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Wandering Venus

In early June, the night sky will feature a once-in-a-century event. That’s when the sun, Venus and Earth will be in perfect alignment. This may not sound particularly spectacular at first, but for astronomers and passionate stargazers, this constellation is particularly significant. That’s because the planet Venus will be clearly visible for several hours as a black disk, drifting along the sun.

(Photo: Rights reserved by MarkGregory007)

This phenomenon is known as the Transit of Venus and it occurs an average of twice every 130 years. The last two transits took place in 1882 and 2004 and the time has come again. On 6 June, the Transit of Venus will be observable – including in the southern hemisphere in New Zealand, our Guest of Honour “at the edge of the universe“. And since a starry sky is a source of inspiration and stimulation not only for astronomers, but also poets and literati, New Zealanders – or more specifically the Ministry for Culture & Heritage, the International Institute of Modern Letters and the Publishers Association of New Zealand (PANZ) – have teamed up with two German partners – the Goethe Institute New Zealand and the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin - to launch a very exciting poetry project that revolves around the Transit of Venus.

Three German and three New Zealand poets are involved in the project, namely Uwe Kolbe, Brigitte Oleschinski and Ulrike Almut Sandig, along with Hinemoana Baker, Glenn Colquhoun and Chris Price. At the beginning of June, the three German poets will travel to New Zealand, where they will observe the transit of Venus in Tolaga Bay with their New Zealand counterparts on 6 June – and compose wonderful poetry about it. At least that’s the hope of Bettina Senff from the Goethe Institute in Wellington and Aurélie Maurin from the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, as they revealed to me in the following interview.

What are your expectations of the Transit of Venus Poetry Exchange?

Bettina Senff: The Goethe Institute has taken up the cause of promoting international cultural collaboration. My hope is that the Transit of Venus project will bring these German and New Zealand authors closer together through the shared experience of the unique phenomenon of the transit of Venus. This will hopefully lead to a more intense atmosphere of trust and understanding when they work together later in the workshop. The focus of the workshop will be on understanding and translating the poems from the other respective language and culture. And of course I also hope that that the authors will be inspired to create wonderful new texts!

Aurélie Maurin: I’m hoping for good poems! This will be an adventure into new poetic worlds for everyone involved and hopefully a programme for expanding language and exploring the soul all rolled into one. I hope that this poetic dialogue will continue beyond the Venus Poetry Exchange and that friendships will emerge from the extremely personal, poetic collaboration on these works, with all their related explanations and anecdotes. I also hope that this will encourage future collaborations and translation projects – ideally new translations of entire volumes of poems…

What are the different stages of the project?

Bettina Senff: The authors will gather in Tolaga Bay on the east coast of New Zealand for the transit of Venus. This location has a very unique significance for New Zealand because it’s where Captain James Cook anchored after observing the transit of Venus from Tahiti in 1769.

The next stop will be Wellington, where participants will reflect on the experience in a workshop. This will also include a tour of the Te Papa national museum, which will bring the German guests closer to Maori culture, and a visit to the “Dark Sky” exhibition in the Adam Art Gallery, which deals with celestial phenomena on an artistic level. The authors will become familiar with each other’s work and introduce themselves to the people of Wellington in a panel discussion. In a “Berlin Poetry Night”, we’ll also present the work of Berlin’s Literaturwerkstatt, along with the online portal Lyrikline and the Zebra Poetry Film Award.

While New Zealand is at the height of spring, the project will head to Berlin in October for the second part of the workshop, and then to Frankfurt for the Book Fair and the grand finale.

Aurélie Maurin: In the second phase at the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, the texts will be collectively and mutually translated, or “VERSschmuggelt” (roughly a smuggling of verses), i.e. the poets will work in pairs on the basis of interlinear translations and with the help of language professionals to transmit their poems into the other language. This procedure is ideal for conveying poetry in another language, since the poet himself or herself is directly involved in the translation process: not only for their partner’s poems, but also for their own.

What are you most looking forward to in the course of this project?

Bettina Senff: I’m really looking forward to the moment when all the authors will be reunited in Berlin in October at the Literaturwerkstatt for the “VERSschmuggel” poetry festival. What might emerge from this event? I’m very eager to find out.

Aurélie Maurin: I’m looking forward to seeing how words will be twisted and turned, how poets from completely different linguistic worlds will be brought closer together by this celestial event and how language will be discovered and invented in the process.

The project will come to an end at the Frankfurt Book Fair: What is planned for the poets and their works there?

Aurélie Maurin: Each pair of poets will present their texts on the transit of Venus and the corresponding adaptations in both languages. They’ll discuss the project as a whole with each other and reveal the story behind their words. It’s always a pleasure to see and hear how the poets have adapted their partner’s text. Once each set of poets appears, it becomes clear how close they have become, the level of dedication they brought to the project to do justice to the other poet’s work and to give the original poem its own vibe, and the verbal acrobatics they were able to weave into the new works …I’m really looking forward to it.

Bettina Senff: The project will be highlighted at the New Zealand pavilion at the Book Fair. How exactly this will happen is still a closely guarded secret of the New Zealand organisers. But I’m very hopeful that we can expect a multimedia element that will also convey visual impressions of the transit of Venus from New Zealand, which will unfortunately not be visible from Germany.

The Goethe Institute will also invite the poets to present the project, along with the texts and translations that emerge from it. Both will be posted on the poetry platform lyrikline.org and thus made immediately accessible to poetry enthusiasts around the world. And when the texts are available, I’m confident we’ll somehow find the means to publish them.

Over the next few months, two of the participants will report on our blog about the poets’ experience of the transit of Venus, the project as a whole, and what it’s like to write poems under “time pressure”.

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Guest of Honour

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