Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Tracy K. Smith

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

What could a polymath patrician of German intellectual life have in common with a young, African-American poet? A lot more than you would think, but the singular truth is that it is their differences that seem to make the mentorship flourish.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Tracy K. Smith

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 6)

May 2010

An interview with Tracy K. Smith before the beginning of her mentoring year with Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

How did you first learn that you were being considered for the Rolex Arts Initiative?
I got an email in mid-October [2009] inviting me to apply. I wasn’t familiar with the programme until then and didn’t know that Rolex was involved in the arts, but it seemed like a great opportunity and I was grateful for the chance to apply.

Can a poet really teach another poet?
Yes, definitely. I teach undergraduates creative writing at Princeton University. Some people say the ability to write is intrinsic rather than learned, but I think that a person with talent can learn a great deal from working with a teacher or mentor. It’s the difference between waiting to discover something very essential on your own, and having someone with more knowledge and experience suggest you try something that might have a valuable effect on your approach to your work.

I’m hoping that the mentoring year will do the latter for me. I’ll be working on a prose fiction project, which is new terrain for me.

Which poets have influenced you?
Early on, I read and tried very hard to emulate Elizabeth Bishop [1911-79]. I was very interested in her way of approaching description and narrative. James Dickey [1923-97] is another poet who was very important to me when I started writing, mostly because his poetry was capable of exploring dark and sometimes frightening material – I wanted to learn how to tap into that kind of feeling.

I’ve learned a great deal from poets with whom I’ve studied: Lucie Brock-Broido, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Henri Cole, Linda Gregg and others. They had a dual effect of inspiring me on the page and in the classroom. And there are many poets closer to my own age or stage of career whom I read and admire. I’ve just happened upon the collectionBeautiful in the Mouth, by Keetje Kuipers, whose poems are daring, formally beautiful and driven by rich imagery and startling ideas.

You obviously believe that poetry is important. And yet many people are not at all interested in poetry.
I would wager that the people who don’t find poetry accessible feel this way because of how it was taught to them when they were young. Maybe they were forced to learn poems by rote, or to try and paraphrase the “meaning” of a poem, or to wrestle with poems as if they were unruly animals that needed taming. I’ve visited classrooms where something like this seemed to be happening, and it’s clear that it doesn’t win many fans for the genre.

I believe that when people are able to listen to poetry and respond to it on a sonic level, and then to take a more relaxed or even playful approach to describing the effect that the words and images have upon them without the fear of “getting the answer right”, they can overcome that sense of intimidation and find themselves comfortable in the presence of a poem.

A poem can be different things at different times, and I think acknowledging that gives readers a little permission to respond honestly and unselfconsciously to what they are reading or hearing. With that kind of a relaxed receptiveness, readers might find themselves open to the new ways of seeing the world and considering experience that are at the heart of poems.

You have mentioned that you are thinking of writing a novel. Do you expect your mentoring year to be constructed around that? How would that work?
I’ve wanted to work in prose for some time now, but have found it very easy to talk myself out of such an endeavour, mostly because of the intimidation involved in starting from scratch in a new genre. Hans Magnus Enzensberger has been productive in several different genres, and I have the idea that his guidance will help make the transition less of a nervous one for me. But I also have a feeling that the mentoring year will yield something other than just straightforward feedback on my work. We are no doubt going to talk about craft, but we are also going to talk off the page as well. I’m guessing it will be something of an intuitive process.

What happened during the first meeting with your mentor, when Hans Magnus Enzensberger was meeting the finalists in order to choose his protégé?
Well, I arrived at his office in Munich without a very definite idea of what to expect. I was nervous that it might be difficult to make a genuine connection in such a brief and orchestrated amount of time, but he was extremely welcoming. We had a very natural and lively conversation that seemed to take on a life of its own. Enzensberger has so much knowledge; it was a pleasure to be in his company and listen. We talked about travel, poetry, a little about politics. It felt like we were just sharing little glimmers of our lives with one another. I knew that if I had the opportunity, I could learn a great deal just by being in this person’s presence.

Is there anything in common between your work and that of your mentor?
He has had a long and diverse career, but in reading his poetry I can see that there is something kindred between us. I think we’re both, on one key level, concerned with the individual and society, and with how an individual responds to systems that are not of his own choosing. That’s just one small thing, perhaps, but I think it’s the kind of perspective that resonates in a variety of directions across the work.

What is your goal or objective as a writer?
My main wish as an artist is to continue to use language not just as a tool for communicating or for making beautiful objects, but for arriving at a deeper and more effective way of being alive in the world. I want to use words and the questions they are capable of forming as a way of pointing myself towards new and constantly changing possibilities for understanding and connecting with others – other places, other ways of being, other histories, other realities.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Tracy K. Smith

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 3 of 6)

October 2010

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.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Tracy K. Smith

A year of mentoring

A meeting of minds (Chapter 4 of 6)

The mentorship pairing of Tracy K. Smith and Hans Magnus Enzensberger works beautifully, even if a bald rehearsal of their differences means the odds ought to have been against it. It is not merely the age difference between them, but their histories: he is a German European, she an African American; she teaches at a university, Princeton, he is, using his own words, “not good at institutional life” – even though he knows that this has its downsides, not least the absence, sometimes, of a regular salary.

Perhaps it works because both have a pedagogic bent: he has been a distinguished editor and she is a teacher. Perhaps it works because they share terrains, poetry and now prose, but work over them in different, but complementary ways. Perhaps it is their common fascination with history and politics, however experienced differently. At one stage each of them are asked what they will take from the experience. Neither really knows, but they do their best to help the interviewer. “We are rich enough to squander,” says Enzensberger. “There is no dearth of ideas.”

Extracted from an article written by Philip Dodd, forMentor & Protégé,a magazine documenting the 2010/2011 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Tracy K. Smith

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

Tracy K. Smith talks about her year as a Rolex protégée

You have not only become a student again, but are chancing your arm with prose, not poetry – for the first time.
Yes, this is my first piece of extended prose, the long gesture, needing to flesh scenes out, going after character. Lots of space. I am still trying to figure out how to do it. Hans Magnus has been good at helping me not to worry about that unending white space, waiting to be filled. If I am concerned about some big question – say, how to write about my father, Hans Magnus invites me to think small scale. He prompts me to write a scene, to remember what my father, an engineer, did in the house. When I was in therapy, my therapist encouraged me to think not about the next 10 years, but about the next eight weeks. Hans Magnus encourages me to focus on the next 20 sentences.

Do you see that there is an analogy between therapy and the mentorship?
Oh, yes. Both therapy and the mentorship are about giving me a solid footing on which to go forward. And in an obvious way, the memoir too has the structure of therapy, moving backwards through a life in order to move forward.

Do you think writing can be taught?
I know there are people who think it can’t be. I am not one of them. Working with someone on the technicalities of writing is possible, with someone with aptitude, working on scenes or helping them to clarify themes. It is possible to teach the villanelle, a structured, 19-line poem, for example. Hans Magnus saw my new volume of poems (Life on Mars) in manuscript – there are U.S. pop culture references in it that he asked me about. I hadn’t thought about this, as an American, having taken them for granted. His reading gave me a nudge. A useful one.

What do you think your mentor got from the mentorship?
Magnus shared with me some German translations that he has made of several of my poems, and, aside from being flattered and floored, I realize that, just as I have begun to carry around some piece of his voice and perspective with me, he too has been living with my voice inside his head – a really lovely emblem of the exchange.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Tracy K. Smith

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 6 of 6)

Interview with Hans Magnus Enzensberger

You have always avoided the formal role of a teacher. Why did you agree to be a mentor?
You are right. I did not need to do this. It has always been very important to me to be an independent person. Perhaps it is a matter of generation. Committees, office hours, they do not suit me. Even when I was a publisher for 20 years, with responsibility for around 12 books each year, still I did not go into the office. With this programme there are no office hours. The classical idea of a mentorship is that of an unequal relationship. But it is not selfless on the part of the teacher. The mentor needs to take something away from it. Which is what I’m finding out. The great strength of the programme is that we can take the mentorship in any direction we wish.

Do you think that this mentorship will leak into your primary work – your poetry and prose?
Well, I have been a translator of other people’s poetry, as well as writing poetry myself, and the translations may have sometimes shaped what I have done in my own work. But it is important to remember that I am not a shy, solitary writer. When I was working as a publisher with W. G. Sebald [an influential German writer, 1944-2001], it was a great joy for me to get his work through into publication. I don’t mind the “unworldly poet”, a poet who truly has no interest in how the world works. But personally I can’t abide the thought that the publisher or editor knows something about the business that I do not. Of course there are very solitary writers. Take Kafka. It is impossible to imagine him as a publisher working collaboratively with another writer, wondering whether he can bring it off with, say, a print run of 3,000 copies. On the other hand, Kafka worked in an insurance office and there he did meddle!

Do you like editors of your own work?
I want, I need, someone to contradict me. When publishing times were hard, I even paid someone to be my editor. At present, I have my wife, a trusted friend, then a formal editor. Those writers who think of themselves as unassailable geniuses! Leave that judgement to someone else.

What about the audience for your work? Do you imagine them in your role as writer, rather than publisher?
Corporate life is fascinated by the audience. It does research – it tests toothpaste on the market. And maybe there are writers like this, best-selling ones who cook to a recipe. But, as a poet, it is impossible to speculate about the audience: “If I do this, I shall sell more; do this, less.” That is just not our game. Poetry is not reducible to discourse. It is irreducible. That is its marvel.