As part of the continued friendship between the twin cities of Coventry and Dresden, writers Katharina Bendixen (Dresden’s City Writer) and Emilie Lauren Jones (Coventry Poet Laureate) took part in an exchange of letters. Their conversation discusses their experiences as writers representing a city and what led them to write in their chosen genres.
The Letters in German can be found at https://literaturnetz-dresden.de/weiterlesen/blickwechsel-5/
I am curious about our correspondence, because unlike my other correspondents, some of whom I knew personally, others at least textually, I know almost nothing about you. We have never met, and if Rainer Barczaitis from the Anglo-German Society hadn't written to me, I wouldn't even know that Dresden has a twin city in the south of England and that you are currently the Poet Laureate of this twin city. I am delighted that we have met in this way!
We have already established that a Poet Laureate is something different from a Stadtschreiberin: While I came from Leipzig to Dresden for half a year, you were born in Coventry, still live there and have written about the life of this area for two years. In what way do you do that, and what opportunities does Coventry provide for you? I get a flat in Dresden and a lot of time for the six months as a Stadtschreiberin. Well, actually I get money, but you know how it is: money means time to write texts that you often don't know until the very end whether they can be transformed into books - that is, money. I am now in my fifth and thus penultimate month as a writer-in-residence, and I write, discard, rewrite. And I'm trying something you put in your beautiful poem about Coventry: "Too many stories stay / stored away in heads, / unread." I'm trying to get stories of people who work in social professions into the local newspaper. What stories are you interested in?
I also know that you visited Dresden for five days in the course of your Poet Laureateship. What did you think of the city, did you expect anything in particular? Did you already know Dresden, do you know other German cities? Looking from Great Britain, what is your impression of Germany, of Central Europe, of Eastern Europe? Probably this question is much too big for an exchange of letters. I have another question, which is perhaps a little smaller: I know that you write mainly poetry. I, on the other hand, write almost exclusively prose - for adults, young people and children. Did you consciously choose your genre, or is poetry simply the way the texts come to you? A friend of mine - a poet like you - recently told me that she came to writing through writing her diary and that writing has always been a search for her, and that's why she has stayed with the exploratory form of poetry. Is it the same for you? Actually, I am also exploring, especially in my texts for adults, and I was pleased when a reader once said to me that my stories were almost like poems to her in their density.
I send you warm greetings from Dresden!
I am equally pleased that we have been introduced and look forward to learning more about my twin city’s Stadtschreiberin!
I was interested to learn about the differences between our roles. What have you discovered about Dresden since you began your role and what impact has being Stadtschreiberin had on your writing?
I have the privilege of being Coventry’s first Poet Laureate, other cities and counties have had Poet Laureates for many years and when Coventry became UK City of Culture in 2021 they started the scheme here too. It’s an unpaid position, but leads to plenty of opportunities and since receiving the title I have gone from part-time freelance poet to full-time freelance poet.
Being an artist in Coventry over the last few years has led to a lot of wonderful projects, highlights have included writing a poem to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Coventry Cathedral, receiving funding to work with people in my local area to create an online documentary (this can be viewed here) and, of course, the opportunity to visit our twin city of Dresden. I am very excited that we have a Coventry/Dresden virtual poetry night planned for 10th November at 7:30pm (UK time) with Fire & Dust. There are many strong connections between artists in the two cities and if you use Facebook, I can recommend joining the Coventry Dresden group to find out more.
It is brilliant that your role is supported financially, meaning you have time to write. I am pleased to hear that the lines in my poem resonated with you and I would be interested to read some of the stories that you have collected, I hope you are able to achieve your aim of getting them published in the local newspaper. What are your hopes for your writing after your time as Stadtschreiberin comes to a close?
I really enjoy the variety of projects, events and commissions I’m able to be involved in. Sometimes an organisation will request a poem or a series of poems on a specific topic that I wouldn’t have thought to write about. One commission, for London Road Cemetery, involved creating an poetic audio walk. I discovered it was one of the best kept examples of a Victorian cemetery in the country and it was really interesting to find out more about the buildings and the stories of some of the people who were remembered there.
I enjoy using words to celebrate the ordinary, I also love writing poems that demonstrate our connection to animals and nature. I have recently been focusing on the topics of female resilience, and work that questions societal expectations. I am also currently touring a classical music and spoken word show with pianist Mikael Petersson called ‘Healing and Hope‘. Apologies, that’s probably quite a long answer to that question, I did say I liked variety!
Thank you for asking about the Dresden trip. I was really pleased to be invited to visit, I love going to new places and imagined it would be a valuable experience, especially as I had not previously been to German. It actually had a far greater impact than I realised it would. I didn’t know too much about Dresden, just that it had been bombed in the war like Coventry had. I knew a few people who had been, who described it as a very beautiful place (which it certainly is) but I’ve learned an incredible amount about the people, history and what a thriving creative hub it is.
It certainly is a big question! Personally, I am still proud to be European and didn’t want Brexit, there’s many millions of people who didn’t want it and it remains very divisive subject... perhaps it’s best to leave that one there!
One of my close friends is German and we met in Year 8 at school when she moved with her family to Coventry so she told me a little bit about the differences between schooling in the two countries.
Working purely from stereotypes, there are two main things that come to mind when thinking about Germany. The first is the German Markets, I always visit the one in Birmingham and have been to the ones in Manchester and London. They are brilliant, hundreds of wooden sheds selling Christmas decorations, food and drink, and a variety of other, often handmade items. While I was in Dresden there was an ‘Autumn Market‘ setting up, which was interesting as the term ‘Christmas Market‘ and ‘German Market‘ are fairly interchangeable in the UK. The other association I have is with manufacturing, if something is made in Germany we take this to mean it is well made and good quality.
Are there any stereotypes or associations you have of the UK and have you ever travelled here? I can confirm that I always eat fish and chips when I go to the seaside and that we take queuing very seriously!
Coventry is a very multi-cultural place so I’ve spent my life surrounded by a diverse range of people and it has been instilled in me that our city is a place of peace. I am always pleased to hear how welcoming people find Coventry, including people who have moved here from other countries. I think people are so interesting and as we have already agreed, it is wonderful to learn about people’s stories and what life is like for them. I was fortunate to attend the Gastmahl in Dresden which was a fantastic event and also felt very welcoming.
I only write poetry these days, this is the form that I feel most comfortable in and the one that really excites me. Although, I enjoy reading novels and short stories I don’t feel a desire to write one. My work is usually aimed at adults but sometimes I write for a family audience.
I used to write short stories and non-fiction articles when I was starting out as I thought it was an advantage to work in more than one genre and I thought there was more money and better opportunities for article writers. However, after going back to university to study my Masters in Creative Writing (and focusing largely on poetry) I knew that was the genre I needed to be working in and, apart from the occasional marketing blurb for events, I haven‘t written in any other form since! I had enjoyed writing poetry for as long as I can remember and still have a few poems I wrote aged 6. My first poem was published my mum’s magazine, Chatterbox Magazine, when I was age 9. I think I am drawn to it because of the way my brain works, I love metaphors and analogies as well as the ability for a writer to convey huge meaning in such a small space. Were you always a prose writer or have you ever had a go at poetry writing?
I have started learning German, although I am a very slow learner where languages are concerned but maybe one day I will be able to read your work. Have you ever had your work translated into another language?
Thanks again for inviting me to respond to your letter, it is really great to speak to a fellow writer and to learn about you and your work.
Best Wishes from Coventry!
Thank you for your letter! I can think of so many things in it that I would love to exchange many more letters with you than the four we agreed on. Perhaps I'll just pick out the topics that particularly preoccupied me after reading your letter.
First of all, thank you for pointing out that people from different nations live together in Coventry and that there is a great openness towards different cultures there. Since 2014 at the latest, it has been clear that this openness no longer prevails everywhere in Dresden. Did you pick up anything about this during your visit, did your hosts tell you about it? There is a lot of speculation about why things have come to a head in Dresden in particular. But I'm not sure if it's so different in other cities, for example in Leipzig, or if that’s just less of a topic in the media. In any case, the election results of xenophobic parties are frighteningly high throughout the country, and you can find prejudice everywhere. So I really don't want to repeat what people think about Great Britain here in Germany. I've only been there a few times, including a language study trip in the eighth grade - of which I have terrible memories, not because of the country or the people, but because I didn't get along with my German fellow students. Fortunately, this phase of life, when you don't know who you are and therefore find it difficult to connect with others, was a long time ago for me. In the meantime, I can even voluntarily put myself in this feeling, namely when I write texts for children or young people.
This brings me to the second topic that concerns me - namely what you write about the different genres. The fact that at the beginning of your writing you thought about which genres would yield the most and thus secure your existence as a writer, I find both logical and sad. It would be so nice to just write what you want! At the same time, I notice how what I want keeps changing over the years. I used to see writing as an act that took place only between the text and me, and the readers were supposed to swallow it (or maybe not). At the latest since my book for young people was published this year, I've been thinking more about my readers. Most young people are not impressed by (-) art itself, they want suspense and characters they can identify with (or hate). Maybe I have also been thinking more about my potential readers since I’ve had children. Because even as a mother I have to look away from myself and focus on others - my two sons who, at least in their first years of life, are heavily dependent on me and my world view. How much can I be visible in that process, how transparent should I be?
I have the impression, however, that in the German-speaking world to think of one’s readers is not very highly regarded. Quite a few people here still believe in the myth of genius, and a genius naturally doesn't think about something as mundane as his readers. How is it in the English-speaking world? And how is it with you? Are you already thinking about your readers as you write the first draft, do they only come into your head when you revise? Or would you say that you are more with the text and less with those who then read it? And does that even have to be a contradiction?
Thank you for creating this correspondence with me! It is my penultimate correspondence, soon my time as Dresden's writer-in-residence will be over. Above all, the encounters with people in social professions whom I met for my series of articles will continue to have an effect on me for a long time. Perhaps new stories will emerge from them. I don't know yet, just as one can rarely say which event led to which text anyway. There are often different layers that are deposited in a text. You are still Poet Laureate until the end of 2023, aren't you? Are you already thinking about what happens after that, or have you learned to live from month to month during your years of freelancing?
Thank you for your letters too! I can also think of many more questions I have for you. I really enjoyed the two pieces of writing you sent me, thank you, they were both very thought provoking and addressed sensitive topics in really interesting ways. I am very glad I got to read them.
I was very lucky when I went to Dresden as I arrived in time to attend the annual Gasthmal event, so I couldn’t have had a warmer welcome! I got to meet many people, some who had lived there all their lives and some who had come from other countries. Everyone was having a great time and sharing food and stories so my first impression was of Dresden being a very welcoming and diverse place. However, I was told during my stay, that there was also some sort of protest from a far-right group against immigration. That said, I didn’t see this side of Dresden myself, and I met people from all over the world at the events I attended during my stay. Perhaps the creative arts are just very good at being diverse and welcoming to everyone?
Sadly, my school never offered us a trip to another country (in fact we didn’t go very far at all, although I recall four separate visits to different castles!). I can relate to your experience of not connecting with fellow students. Initially I really liked school, I’ve always enjoyed learning and get very excited about it. However, it was not seen as ‘coo’ to enjoy learning and so the other students seemed to find me a little strange, and they sure let me know it! I found life difficult for a few years there because I didn’t meet anyone I had anything particularly in common with. I’m still in touch with one friend from my school years, interestingly she moved to the UK from Germany, we have known each other since we were about fourteen and she first arrived. I still love learning, and fortunately I now meet many other people who are equally as excited by life as I am and who are more than happy to impart their knowledge on various subjects to me. I think this is one the reasons why I enjoyed Dresden so much, people were very kind with their time and with sharing their knowledge about the city and the stories from over the centuries.
Like you, I feel all life experiences, good and bad, can be beneficial to a writer. Experiencing life as an ‘outsider’ for whatever reason and for however long gives us an opportunity to view the world in a unique way. There are so many people who feel they don’t fully conform to societal expectations and I find many writers have felt like this. I think a lot of us actually see that as a positive, quirkiness seems to go hand-in-hand with writing. Perhaps everyone has experienced not fitting in at some point or other?
I’ve always written about things that interest me and always found poetry the most enjoyable form of writing. As you say, in a way it is sad that we have to think about how we can make money from doing the thing that we love most but I’m glad that, for me, poetry won out in the end! I think my mindset changed from ‘what will make me money as a writer’ to ‘how can I make a living as a poet’.
That said, I have found that poetry can connect to so many other projects and parts of life that I have ended up accepting many offers of work that I would never have thought of doing myself. So far I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve said yes to, and have learnt so much from other people I’ve collaborated with. Have you found writing can sometimes lead you to some strange but very interesting places that you didn’t expect to find yourself in?
It is fascinating that your children have led you to see your art in different way, it is also interesting to read your thoughts on what young people want from your texts. It is a good question about how aware I am of a reader when writing. Sometimes more than others, I think. When I get commissions, I am extra aware that these poems are going out into the world and that the people who hear or read them may be indifferent to poetry or may even have had bad experiences of it and believe it is something they don’t like. Therefore, when appealing to a wide audience I try and ensure that the poem is accessible, it is more likely to rhyme or have a stronger rhythm to it than something I would send off to a magazine that was intended purely for the page. Sometimes, something just happens and I feel compelled to write it in a poem and share it (it may be something small or it may be something I’ve read about). I would say in that case I am less aware of a specific audience and I write it before trying to find a poetry callout/magazine that I feel the poem would fit into, rather than writing specifically with the aim of having it published in a certain place.
I think it is up to us as writers how much of ourselves want to put into a text. Some poems I have written very much from my own experience and I often find it is these poems that people enjoy and relate to the most, perhaps that is not surprising. Have you found the same thing? Even when I am writing about something that I haven’t personally experienced, I think I leave a bit of myself in the text – like a writer’s thumbprint almost.
Genius is a difficult word, I’m not sure I fully buy into the idea and I certainly believe that writing can be taught. I would agree that there are people who have a natural flair for it and I certainly always leaned more towards writing in the more practical subjects such as maths. However, I certainly was never seen as a ‘genius’, and I didn’t get exceptional marks in exams. I believe there is more always more to learn and that it is important, if someone considers writing to be a craft, which I do, that I work to improve and refine that craft and that I explore and play with new ideas. There are certainly some poems that could be described as ‘genius’, but the term seems to bring a lot of baggage with it and an idea of perfection every time, which I don’t think is realistic. I often learn as much from writing a ‘bad’ poem and being forced to look at a different way of telling that story than I do from being able to get a good first draft. Maybe there are people who can write the perfect poem in one go but I’m not sure met them yet?!
Do you ever read your work at schools or at events? As a poet, I often perform at different places and to a variety of people, it is an aspect I really enjoy about my job. I certainly have to think about an audience when I perform, and I spend time practicing at home, sometimes in front of a mirror, much like I used to do when I was a kid pretending to be on stage! I think it is important to rehearse and be aware that people have often given up their time to come and see you perform and that it is my job to make sure it is worth their while – maybe they are there to be entertained, perhaps I’m trying to raise awareness about something hoping they will see a topic or even the world in a slightly different light, or maybe the audience is made up of people experiencing poetry for the first time and it’s my job to make it accessible and interesting. I have performed or run workshop sessions with all different kinds of people and groups, from two-year-olds in a nursery to people in dementia care homes, from those newly arrived to people keen to shine a light on local stories – I just really love meeting people and I truly believe that we are all made up of lots of stories and that it’s important to tell and to preserve these stories. Do people you meet or stories you come across ever inspire your own writing? And is there something that you are really keen to write about but haven’t yet?
Thank you for inviting me to correspond with you, it has been a real privilege and I look forward to seeing where writing takes you in the future. I hope that being the writer in residence for Dresden has been a wonderful experience for you, from what I have heard you have brought a lot to the role so congratulations on a brilliant tenure. It is wonderful that through publishing your correspondence with all of us that you’ve created a mini community of your own and allowed readers to experience a little insight into all of us. I certainly enjoyed reading your other letters.
I am Coventry’s poet Laureate until the end of September 2023, at that point I will pass over to somebody else who will carry the baton for another two years. I’m thrilled that this role has been created in Coventry and hope that it will continue to be supported for many years to come (that’s the plan!). I believe each person will bring something very different to the role and that it will continue to get people excited and inspired by poetry.
I was a freelance poet before taking on the role, I suppose my main hope is that the many connections I have made will continue to flourish and that I will be able to carry on working with organisations and individuals I have met during my time as Laureate. I also hope to have my first poetry pamphlet published, something that I’m working on as we speak. Although like many things in my life, I’ve ended up working on three pamphlets at the same time – I’ll be happy if just one of them gets published! As for how to make a living going forward, I believe that the work we do is valuable and important and I’m immensely grateful that I have a job I love. My intention is to keep working hard to keep pursuing opportunities, at the same time I hope that other people keep getting in touch with me with requests for poems, events and anything else related to poetry that they would like me to be a part of. I wish you all the best for all of your writing in the future, have you got any plans what you’re going to do now your tenure is finishing? Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be brilliant.
It has been really lovely to get to know you and your work a little bit throughout this time, please feel free to stay in touch and I look forward to hearing where your writing journey takes you.
Best wishes from the UK!