Phil Hall talks with R. Kolewe about his debut collection Afterletters | Book*hug Press

Phil Hall talks with R. Kolewe about his debut collection Afterletters

Afterletters by R. Kolewe is a collection of poems that works with and through the writings of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. In the following interview, BookThug’s Poetry Editor Phil Hall talks with poet R. Kolewe about the relationship between Bachmann and Celan, the relationship Kolewe has to them, about romance and research and about the creation of his book.

Afterletters by R. Kolewe


P.H: Tell us about Ingeborg Bachmann and her relations with Paul Celan.

R.K: Apparently I can’t just point to a Wikipedia entry here! The major biography of Celan by John Felstiner hardly mentions Bachmann at all, and there hasn’t been a real biography of Bachmann yet (though one of the editors of the Bachmann/Celan correspondence, Andrea Stoll, has recently published a biographical study of her in German, which I haven’t yet read) so what I’m going to outline here will be sketchy, based mainly on the timeline and commentary in the published Bachmann/Celan correspondence, with some details from Celan’s correspondence with others. I’ll leave the overall details of their lives and works to the biographers and critics (or Wikipedia), and just focus on their interactions.

Paul Celan leaves Bucharest in 1947 for Vienna, where he met Bachmann in 1948. As Bachmann puts it in a letter to her parents quoted in the notes to Celan’s first letter to her: “The surrealist poet, Paul Celan,…who is very fascinating, has, splendidly enough, fallen in love with me…” Celan leaves Vienna for Paris about a month later. Bachmann is working on her doctoral dissertation (on the critical reception of Heidegger’s philosophy) which she completes in March 1950; it seems that she intends to join Celan in Paris, but the planned trip keeps being postponed.

For the most part at this time Bachmann writes to Celan; his responses are generally brief, hardly prompt. It isn’t until mid October 1950 that Bachmann actually gets to Paris. Apparently she stays with Celan until mid December, when she leaves for London. It seems that things did not go well between the two. There’s a letter from Celan’s Viennese friend Klaus Demus (whose wife Nani was a good friend of Bachmann’s) consoling Celan, basically saying “sometimes these things just don’t work, it’s not her fault and it’s not yours, actually you’re both very similar…” Nevertheless Bachmann continues to write to Celan after her return to Vienna, and the tone of her letters is much the same as before: “I long for you so much, so very much…” [#18.3] Celan is distant, unresponsive.

In November 1951 Celan meets Gisèle de Lestrange, his future wife. Bachmann writes him a few letters in the fall of 1951, but there’s no response. In January 1952 she writes saying that she will be able to take a vacation in April and hopes to come to Paris to see Celan. A few weeks later Celan replies. “Let us not speak of things that are irretrievable,” he says [#28]. He doesn’t mention Gisèle. Bachmann’s reply [#29], the day after receiving his letter, is at once proud — “I will not come to Paris on your account” —and filled with pathos — “I put all my eggs in one basket and lost.” Anyone who’s been dumped, especially long-distance, by mail, e-mail, or text, will recognize the combination of feelings.

After that the correspondence becomes sparse. In May 1952 Celan and Bachmann meet at a gathering of Gruppe 47, a group of young writers that includes Bachmann, Celan, and others future members of the German literary establishment such as Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. At that meeting it seems that Celan told Bachmann about his relationship with Gisèle de Lestrange. Bachmann writes to him in July: “Our first conversation crushed all my hopes and efforts of the last year, and you managed to hurt me better than I ever hurt you” [#33]. There’s no response from Celan. She writes three more letters, retreating somewhat into literary business. Again, no reply. Celan marries Gisèle de Lestrange in late December 1952.

In March 1953 Celan sends Bachmann a copy of his second collection of poems, Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppies and Memory), with only a brief inscription on the flyleaf, “a little jug of blue,” a quote from one of the poems in the book, “Marianne.” It takes Bachmann until June to respond, telling Celan that she’s leaving Vienna to live in Italy. “The poems are the most precious things I will take with me,” she writes [#38]. In December 1953 she sends Celan a copy of her first collection of poems, Die gestundete Zeit (Mortgaged Time), with the inscription, “exchanged in order to be consoled.”

That’s it until 1957. In the meantime Bachmann and Celan each publish another book, win awards, are becoming recognized as important voices in post-war German literature. Bachmann has left Italy and now lives in Munich. Celan is still in Paris, and he and his wife have a young son. Then in October 1957 Bachmann and Celan meet at a conference in Wuppertal. Their love affair resumes. Over the next seven months, Celan visits Bachmann three times. He writes to her, day after day, oftentimes sending poems, discussing literary matters. They share the editorship of a journal. Their correspondence is energized, but this time it is driven by Celan.


It doesn’t last long. Celan tells his wife about the affair in January 1958, and asks Bachmann to send her copies of her books. At first Gisèle Celan-Lestrange is devastated, and then as she reads Bachmann’s poems she writes in her diary “[Ingeborg] loved you so, she suffered so much. How could you have been so cruel to her?” (She and Bachmann maintain occasional contact until Bachmann’s death in 1973.)

It’s not clear exactly what happened, but in the spring of 1958 the affair ends. I don’t know who broke it off, or for what reason. Bachmann and Celan continue their correspondence, dealing with the literary matters of editing and translation, reviews and publications. In late June Bachmann comes to Paris. She meets Gisèle Celan-Lestrange for the first time. While in Paris Bachmann meets the Austrian writer Max Frisch, with whom she lives from November 1958 till autumn 1962. Their relationship is tempestuous. When it ends, Bachmann attempts suicide and is hospitalized.

Beginning in late 1958, Celan begins to perceive that despite his growing fame the reception of his works in West Germany is tainted by antisemitism. He communicates this to Bachmann in his letters. Then in 1960, Celan is falsely accused of plagiarism; this accusation is taken up by the West German press. Letters are written in his defence by many prominent German writers (including Bachmann and Frisch) but Celan feels that he is being persecuted; his friends have not done enough. He becomes distraught and his letters accusatory. In mid 1961 Bachmann stops answering Celan’s letters. She drafts a long letter to Celan, dissecting Celan’s bitterness and her inability to deal with it, but does not send the letter. She does write him a brief note in December 1961. Celan does not answer. In late 1962 Celan is admitted for treatment at a psychiatric clinic in Paris. Celan writes to Bachmann again in 1963, and then once more in 1967, without reply.

Celan commits suicide in 1970, drowning himself in the Seine. In 1971 Bachmann publishes her novel Malina, the first part of a planned sequence of novels to be called Todesarten (Deathstyles). The novel includes a portrait of Celan, as a person in a dream of the narrator’s which ends with the words, “My life is over, for during the transport he has drowned, he was my life. I loved him more than my life.”

Bachmann dies in 1973, of injuries resulting from a house fire at her residence in Rome. Bachmann was a habitual user of barbiturates, and a heavy smoker. Did she fall asleep while smoking in bed? We don’t know.

P.H: Why is Celan important to you? Why is Bachmann important to you?

R.K: I came to Celan’s poems quite late, I think after reading Anne Carson’s Economy of the Unlost in the early 2000s, when I was just rediscovering contemporary poetry after years of immersion in other matters. Even in translation, I was amazed by Celan’s language, and the anguish that comes through his words. I read and re-read his work, in translation and in the original. Maybe I was trying to understand all that pain.

Bachmann I came to even later. In 2008 a friend and I were talking about books that were important to us as teenagers, that we still read today. My friend said that Bachmann’s short stories were like that for her. I didn’t know Bachmann’s work at all, and my friend lent me a collection of her stories. That got me started, but what really drew me in to Bachmann’s poetry was Anselm Kiefer’s paintings, many of which incorporate quotations from both Celan and Bachmann. I’d known Kiefer’s work for a while, and liked how he embedded text in them, and all of a sudden I recognized where the text that wasn’t Celan’s came from.

Bachmann, Celan, and Kiefer are all dealing with “the German question” of the mid-20th century, of course. How do you talk about the Holocaust? How do you understand Nazism? How do you deal with the aftermath, from the victims’ point of view, and from the perpetrators’? And what about their descendants? Important and difficult questions that still resonate. There are also more personal resonance for me particularly, since my parents were survivors of that war, being ethnic German refugees from the east as young children. They did not talk about their experiences. So the ways in which Bachmann and Celan both investigate “not saying” is particularly resonant.

PH: Working from the correspondence and texts of these two, you have built the poems in Afterletters. Though collaged, your poems hold to their pages almost formally. (Like Keith Waldrop’s do, for instance.) How did the forms of your poems evolve?

R.K: I find I tend to gravitate to certain small forms repeatedly: tercets and sonnets (if any 14-line poem in two sort-of parts is a sonnet) particularly. At one time this was a real limit on my writing. However the lineation of a poem is very important to me, much more so than the form, so what tends to happens when I revise (and I revise a lot) is that I’ll start with a group of tercets or a sonnet-ish thing and get rid of stuff, which breaks the form. But the poem is still haunted by it, I think. Sometimes the opposite happens, too, and a few tercets will grow to fourteen lines, which may be a signal to stop, or the poem will spill over the sonnet barrier completely.


P.H: “I am words / and I am secrets you are secret words / and letters, falling, the word to enter / the word to pass, the word” – in these poems, the world is built of words, and yet desperate emotion is everywhere. This is a romantic book, in the old sense; and yet this is writing aware of itself as a set of signs also. Was it a challenge to reconcile the two?

R.K: I don’t think those two ways of writing are in any contradiction! Or perhaps self-aware writing is the curse of our age: I find it really difficult to write anything that doesn’t wind up reflecting on itself _as writing_, which is not always a good thing. (Sometime, I’d like to just write a story! Like a detective novel, know what I mean? It’s unlikely, though.)

In Afterletters the emotional content started out extremely raw, very lyric/confessional, and it was in the process of revision that I saw that it was possible to control and frame that intense affect by focusing on the poems as word machines: the self-awareness a glass you look through at the emotion.

P.H: The notes to your book are almost poems in themselves, as they trace the sources of the quotes used. You reference many editions of each poet’s work. And all of these in translation. Can you tell us about this process? What was the most surprising element of this research and writing?

R.K: With Afterletters, I didn’t start out with the idea of writing a sequence of poems about Bachmann and Celan. What happened was, I read an article online somewhere about the publication of their correspondence in German, and I got a copy of that book as a birthday gift for the friend who had introduced me to Bachmann’s writing a while before. After the book arrived from Germany, I had a look at it before giving it to my friend, and was fascinated. A while later, Wieland Hoban’s English translation came out, and I got that and was hooked. As I read the letters I was repeatedly struck by phrases that felt like things I could have said or written at various points in my life. I was writing a lot of “poems about loss” at that time, and started quoting phrases from the letters in my notebook with those poems. So it started with one or two lines. And of course the letters themselves reference Bachmann and Celan’s writing, and their writing refers to the events that occurred between them, so quotations from other work came in too.

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Once I got started with Hoban’s English version I wanted to go back and look at the German text, so I went to the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, where I found other volumes of Celan’s correspondence, particularly that between Celan and his wife, Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, and between Celan and his friends (also Bachmann’s friends) Klaus and Nani Demus, and others. Only Celan’s correspondence with Nelly Sachs existed in translation at the time (since then the correspondence with Ilana Shmueli has also been translated) so I began the slow process of reading-with-a-dictionary… My German comprehension improved immensely! I also found the annotated edition of Celan’s collected poems in German, in which the editor, Barbara Weidemann, quotes extensively from Celan’s correspondence, diaries and notes. Previously I’d only known Celan from various translations, the unannotated collected works in German, and John Felstiner’s biography. As I read his letters and notes he came alive for me in a new way, a much more complex man than the “Poet, Survivor, Jew” (the title of Felstiner’s biography) I’d known before.

The Bachmann holdings are a few aisles over from Celan in the library. When I began to go deeper into her correspondence with Celan, I had only read a few of her short stories. I hoped to find more material along the lines of Celan’s correspondence with his friends, and perhaps journals and the like. The library had her texts, of course, and a substantial collection of critical material, but that was it, other than one or two memoirs by people who had known her. Well, I thought, her papers must be in an archive, in Vienna, probably… It wasn’t until then that I actually realized that Bachmann’s archive was under embargo until 2023, and how extraordinary the publication of her correspondence with Celan had been. Anyway, I began reading Bachmann’s texts as well, in translation and with my dictionary. Her novel Malina particularly struck me, even in translation (and the only English translation is very problematic, I believe). I was delighted to discover it had been made into a film by Werner Schroeter, with a screenplay by Elfriede Jelinek, but the only copy of that I could find was a horrible transfer from videotape I downloaded from somewhere via bit-torrent… (A couple of years later I saw it at the TIFF retrospective of Schroeter’s work. It’s an extraordinary film, and now much easier to obtain.)


Celan has been translated many times, and his poems are notoriously difficult. I don’t think any translator gets him completely, and I certainly don’t pretend to; for me Pierre Joris comes closest (and I’m really pleased to see that a revised collection of all of his translations of Celan’s later work is due from FSG in December). So when I wanted to use lines of Celan’s poems I picked the translation that suited me best, with the result that I wound up using six of them. Even so I played with the translations a bit. Translations of Bachmann’s writing are less common, and her essays have not been translated at all, so I didn’t have much choice there, but I found myself modifying the translations I did use, again, when it suited me.

At one point I was thinking of putting the notes before the poems, as a sort of annotated table of contents, but that didn’t work well. I also thought about having a very minimal page of acknowledgements, because I was afraid the notes would seem pedantic. But the poems are so much about the trace of words and what’s said and left unsaid, that having extensive notes felt like another way to echo that.

P.H: Celan drowned himself in 1970; barbiturate abuse seems to have been a factor in Bachmann’s death in 1973. What do your poems, reusing their words, hope to achieve past what those poets said and didn’t say? I think your poems do achieve something past what was said, I just wonder what you think that might be.

R.K: I have to distinguish between what Bachmann and Celan accomplished in their published writings, which I don’t think I’ve come anywhere close to (I’d be very pleased, though, if someone who didn’t know their work was introduced to it by my book), and the words of their letters. I had no intention to ventriloquize a dialogue between the two of them, and I don’t think my poems do that, but I do think that what I’ve done is to capture that experience of loss and longing that their words are haunted by. And that’s a universal experience. Also, I hope that Afterletters might be a kind of memorial to Bachmann and Celan, not as the very important interlocutors of the terrible events of the middle of the 20th century that they are well known to be, but as people experiencing a loss and longing that we all know and have felt.

For more, watch the BookThug author interview with R. Kolewe here

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