Heike Fiedler: Demystifying Poetry

Performance Poet Heike Fiedler talks to Inter-Actions about her rebellious engagement with words, sounds and visuals towards making poetry

A portrait of Heike Fiedler shot by Jean-Daniel Meyer. 2010.

LILA: Thank you Heike Fiedler for engaging with INTER-ACTIONS and contributing to it. You present two clips, Pause-Pose and Imagine. Could you tell us about these texts?

HF: I chose those two texts because they are emblematic for my work as a performing poet, and my growing understanding of poetry in terms of practice as well as reflection. The title Pause-Pose is built on the word ‘superposition’ (not superstition!), which is my superposition of languages and of various devices that I use to perform. One of its words, ‘silence’, refers to John Cage, for whom silence did not exist, or to Henri Chopin, with whom I had gotten a chance to do a workshop in 2004. He conceived the body as a fabric of sounds, a kind of noise-machine acting even in a silent environment. The poem, I Lost, part of the corpus Sprachspuren (traces of language), is a good example to show the concrete implication of intermedial superposition of sound, text and image. That’s probably the reason why I love to perform those two texts. Beside this, the two poems reflect fragmentation, which could be considered as the loss of entity. Artistically speaking, I don’t consider this negative, because it contributes to the formation of new meanings. Something like the idea of grafting in botanics. Uwe Wirth, a German professor and researcher in field of literature and arts developed an interesting theory about this. Moving myself between composition and improvisation, I make deliberate/deliberated-upon choices as you can see in the ending of the clip: «try». You got it: it’s a fragment of poetry.

LILA: What about Imagine?

HF: Imagine goes together with the poem I lost we mentioned before. At the heart of this text is an enumeration of things we may have already lost or we may lose. In times of migration, wars and other catastrophes, loss is the experience of so many people. This poem also reminds me of one of my favourite songs ‘Ain’t got no’ from the musical Hair, known also by Nina Simone’s cover. The visual-cum-sonic background, constructed on the word imagine, is the English/French version of the German verb sich (etwas) vorstellen: ‘imagine losing, whatever’. If you utter the word imagine many times over and fast, you get the German word ‘Maschine’. Here, two significant works enter the context of this poem’s conceptualisation and remain important for me through its performance: the well-known band Kraftwerk[1]coming from the town I grew up, and the artwork Dreamachine[2]by Brion Gysin.

LILA: You mention John Cage as an influence. Cage talked about ‘sound activity’ or ‘sounds in action’ as more interesting than sounds ‘speaking’ with each other. Your performance of poetry transports one beyond the verbal signification of language towards a greater possibility of collaboration of sounds. How did you arrive at such a form? When did you start performing poetry in this manner?

HF: I wrote my first acrostic[1], when I was a teenager. It was built on the word Smogalarm (smog alarm), which I actually experienced, growing up – it was the first one in Germany. I consider this acrostic as my first step towards nonlinear writing. Later I discovered experimental poetry, sound and visual poetry, as well as electronic, experimental and minimalistic music. Over nearly 15 years, until 2014, I co-programmed an international festival of sound and performance poetry in Geneva, where I am based now. In the very beginning of this period, I participated in various workshops on electronic music and spent one week at Vienna Poetry School with the celebrated sound poet Henri Chopin.

Besides this, I have been practising music since I was a child. Manipulating my sound and using visual software tools and midi controllers are extensions of my practice of musical instruments. Those different elements helped me build my own way of performing my poetry in relation to sound. As my work also includes visual poetry, it is unavoidable to compose intermedia performances, though improvisation is an important aspect of my readings.

An experimental performance representing the inseparable link between sound and word.  Photo: Swantje Lichtenstein. 2016

Sound is one of the very material aspects of words, and it comes into play as each letter is phonologically uttered. It is this materiality that I often use to construct my poems: it’s not the semantic meaning that guides the content, but sound, including the sounds of languages I know – I wish I knew a whole lot of them!  The sounds of words lead me to other words, as in the poem «superposer, supposer, oser, suppose pose pause» and so on. Many of my texts are mixes of sounds from various languages, as some newspapers have mentioned during my residency in New Delhi. Here, we may see an affinity to John Cage who was more interested in sounds than in the notes used in conventional composition. In terms of writing, you find this idea in my poetry, not constructed on semantic linearity, but on fragments of linguistic items or on sounds uttered as per my non-hierarchical conception of languages and cultures – again, an idea expressed by Deleuze. And exactly here, through the aspect of sounds in action, we find the possibility of collaboration with a larger scope. If we cannot speak to one another because we don’t speak the same language, we can certainly act together, towards peace and non-violence. sounds in action appeal to engagement, reminding us of Judith Butler’s ideas on gathering and assembling in Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly. Performing poetry and writing are my options to be engaged.

LILA: Viewing your work is not just about listening to the way sounds get into action, but also seeing words in action. Earlier, in a Kaapi LILA conversation, you spatially distributed your words in various ways and invited your audience to participate in gathering them into a piece of poetry. In Imagine, you use technology to physically ‘lose’ the specificity of the word in a whirl. How important is the ‘visual’ and ‘spatial’ aspect of poetry for you?

HF: I am happy that you remember the interactive and spatialised aspect of my way to realise poetry. The question is, what can be done with poetry once you take it out of the book or page into the larger public space, and how this process can open ways for better interactivity. One significant aspect that comes to mind here is the notion of flexibility, as it was, for example, intended with the Manifesto[1] written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: Words in Liberty.

By bringing words or poetry into that space of liberty, you can open semantic structures, act against semantic rules, break down the linearity on which our language is based, etc. I will come back to this, and to John Cage’s concept of music. Throughout history, many concrete and experimental poets have worked to deconstruct the given semantic or linguistic forms, drawing from their experience of language use and abuse under dictatorships. Unfortunately, Marinetti turned out to become an admirer of Mussolini – a pity!

The fact that audience can participate by gathering new poetry out of pre-existing elements also reminds us of forms like computer-animated interactive poetry realised through touchscreen animations. As you need some important, practical knowledge in programming, those pieces are often realised by young poets acting as programmers. As I am not a programmer, I use a method inspired by the dada-poem by Tristan Tzara, which was a manual cut-up. I have interpreted his invention (and not the invention of the Beat generation) of how to make a poem (takes scissors, put pieces together…) into a collective action or process. My own practice of spatialisation and fragmentation has of course an aesthetic intention, going together with the idea of decentralisation, undermining of authority and channeling one’s own directional focus.

My intermedially orientated practice of performing poetry is linked to those aspects. If I would simply read the text, you would be focused on the reader, on the words following one each other. I don’t want to say that this is not good. I also write short stories, and next year a novel of mine will be published, and I already enjoy readingthem directly. I love to play with various experiences a text can lead me to. It brings up different experiences for myself, and for the others as well, even though I cannot and don’t want to predict any result. The interaction of sound, text and image produces a synesthesia, which the public is free to perceive, and fill up with meaning, if they wish to.

You said that you perceive the projected turning of the word imagine as physical ‘loss’, of the specificity of the word in a whirl. I have to admit that I did not specifically think about this while doing it, but the interaction of word and image leads beyond the author’s intention. Here comes in the notion of the intended liberty of reception. And your interpretation then becomes a sign of a high degree of awareness. Perception is indeed another form of interaction.

I give you here a brief indication of how I came up to turn words especially in this poem: if you repeat the word ‘imagine’ en français, you will come to Machine (English) or Maschine (German). Thinking about imagination and dream connected to the word machine, we come to dreamachine, a turning object that is supposed to bring up a state of hallucination. This is why I consider this audiovisual poem I lost – imagine a homage to Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, but also to all people losing so much and often their lives because of war or persecution.

There is another important reason why I like to project words, letters and syllables, and this is linked to the science of particles and their acceleration. I am fascinated by scientific researches on various topics such as the boson of Higgs, and many other issues concerning quantum mechanics, may be because I live close to the Large Hydron Collider at CERN. In Quantum Physics, we find the ideas of randomness, time, nonlinearity coupled with the fact that ideas cannot be fixed, but contribute to research and progress. I am not a specialist in mathematics or physics. I simply read about it, put things together according to its principles and the insights it gives. For example, I use as resources, A Short History of Time by Stephen Hawking and Temps & Language by André Jacob.

LILA: You also mentioned that ‘meditation’ is an important aspect of your work. The work Pause-Pose has an obvious meditative quality – the reading itself becomes the meaning of the poem. Could you tell us a bit more about how you meditate on words and utter words to go beyond words? Is silence an important part of your practice in this regard? What is your personal training that helps you achieve this end? 

HF: I don’t meditate when I perform, nor do I intend to transmit spirit of meditation through my work, but it is possible that members of an audience might say that they felt parts of my work leading them into a hypnotic or meditative state, and that they really felt it. I am not surprised about this, because there are aspects of repetition or sound combinations in my performances that may produce this effect, which I experience myself when I rehearse in order to find the sounds I want to use. I construct many parts through practice and acting.

There are preparations linked to my work which I consider as meditation. For example, moments of writing or during the research of sounds, those moments, where I am isolated, drinking a lot of water. Then may happen a kind of disconnection, where I actively don’t search for anything, but suddenly «something» comes up. I won’t call it inspiration, but a kind of subconscious state of mind, out of which ideas or reflections reach the consciousness, making them pronounceable, communicable.

In terms of practices, besides daily yoga and breathing exercises, I love to swim, at least twice a week 2 kilometers each time. Some people don’t like the idea of swimming back and forth, but I like this kind of immersion and focus on repeated, regular breathing and movement. Those moments of ‘meditation’ somehow reflect in my art work. But this does not mean that my performance could not contain noise, activism or chaos.

LILA: Speaking of noise and activism, when you ‘perform’ your poetry, is there a political function that you intend to perform in your society, in these times?

HF: I think some of my earlier responses would partly address this question. To clarify further, more than a function, my poetry performances deal with the theme of the empowerment of women. My art work is an interrogation and criticism of structural power, which concretely and primarily represents the power of men. Every performance becomes political through its realisation.

In terms of poetry, performing poetry and breaking with academic representations of what poetry should be interrogated the political power of editors and books, and even social hierarchy, because access to poetry in Europe was linked to educational privilege.

This has changed since, I would even say drastically, in a manner common to most movements breaking with dominant structures: it is rejected and banned, then observed and finally appropriated by those who first disliked it, and, for the best or the worst, exposed as literary movement in some museum.

LILA: The aesthetics of your performance uses superpositioning of sounds, which very much indicate to a listener the simultaneity of different languages in our contexts. In Pause-Pose, languages are actually overlapping, not just the tones of your voice. Why do you use this device? 

HF: Because I love to do it. In some pieces, I use choirs. I once wrote texts for a sound poetry trio I worked with, known in the time for its multilingual texts, which are an important part of my work. I love the plurality of voices and languages, bringing up other dimensions, as you have noticed. I would not say it’s beyond language, it is language itself. All the rest is construction and convention, which enables us to communicate. That’s important, indeed, but we should not forget that a newborn child is able to produce sounds of mostly all languages, before daily routine breaks down this inherent capacity. This is why learning of more languages is important. Anyway, by superposing, by making an amalgam of words and sounds, I intend something more universal. When I superpose written, but moving words, which appear, disappear and reappear, I play with notions of memory, time and familiarity. This is why I like to translate, wherever I go, words of my poetry into the languages spoken in the country inviting me: Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Spanish, Turkish, Albanian, Italian, German, French… Even if I don’t speak all languages, I can introduce words into my realtime-projections, using mostly always «the same» poem. Otherwise said, the poem Hommage à Eurydice, constructed on the repetition of the words «the same».

Performing an audiovisual reading of published text at the International Festival of Poetry, Basel. Photo: Internationales Lyrikfestival Basel. 2013.

LILA: Could you tell us a bit more about your journey as a performance poet – where did you start, where are you at the moment, where might you be going from here? Who are your influences? Do you particularly relate to any tradition of poetry/any poet or performance/actor? 


I continue to perform: visual poetry – experimental poetry – sound poetry – die neue Musik

My influences : Gertrude Stein – Friedericke Mayröcker – Franz Mon – Henri Chopin – John Cage – Georges Aperghis and some performers or artists whose work I like: Ana Mendita – Milica Tomic – Jenny Holzer – Laura Spiegel – Amandine Gay

Where I may go?

I would like to quote some words of a poem I wrote: not yet

« not yet not jetzt not now not here […] nicht dann pas da but here […] I am – now »

Who knows about tomorrow? But I have indeed some precise ideas, time will show ☺ 

[1] Kraftwerk, literally ‘power station’ is a German band formed in Düsseldorf in 1970 by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider. Widely considered to be innovators and pioneers of electronic music, they were among the first successful artistes to popularise the genre.

[2] The Dreamachine (or Dream Machine) is a stroboscopic flicker device that produces visual stimuli. Artist Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’ “systems adviser” Ian Sommerville created the Dreamachine after reading William Grey Walter’s book, The Living Brain.

[1] Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti was an Italian poet, editor, art theorist, and founder of the Futurist movement. Marinetti is best known as the author of the first Futurist Manifesto, which was written and published in 1909. In the beginning, the Futurist writers experimented only with free verse and the new themes of machinery and progress. But by 1912, Marinetti had transitioned into a revolution in not just content but style. He called this new literature “words-in-freedom” (parole in libertà). Words-in-freedom destroyed syntax, used verbs in the infinitive, abolished adjectives and adverbs, suppressed punctuation, and employed mathematical and musical symbols. Marinetti exhorted writers to “destroy the ‘i’ in literature: that is, all psychology,” to give up on being understood by the reader, and to abandon aesthetic concerns by creating the “ugly” in literature. His prescription for Futurist writing was not only phonetic but also visual. He wanted to take advantage of the “typographical revolution” to use new fonts and arrangements of words.

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