as it is in English, far from it, it’s highly regarded and preferable to “experimental;” the sister term of “poetic” with regards to prose. “It is interesting to discuss the term ‘poetic’ being rather negative in English,” Schutti admitted. Writing to me after the event she told me that through further reading around the subject she’d “found out that poetic language in combination with ‘nice’ topics quite often ends up as kitsch, so combining beautiful language with difficult and painful topics is perhaps more successful.”

Schutti, as a musician, finds sound and rhythm vital to her writing process, which is what surely brings about this poetic backbone in her work. This is further complicated when her ‘poetic-sounding’ text in German is translated into English. Interestingly, on seeing that I had kept the repeated refrains that appear in the original text in my translation of an extract of her book (which you can read below), Schutti checked with me whether they had the right effect in English for the tone of the piece, to which I admitted (to myself and to her) that it didn’t, so these were stripped back.

A question I posed about practices of condensing their writing—of whether they felt they could further condense their texts, even perhaps into poems—drew a particularly remarkable response.

“I’m always looking for the most efficient way of expressing something, which doesn’t always mean the shortest, but even with diary entries, when I type them up into a word file, I go back and cut,” Walsh admitted. “I like jolts and jumps: both juxtapositions—putting two things ‘too close’—and gaps, which require the audience to draw two thoughts/images/whatever together. This is not always a minimalist technique, but one that tries to recreate the conditions of life ‘outside the book’, where we are always being asked to make sense of events that don’t have a natural narrative. I like the reader to be active too.”

On this point, Schutti approved the idea that “there are things hiding between the lines which might be more important than the words that have been written down.” I’m sure I was nodding in agreement and familiarity, of intentionally giving a reader a few well-chosen and well-placed words to allow them more imaginative freedom. Translations too must remain within the realm of disclosure of the original, no matter how enticing it is to share the exciting flesh grown onto the bare bones of the text while still ‘only’ a reader.

It was a pleasure to host these two dazzling writers, and we hope that Carolina Schutti’s works will appear in English translation in the near future.

Read a chapter of Carolina Schutti’s absorbing novella Eulen fliegen lautlos in my translation below:

Owls Fly Silently

Jakob’s mother hasn’t come home, so his father stands at the fence with him and looks out beyond the meadow towards the narrow dirt track. They would hear his mother coming before they would see her; the street sinks into the valley and the bike’s light is dim. Jakob only begins to feel afraid later, when his father impatiently paces around the garden and begins to take quick, loud breaths. Jakob can hear the breathing from the fence, even over the loud steps his father makes on the ribbon of gravel.

But Jakob continues to sleepily wait for his mother, who had gone to the doctor’s and then to her sister’s. It is autumn, but the night is surprisingly mild. Jakob only has a thin pullover on, his father wears a short-sleeved shirt. Jakob watches the sky growing darker and darker but then ultimately remain brighter than the forest, which grows up out of the meadow like a black wall.

Jakob climbs up onto the corner of the fence to have a clear view of the spruce trunks that break open the forest rank and file. Between and in front of them grow rampant shrubs – raspberry bushes – who slink their tentacles through the high grass and once a year shed their berries for those willing to sacrifice their skin.

Pale, mottled little arms steady themselves on the fence: the starry heavens lie like a quilt over the forest, over the meadow. Jakob’s head is slumped back – valiantly, his mother will pedal, valiantly, his mother will fling open the garden gate and ask his father why the child’s still not in bed, why they’re impatiently waiting for her outside: I’ve always come back.
What were you doing at your crazy sister’s, we’re your family, his father will roar and his mother will walk past him and disappear into the house.
In the night, Jakob will hear a rumbling, he will pull the covers over his head, put bits of tissue in his mouth and chew them until they’re saturated with spit and he will stick the wet balls of tissue deep into his ears until it sounds like the shed door when the wind sometimes plays with it.

I’ve always come back, his mother will say.

Jakob looks above: a half-moon and the evening star. More and more stars soon light up, one after the other and many at once. In amongst the twinkling Jakob looks for movement, for a comet and its tail slowly making its way across the heavens like a king with his train: all the stars around him fade when he appears. On the occasion of a comet you can make a very big wish.

Jakob had put a paper comet under his bed, meticulously cut out (on the back is the weather report, a part of it, half a sun and a bit of cloud), he leaves it where it is and won’t retrieve it because he knows it’s there, because he’s waiting for the real comet and he scans the heavens, while his father – now – begins to teeter on his heels, makes a first step in his heavy shoes, takes a deep breath.

Patience, patience.

His father doesn’t leave any footprints in the gravel, the tread of his shoes picks up a little stone now and then. Jakob scratches out the stones with the end of a paintbrush and collects them in a pickle jar. When he’s big he’ll drop the full pickle jar into the lake.

Patience, patience.

Jakob is certain that the comet will come. He searches the heavens with wide eyes and pauses as he suddenly sees a point of light, indeed without a tail, but maybe it’s just short or turned away from the Earth or hidden, but yes, it’s moving, a comet, a comet! He’s breathless, his heart’s beating in his ears, a guttural sound compels his father to turn and look at Jakob. The boy throws open his mouth, points his finger at the expanse, almost losing his balance on his tiptoes on the crossed beams of the wooden lattice fence. His father looks along his arm to the point of light, which he also sees.
A satellite, a satellite, now you see what’s up there floating over everything! and his father gives him a clap on the shoulder, as if knocking him into becoming a man.

Chapter 9 of Owls Fly Silently by Carolina Schutti, translated by Jen Calleja. Eulen fliegen lautlos, edition laurin (2015)


The next Variations on a Theme will take place at 4pm on Saturday 18th June as part of the 60th anniversary of the Austrian Cultural Forum London and will be a special edition. Esther Strauss, Bernhard Saupe, Erica Jarnes, Rebecca May Johnson and Jen Calleja will perform new commissioned works inspired by the ACF London’s past programming and guests. A third Variations on a Theme will take place in the Autumn.

Jen Calleja is the Austrian Cultural Forum’s Translator in Residence. She is a writer, literary translator from German, acting editor of New Books in German, editor of Anglo-German arts journal Verfreundungseffekt and columnist for literature in translation for The Quietus. Her translation of Gregor Hens’ Nicotine was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions/Other Press and she is currently translating Kerstin Hensel’s Dancer on the Canal for Peirene Press. Her debut poetry collection Serious Justice is published by Test Centre.