Albert Ostermaier
(Germany, 1967)   

Albert Ostermaier still lives in Munich, his place of birth. At 31 he is acclaimed as one of Germany's outstanding young poets. His most recent collections, Herz Vers Sagen and fremdkörper hautnah, both published by Suhrkamp Verlag, won high praise from the critics.

Ostermaier is also a playwright, working for the Nationaltheater at Mannheim. His play Zwischen zwei Feuern. Tollertopographie, about the last days of the German writer Ernst Toller, who fled Nazi-Germany for the United States and committed suicide there, was produced at this theatre. Other plays from his hand are Zuckersüß & Leichenbitter and Tatar Titus, inspired by Shakespeare's general Titus Andronicus.

Ostermaier makes less of a distinction between drama and poetry than literary custom prescribes. 'Whereas my plays resemble poetry,' he says, 'my poems work like small plays. They contain much role-playing, in which the poetic 'I' projects itself in different characters, adopting their speech.' Fine examples of this are the poem 'woyzeck tanzt wieder' (from Herz Vers Sagen) in which the poetic 'I' appears in the role of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, and 'wahlverwandtschaften' (from fremdkörper hautnah), which plays upon the quadrangular-relationship theme from Goethe's novel and in which the 'I' acts as one of the four characters.

Ostermaier often refers to writers and writings from the past, to ancient stories and myths, in dealing with such perennial themes as love and death, art and society, which he treats in new, unexpected ways, with surprising twists in plot and outlook. In the love poems cruelty and tenderness take turns, and throughout the poem the 'I' and 'you' keep swopping places, leaving nothing to be taken for granted.

Ostermaier's poems are as intriguing in form as they are in content. Language, in the end, is the true stuff of his poetry. He handles it beautifully, with skillful use of sound and rhythm. He does not use punctuation, which makes his poems look like long, twisting chains of words. Phrases and sentences overlap, words mutually interfere, doubling or changing their meanings.

The poet treats his audience like the 'I' treats the 'you' in his love poems, 'both cruelly and tenderly'. As he explains in the poem 'ratschlag für einen jungen dichter': to win the hearts of the audience, you first have to break them.

© Monique de Waal (Translated by Ko Kooman)

[Albert Ostermaier took part in the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam 1999. This text was written on that occasion.]


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