Portrait Friederike Mayröcker
The Austrian writer Friederike Mayröcker, born in 1924, and sadly passed away today (4 June), has written dozens of highly acclaimed books of poetry and prose. Her works are occasionally accompanied by her own drawings, sketches of floating figures with handwritten captions. The following excerpts are from a series of conversations between Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Sarah Ortmeyer, and Friederike Mayröcker, who drew as they talked about her writing routine and the price of a life dedicated to literature.
One of my first studio visits was with the painter Maria Lassnig in 1985. I was seventeen, and it was my first time in Vienna. Maria and I became friends almost immediately and stayed friends until her death five years ago. The last time I saw her, a few months before she passed away, she asked, “What are you going to do in Vienna when I’m not there anymore?” And she encouraged me to meet Friederike Mayröcker.
I had always dreamt of meeting Friederike Mayröcker, who was, for me, one of the greatest writers in the world. I’ve been obsessed with her poems, and the collages of prose and poetry she calls proems, for a long time. On very rare occasions, she invited me to her apartment, a gesamtkunstwerk where the rooms are completely submerged in books and manuscripts. But more often we have met in the Viennese coffeehouse Café Sperl.
Friederike once told me that she sees everything in pictures: she lives in pictures, her memories are in pictures; she enters them, immerses herself in them, and transforms them into language. I feel that when I enter her apartment, I enter into one of her proems. In her 1984 book Rosengarten, the very first thing I ever read of hers, her poems are illustrated with an etching by Maria Lassnig. This wonderful collaboration between artist and poet – a pairing that was popularised in Dada and Surrealism – is something that we should reactivate today.
When I met Friederike for the first time, we talked about her texts on art, and I asked her about her practice of drawing. After some time, German artist Sarah Ortmeyer started to join us because she was interested in Mayröcker’s work. Friederike also makes drawings – which she calls “image-poems” – of Schutzgeister, or “protective spirits”, to accompany her friends. She made one for me and I never leave the house without it.
There are so many dimensions to her work: her poems, prose, proems, librettos, radio plays, her archive, her writing about art. I think she’s an extraordinarily inspiring writer for many visual artists, and I’m so happy we can publish some of our conversations in English for the first time. HANS ULRICH OBRIST, September 2019
6 January 2015
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Do you write your books by hand?
Friederike Mayröcker: I mostly write by hand in bed in the mornings and then later go over to the typewriter. I bought a Hermes Baby typewriter from my first teacher’s salary. The machine was cheap because it was second-hand, and since then I’ve only had Hermes Baby typewriters. The first one is of course long since broken. It also didn’t have the letter ß, which is why I decided always to write it as “sz”.
HUO But in the morning you first write in longhand?
FM Yes. I usually wake up with one or more sentences in my head that I have to write down at once. If I don’t do that they’re gone. And in the night, too ... after dreams.
Sarah Ortmeyer: And sometimes you write on the sheets, too, as in that line of yours: “felt tip on bedsheets surely looks good too.”
FM [laughs] Well, it’s just that it’s hard to wash out. I write in landscape format, and when I get to the edge I carry on.
SO In the documentary that was made about you, Das Schreiben und das Schweigen [Writing and Silence, 2009] one sees that windows play a big role for you. Why is that?
FM I have one of those angled windows in my apartment, and when I stand in front of it, on the fifth floor, I can look directly into the sky. To the west is the Vienna Forest and that’s beautiful and also inspiring for me. So I stand there at the window, have something to write about, and can let all the impressions sink in. I am also very interested in flowers – in my books there are a lot of thoughts about flowers. As a child I spent the summer months in [the Austrian village] Deinzendorf. That was wonderful; it was an idyll. Already then I was very interested in flowers.
HUO You’ve said that you always spent the summer outdoors, not writing anything, and then in September you would come back to Vienna all fired up to go.
FM Yes, I always came back to Vienna full of energy and then immediately got to work.
HUO You are now 92 years old ... aren’t there any unrealised projects?
FM No. When I have finished a manuscript, I send it to [the publishing house] Suhrkamp, and they basically take everything. It’s true I have quite a lot of unpublished poems, but they are old. I guess they’ll be published only when I’m not around anymore. At the moment I am working – after études and cahier – on the third part of that trilogy.
HUO How does a book like that come about?
FM There is no master plan. I started writing in longhand, worked every day, and always wrote down the date. It was very important to me that the date was there.
HUO What would be your advice to a young poet?
FM I would say: don’t tie yourself down, don’t bring any children into the world, only have writing in your heart and in your head, even when the days and the years are hard. You have to stick with it. Ernst Jandl [the Austrian poet, Mayröcker’s partner from 1953 until his death in 2000] and I didn’t want to live together, we weren’t married, and we didn’t want any kids. For both of us the big thing was literature.
SO I’ve always had the sense that it’s not at all so important to you to get a direct response or immediate recognition for your work. For Jandl it was more important to get feedback – is that right?
FM Yes, and what was important to him was what I had to say about it.
SO You were more independent?
FM I wouldn’t put it like that. But I was writing a lot of prose. I didn’t show anyone what I was working on until the manuscript was finished, which often took years. But I also always showed my poems as soon as they were done.
SO You also once said that you can compare writing prose to making sculptures and writing poetry to painting watercolours.
FM Yes. I really had the feeling that when I’m writing poems it’s like a constellation of colours, like a watercolour painting. When I write prose I sit in a different position. Then I am very tough and can compare it only to making a sculpture.
HUO Chance is often important in the visual arts. You’ve said that you work with baskets: you pick something out of a basket full of word prompts, as if it were a lottery.
FM I write things down all the time, things that I hear or that someone says to me. I throw them all into a plastic basket, or rather into one of many plastic baskets. When I am working intensively, I sometimes take a break and pull something out of the baskets. This is how my “between-works”come about; you could say that they are collages or montages. Things that fall completely out of the round. That’s hard for some readers to understand, but it’s part of my work.
HUO You say that you can write only in the daytime, but not when the sun is shining. When the sun is out, you can’t write. That’s why the overcast days are so important to you?
FM Yes. I enjoyed it so much one November when there was only fog. I have always wished for November, over and over and over again.
SO You also said once that you’d inherited your melancholy from your mother. That might also have something to do with your affinity for fog. But I don’t hear anything melancholy in your voice, only a sense of joy. You might be lucky enough that there’s enough melancholy,but also not too much, for the work you do.
FM Yes, it’s true I need melancholy for my work. Sometimes I cry while working, too. That’s just how it is.
21 November 2015
HUO You brought us two books. The first is études, then cahier – and soon fleurs will join them. Can you tell us something about this trilogy?
FM I am in love with the French language, although I don’t really speak it well. I was thinking that my next project should have something to do with French; at least the titles should be French. Then I just couldn’t stop writing, so I thought I’ll just do another book. The whole trilogy is a mixture of poetry and prose.
HUO In études there are not only passages of artistic prose but also the Fetzchen – the little scraps.
FM Yes, Fetzchen is one of my favourite words. It’s related to the way I write, that I attach particu- lar importance to small things and especially also to animals. I have such great empathy with dogs, and with animals in general.
HUO Dogs play a big role in your life.
FM Yes, because I feel like a dog. When I go onto the street and there’s a dog going for a walk on the other side, he looks over at me. He senses that I am one of them. My attachment to cats isn’t quite as strong.
SO You once had a dachshund in Berlin and didn’t write anything for half a year because you were out walking the dog.
FM Yes, that was difficult. I was in Berlin 1970/71 with Ernst. We were on a DAAD residency and were being put up in [Swiss writer] Max Frisch’s former apartment. And then I “inherited” a small dog from its owner. I was out taking the dog for a walk all day long and couldn’t do anything else, couldn’t write a single sentence. There’s no way I could have a dog myself. I couldn’t write a thing.
I’m in an exceptional state when I write. Then I feel the body, too. It gets hyperstimulated then. I get high blood pressure.
HUO These Fetzchen seem like the opposite of stories – is that fair to say? Are we dealing with anti-stories here?
FM I am against stories and don’t necessarily like reading that kind of stuff either.
HUO The other thing about stories is that you don’t want to read them twice, but the Fetzchen can be re-ordered and reread again and again.
FM You can flip forwards and backwards.
HUO When did your aversion to narrative begin?
FM When I started to write. I didn’t really want to tell any stories. I pushed that to an extreme in my experimental phase, from 1960 and 1980. But one day I’d had enough of experimental writing and decided to try a different kind of experiment. I think I succeeded in that with fleurs.
HUO It’s great that you work so much. Is there never a time when you don’t work?
FM Oh yes, I do have writer’s block from time to time. Then I get very depressed. These blockages last around one or two weeks. I get over them by reading and going on walks. The last four weeks were just sum- mer, no fog, that didn’t suit me at all.
19 November 2016
HUO It’s good to see you again. I’d like to talk to you about Maria Lassnig. She always said we should meet. That’s how this all started. The book Rosengarten, with text from you and an etching from her, was the only time you directly collaborated. How did that come about?
FM We both said we have to do a book with each other. But I didn’t directly pick up on the etching. I borrowed from her the practice of what she called “body awareness”. It was the beginning of my own body-awareness series – I did a lot afterwards that was connected to it.
HUO So there is really a direct connection between Lassnig’s work and yours?
FM Yes. That was also really important to me, too, because I write with the body. And she probably painted with her body. I don’t know any more how long ago that was ...
HUO It was 1984 [reads from Rosengarten]: “Ich lebe ich arbeite in einem echolosen Raum, ich schreie da immer was hinein aber es kommt nie ein Widerhall, nicht einmal die Ahnung eines Echos ...” (I live I work in an echoless room, I always scream something into it but nothing comes back, not even a hint of an echo...) That’s a very beautiful piece of writing.
FM I simply can’t remember my old texts. I don’t know any more what I have written.
HUO How do you write with the body?
FM I am in an exceptional state when I write. Then I feel the body, too. It gets hyperstim- ulated then. I get high blood pressure. In other words, I am entirely beside myself. Everything is changed.
HUO Almost in a different chemical state?
HUO Maria Lassnig often spoke about how she got into the state in which she could paint with her body and how she could come back out of it. After all, it’s almost a journey – and one you might not come back from, either.
FM Yes. You might not come back. Then you’d be dead.
HUO Maria Lassnig wrote a few times about what she did to prepare for when she could finally paint, though even then she often couldn’t either. What is your own ritual like?
FM In the mornings I don’t know whether I’ll be able to write later. I sit down by the machine and try out a sentence. If it works out with one sentence, then I continue. Today I did good work, although I knew that I had to stop at half past ten. Otherwise I always need the feeling that I have a whole day’s time.
HUO And the first sentence is always the most difficult sentence?
FM Maybe. I have usually already prepared various things that I’ve written by hand in bed. Then I need to see what comes out of this pre-prepared material. Sometimes nothing comes of it.
HUO Let’s turn back to Rosengarten once more. Maria Lassnig loved your text above all else. She always thought it had so much to do with her work. How did you come up with the title?
FM It’s a kitsch title actually ...
HUO Yes, but at the same time it makes sense in retrospect. The garden goes on to play a role in many of your books.
FM A big role.
HUO Did you ever visit Maria Lassnig at home, or did she visit you?
FM I went to her house. She told me that she looked down from her studio, from the very top, onto the beautiful flowers and animals. There is this fantastic picture of Maria’s – my favourite painting of hers – which is called Mit einem Tiger schlafen (Sleeping with a Tiger, 1975). It is amazing.
HUO [reading from Rosengarten] “ich schreie da immer was hinein aber es kommt nie ein Widerhall” (I always scream something into it but nothing comes back). It’s actually a terrifying, scary situation, one that seems almost akin to Maria’s paintings. I’m wondering if it didn’t somehow take shape in resonance with her pictures?
FM No, it took shape independently.
HUO That’s interesting. Reading Rosengarten, I almost feel like I’m inside Maria Lassnig’s pictures.
FM I have no idea what’s in these texts any more.
HUO That’s interesting, too. Because these texts are created almost in a “stream of con- sciousness,” you don’t necessarily remember them afterwards.
FM From this one, for example, I don’t remember anything at all.
HUO Is it something like a trance state?
FM Yes, a kind of trance.
HUO The transition happens as soon as you start writing?
FM Well, I am not in it immediately. But do you know how dreadful it is when I feel like I could write but then only three sentences come out because the current has gone?
HUO You once said “Writing is reflected life.” Do you also have another definition of writing?
FM Writing is my belief system. All my life I have lived under the half-craziness of this writing and I neglected everything else, my entire private life, for writing. I have really done nothing else for seventy years. And I have done wrong to all the people in my life, because I cared too little for them.
SO But would you do it all over again?
FM I don’t know.
FRIEDERIKE MAYRÖCKER (1924–2021 in Vienna) was one of the most important writers working in the Ger-man language. She is known above all for her poetry but also for prose works, radio plays, children’s books, and writing for the stage. Mayröcker’s early books include Tod durch Musen (Death by Muses, 1966) and Arie auf tönernen Füszen (Aria on Clay Feet, 1972). In 2016 she won the inaugural edition of the Austrian Book Prize for that year’s fleurs, the last book in a trilogy that began with études in 2013. Her most recent publication is Pathos und Schwalbe (Pathos and Swallow, 2018), which, like all her writing since 1975, is published by Suhrkamp. Donna Stonecipher’s translation of études was published in 2020.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST is artistic director of Serpentine Gallery.
SARAH ORTMEYER is an artist based in Vienna.
The authors would like to thank Edith Schreiber for her support.
Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.
This article originally appeared in Spike #61.