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Steffen Mensching: “It’s a good time for poetry”

The literary polymath and proud ex-Berliner talks us through his new poetry collection, the importance of remaining a clown and the power of humour in difficult times.

Image for Steffen Mensching: “It’s a good time for poetry”

Literary polymath and proud ex-Berliner Steffen Mensching on his new poetry collection, the importance of remaining a clown, and the power of humour in difficult times. Photo: IMAGO / VIADATA

Steffen Mensching has one of the most unique careers in contemporary German literature. As one half of the clown-cabaret duo Wenzel and Mensching, he entertained adoring crowds in 1980s East Berlin and then continued doing so throughout the 1990s. After (pretty much) hanging up the mask in 2000, Mensching turned his hand to fiction – his 2018 historical novel Schermanns Augen (Schermann’s Eyes) was widely fêted – and to the stage, where Mensching has been the theatre director for the tiny town of Rudolstadt, Thüringen, since 2008.

Throughout, he has written poetry. His new collection In der Brandung des Traums (In the Surge of the Dream), out now on Wallstein Verlag, is beautiful, idealistic and genuinely funny. Mensching gave us a call from the east German pampa, insisting he is still and always will be a Berliner.

Do you think it’s a good time for a poetry collection to come out, in the middle of a pandemic?

Yes. I actually think poetry has been given a new chance during corona. Firstly because people are reading more – by necessity. But I’ve also got the impression that poetry is getting more acceptance than massive novels, because it gives you these short things that you can carry around and think about. And that’s great. This is a good time for poetry in general. And my collection – well, I think it ts really well into the contemplative mood of the moment. It has a lot to do with death, and with transience, themes that people are much closer to now than beforehand.

Coronavirus also means more awareness of the body, which is something that recurs in the collection – especially in the context of ageing and death. You’re only 62, why think so much about these topics?

I think all important poetry – if I might humbly include myself in that – has to do with death. Death and love are the central themes of all poetry, and they have a lot to do with each other. I’ve always been interested in the theme of death, and of course the older you get, the more pressing this topic becomes. I’ve always had a lot of older friends, and many of them I’ve now lost. And that, besides your own death, is the next greatest loss: that somebody who you are intimate with, who you share experiences and your life path with, is no longer there. Another important theme in my collection is dreaming. What’s unique about dreams is that the dead are still alive – they’re suddenly there, and they’re accessible to us. Then we wake up and miss them. But so long as we are dreaming of the dead, they’re never completely gone.

Image for Steffen Mensching: “It’s a good time for poetry”

The poetry collection In der Brandung des Traums is out now on Wallstein Verlag.

You’re known, especially to East Germans, as part of a once-famous clown-duo. Is there much of Mensching the clown in these poems?

Yes! Clowning always tries to bring a humorous side to tragic or difficult situations, to see things with a smile or a joke. That also has to do with Berlin: one of the city’s strengths, for me, was always the Berliners’ humour – that they’re so quick to respond and nimble-witted, that they’re capable of seeing things ironically.

Cynicism is easy to produce, but it’s not that interesting. Our times are already cynical enough.

For a clown, it’s about having a naive vision, seeing things as totally new and astonishing – not with detachment, but with wonder. You have to try to discover new aspects within the familiar, you have to find that special thing where your readers think “Oh yeah, I knew this, but I never quite saw it that way.” The clown has unfairly been reduced to its role as an interlude in the circus. But there’s a reason kings used to keep jesters around. These are the people that keep us alive because they make us laugh. Clowns are curious about how to see the world – and so is literature.

Was clowning a way to respond to the GDR and the vast changes during and after the Wende?

Clowns recognise that ideologies are just templates for taming reality, for bringing order to the world, and they are always snatching these templates away. That’s why Wenzel and I developed these clown masks under the GDR. First of all because it was fun, and because we liked this Volkstheater tradition. But also because a clown is allowed to say certain things that you can’t say with the face of a regular citizen.

We could keep it going in the West because we were innocent observers of the transformation taking place then as well. It’s still very important to me not to take what’s going on in a text completely seriously, that you keep an ironic view on it – and that poetry can also be funny! The German tradition is not very strong at humour. The highfalutin Hölderlin style has really won out against the Heine style, the profane and the ironic.

Many of your poems are very funny – but yours is a warm humour, an idealistic irony rather than a cold sarcasm.

Yes, well, cynicism is easy to produce, but it’s not that interesting. Our times are already cynical enough. You’ve got to deliver something different. The cynical position is to look down on other people because you understand everything better than everyone else. Irony is something different: irony means taking yourself seriously and also not taking yourself seriously. You’re still a ected by things. A cynic turns away from the situation. The ironist suffers along with the situation – but he doesn’t let it destroy him.

Your collection is filled with these beautiful little details, tiny observations that reveal the cracks in a façade or that tell a secret little truth. Does this specificity offer a way forward?

One of my favourite poets is William Carlos Williams, because he had exactly that: the small, precise observation that he would see and then make into the centre of a poem. I love poetry that does that. When you notice a particular image – like the eaten-down fingernails of someone on the train in New York City – these are the moments of joy that you have as an observer. You see it and think: this tells me everything, all the rest is a costume.