Barbara Köhler is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential poets of her generation and has received many prizes and fellowships for her work. Barbara Köhler encounters the objects in her poems with a high degree of linguistic precision, without, however, trying to pin them down unambiguously or to give them just one meaning – since that can also render them one-dimensional. She prefers to offer new possibilities, unfamiliar ways of seeing.
Barbara Köhler was born in Burgstädt, in former East Germany, on 11 April 1959 and grew up in Penig. After leaving school, she worked for a time in the textile manufacturing industry in Plauen, in a care home for the elderly and as a lighting assistant in the city theatre in Karl Marx Stadt (now Chemnitz). From 1985 to 1988 she studied at the Johannes R. Becher Literature Institute in Leipzig and began publishing work in magazines. After the Wall came down, her debut collection, Deutsches Roulette (German Roulette), was published in 1991 by Suhrkamp Verlag, to be followed by many more, including the poetry collection Blue Box (1995) and Wittgensteins Nichte (Wittgenstein’s Niece; 1999).
In 2007 she published Niemands Frau. Gesänge (Nobody’s Wife: Cantos), a retelling of The Odyssey in which, this time, the female characters get to tell their side of the story and so are not just, as Köhler writes in her Afterword, “there in the story as though they weren’t really there: just there for him, for the hero”. Köhler allows the classical metre to sound behind her lines, but the whole thing no longer hangs on one narrative thread as it does in Homer. She remembers differently from he. And it is from this thread that Köhler weaves Penelope’s web. This furioso reinterpretation of The Odyssey, which has brought her several awards, including the Poetry Prize of the German Industry Culture Group in 2009, is a venture into new territory, a tour de force that is probably unequalled in contemporary poetry.
Now living since 1994 in Duisburg, Barbara Köhler has also been active as a translator from English and French, gaining accolades for her versions of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett. But she is not content to be involved merely with books alone. She has frequently collaborated with artists and on multi-media projects, textual images and text installations in public spaces.
Many of Barbara Köhler’s poems depend on small shifts in language, such as taking a figure of speech literally or altering it slightly. Her lines “I’ve no say in it everything’s / ready-said for me I like turns / of phrase that transform” from the poem ‘Entpuppung’ (As it turns out) not only demonstrate the process but are also a statement of poetics. There is also a suggestion here of the subject frequently negotiated and varied by Köhler, the ‘I’ (with itself) in the linguistic space.
Her consistent use of lowercase, the rejection of the capital letter at the beginning of nouns and sentences usual in German, is another ‘refiguring’ or transforming process that Barbara Köhler skilfully employs in some poems to create ambiguity. Single words can be taken as this part of speech or that, depending on the way they are read. Combined with her frequent dispensing with punctuation, this makes it possible to relate words to each other in various ways; at first reading different phrases come to mind than at second reading, and yet more at a third reading.
“It’s always about ambiguity,” says Barbara Köhler, “uncertain associations that constantly stem from a basis of several meanings produced in the process of listening and reading, as a form of relationship.”*
Barbara Köhler is an expert when it comes to tracking down and boring into this unclear nature of language. Her poems are where her finds are tested for their cognitive possibilities in different views of reality, precisely interweaving a desire to know, an awareness of language and reflection on language. In the poem ‘Jemand geht’ (Somebody’s going), describing a separation between “her” and “him”, for example, this involves going into the semantics of verbs like ‘to go away’ (or to leave) and ‘to stay’, thus demonstrating how they are complicit in defining what happens between people: “he can / only go away if she would stay she knows: if / she also went away there would be no more go / ing away for there would be nobody left that / stays but how can he know that – for he does / not even turn”.
Using experimental writing as a means of investigating human existence and finding ways to give it expression, Barbara Köhler searches for a language that corresponds to her experience and world view. She searches, she plays, she shakes language up until it gives up all the combinations connecting words, she taps on each word to see what it is saying and what it is hiding, bends sentences and recombines the parts. This reforming is also bound up with sound that is part of the process of revealing and shifting relations. When she speaks, she swallows bits, recombines syllables and sticks the left-over letters together until language gives her what she wants from it: a correspondence to her world.
The image of Barbara Köhler is republished here courtesy of gezett.de.
* from Europe . . . A Poem: A German/English catalogue and sourcebook. Compiled and edited by Roy Kift. Klartext Verlag, Essen, 2010 (An English-German collection of 27 leading European poets – one from each EU country).
Deutsches Roulette. Gedichte 1984–1989, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1991
Blue Box., Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1995
cor responde, pict. im, Berlin, 1998 (a German-Portuguese poetry cycle with Ueli Michel)
Wittgensteins Nichte. Vermischte Schriften, Mixed Media, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1999
Ungarisches Wasser, exhibited at Lindenau-Museum Altenberg. IG Metall, Frankfurt am Main, 2000 (with Osmar Osten; own text with three photographs by Barbara Köhler)
Niemands Frau. Gesänge, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2007 (songs; book and CD)
no one's box, edizioni periferia, Luzern / Poschiavo, 2007 (with videos by Andrea Wolfensberger)
Rondeau Allemagne i inne wiersze, Wydawn, Uniw. Mikołaja Kopernika, Toruń, 2005
Gertrude Stein, zeit zum essen. eine tischgesellschaft. food, objects and portraits by Gertrude Stein, translated and read by Barbara Köhler, Urs Engeler Editor, Basel / Weil am Rhein, Wien, 2001 (CD with booklet)
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons – Zarte knöpft, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2004 (English/German; translated by Barbara Köhler)
Samuel Beckett, Trötentöne / Mirlitonnades, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2005
1990 Literaturpreis der Jürgen-Ponto-Stiftung
1991 Förderpreis zum Leonce- und Lena-Preis, Darmstadt
1992 Förderpreis der Stadt Bad Homburg (Hölderlinpreis)
1994 Förderpreis zum Else Lasker-Schüler-Lyrikpreis
1995 Stadtschreiberin zu Rheinsberg
1996 Clemens Brentano-Literaturpreis der Stadt Heidelberg
1997 Förderpreis des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen
1997 Writer in Residence Warwick University, UK
1999 Literaturpreis des Ruhrgebietes
2000 Artist in Dialog Universität Witten-Herdecke
2005 Internationaler Norbert-C.-Kaser-Preis
2007 Spycher: Literaturpreis Leuk
2009 Writer in Residence Oberlin College, Oberlin Ohio US
2009 Poesiepreis des Kulturkreises der deutschen Wirtschaft
2009 Erlanger Literaturpreis für Poesie als Übersetzung
Recordings of Barbara Köhler reading her poems on lyrikline.org