Literature can be political without being outright activist – Interview with Cornelia Hülmbauer

Cornelia Hülmbauer, photo Jelena Hodak

Cornelia Hülmbauer is an author from Vienna, Austria. In her work, she deals with poetry, short prose and audio pieces. She studied art history and English in Vienna and Malta, and besides that, language art at the University for applied arts. Her poetry debut MAU OEH D was published in 2018 at Sukultur, Berlin. One of Cornelia Hülmbauer‘s methods includes the construction of cycles. In Loose Mail, she deals with the culture of remembrance and in Cycle V with the themes of violence and female position. This interview was held on September 20, 2022, as part of the Literary Machine festival. Conversation with Cornelia was led by Danijela Ristić.


Rizom: I’d like to begin this interview with something that you’ve said in Bulevar Books, regarding poetry and language. You said that we could maybe look at poetry as a counterposition to the political discourse. You also experiment with language in your work. Could you elaborate more on that? What are your personal views on poetry and overall the use of language in poetry?

Cornelia Hülmbauer: I think that poetry represents one of the most diverse uses of language, both generally, in the framework of language use as a whole, but also as a genre next to other literary genres. Maybe it is because I consider myself a poet and therefore have a specific perspective on it, but I think that there is so much variety within the category of poetry, there are so many possibilities. For example, there are very epic, narrative poems and then there are also very reduced, very experimental ones, and everything in between, so I think the range is really broad. That’s what I find interesting.

Also, poetry uses language very consciously, with a very close look at the forms language takes. It is also so fine grained. Political discourse in contrast is rather rough, rather polemic – it probably has to be to some degree, but therefore it mostly isn’t as nuanced as other discourses. Poetry has an advantage in that you can take your time, during production as well as reception. On the one hand it can leave things really open, but on the other hand, or ideally at the same time, it can be really precise. That is probably only possible in art. In everyday language there are other rules for language use.


Cornelia Hülmbauer, in “Collective reading”, photo Jelena Hodak

R: You also talked about the context in which you write. You said that some of your poems, are very Austrian, because they deal with the culture of remembrance. Like Loose Mail for example. What are your views on this topic, what does the culture of remembrance look like currently, especially in poetry, and what do you think it should look like?

CH: I don’t know what it is in general, I can only speak for myself and for the Austrian context. As I mentioned yesterday, it seems to me that it is the specific Austrian context that makes it necessary to still deal with these kinds of topics, remembrance culture of the Second World War for example. As I mentioned, Austria has a strange kind of position, on the one hand clearly having been among the perpetrators on Hitler’s side, but at the same time, until quite recently, there’s always also been the narrative of having been the first victim of Hitler, which results in this strange in-between status. There has never been a clear positioning after the war. We’re still working on finding our way to deal with the whole topic. I think that’s the reason, at least for me. It seems to be necessary, because for example in my family I am among the first generation who is really willing to look at it critically and with a differentiated view and deal with it. I actually find it my task to deal with it. Poetry is my medium.

As I told yesterday, it was by accident that I found this correspondence by my grandma, letters she exchanged with a friend in the years right after the war, and as I couldn’t ask her directly about it anymore, I tried to work with the material that I had. They are writing about the time of the war, but there is no clear positioning towards the ideology of it. So I thought that I had to work differently, in a less straightforward way, with the text material to find out about things, to question things, and that’s why I broke it apart. I really only wanted to work with words that were there, but I was interested to explore the underlying meaning, or maybe even the meaning that was encapsulated in the language itself. I was desperately looking for answers, and now I think that there aren’t any, even with the poems. Or maybe that’s an answer after all. Everybody has to find their own position towards this topic. The poems are what I can contribute to the discourse.


R: What I find really interesting is that your poems are addressing someone. And it seems to me that the poems are trying to establish conversation either with the self or with someone else, maybe even the audience. Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but can you tell us something about this structure that you use.

CH: I think that’s also specific for the poems of this project, because as I worked with letters the I and YOU structure was already given. I don’t know if I use it in general so much. I don’t think so. Also Ivana Pajić, the moderator on one of the events here, pointed out that in her view there’s a strong I position in the texts. I find it interesting, I hadn’t looked at it this way, but of course as I only used the words from the letters for my poems, there is this recurring structure, and the I that used to be for example my grandma, now becomes the lyrical I. There’s this oscillation between different kinds of Is and YOUs, which, now that I was made aware of it, I find, creates an interesting tension. But during the writing process that really just happened to me and evolved by itself, because the work material was already there. But it naturally connects with the stance of me personally asking questions to the letters, to the words that were there, and maybe the process continues with readers, or the audience.


R: I’ve read that besides poetry and short prose, you are dealing with audio pieces. Also, it seems to me that you are paying a lot of attention to the way of reading, or performing. Of what importance would you say are rhythm and overall sound in your poetry? 

CH: Rhythm is very important to me. During the process of writing, I am always hearing what I am writing, and I am also reading it aloud again and again. It really has to flow, not only the poetry, but also the prose that I write. Maybe it is because I grew up with so many nursery rhymes and also the liturgical texts of the Catholic Church. You probably can’t help but  take it over into your own text production to some extent. So, I know exactly how my texts are supposed to sound, also and especially when they are read aloud. This is why, if I have a choice, I prefer to do readings myself rather than let actors do it, as this is sometimes practised. On the other hand, there is of course no right or wrong per se. As with semantic interpretations, I am always happy to learn that the readers’ perspectives on the texts’ sounds are diverse.

As for the audio pieces, I am trying to plan these things (for the audio pieces) as far as I can, but then I don’t do the sound myself, so I have to be open to what others bring to the project, which I must confess is not always easy for me. Also, communicating my visions to sound designers for example, as well as developing an understanding how it can translate into technical details, are things I had to learn. For a writer who normally works alone, a process in which more people, especially from different domains, are involved, can be a challenge, but it does pay off in the end since also the possibilities multiply.

Cornelia Hülmbauer, in “Dissensus”, photo Jelena Hodak

R: Our audience encounters your poetry in Serbian and maybe English, but either way, translated. What are your thoughts on translations of poetry, what do we lose, what do we get?  I know that you don’t understand Serbian, but you speak English, so maybe you notice something there.

CH: I think translations are never the same text just in another language. It always becomes something else, especially with poetry. There are so many layers, there are the formal parts, the content parts, there’s word play and rhythm and so on. As a translator you often have to make a decision of what to give priority, because you can’t keep everything, it is not possible. With translations it is a bit like  I said for the audio pieces, it is a challenge for me to give my texts to somebody else for them to do something with them. But then of course I am very happy when they get translated, because then the texts become accessible to another audience, to a broader range of readers. I have been asking myself more and more whether it’s better if I can understand the language they are translated to or not. For example with English, if a translator asks me, and I’m glad if they do, I tend to always have an opinion and make suggestions, and then if I don’t know the language I can’t do that. I have to trust them. I think my texts are often quite difficult to translate, because, as I said, there are so many layers and so much word play. They often oscillate between different kinds of meanings or refer back to various intertextual sources at the same time. So it’s clear that the translation has to compromise in these cases, but on the other hand new opportunities can emerge from the target language itself. Even if it is not possible to keep the original construction, there might be similar effects based on different means, or even added layers that come about through the use of another language. These are definitely things you win.


R: You also talked about the situation regarding poetry and publishing in your country. What is it like for young poets in Austria? What are some of the obstacles that they encounter?

CH: I wouldn’t really only speak about Austria by itself, because there is this German-speaking area which also involves Germany and the literary scene doesn’t stop at the border of course, fortunately.  But there’s a solid  network also in Austria, especially in Vienna. About ten years ago a new university program called language arts was founded there, which is basically a creative writing program, maybe with a slightly more experimental note since it is situated at the University of applied arts. My impression is that since then, many more young people who write have come to Vienna so the network has gotten bigger. I think they are also more confident than we used to be. There are many events and readings, both connected to institutions and within the alternative scenes. There is an online platform that specializes in poetry with an annual poetry festival connected to it, and given that Austria is a rather small country we have a considerable amount of publishing houses that include series of poetry books in their program, or at least publish poetry. Unfortunately though the older and the younger generation don’t seem to mingle very much. There seems to be this strange gap, which maybe also has to do with the older generations being more “Austrian” in their work, with specific types of language play and humour for example. The younger ones are more international. Because of this university program, many more writers from abroad have come to Vienna and I think that makes it more diverse, but also probably more difficult to overcome this gap between the generations.


R: I wanted to ask you one more thing, since in your poetry, in cycle V you are dealing with issues such as position of women or female experience and also violence. Could you maybe tell us a bit more about the way in which you treat these themes in your poetry?

CH: I guess it’s just based on my experience of being in this world, being in this world as a woman, experiencing things and encountering things not only but very much from a woman’s perspective, which in my view can eventually only make you a feminist. I often get the question whether I consider myself a feminist writer. As I see it, literature can also be political without being outright activist. My approach is to make things visible, to convey the atmosphere of things and let people draw their own conclusions. For Cycle V I tried to really dive into the theme of how hard it still is these days to be a woman in this world sometimes. In the process of writing this cycle, for a long time, I just collected images, powerful images which I then assembled into poems and gave them a coherent structure and rhythm. What I thereby seem to do unconsciously is a referencing of, or alluding to, different kinds of traditional, conventionalised texts. These often find their way into my poems without me even noticing during the first drafts. But what I also do intuitively is to break them apart, to involve them in contrasts and irritations. Maybe this is my poetic politics.

Cornelia Hülmbauer, in “Dissensus”, photo Jelena Hodak

R: This last question is maybe an answer in itself because I’m not sure whether I would have posed it to a male writer, and you probably get asked this a lot, but regardless I wanted to ask you, what do you think about the position of women writers in today’s world, or your context if this is too broad. From your experience, do you think that female writers are viewed differently than male writers today? Are there still stereotypes?

CH: I don’t know about poets really, maybe because there is not much reception of poetry in the media to begin with, but we know that prose writers, especially those who write auto-fictional texts are experiencing difficulties. When women write about motherhood or about topics that seem to concern the female sphere, there is still a tendency for them to be belittled, looked down upon as if those experiences are not so important, not substantial enough for literature. But I think it is beginning to change. With poetry I am not sure. Actually my experiences in the poetry scene are really positive. Maybe because poetry in itself has a reputation of being dramatic and romantic. (both laugh) Anyway it doesn’t really make a difference which gender you are.

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