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The City and the Writer: In Vienna with Ann Cotten

By Nathalie Handal

This entry is a part of a special series of The City and the Writer featuring writers who will be appearing as a part of the 2016 New Literature from Europe Festival, happening in New York City, December 7–10. See Ann Cotten at the festival, and check back on WWB Daily tomorrow and Wednesday for interviews with Immanuel Mifsud and Krisztina Tóth, conducted by C&W curator and festival participant Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Vienna as you feel/see it?

The streets are narrow compared with Berlin’s, the buildings full of curly decorations. But the streets lead outward in the shape of a sun. You may catch a glimpse of its rays illuminating a building if you crane your neck to look way up, and then you follow it, biking along the shining tram line, up and up on a curve like a rainbow, past the garden colonies, past the observatory, past the swimming pool, past the graveyard, the last Heuriger, the first vineyards, past a station of the famous Vienna water supply line, up to the fire station at the back of park of the Steinhof mental hospital. From there, you can see west over the tree-covered hills. Often it is misty or rainy. So in general one feels longing, which is beautiful as it is mapped and written into the layout of the city. Even the Danube is like a silver ribbon leading southeast to Bratislava, Budapest, Bucharest. One grows up in Vienna with the cratylic feeling that everything grew that way following the secret laws of musical harmony—which makes it physically painful when things go awry.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Superlatives don’t fit the mood of heartbreak, the one at hand is always the saddest—but viewed rationally: it can always get sadder. Futile protests are sad—for example, the repeated rallies against the forced expulsion of people who have been denied asylum. The voices of protesters who haven’t any real hope of success but make a stand anyway. The abstract emotions felt, or rather not actually felt, for the fates of people one doesn’t know, the horrible feeling of not having any idea how to really help change things. (Don't mourn, think.)

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, has its headquarters in Vienna.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Brigitta Falkner—she draws comics. So does Nicolas Mahler. Both are devastatingly funny and bleak. Falkner has a really dark comic on the life of insects coming out next year from Matthes & Seitz in Berlin; Mahler has been illustrating the classics. Liesl Ujvary is a seventy-five-year-old technohead (find her on SoundCloud). I’m working on translating her dry masterpiece of concrete poetry from the early seventies and her later sci-fi collages. Ilse Kilic and Fritz Widhalm are very central literature punks whose Fröhliches Wohnzimmer has been a backbone of the Vienna indie scene. The writers’ union GAV has a homepage with the texts and contacts of most Austrian authors. The expat community revolves around the “Labyrinth” group—Evelyn Holloway, Patricia Brooks, and Pete Waugh. In the historical division, it is wildly enriching to read Otto Neurath on the guidelines he designed for the iconographic rendering of statistical information for the public, but also for his economic observations. My favorite turn-of-the-century authors are Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer for their synesthetic mapping of intellect and sensuality in sentences. To translate them into English is a sport. And then there is Helene von Druskowitz, lesbian philosopher, satirist, and music critic, a friend of Nietzsche’s. I love her wit and silliness—her works have titles like The head of the Zither Club or Der Mann als logische und sittliche Unmöglichkeit und als Fluch der Welt (Man as Logical and Moral Impossibility and as a Curse on the World). After a rock-n-roll life, living in Dresden with a singer who finally left her, she was increasingly troubled by problems with alcohol and drugs and spent the last twenty-seven years of her life in a mental institution, so I often think of her tenderly when I walk in Steinhof.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Shakespeare & Co in Sterngasse. They have heroically survived the online market in a tiny, smoky room filled with books from floor to ceiling. I keep returning for the books I ordered the last time, etc.—normal bookshop life.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

At the end of the tramline 43, on the way to Lascy’s grave, in the park that used to belong to the family Schwarzenberg, there are two huge white obelisks. On the left one, a man scratched his name Kyselak into the cement in the eighteenth century. This man traveled widely, leaving his name wherever he went, and he is thought of as the first “tagger,” at least in this area of the world.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Nachtasyl—a basement joint where there is liveliness, music, drink, dark and shining holy people. It is aged, whimsical, murky.

Where does passion live here?

Probably in Café Jenseits, when DJ Moosbrugger plays his B-Sides. The dancing space is so small that there is always a wall to catch you when you fall. Passion also lives on the little path that takes you around the back side of the Neptune fountain in Schönbrunn palace park. The mer-horses and mermen are so heavily erotic they have to be held together with metal bits. And the whole huge park is a carrier for millions of people’s romantic logic.

What is the title of one of your works about Vienna and what inspired it exactly?

A lot of the “Fremdwörterbuchsonette” are set in Vienna, using, for example, the shape of the baroque garden Augarten, where I used to live, for palindromic games, or connected with a memory of pissing in the dark, taking a break from a man who talked a lot. I used to say I need three things: a place or vivid image, a “Fremdwort” (foreign word) or intellectual concept, and a movement or voice, and with these three things I could start a sonnet, like making fire or braiding hair (sonnets with the dictionary of foreign words; translated with Rosemarie Waldrop and published in her anthology Dichten = [number ten], 16 new (to American readers) German poets (2009).)

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Vienna does an outside exist?”

One morning a Serbian construction worker recommended the Belgrade Book Fair to me, adding that while the Austrians, when you tell them you are a foreigner, nod it off—meaning: never mind, I accept you anyway—Serbians will actually be interested. It is true that Viennese tend to revolve around their own issues. The effect is circular: it is because, and it is why, Vienna is a deep city. The streets are like wrinkles.

Ann Cotten, born 1982 in Iowa (USA), and grew up in Vienna, Austria, where she studied literature and worked various jobs. In 2006 she moved to Berlin, Germany. Her first book of poems, Fremdwörterbuchsonette, consisted of seventy-eight double-sonnets in a hairpin formation, taking the German poetry scene by surprise. She published her diploma thesis on concrete poetry (Nach der Welt, Klever Verlag, 2008), a second book of poetry and prose ostensibly written by a palette of characters and reviewed by aliens (Florida-Rooms, Suhrkamp, 2010), and a first book in English with the visual artist Kerstin Cmelka, I, Coleoptile (Broken Dimanche Press, 2011). With Monika Rinck and Sabine Scho, she forms the “Rotten Kinck Schow,” an experimental theory revue. In 2013, Der schaudernde Fächer (The Quivering Fan) came out. It is a collection of short stories with erotic, philosophical, and political content, which is true also of her poetry collections Hauptwerk. Softsoftporn and Rein—ja oder nein?. 2016 saw the publication of her epic poem Verbannt!. A second English-language publication is fresh from the printers: Lather in Heaven (Broken Dimanche Press), a collection of poetic and theoretical prose texts in English with some global photography.

Published Dec 5, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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