Hans Magnus Enzensberger has been prominent on Germany’s literary scene for over 50 years and is a leading intellectual, respected across Europe. Tracy K. Smith is an award-winning African American poet who teaches creative writing at Princeton University. He was born in 1929; she in 1972. But mentor and protégée have quickly and easily bridged the chasm that their different histories had created. Broadcaster and writer Philip Dodd interviewed them in London on 15 October, the day after Smith and Enzensberger read their poetry at a gathering at the London Library. As the mentor pointed out, the two of them had settled easily on the stage together. They were what he called “a duo”.
When did you first encounter Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s work?
Tracy K. Smith: I first came up against it quite recently, at a poetry reading, in, I think, 2006. I was struck first of all by the intelligence and wit of his poetry.
When I flew to Munich to meet him [three finalists chosen by the Arts Initiative’s literature panel were invited by Enzensberger to have dinner at his flat in Munich before he chose his protégé], he put us at our ease. When we left dinner, the three of us agreed that it was a marvellous experience – even if it went no further.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger: It was very informal. Just a dinner. And don’t forget that I had already seen something of each of the three potential protégés’ work. After all, these were not beginners. I just had to sense which one I would get along with. I did not want anyone with folie de grandeur – that would have been unendurable and unworkable – and I did not want someone who whined.
Is it poetry that you are working on at present?
TKS: Oddly enough no. It is a memoir. I have been working at this memoir, not in sustained way, over a period of time. This programme – this mentorship – has focused it.
HME: Because it is a memoir, there is more talk of structure. It has not yet taken a shape into something that can’t be changed. It is a good moment. And I hope that the [mentoring] year may turn out something very good. But our relationship may extend beyond the year.
Do you normally share your work at this stage of its making?
TKS: No, I don’t [she laughs]. But I am relaxed in doing so with Magnus.
How does the mentorship work?
HME: It is very informal; there is no literary equivalent of the artist atelier system. There is a text on which sometimes there is a little dot on the side, a little mark, here or there. We all need an outside view of what we do. I certainly do – otherwise all of us are in danger of thinking that what we have written is a work of genius.
TKS: It turns out that we have gone not for the telephone, but for email. Email leaves a space for reflection between us. It is not as direct as a voice.
HME: Yes, I think technology changes the etiquette of the mentorship. There is a virtue in the distance between us.
How has the tone of your exchanges and meetings changed over time?
HME: At the beginning I trod lightly, more recently without caution. But it is important to say that the learning is not one way. We have different histories – so I may have been to Mexico, but when Tracy told me about a trip to Mexico, it was a different place for me. Also, my English is more formal. The American use of the vernacular is very different, less concerned with manners. Sometimes I just need to ask what something means.
TKS: We met first at Magnus’s flat in Munich, then in Spain, maybe Paris later, and next year in New York. Our meetings are on the move.
HMS: Yes, I like how we meet – I met Tracy once with her family in Spain. I like the fact that we don’t meet in the same habitat.
I am interested that the protégée is a professor and the mentor is not, and has never been.
TKS: Yes, it is fascinating to be back in the role of the protégée rather than the teacher. It gives such a different view of things.
HME: I could not bear working in an institution. My preferred path is to gather ad hoc with people around a shared project. I have worked as publisher, translator and editor. I like that shared way of working. I could not countenance 9a.m.-6p.m. I am spoilt by my freelance life. There are no set hours. That is why I so like this project, this relationship.