Book review: The Stasi Poetry Circle, by Philip Olterman
Philip Olterman was born and raised in West Germany, arriving in the UK in his mid-teens. He studied English and German literature at Oxford before taking up journalism and is now Berlin bureau chief for a British newspaper. All this experience is brought to this little book which is an exceptional creative work. I say “creative” because although it is a work of non-fiction, it is non-fiction of the most creative kind.
Olterman divides his book into twelve sections – lessons he calls them – each named after a figure of speech or type of poetry. In “Stories of life”, he tells how from the mid-1940s the German Democratic Republic promoted the arts and creativity in factories and ministries – notably State Security – the Stasi. He uses his journalistic skills to scour the Stasi archives and seek out sources willing to speak. Inevitably, there are various dead ends to negotiate – some sources are effectively dead, others slam the door or don’t answer the phone – but his tenacity pays off.
He finds a key collection of poems written by members of the Stasi, identifies the creative writing tutor who leads the class, Uwe Berger, and examines some of the poems written, teaching us a lot about the nature of poetry and with clear translations helping the reader understand the impact of specific words and lines along the way. These sections show the enormous impact of Marxism-Leninism on the GDR. Many leaders were Communist Party activists exiled to Moscow during the war and returned in 1945 to lead their new country. They imbued the Stasi with the doctrines of the original Soviet secret police – the Cheka. Stasi personnel were to see themselves as Chekists, officers with “cool heads, warm hearts and clean hands”, and this was also emphasized to members of the poetry circle. Language and metaphor were important to the work at hand. The sonnet was an important poetic form to use because its structure was that of the Marxist view of history argued by a returning exile. The military metaphor was expected and praised, but Olterman finds the results sometimes blended into the love poems teenagers wanted to write, to comedic effect. A young poet in love declares himself “the lance corporal of love”, patiently awaiting “my next promotion / at least / to the rank of general”.
Creative writing was a cornerstone of political and cultural policy, but it also suited the operational practice of the Stasi. Berger, the tutor Olterman focuses on, briefed his class members, as they too were trained to observe, infiltrate, and inform. Here we move from the techniques of politics and poetry to information systems and activities. In the GDR, from the 1950s to the 1980s, these were even more global than in the USSR. In the 1970s, for example, hitchhiking teenager Annegret Gollin was identified as a “negative decadent” and the Stasi were alerted by a nosy neighbor. Annegret’s poems, handwritten in a school notebook and shared with only a few friends, were seized when her room was searched. His concrete poem relating his feelings for the architecture around him, and set out in two parallel blocks of text, was particularly about the Stasi. She was constantly monitored and as a young woman was imprisoned for some time, her child was taken care of.
The 70s and 80s presented more problems for the GDR. Poets from approved poetry circles wrote poems about nuclear war. The authorities responded by censoring the production, using the term “evaluation” rather than censorship. Even dictionaries were carefully checked – the definition of “opposition” was adjusted to read “this concept could not exist in a socialist state”. The Stasi Poetry Circle is a genre-defying work, an engaging read, and my book of the year so far.
The Stasi Poetry Circle: The creative writing class that tried to win the Cold War, by Philip Olterman, Faber & Faber, 201pp, £14.99
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