Handen vrij – Sonja Knecht, tekstmaker (2)


Continuation of Part 1

Since it’s the topic I’m very interested in, let’s talk about your art now.

I recently realized that I use handwriting to experiment. It is linguistic experiments, you could say. I did not start intentionally, but now I do poetry. I have several poetry projects. One is to find poems that would work in German and in English. How to translate them. Another direction is about playing with the sound of words; not that much with content, but more with the sound. I have certain sounds in words and those sounds encourage me to find other words with similar sounds… and so it goes, and so it grows.

‘There are sentences that have this ability to just jump at me and be like magic.’

Another thing is collecting sentences. They jump at me when listening to people, while watching the TV news or when reading. They might jump out from a written text. Quite frequently a single sentence jumps at me from the weather forecast in the classical German ARD Tagesschau, the official evening news at 8 pm. The weather forecast is being read out – whilst watching the map of Germany with temperature figures and wind symbols – it is being read out in a beautiful male voice, warm and friendly, and very beautifully texted, in a soft tone that makes you relax; whatever the weather will be like. I love this. It is so anti-dramatic, democratic.

Then I realized, back when I began, there are other sentences that have this ability to just jump at me and be like magic. When you take them out of the context, it’s very interesting how they might function. This is what this experiment is about. The first sentence that struck me in such a way, was a sentence my closest friend said. Instantly and unexpectedly, it displayed a beauty, an overall meaning. I remember how I stood there, and how it totally struck me with its poetry. The second sentence jumped at me out from a text and hit me with its sheer brutality. So, it was the biggest possible contrast in those two first sentences of my collection. At some point I called them the One hundred sentences.

Now I have around five hundred or so – they look like this, it’s one sentence per page. And I disclose where it’s taken from (in smaller handwriting below on the page): this is a friend of mine who wrote me an email, this was a former classmate, and there are quotes from books. I think some of them are aphorisms. For example, this sentence here, it says: ‘Once you fought the bears’. A student of mine told me, it was about her grandfather gradually losing his memory and he had been working in the Leipzig Zoo. At some point they had bears that grew up with them. They took care of baby animals in their family. My student remembers walking the city with her grandma and a little tiger. Her grandpa played and fought with these bears. Brown bears grow fast, so soon teenage bears grew as high as himself. He once fought the bears, that old man, and his children tried and make him remember. It was a sentence of encouragement. To remind him of how strong and courageous he was.

I don’t know yet about what to do with these sentences. Of course, there would be many digital possibilities of dealing with them. A system which randomly throws out a sentence every day, something like that. But I collect them in handwriting so far, and I don’t know yet. I’d have an exhibition with them at some point… Take out One Hundred of them and see how they work when displayed.

Since we are on this topic now, I can show you my current handwriting work.

  • hand sketches for a poem
  • hand sketches for a poem
  • hand sketches for a poem

Language as material

My artistic work is hard to describe. In German we have the word Texterin which I chose for my profession. And the longer I work with it, I find it to be true for my whole way of being and for my artistic work. I have this feeling that language is material for me. But then there’s also the notion of being a writer. Yet the writer is more related to the content, not that much to the materiality of language. I’m a writer in the sense that I use handwriting (or whatever media) to write. To find out about the meaning of words and to simply write something down. So, I find it very hard, especially both in German and English, to have a common word for that.

We have, of course, concrete poetry or visual poetry, which is like the outcome of many things I do. We have handwriting, we have writing, we have the authorship and the writer and editor. Text. I like the word so much and I gave it a lot of thought when I made my first website. Text is the result of doing something with language. Text is the essence of what I do. Text refers to the content and to the material and to everything; to the way a word or a sentence or a paragraph looks like, to its shape and its form and its overall meaning. Text it is.

A quote from Sonja on @sk_txet

For me in German it’s Gestalten mit Sprache or Sprachgestaltung, but it doesn’t mean to design with language. It does not have the same notion in English, at least not for me. There would also be Textkunst, so language art, or the art of language, the art of writing, writing art? It is a lovely profession and a wonderful art, and I love to do it.

And then there is the political side of language, Politiksprache or Sprachpolitik in German. The conscious or subconscious strategic side of our use of language, political language, public language. Which we spoke about before. This feels more like a duty, a thing I can’t avoid or ignore. I’m very happy there is some public discussion about language (not so much about the fascist political language, but certainly on the gender issue). The tone we have in our society is being taken more seriously.

When I started, I had the intention of translating books. Which didn’t work out because I did not have any idea how to achieve this, I did not have any contacts to publishing houses. So, I developed my ways with words very slowly. I develop everything very slowly. It is much later that I realize where it lead me to and that there was a logic in it. I always think in different languages when meeting people, of course. Now in my profession I quite frequently edit a text bilingually, and I did some translations in the meantime: for example a book on photography by Lucia Moholy for the Bauhaus Museum and Archive in Berlin, in their edition of texts by forgotten Bauhaus people in exile; relevant work, I think.

‘Communication is about translating all the time.’

Basically, language is about translating all the time. And I don’t mean specifically us now talking in English, which for both isn’t our mother tongue, but still: we are constantly translating what we think in German or in Dutch. If you notice the difference in people speaking in their mother tongue and speaking in another language, it’s so interesting – the same person appearing to be different. Us here we are constantly translating our thoughts first to English and thus to the other person’s language, to the other person’s life. But it is the same in one language only. I mean, when using the same language. So even if I speak German with someone in my jobs, I translate what people want to say or what they want to express. I put it into words. I try to translate what my clients want to say. Communication is about translating all the time; we translate thoughts into words and words into other words and new thoughts, new concepts about them, new ideas.

There are those very stressful and frustrating situations when this doesn’t work.

Lately I had a severe, ugly discussion on Twitter. Again, it was about the gender issue. At least this seemed to be the starting point, and then things went out of hands, and it got very aggressive, irrational. I have this thing in mind about trying to stop a discussion and trying to clarify things. I try my best. I explain, I go into details, I try to understand the attitude and the thoughts of my counterpart. But then sometimes you have these terrible dynamics of saying something and it gets even worse. It escalates. You can’t stop it.

I tried to make some kind of visuals of it, and it didn’t quite work. I tried to do it in German and in English again and to give it a certain form. I kept trying and find an image for it; after a while I turned to the typewriter, a new tool I found out I like to work with. And then I switched back to handwriting. I wasn’t so sure what I thought of it, and so it went on and on for two or three days. It was intended for a magazine I was invited to contribute to, and in the end, I sent the editor two things:

I sent them to the editor of a magazine for concrete poetry. I met her, or rather, her work, some two or three years ago at an exhibition. Abstract geometric prints. I bought books of her and got to know she is a printer and editor. She lives in the north of Germany, she has her own printing press and publishes this magazine, To Call. Her name is Petra Schulze-Wollgast, psw. I totally admire her work. She approached me because I ordered a lot of hers. The thing is, she wrote to me: ‘I’m totally amazed by what you do, how impressive’. And then she asked me to contribute to her magazine, so she ‘forced me’ to actually show my stuff and to finish something and to send it to her. Which took me two or three months. I hope that some of these will be published soon. And I would probably let you know.

The good thing is, those two things I showed you are the direct result of a bad experience (that horrifying experience on Twitter). There are several ways of dealing with such disturbing experiences: I can approach the people and try to solve the issue, but I can also use my language to work with it in another way. And this is what I’m curious about in the future. I want to find more about this artistic way of dealing with language, or rather, of dealing with all kinds of impressions language-wise. Which I’m used to doing almost all my life. I just didn’t realize it is a way of living and I didn’t take it seriously. I did not consider it something special. I did not call it poetry before, nor art.

Die besten Texte entstehen in größter Not (V1)

Entstehen die besten Texte in größter Not?
Bester Text steht Nöten ein. Gerede sonst. In
Tinte betexten: Sie ersehnt tröstenden Sog.
Bestehendes, Eintöniges: Trost. Sternentext!
Sonores entsteht, reinigt. Textebene sendet
Einigendes. These: Torso-Bersten. „Nett texten“
notieren Egoisten… Sternentext hebend stets.
So Notiertes in extende Gesten. Entbehrtes
geben, nein. Textnot röstet die Sterne. Seht’s,
die besten Texte entstehen in größter Not.

Anagram poems, sketches and first version

Poetry is rather a new and exciting way for me to try to make things visible and try to share them in a broader way. Thus, realizing my impressions are not just my impressions but probably something to share collectively. Specially regarding the political issues, public debate, the two topics we mentioned before, fascist language and the gender issue. They are closely linked, by the way. They influence my work the most, my current assignments, my official jobs as well as my teaching and my private notes and writing. My thinking.

It is mostly the artistic work I use handwriting for. It is not about the handwriting itself, not in a calligraphic sense – but the effect of it. The effect of the writing on me, the writer, and on the text. It is experimenting with words and sometimes close to sketching. Writing and, in the most direct way, handwriting is an instrument to find out about things. This is writing in its core. But it is not always, or not only, about the content of words. Yes, it is sometimes about the content, the literal meaning, sometimes telling a story, but mostly expressing something in a mixture of content, form and feeling. In its core, it is writing, always, but I’m still finding out about its many aspects and effects.

Let’s switch from visual to auditory: do you play any music during work?

Oh no, no. I cannot even listen to instrumentals. In the office downstairs, they listen to music. Lucas likes it sometimes, in the background, in evenings, but no words, mostly instrumentals. For me, music brings me out of my rhythm. It disturbs me. So not any music.

We’re two hours into this interview now, on to the final question. On average, how long do you work in a day?

Oh. I don’t really know. I have this very happy period now of a healthy and very nice routine. After getting used to the lockdown last year, I was somewhat excited about this new situation and found it interesting, to find out about my own rhythm and try and keep it.

I feel rather privileged. Not to have children or a stressful steady job helps of course. Now I have the time to walk around the city and not having to go to any exhibitions, no social duties, nothing. I did nothing of that. Only recently I started to join some online readings in evenings. Walking around is more important. Walking for me has two ways of being important: one is to have this ritual of getting out of my routine and out of my work and my thoughts, to clear my head, to calm down, to relax and be detached. Then: see what happens. Note new thoughts arise. Walking the city and especially in a big city is at the same time something where it’s not about emptying my head, but absorbing everything.

Thank you, Sonja. Thank you for your time.

You’re welcome. Thank you, Jasper.

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  1. […] Part 2 of the interview continues here ☞ […]

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