The Open Mike is probably - no, not probably, absolutely - the most important competition for young writers in German. It takes place across an entire weekend in November in Berlin, and has launched many a career. The idea is to take 22 writers under the age of 36, I believe, whittled down from over 700 entries this year, and get them to read for 15 minutes each, under the misleading title of "Open Mike". It's presumably the English title that encourages these young writers to sprinkle their texts with English phrases - or I'm just over 36 and don't understand the youth of today. Anyway, and then three writers choose their favourites and they get a bunch of flowers and are whisked away, Miss World-style, on a whistlestop tour of appearances in other cities.
There's also the taz-Audience Prize, where mere mortals choose their favourites and they just get a bunch of flowers and a nice taz mug and their story in the paper but not all the Miss World treatment. Regular readers may remember that I myself was one of the mere mortals allowed to choose the audience prize last year. This year, unfortunately, I couldn't actually attend the main competition - but I did go to the pre-event reading by past winners and also managed to catch the awards ceremony.
I'd been looking forward to the reading on Friday night because I was interested to find out what had become of our audience winner from last year, Sebastian Polmans. In fact I do know what's become of him; he's just published his first novel with Suhrkamp. I also know he had the contract in his pocket before we gave him the prize, but my vain ego wanted to hear grateful words from Polman's own lips for my personal part in building his legend. It was not to be - Polmans was sick and couldn't attend the event. Instead, we had Ondřej Cikán, who isn't a past winner in the strictest sense, not having actually won, but who did read some great cowboy poems in 2009. Alongside Konstantin Ames, who did win with his poems in 2009, and Rabea Edel, who won with prose in 2004.
German critics have been arguing recently about whether the autobiographically influenced first-person narrative has passed its zenith. Certainly, Friday evening was evidence of German writers who couldn't be much further away from that first-person model. Ames was not my cup of tea. I shall give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it was nerves that made him react so rudely to the moderator. And also that he is capable of thinking beyond national clichés à la: the British are better at irony. Whatever the case, however, he stated that poetry is not there to be understood, and his poems were indeed magnificently impenetrable. We learned nothing whatsoever about Konstantin Ames from his poems, except perhaps that he speaks English and French and reads Jandl.
The pattern continued with Cikán, who read from a glorious novel by the name of Menandros und Thaïs. It's set in ancient Greece! Sort of! With gruesome battles and abductions! And cups of tea! I was truly impressed and enjoyed the reading enormously, partly because it was such fun to see a writer go ahead and write about ancient Greek warriors and their soap-opera adventures. Ah! And then came Rabea Edel, who for me is the epitome of beautiful artifice. I mean that in a good way, Rabea. I know her vaguely, and like her, and yet I know absolutely nothing whatsoever about her because she seems to be a very private person. She read from her second novel Ein dunkler Moment, which again couldn't be more distinct from me, me, me literature. It's based very loosely around the Amanda Knox case, and I found it extremely chilling and extremely well-written, with a plot that is extremely unlikely and so all the more fascinating. There are writers, then, who prefer to keep themselves to themselves when it comes to their literature, despite the benefits or the ease of marketing oneself even through one's writing - I was going to call it banking in on the autobiographical, but that sounds too judgemental. Because of course it's a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and it's really the critics who need to stop discovering imaginary trends every ten minutes.
So then today I arrived at the venue just in time to catch precisely 30 seconds of the very last reading. This, I decided while talking to everyone else who'd just sat through two days solid of readings, was a great strategy. I bought the anthology to read later and appeared astoundingly witty and cheerful in comparison to the rest of the audience. It helped that my friend and I had a portion-sized bottle of fizzy wine each, which we drank through straws like the supermodels do, apparently. Just for that Miss World feeling. The drawback was that I couldn't enjoy the usual bitching sessions about the pretentious/talentless/bad-haired writers, but a few stock phrases got me by well enough: I can never concentrate on poetry, I hate it when they put English words into all their texts, They're just not adventurous enough these days, Why all the adjectives? and the classic: Didn't like her outfit much.
Eventually the juries had made their decisions and the press conference had been held, and we all took our seats for the ceremony. But what was this? Last year when I was on the audience jury - did I mention that already? - we had to go on stage and introduce ourselves personally in front of hundreds of people. And I died a million deaths and looked really shite. I know that because I saw a photo of myself later, so even if you were there and you saw me there's no point denying it. This year there was none of that, just a very brief list of the names and a wee speech from one of the jury members, none of whom looked shite. They chose Christina Böhm for her story "Platzanweisung", which was a bitter reflection on the culture industry from its margins, dripping with black humour. It also featured Kleist and Wyatt Earp. I wonder if Böhm would appreciate that it reminded me of Helene Hegemann? My quibble would be the ending: And then I woke up.
The jury jury (Felicitas Hoppe, Tilman Rammstedt and Kathrin Schmidt) also chose Christina Böhm, along with Joseph Felix Ernst for "Dora Diamant", which I found great fun, a fragmentary text about Dora and Kafka in the last few months of his life, and featuring a chess match rendered entirely in algebraic notation and a scientific lecture about moths and also several mentions of Kleist. I rather wish I'd seen Ernst reading it, although my favourite of Kafka's ladyfriends is of course Milena Jesenská. The designated poetry prize went to Sebastian Unger, who I'm assured is very good. Certainly his poems appear to be highly intertextual and semantically inventive.
Next year I'm sure I'll enjoy myself all the more for not having attended this time around.