Berlin's Open Mike has slightly more gravitas than the name would suggest - it's probably the most important literary contest for German-language writers under 35. Invented back in 1993, it has nursed all sorts of literary talents including Karen Duve, Julia Franck and Terézia Mora. Nowadays, the competition has various add-ons such as a reading tour, workshops for the finalists - and an audience prize.
The TAZ Audience Prize is awarded by a group of mere mortals - as opposed to the three judges, who are established writers (this year Hanns-Josef Ortheil, Ilija Trojanow and Anja Utler). You can simply apply in advance to be on the audience jury, and the people at the taz newspaper pick five people out of the no doubt thousands of applications. So I applied and they picked me, to my great delight! Along with Eyk Henze, Walter Langlott, Franziska Matthus and Barbara Stark. Not quite a jury of their peers for the contestants, seeing as all but one of us are over 35, but at least a disparate group of non-writers. I've invited my fellow audience judges to write something here, so watch this space for their perspectives.
I wrote about the Open Mike in general last year, and for excellent blow-by-blow accounts (in German), go to litaffin and goldmag. This year, though, was very different for me.
It began with the fact that we were supposed to be incognito. So that none of the contestants could buy our votes, we were told. Except they announced our names at the beginning of the two-day event, so anyone who knew me was perfectly aware of what I was up to, tucked away in a shady corner taking copious notes. Plus I might have boasted about it a teeny-weeny bit in advance. Sadly though, not one of the twenty contestants bothered to offer me bribes. Perhaps they were busy being nervous, or assumed I was incorruptible. Or perhaps they weren't all that keen on the prize, which consists of getting your story published in the paper. And eternal fame and fortune, of course.
The other difference was that I had a mission. That meant none of last year's hanging around gossiping and bitching in the breaks - we judges sneaked off to our own special room for intense discussions at every opportunity. It also meant not having to queue for hours to go to the toilet, as we also had our own special facilities with much nicer toilet paper, and not having to eat tired cake and packaged sandwiches, as we had our own special catering. And a bit of hanging with the proper judges and the organisers, a glass or two of wine at the very end, a taz goodie-bag, that kind of thing.
I also read the texts much differently. In fact, last year I didn't read them at all, preferring to let the readings wash over me. But because the anthology is published just in time for the competition you can actually read along, and a surprising number of people do. That gave me a clearer idea of the writing itself; I could (and did) underline furiously and add my own rude and admiring comments. On the other hand, I read each text separately on its own merit and had absolutely no overview of common themes, trends, etc. Apparently, though, there were a lot of bathtubs, sheep and snow.
But enough about me; let's talk about the writing. There was about a fifty-fifty balance between creative writing students and people with proper jobs, which prompted some internal discussion about whether the texts were too smooth. Some of us were perturbed that there weren't any really wild and crazy young things doing more experimental stuff - no live wrist-slitting, no shouting, barking or whistling, and only one whisperer. (The people at goldmag were also disappointed by the rather grey wardrobe; I couldn't really see the writers very well but I did note a proliferation of bad hair.) We also found the five poetry entrants rather much of a muchness, possibly because they were all selected by one editor, Christian Döring. But that was a very good muchness, for the most part.
We worked by eliminating texts none of us cared for and then arguing about the ones we did like. My main criteria for the trash pile were predictability, making the audience (and me) sigh and shuffle in our seats, and just plain annoyingness. Plus of course gratuitous use of English, which the professional judges also objected to - although last year was worse in that respect, with only three texts that didn't include random English words. That left seven excellent writers.
My personal favourites were: Judith Keller, who read a collection of miniatures that captured a great many contradictions in a very small space. Susan Kreller, with a text that soured very well from misplaced optimism to out-and-out despair. Tom Müller, whose Clemens Meyer-esque misadventure was set in Australia (but didn't quite gel). Jennifer de Negri, for her beautifully written playground story with multiple perspectives and an interesting , if not quite unpredictable, twist. Sebastian Polmans, who read a great piece about a boy and a nun at a bus stop. And Jan Skudlarek's poems, which held my attention throughout and evoked all sorts of emotions. I hope the others will tell you which texts they particularly liked as well, because opinions did range widely.
So, capably and tactfully aided by Dirk Knipphals, culture editor at the taz, we whittled the longlist down to a shortlist and took one final secret ballot. And our winner was Sebastian Polmans for the story "Über Peanuts, mich und andere Sachen". Attentive readers will note that Polmans committed the dire sin of English usage even in the title - but in this case it wasn't gratuitous. In fact his highly rhythmic text is riddled with English, particularly song titles. It's about a black kid who sits next to an absurd black nun at a bus stop, and about his crappy life and his dreams and refuges. I loved the narrator's very characteristic voice and the very sexy nun in her vanilla habit, talking to God on her mobile phone and listening to a walkman.
The official winners were Levin Westermann for his poems, Janko Marklein for a story of rural juveniles doing nasty things with fish, and Jan Snela for a daring piece that played with language and emotions. Deutschlandradio Kultur will broadcast a feature on the event at 0.05 CET on 21 November. You can listen online, and I might be in it.
Many thanks to the lovely people at the Literaturwerkstatt and the taz, and of course to all my delightful fellow audience judges. I had a ball, and it's a shame I can't do it again.