The factual, the concrete, only deserves its place in the text as a means of supplying atmosphere or providing the grounding for its delicate structure. This means that nothing ought to remain merely biographical in the narrow sense. It is never a question of ‘re-creation’. [. . .] Objects are not important for their past reality, but as part of our perception, of hearing or seeing, of the very sensations they once helped to shape. They are the go-betweens and indirect paths taking you to the poem.
Lutz Seiler from ‘The Tired Territory’ (In Case of Loss, translated by Martyn Crucefix)
My first experience of Seiler’s childhood region – the Erzgebirge, or ‘Ore Mountains’, in the south of what had been East Germany – came when I stayed with a pen pal in a small town there in the summer of 1990. The currency had just been converted and the local television station was running a list of all the street name changes on loop, as Communist references were quickly erased. Less than a decade later I moved to Dresden, to a flat in an old, unrenovated house. Heated, as so many were, by a six-foot-high tiled cockle oven, every morning in winter there was the trip to the cellar for a bucket of coal. On the stairs I’d pass Frau —, slow on her feet, who had lived in the house since her childhood, when she sheltered in the cellar during the 1945 firebombing. Next to the house were the allotments, where we newcomers were barely tolerated, because we didn’t plant enough vegetables, as all the older East Germans continued to do religiously, though by then perhaps more as an excuse for time spent pottering and drinking in the gardens. Just in front, while we lived there, the cobblestone road was tarred over. I’ve never felt the distinct layers of history so simultaneously present as when I lived in the former East Germany.
Lutz Seiler was born in 1963. His family lived in a region of the Erzgebirge where some of the world’s largest deposits of uranium ore were being extracted by the Soviet Russian powers with brutal disregard for the environment or human health. His grandfather was a miner, and could make the radio crackle with a wave of his hand. In 1968, Seiler’s family and the rest of the village of Culmitzsch were evacuated, having been literally undermined. They moved to the nearby village of Korbussen, and then to Gera, the nearest town.
Time and place are essential to Seiler’s atmosphere in this collection, though he doesn’t evoke anything by straightforward means. Time and place set in motion a subjective vibration, an energetic headiness, which as a translator I had to access by tuning in to my own frequencies and associations. The East German settings and references can be translated, as long as the atmosphere is invisibly signalled, made transmissible, made to spark somehow.
This, combined with the fact that on a technical level Seiler’s poetry is punchy, compressed and wholly its own thing, made the task of translation stretch into years. He is led by his ear, and his sound patterning and rhythmic, propulsive lines knit surreal and cryptic elements together. The focus pulls in and out, the cuts come quick, words shift into neologisms and pivot forward and backwards, pulling double duty in overlapping phrases.
How did I approach its translation? Sound came first, as it does in Seiler’s composition. The poems had to have rhythm and sound patterning, more than literal sense equivalence. Word choices are sometimes about the resonances of a word across the collection, or indeed across his writing. There are also plenty of specific, though not immediately apprehensible, references to the times and places he draws on, about which I asked many questions, both of Seiler and of friends. I felt the need to understand the half-stated allusions and see ‘the grounding’ – the hidden geology – of the poems, so that no matter how little the landscape might be visible in the poem, when the fog lifts, it is there. I also tended to follow my nose rather than a set theoretical approach. In ‘bugs’, set in a brutal primary school, the poem quotes from a well-known German children’s song about a bug waiting on the wall. Since in English we have ‘Incy Wincy Spider’ instead, I used that. Here it seemed more important to convey the school atmosphere than to be accurate about German children’s songs. In ‘spoilheap glow’ I left in the German regional greeting of Glück auf! (literally: Luck up!), and added an endnote, partly because the poem itself describes the sound of the greeting as ‘the little / spasm’, and partly because I find it fascinating that this miner’s greeting had become the everyday hello in this part of the world. As so often, each choice was also about finding the words to fit the rhythm.
The final poem, ‘sixty-nine, old century’, might be illustrative. In the first stanza there is a Merksalz, Seiler’s neologism. Merk is about remembering and Salz is salt. It twists away by one letter from the German word for mnemonic, Merksatz (literally: remembering phrase). By altering that word, Seiler’s new word talks about the workings of memory: salt preserves, intensifies flavours, and stings. The word Salz returns in the tenth stanza, as part of the proper noun Salzgitter. Salzgitter is a town. This is not common knowledge to Germans these days, but Seiler mentioned to me that the Central Registry of State Judicial Administrations had been established in Salzgitter, West Germany, in the aftermath of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Until its closure in 1992, its function was to verify human rights violations by the government of East Germany, such as the murder of East Germans trying to escape across the border. And yet, given how important salt is in this poem, and how unknown this government body would be to most readers, in English or German, I decided to give a translation that makes sure we don’t lose in English this last mention of salt: ‘. . . up the tables / back to their salted / files’.
The book’s original title, pech & blende, takes the German word for the radioactive ore uraninite and splits it in two. (Uraninite was formerly called pitchblende in English, from the German.) Pech means both tar (pitch) and bad luck, and Blende suggests something dazzling, shining or blinding. And there’s the assonance of the phrase. The title perfectly embodies Seiler’s capacity to hold together apparent opposites – the mystical and the manual, the rural and the industrial – as well as the sheer impossibility of doing his poems justice at every turn. I oscillated for years between four options and even considered a split title listing them all. In the end, I went for a title that had the dark and light of the original, its materiality and points of light, and also its assonance.
The English publication of Pitch & Glint comes twenty-three years after its original publication and yet now, with Russia’s attempt to annex Ukraine, the period that it evokes is closer to us than ever. What happens in the past is rarely actually ‘in the past’ and, like uranium with its long half-life, harm lingers for generations. Lutz Seiler’s poetry asks, among other things, how to remember. In the words of German poet Michael Krüger:
Seiler is the odd one out, who can’t and won’t fit in; the loner who notices something on the way, who is blocked by something that puts itself in his way. His language is like that too: it feels its way forward, stops, stumbles, keeps going. It doesn’t want to arrive, and has no destination. That keeps it nimble. Pitch & Glint was an event, because all of us who still believe poetry can do something, felt that something was being given voice by this poet, something that would otherwise have been hopelessly lost. (Atelier, 2003, volume 30, Giovane poesia europea; translation mine)
This book has benefited from the direct and indirect help of many people whom I’d like to thank. The poets, including Volker Sielaff, who gathered in Lesezeichen bookshop, Dresden, on Saturday afternoons over fresh pastries and owner Jörg Nollau’s coffee. That was where I first heard Seiler’s poems read and where I bought pech & blende. The German-language reviewers of Star 111 who brought Seiler back to my attention at just the right moment, when, in the early days of the pandemic, I sorely needed a lodestar. Suhrkamp’s Nora Mercurio, for entrusting three important books to And Other Stories. The translations of Seiler’s poetry by Ken Babstock, Susan Bernofsky, Alexander Booth, Martyn Crucefix, Andrew Duncan, Sophie Duvernoy, Tony Frazer, Hans-Christian Oeser & Gabriel Rosenstock, and Andrew Shields, which often opened up lines and approaches for me. Gunter, my friend and one-time pen pal in Thalheim, who has kindly let me phone him now and then with questions as I’ve translated. Tara Tobler. The poems have gained immeasurably from her encouragement, suggestions and good-humoured editing. My absolute deepest thanks to her, too, for the many Saturday mornings she’s given me to go back to translation while she kept two, then three, feisty children entertained, not seldom outside on typically bleak Yorkshire days of wind and rain. And Lutz himself – I cannot thank him enough for answering my many questions with real frankness and for giving me the freedom to find the right words that work in English. Not that I haven’t failed my editor and my poet at times. Any lapses are mine. Feel free to let me know about them. Thanks for reading.
Edale, March 2023
This translator’s afterword taken from the English translated edition of Pitch & Glint by Lutz Seiler. Publishing on 6 September 2023, Pitch & Glint is available to buy from our website, Bookshop.org UK, Bookshop.org US, and from your local bookstores!
Featured image of Blasting in the Culmitzsch opencast mine (1958). Credits: Wismut GmbH, BTV