Interview with Walter Ancarrow


Walter Ancarrow: You were born in Vienna and speak German, but you write mostly in English. What is your relationship to English? Does it lend itself better to the visual puns for which you are so fond? For example, there is a word in German—you can help me remember it—for when a person has been in the sun for too long and feels tipsy. Your poem "When the Sun Goes Down," the first one of yours to be published at KIN, seems to play with this idea. So why did you write it in English and not German, when German has a specific word for it?

Anatol Knotek: You mean "sonnenstich"? In this case, I just played with the word sun. I was slightly inspired by a piece by [Uruguayan artist] Luis Camnitzer, and I thought of a lovely cocktail on a sandy beach. You have a point here: yes, the most works I publish are in English. But I mainly work in German, the language I feel most comfortable with. It is quite interesting that a lot of so-called puns are possible in both languages with the same word. Very often the same phrases are used. Sometimes I experiment with poems using both languages and sometimes Viennese dialect as well. But returning to your question: I began to use English not because I can speak it perfectly, but because it is understood by most people. Before I made text-art, I was a painter and the question of understanding was not a matter of language.

WA: Tell me about your transition from a painter to a poet. Many readers are probably unfamiliar with your pre-poetry work.

AK: Most people don't know about this phase because I don't show these works anymore. In the beginning, there wasn't The Word (for me), there was Van Gogh, later Gauguin, Cézanne, and, especially, Modigliani. I had in mind to merge their styles and forms. I made a series of dancing women, the outlines of which are similar to my "Dance of Life" poem.

There have been several coincidences that made me change my mind and style. The two most influencing have been a visit to the Open Book in Hünfeld, Germany where there are concrete poems on more than one hundred house facades; and a visit to an exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat. His combination of writing and painting, his "mistakes," the purity and roughness impressed me a lot. He said: "I cross out words so you will see them more. The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them."

WA: I find a lot of your work very humorous, a trait that runs through much avant-garde and experimental literature. The antics of the OuLiPo, the cleverness of Edwin Morgan, the U chapter in Eunoia (an -uggery of -unts and -ucks), are some examples of mischievous play in contemporary experimental literature. What is it about experimentation that lends itself to humor, in your own work or in general?

AK: Thank you for the compliment! I don't know what it is, but it seems that we sometimes find words funny, especially new words or phrases we haven't heard before, maybe with a uncommon pronunciation or look? When talking to a child and pronouncing a word a little bit differently, maybe in a dialect, it's often the best laugh you can have. And experimenting is fun too! For me a humorous person doesn't tell jokes all the time; on the contrary, a humorous person laughs about him or herself, about situations, with and not about others. Language itself is a wonderful example. We are so much used to certain words or phrases that we hardly ever think what they really mean or if there could be a completely different meaning. Language isn't perfect and we can't explain most of our feelings with words, but it can be a lot of fun playing with them!

Humor sometimes seems to be an unexpected turn in thought, maybe unreasonable or at least against the common line of thought. From childhood on we are taught how to see the world. To me, laughing is a kind of symbol for unleashing, for thinking outside the box.

WA: I would like to hear more about your thought that we "hardly ever think what [words] really mean or if there could be a completely different meaning." Do you mean that you believe words are intrinsic to their meanings, or that, coming to English as a non-native speaker, you are still exploring which words go with which meanings and so on?

AK: Maybe I should take this generalization back. Actually, I try to avoid these kind of "judgements." It is often that I discover a different possible meaning of a phrase or word myself and wonder why I have used it that often but never thought of it before. I like etymology, and I sometimes look up [its evolution], but that's not necessarily the point. I would like to have a fresh, unprejudiced look at language, and I love to discover. I don't know if words are intrinsic to their meanings, rather not; but, again, what a word looks like, or what you can do with it, if you add visual language, is what I like to explore.

I handle the German words the same as the English ones. Just an example: I made an animation with the word "juggling." All I needed were the dots over the i and j. In German, the word is "jonglieren," in Italian it's "giocoleria," in French it is "jonglerie." And the amazing thing is I have all the dots I need in all those beautiful languages. Sometimes all I'm looking for in a word are special requirements.

WA: It is obvious you like to play with language. Many of your poems, certainly the ones we are publishing at KIN, take a single word or phrase, free it from any sort of larger context (a line, a stanza, a longer poem), and play with its various meanings. Your poem "Too Much," for example, piles that phrase on top of itself before collapsing under the weight of its O's (or, paradoxically, its zeros). Can you explain and expand upon the themes you explore in your work?

AK: Yes, indeed. They are zeros. You seem to have an expert eye for typography! As you said, I like to work with single words and sometimes with single characters, but also with (shallow) phrases. Most of the time I imagine them visually and immediately write them down in my sketchbook or put a post-it on my wall. I aim to explore the possibilities of words and language in combination with fine arts and sometimes digital art. That's it mostly.

WA: Your two latest collections, Anachronism and 2 4get her, are collections of typewriter poems. Explain a bit about the typewriter as a means of composition in 2013. Why would anyone bother to write with such an antiquated (or as you say, anachronistic) machine?

AK: At the moment I'm really in love with my typewriter—the whole process, the constraints, the simplicity and the raw, pure aesthetic. It all started when I wanted to write something on toilet paper. I bought an old, used typewriter for 1 Euro and a new ribbon. The more I experimented with it, the more I liked the style and the possibilities. It's so simple, direct. The strength of the keystroke is immediately visible, and so are mistakes. Because the letters are monospaced [every letter takes up the same width on paper], a kind of (mathematical) text-construction that works very well for concrete poetry can be applied. I took my old ideas that emerged at the computer and tried to implement them with the typewriter. The results were much more simple and clearer.

Anachronism is an ongoing project where the context always varies. I write the poems directly with my typewriter, so no computer or printer is needed at all, except for the cover. I wanted to have a collection that I can add new work to over and over again, and each reader has a unique piece.

2 4get her is a collection of 50 poems this time written with the typewriter, but then scanned and printed. In both books I also cut the paper, tear and mend it together again. I use correction tape and some other techniques unusual for poetry collections.

If you want it to, using the typewriter can be seen as a statement. When it comes to art, the time-context is always crucial. And I know which times I use the typewriter as my tool! I studied computer science and was used to "the faster the better" [mentality]. There is this proverb, that the soul travels with the speed of a camel, and I kind of felt this during long travels in Asia. Sometimes I have the feeling that this is similar with technology.

Both books are self-published and completely self-made. I also wanted to show how easy it can be publishing and selling your own books independently. [I have] nothing against modern technology, modern times, etc.; on the contrary, I use modern technology when it's useful for me. I'm just showing an alternative. Not everything that is old is bad, not all the new things are rubbish. Maybe it's about balance and a slightly different point of view.

WA: You have exhibited your visual poems all over Europe. For our American readers, what is the poetry scene like over there, particularly in Vienna where you are based? I know experimental poets like Ernst Jandl were very popular in Austria, whereas in the United States, the avant-garde remains niche.

AK: Avant-garde art in general and especially poetry is always a small niche—per definition? I think that's the same all over the world. Is it good, is it bad? I don't know. I wished more people would take an interest in art, but I don't know how I would react when suddenly everybody on the street is talking about visual poetry! I know little about the literature scene in Vienna or elsewhere. I concentrate what is going on in the internet, what people from all over the world are working on right now. Maybe real poets are different, because many of them perform and read their works out loud in front of each other. I don't have to be present when someone is looking at a work of mine.

WA: What do you mean by "real" poets?

AK: Those who use whole sentences and more!

WA: For some of KIN's audience reading visual and concrete poetry is a new experience. What, in your opinion, makes a visual poem successful? What can the uninitiated look for when they read visual poetry?

AK: It is the combination of reading, looking and checking for possible meanings. If it is not straightforward, if it doesn't tell you what to think, but makes you think, I have done my task. I always say when asked similar questions: I am most satisfied if I can see a little silent smile on the viewers face. That gives me a good feeling. That's all the reward I aim for.

WA: Since your poems are fun and accessible, I think you make a good starting point for those interested in visual poetry, but beyond yourself, who do you recommend we read?

AK: I started my interest in art with Van Gogh. Reading his letters and reading about his inspiration, his point of view, and the artists he admired taught me a lot. I began to follow his interests. Of course it was a long way from expressionistic painting to visual poetry and conceptual art, but it was my path where I was enthusiastic enough to soak everything in and it still works that way.

If anyone who is interested in the kind of poetry and art I do, I would recommend to take a look at my blog, of course, or to buy or borrow an anthology, for example, the Anthology of Concrete Poetry edited by Emmett Williams, where you can find works from all over the world, including translations. The book Konkrete poesie, published by Reclam and edited by Eugen Gomringer, was an eye opener for me years ago, but it is only in German. Or just browse the Sackner archive, the biggest collection of concrete and visual poetry! Start somewhere and follow the path of your own interest would be my obvious recommendation.

WA: Thanks for mentioning the Sackner archives, which are a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about visual poetry. I have been reading recently The Last Vispo Anthology, which includes two of your poems. Visual poetry has since the time of George Herbert's "Easter Wings" become increasingly abstract. Where is visual poetry going, and at what point will it cease to be poetry and just become visual art? Perhaps you do not make such silly distinctions in your work.

AK: Not silly at all, but you are right I don't make those distinctions. Actually, I use the term "visual poetry" because it comes near to what I consider myself doing. Other people use it because of the same reason, but make completely different things. I guess artists and poets don't let them lead by a term or style. These are only categories people use who talk about art; you don't need them while making art, I guess.

WA: One thing I notice about your work is how it seems to bridge the gap between the typewriter-written concrete poetry of the 1960s and the more abstract, less textual visual poetry popular today. What is the next step for visual poets?

AK: It's a pity I can't scry! But if I'm honest, I don't have a real feeling about where visual poetry stands today, in terms of prominence, compared to, let's say, 30 years ago. What I see is that there are, on the one hand, a lot of new possibilities for word artists nowadays, and on the other hand, I feel that a lot of people would be more interested in visual poetry if they only knew it existed. The new forms of making visual poems on the computer, making digital word illustrations or even animation is picked up very well by a lot of poets. The wonderful possibility to publish your work online, to show it to thousands of people through social media is a huge leap, not just for visual poetry, although I think it fits visual poetry exceptionally well. Because visual poetry is neither "real art" nor "real poetry," it isn't very well admitted by galleries or publishers. They don't know how to handle it. I'm sure they will at some point, but that still takes some time, I think. Meanwhile, the internet works more than well for me.

In my work, or maybe it's in my personality, I always try to combine and connect the dots. Often I make a step back and instead of writing and manipulating on my computer, I take my typewriter and see what happens. After writing something on the typewriter, I sometimes scan it and manipulate it again or make animations with it. A similar thing happens when I use different material for my work; the meaning can change completely when you write something on the computer or on paper or if the letters literally stand in a room or hang on the wall. That's how I experiment—back and forth and back again—and so it happens that I am very often surprised how my own point of view changes.

Anatol Knotek (born 1977 in Vienna) is an Austrian artist. Visual and concrete poetry, installation, and conceptual art are in the center of his artistic work, which has been exhibited internationally. His concrete and visual poems have been published in journals, chapbooks, schoolbooks and anthologies. He is a member of the Austrian Art Association.

I handle the German words the same as the English ones. Just an example: I made an animation with the word "juggling." All I needed were the dots over the i and j. In German, the word is "jonglieren," in Italian it's "giocoleria," in French it is "jonglerie." And the amazing thing is I have all the dots I need in all those beautiful languages. Sometimes all I'm looking for in a word are special requirements.