Author Dorothea Grunzweig: ‘Finnish language is an Unfathomable Source of Inspiration’
Reading time: 5 minutes
You have had a great experience of living, studying and teaching in many different parts of the world, including Germany, England, Scotland, but after all, you decided to settle down in Finland. Why Finland?
For one’s journey through life, there are often several layers essential: external circumstances and motives which are not obviously visible but would influence one subconsciously. I moved to Finland in 1989 after I was offered a teaching post at the Deutsche Schule in Helsinki to serve as a secondary school teacher. In my new life, it gradually dawned on me that there was an internal logic involved for my moving to Finland of all places. In fact, my parents’ generation, Germans between the two World Wars, had imagined Finland with “utopian eyes,” it was a “myth.”
My father, who was seriously wounded as a soldier in 1943, had a dream while lying at the brink of death in an Estonian field hospital with severe blood poisoning. He saw himself traveling to Finland across the Baltic Sea in a rowing boat. He told us about this dream-vision when we were children, and it was ingrained in us. In reality, he never had the chance to see Finland, the “foundland” of the dream. So in a way, I could redeem his unfulfilled dream as a kind of deputy. This is one reason why I am convinced that I am living in the right country.
In what ways your profile of mobility touches upon your poetry?
It is essential for me to grow roots at a new place while feeling attached to my original roots. I felt very attracted to Britain while studying there and doing some research on the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins—whose work I translated 10 years ago—and taught at a Scottish University. I would have liked to stay in Britain, but my teaching exam for the civil service led me back to my home country, from which I left again after seven years, this time for Finland. My life in South-Germany had somehow been boringly clear, my career there preprogrammed, I used my mother-tongue without being consciously aware of it.
I wanted to take up new challenges. My time in Great Britain touches upon my poetry, as it had given me a wider horizon. It had also deepened my enthusiasm for poetry and had made it a natural part of my life. There, I met people and had flat-mates who introduced me to the treasures of their poetic literature, old and new, by reciting them to me. Much later, it was Finland that made me discover my love for my own language, and paradoxically at the same time, I became fascinated by the Finnish language, which surrounded me. The two languages, German and Finnish, somehow inspired each other. All in all, mobility has influenced my writings and poetic language.
You are multilingual, but you mostly write in German in Finland. Do you consider yourself a German poet or a Finnish one?
I am and want to remain a German poet, writing in German. The German literary scene sees me as one of them, a contemporary German poet—a special category, which is slightly difficult to define. My identity as a writer is different from the one I would have developed in Germany, given that I had started there to write poetry in a dedicated way. It is in many respects Finland’s gift to me that I gained an inner liberty to create my own genuine art. It fills me with gratitude for my adopted home. Perhaps one could call my self-understanding, metaphorically speaking, androgynous. There are regions in my soul that manifest a Finnish tinge. I have been interested in the Finnish language, literature, culture and history right from the beginning.
Just for the sound of the language, I attended poetry readings and theatre events in Finland already during my first months here. A language always transports its own perception of things. To my mind, the Finnish language is an unfathomable source of inspiration. That led me to translate Finnish poetry, too. In my own poems, I rather often employ Finnish words as sound material, what at the same time heightens the meaning level.
The width and mystery of nature along with Finnish culture and Finnish and Sami mythology are life-enhancing.
As an example, the Finnish word kuu can be heard as German Kuh (cow), and this coincidence can trigger off ideas on how to play with it. Of course, it is a wish of mine that I become heard in Finland, the country I live in. This is why my Finnish husband and I have translated a considerable number of my poems. He does the versions, and I comment on them. In addition, every now and then, if it’s financially possible, I give poetry readings in Germany together with Finnish musicians.
Your first poetry volume was published in 1997 about eight years after you moved to Finland. What made you a poet? What have been your main aspirations or goals as an author? Have you attained them?
During my teenage, I stopped writing poetry. There were all kinds of reasons behind that: one was that my father was a pastor. I then felt “the word” belonged to his realm, especially because I was a girl, who should not compete with him. Religion and poetry are relatives.
However, when I taught creative writing and theatre later, it dawned on me that I had a deep yearning for expressing myself via art and artistic language. Moving to Finland provided me with ideal conditions for my return to writing after twenty-five years.
Anonymousness in my living condition, only interrupted by daytime in the school community, gave me a large inner space. The width and mystery of nature along with Finnish culture and Finnish and Sami mythology are life-enhancing. So I decided to take the risk of leaving the German civil service that would have called me back after seven years.
Yes, I think I have attained my goals: I love to speak in a singing way about the world in images and with an unconventional combination of thoughts with a charged and “untamed” language. The fact that we used to sing daily in my childhood family and listen as children to religious and literary texts and music has to do with this inclination—and that my youth was intense and rich of bright as well as of dark shades. I have always wished to be closer to the world of plants and animals. With poetry and living in this country, that can come true, because I feel enchanted to find words for all phenomena I perceive.
I have received several poetry prizes, the latest one being the “Lyrikpreis des Deutschen PEN” in 2018. So yes, I have got all I want as an author. However, sometimes I have a rather rare feeling of isolation or of disappointment about not being able to live on my books as a poet, but I can always balance it out by realizing all the advantages life has in store for me. And it’s wonderful that I found a publisher in Germany, who has so far published all my books and wants to continue our cooperation.
You have already published six books of poetry. Which one of them is your most favorite one?
It’s a bit like with children, who are dear to you after you bear them. However, it is always the youngest one whom you are most attached to for a while. My latest book, Kaamos Kosmos, is still closer to me: it deals with the themes of light and, above all, darkness—both metaphorically and literally with the concentration on the phenomenon of kaamos here in the North. It brings darkness to light, and through that, it makes us aware of the vital and intriguing features of darkness. In 2020, as planned, my next poetry book will appear, and most likely it will become the center of attention.