Q & A: Adam Kirsch
What led you to write poems about August Sander’s photographs, and are you writing more of them?
I first encountered Sander’s photos in my high school art history class, but I didn’t start to think about them in a poetic way until I saw a Sander show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004. The title of Sander’s multivolume collection of portraits is “People of the Twentieth Century,” and they seem to offer occasions for thinking about many different aspects of recent history. As photographs, they are inherently elegiac, and the fact that Sander was documenting Germany before and between the world wars makes them especially pregnant with implications. I have a number of poems in mind that I want to write, and I hope it will turn into a longer sequence.
Do you intend for the poems to exist independent of the photographs, or would they always be published together?
I hope that the poems function independently of the photographs; in a way, the challenge in writing is to get enough information about the photo into the poem so that seeing the original becomes unnecessary. Seeing them side by side, in fact, I realize how I’ve sometimes changed details of the pictures, or combined several different ones, without being conscious of it. Perhaps knowing that the photo exists—that this particular person was documented at this particular moment in time—is more important than being able to see what’s in it.
These poems psychologize—very perceptively and convincingly—their subjects. But to what extent do you feel that the psychological perceptions are “real”? That is, do the perceptions reveal the subjects or yourself, their times or ours? Is this something you even thought about when composing the poems?
One of the provocative things about “People of the Twentieth Century” is the way the photos are at once highly individual—each one presents us with a real person, and with the fact of his or her mortality—and abstractly representative. Sander titled the pictures not with the names of the subjects, but with their occupations or roles in society, and the whole collection attempts to be a kind of sociological survey of the German people. In a way, I’m taking advantage of that ambiguity—juxtaposing the sitter’s truth with the truth as it appears to me, viewing him or her after so much history has intervened. That disparity—what the passage of time and events does to the way we think about people—is perhaps the real subject of the poems.
How much historical information do you think a reader needs to bring to these poems, and how directly can it be applied? For instance, coming across the phrase “pieces in a trench” in “Farming Family, 1912” seems obvious enough, but the “cultivated shamelessness” at the end of “Kinetics Researcher from Vienna, 1930” is a bit trickier: one presumes that the shamelessness has to do with the Nazi medical experiments on Jews, but that wouldn’t have been happening in 1930, would it?
I hope that the poems bring some of their context with them, in their titles and the details I focus on. In general, they probably count on the reader to know the course of events in Germany and Europe during the years Sander was working: wwi, the chaos of the Weimar period, and wwii and the Holocaust. But I don’t always have the specifically German context in mind; in a sense we are all people of the twentieth century (I was born in 1976), and the cultural and historical changes the photos document are ones we are all heirs to. With the phrase you quoted from the “Kinetics Researcher” poem, for instance, I didn’t really have Nazi medical research in mind; I was thinking more generally of the transformed attitude toward the body that science brings with it—our quasi-polemical belief that there is nothing to be ashamed of in nakedness, which coexists with an older and deeper instinct for shame.
A large part of the power in these poems derives from the way physical details lead to, or merge with, abstract statements. Is this something you’re aiming for? A reaction to the old workshop saw of “show, don’t tell”? A fortuitous accident?
I don’t think showing is always better than telling, and I’m naturally drawn to a certain kind of abstract moral statement in poetry—in Wordsworth, Arnold, or Lowell, for instance. But the abstract always has to strike the reader with the force of something felt and known, not just thought up, and anchoring ideas in images—the details of the photos—is one way of doing that. Not that I had anything so deliberate in mind when I started writing—the transition from seeing the details to thinking about their significance is just the way I, and I imagine most people, experience these particular photos.
Are there formal qualities in Sander’s photographs which you’re attempting to duplicate (or, perhaps better, translate) in your poems?
Not necessarily. I suppose that translating Sander’s style would mean striving for an objective, distanced, almost clinical kind of writing; and while I can imagine such a style being effectively used, it’s not something I can or want to do. I see the poems as a response to the photos, rather than an equivalent of them.