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Language is carpentry

December 9, 2009

For many, it may be tough to imagine writing poetry in a second language, but that's essential for Marjana Gaponenko's work. The Ukrainian poet writes in German to shift her identity and to contemplate words more fully.

Marjana Gaponenko
Gaponenko says a foreign language gives her a different sense of herselfImage: Marjana Gaponenko

Poet Marjana Gaponenko was born in 1981 in Odessa, Ukraine. There, she began learning German and writing in the language at age 15. She went on to study German at the University of Odessa. Since then, she has spent time living in Dublin and Krakow, and now lives near Frankfurt. Her poems have appeared in literary anthologies worldwide, and her recent publications include a book of poetry called "Nachtflug" ("Night Flight") and a children's book called "The Lion School, a True Story for Children and Adults." This year, Gaponenko was awarded the biennial Frau Ava Prize for female authors writing in German.

Gaponenko spoke with Deutsche Welle about the experience of writing in a foreign language and the recurring imagery in her poems.

Your native language is Russian. How did you become interested in learning German?

I started taking German in school at age 15, but at first I found the language really terrible. It sounded harsh to me. In a way, it sounded like it was scolding me for not being serious enough. Of course, maybe that perception was based on the German cliches like discipline, punctuality and orderliness - I don't know.

Russian is the primary language in the southern Ukrainian city of OdessaImage: picture-alliance / dpa

I remember sitting very straight in my chair when my German teacher would speak, and words like "Verantwortung" (responsibility) and "Pflicht" (duty) had a kind of power over me then. But I really wasn't a very industrious pupil at the time and didn't have much success with the language.

But you now work in the language. What changed since then?

About a year later, I started to feel listless and just completely bored with my life. My friends at the time, the things we did together and the superficial conversations with them - that all had a rather depressing effect on me. And so one day I said to my mother, "I know what I want for my birthday: a German-Russian dictionary. I'm going to learn German and become a spy!"

And I still find it fascinating that I can become some other person when I speak a foreign language - I have a completely different sense of myself.

You didn't enjoy the language at all when you began, but do you enjoy speaking it and taking on this other identity now?

Yes - I have a lot of fun with the language and feel good when I speak it. I find it fantastic that when you're not born into a language, you contemplate it while you're speaking. That's because you don't take the elements of a language for granted as a non-native speaker.

Are there things that you're able to express in German that you can't express in other languages? Is it in some cases easier for you to write in German than in your native language?

A woman reads a German dictionary
Receiving a dictionary for her birthday was a turning point for GaponenkoImage: picture alliance/dpa

Well, there are words that are very unique to German and difficult to express in other languages, like "Schadenfreude" (taking pleasure in others' suffering) or "Unsitte" (a bad habit).

But beyond that, I view the language the way a carpenter sees a block of wood. If the carpenter is skilled and enjoys his work, then he'll be able to create something good. That may sound strange, but that's how I think of it. Also, I like that I don't have to strive for perfection with German. I think that perfection, if it exists at all, is pursued by calculating, cold personalities. If I were to strive for it, I imagine I would stop taking pleasure in the language and stop contemplating the words.

Your poems have a kind of universal quality - they could have taken place at any given time and virtually anywhere in the world. Is this a quality you seek?

I consciously - and now, perhaps unconsciously - avoid any elements in my poems that would directly indicate the time in which I live. As far as I'm concerned, I'd like it if my poems were still readable, translatable and enjoyable even in a thousand years from now, if that's possible.

It's not that I want to write in an old-fashioned way or in an exaggerated way like some 19th-century poets, but I do prefer to avoid references to technology and to contemporary society.

A few images and symbols appear often in your poems - for instance, flags, mouths, running and dreaming. Can you comment on your use of this imagery?

Well, I have obsessions, so to speak, like anyone - and these words reflect my obsessions. I think a person just has to pay attention to the words he uses over and over, and those words show him what kind of person he is or would like to be.

A picture of soldiers' graves in France
Gaponenko's "The Grass" was inspired by soldiers' graves in FranceImage: DW/Kails/Funke-Kaiser

When I go back and experience my poems as a reader, I am struck by how often I encounter, as you said, flags, mouths, the moon, mist and stars. But I couldn't really explain the symbolism to someone. In a sense, I know what's leading me, but I don't know where I'm being led.

Deutsche Welle translated the following poem by Marjana Gaponenko from German to English:

Das Gras
The Grass

Hier ist das Gras das Haar der Gefallenen.
The grass here is the hair of the fallen -
Der verwaiste Gedanke an sie, der sich selbst weiterdenkt.

The abandoned thought of them that thinks itself eternally.
Vorwärtsschreitende Herde,
A herd charges past,

bespritzt von der Silberträne des Mondes.

doused by the moon's silver tears.

Wer fiel und liegenblieb, der schwimmt in der Erde,
Those who fell and remained here - they swim through the soil,
die Tiefe bestaunend und alle darin kreisenden Pflanzen,
marveling at the depths and all of the plants that swirl therein,
versteinerte Tiere und Vögel.

the petrified creatures and birds.

Das Gesicht und den Körper in die Erde getaucht,
Their faces and bodies dipped in the soil,
so dass die Haare nur bleiben,
so that only their hair remains,

schwimmt der Mensch durch die Zeit.

they swim through the ages.

Interview and translation: Greg Wiser

Editor: Kate Bowen