A Winner Over Time: An Interview with Martin Reiner




IN THE PANTHEON of Czech writers, Martin Reiner’s name will forever be associated with that of Ivan Blatný, a fellow poet who defected from Communist Czechoslovakia while on a cultural exchange trip in England and spent half of his life in mental institutions abroad. Born in Brno in 1919, Blatný began his career as a successful young poet of more or less traditional, nostalgic lyrical verse before falling in with the Czech post-surrealists in the artistic collective Group 42. Although his poetry evinced traces of these new influences before his departure in 1948 (what Reiner calls his predecessor’s “destiny”), it was in the United Kingdom, where he publicly denounced the Soviet regime, that Blatný’s writings developed into bizarre, macaronic pieces that mix languages, themes, and moments in time with seemingly little regard for sense.

In the last collection published during his lifetime, Bixley Remedial School (Pomocná škola Bixley), Blatný operates primarily in Czech and English, but there are also fragments in German, Spanish, and Esperanto, among other tongues. References to Joyce and Dostoyevsky appear intermingled with mentions of Edgar Wallace, the creator of King Kong. Blatný’s poetic persona recalls food and events from his youth, dreams of sexual encounters, and references the smell of crackling bacon emanating from his hospital’s kitchen. His late poetry is at once deeply serious and strikingly lighthearted, blending the high and the low with no hesitation. The poet has a tendency toward self-deprecation: “I explain to the sparrows how it is with my surrealism / my hands are far too small for me to visit Ivan Blatný.”

It has been tempting for critics and readers to see proof of Blatný’s highly debated mental illness in these apparently chaotic writings. As Reiner’s work shows, however, the complexities of Blatný’s life and art are both more complicated and more fascinating. After discovering his compatriot’s forbidden poetry in his youth, Reiner, who also hails from Brno, eventually visited Blatný in Clacton-on-Sea in Essex shortly before the older poet’s death in 1990. This meeting inspired Reiner to take on an immense undertaking: The Poet (Básník), a “documentary novel” about Blatný’s life that would ultimately occupy decades of Reiner’s own life and spread across 600 pages. The volume explores the life and times of the mysterious poet, whose dates align almost perfectly with the lifespan of Czechoslovakia itself: a curious coincidence that partly explains Reiner’s belief that Blatný’s individual experience speaks to greater lessons in his nation’s history and beyond. Like Blatný, Reiner’s works exhibit a fascination with memory and, in their heterogeneity, a desire to express oneself by as many means as possible. [1] Finally published in 2014, The Poet received both the Magnesia Litera Award and the Josef Škvorecký Award, two of the Czech Republic’s most prestigious literary honors.

Reiner, who has also written numerous poetry collections, short stories, and novels and managed two publishing houses (Petrov and Druhé město) while pursuing his Blatný-related research, followed up this mission with one no less ambitious. Except for a years-long fallow period that began with his early hospitalizations in England, Blatný wrote continuously, leaving behind a massive archive. Reiner combed through a corpus of over 60,000 verses to assemble the 2017 collection A Prague Child Heads Home from the Movies… (Jde pražské dítě domů z bia…). On the occasion of Blatný’s centennial and the 30th anniversary of his death, I corresponded with Reiner via email about the two distinct, yet closely entangled threads of his own work, and about the process of tying together the common threads running through Blatný’s artistic career in this edited collection.

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JOSÉ VERGARA: What was the process of selecting poems for A Prague Child like? What guidelines did you adopt for yourself?

MARTIN REINER: Well, after Blatný’s death in August 1990, about 280,000 poems were discovered on individual sheets of paper and exercise books that were left behind in 24 large boxes. This includes all of his writing from 1979 to 1990. I worked with only 61,000 verses, more or less concentrated around the name “Josef Kunstadt,” which became Blatný’s poetic alter ego in the early 1980s. In the end, I chose — and partly “created” — more than 400 poems that represent Blatný’s last creative period.

Could you explain what “partly created” means?

The thing is that Blatný didn’t consciously try to craft “real” poems. He mostly just laid down verse after verse, regardless of what acute mental condition he was in. Therefore, there are brilliant, sparkling pieces right next to poetical garbage. I worked as a private eye using a magnifying glass and a needle and thread. Not all the time, of course! But more often than is, let’s say, usual.

As you note in the foreword to the collection, there were many reasons for Blatný’s selecting Kunstadt as his artistic representative in these poems, but why did he need an alter ego in the first place?

I don’t think I’d be able to discern and select the only reason why he did it — with maybe one small exception: he was a terribly playful guy. And there are also the other “serious” reasons. Josef Kunstadt was a real person, a friend of Vítězslav Nezval, who was closely connected to the Czech surrealist scene; so, through his name, Kunstadt could bring Blatný back to the idyllic years of his youth.

Besides, Blatný invented Josef Kunstadt as his alter ego in the weeks when he was desperately awaiting his new book (Bixley Remedial School), which was ultimately published only six years later. And Kunstadt was also an unsuccessful poet who desperately longed for at least one published book. In vain. At the same time, there’s all that wordplay with the name itself. “Kunst Stadt” means “City of Art” in German. The Czechified variant of the word, Kunštát, is the name of town where Blatný spent the most joyful weeks of his friendship with Jiří Orten.

How do you think A Prague Child differs from Blatný’s other later works, such as Old Residences and Bixley Remedial School?

I believe it’s a kind of assemblage of the two dramatically different ways of writing that we can find in the books you mention. Old Residences is mostly filled with beautiful, if a little bit old-fashioned, poetry. The other book, Bixley, is the only one Blatný put together himself during his exile; it contains ultramodern, diary-like pieces written in several languages that are often mixed together in a single poem. [2] A Prague Child offers very friendly, forthcoming poetry full of names, memories, and languages, which swim in pools of joy, word games — and, at the same time, all this is created with an unrivaled poetic virtuosity.

I’d be curious to know what you think, both as Blatný’s editor and as a writer yourself, about his ability to draw from so many different time periods, literatures, cultures, languages, and people. His references are quite varied, and his linguistic play is endlessly fascinating. How does it all fit together? What challenges does it present to the reader and the editor?

Over the course of almost 40 years of an institutionalized life, Blatný became a winner over time. And this may be the most appealing trick of his late poetry. He can write about things that happened 60 years ago like there is no past. He also can write about his present moment as if it were a story from a long-lost world. He created an immeasurable space to live and linger in without the necessity to get up and leave his comfortable chair. He did it for himself, of course, but the reader can easily step inside and stay.

The Russian Formalist critic Boris Tomashevsky wrote that there are writers “with a biography” and writers “without a biography.” Blatný strikes me as a curious case of a writer with an exciting life story who nonetheless spent years in boring, institutionalized circumstances. For you, as his biographer, what’s the connection between his work and his biography? Can we look beyond his institutionalization and alleged illnesses when considering his work?

First of all, this total — and not always splendid — isolation helped Blatný to sequester and save his native language. Blatný did learn English over the years, but it took quite a long time to make it satisfactory. However, after 1954, he was “allowed” to spend most of his time inside his head, which also meant thinking in Czech and holding his inner debates in his mother tongue.

As for the second part of your question, Blatný, of course, was an eminent case of “writer with a biography.” There are two significant moments, at least, that make his life extraordinary, of almost tabloid attraction. First is the swift change of destiny in his life when he emigrated. The immediate turnaround from the wealthy, successful, beloved prodigy to nothing, even less than nothing. He lost everything in a minute, and it felt like an act from a Sophoclean drama. And then, there are those 35 years or so spent in lunatic asylums and mental hospitals, which could be boring, as you suggest, but at the same time, extremely fascinating for all external observers.

It seems to me that much of Blatný’s later work can be read as poetry about the process of writing. Both in the way he wrote nonstop and in the poems’ images and themes, we see how his entire life became an experiment in continuous writing.

There’s a poem tucked away in Blatný’s third book of poetry that says, “Every moment is worthy of a poem.” He wrote the line when he was just 25 years old and it was, for sure, partly a romantic gesture. Yet, if you understand to what a profound degree life and poetry were intertwined for him — even in those times — you can easily believe that he actually meant it. There was really no other thing in his life that held a higher interest than poetry itself. Not even women! He could hardly imagine the years when he would be allowed to live in poetry the way he could during the last 10 years of his life.

By the way, that’s the reason I believe he was happy the last decade of his life, regardless of how tragic it could appear from the outside. And, well, in a world where every moment is worthy of a poem, and one where you can write poetry all day, what else will become the dominant subject of your writing?

Returning to the idea of a “City of Art,” one of the recurring motifs of Blatný’s verse — in all its stages — is place: Brno, Prague, England. What did these places mean to Blatný?

A Czech poet who is quite well known abroad, Miroslav Holub, once stated that he was a poet only when he was writing a poem. I’d call him an “exclusive poet.” Unlike him, Blatný was an “inclusive poet,” constantly participating in the world of poetry. That’s why you can hardly exclude location from his writing; it meant so much for him.

Brno was the place of his childhood, of his poetical maturation, and, in fact, the place of his rising fame. Prague was a place where some of his good friends lived, including Orten. And certainly, it was also the place where you could be — or could not be — enthroned as Someone in Czech poetry. Prague was always a place of secret love and poorly hidden desire for Blatný. In a way, the navel of the world. England, then, represented nothing less than his destiny.

Blatný has made his way into your texts in various ways, from the references in the story “The Tram Yard (My Brno Story)” and the novel Lucka, Maceška and I, to The Poet, of course. How do you view these different incarnations of Blatný?

In the short story “The Tram Yard,” Blatný only passes by, maybe passes through, the life of the main character. This was, after all, the key role of his life. It was not by chance that his last collection of poems that he worked on before leaving Czechoslovakia, which was never published, should be entitled Passerby. Blatný always felt — and his writings convey this — like he was merely passing along the real world, observing it and providing evidence of his existence.

The novel Lucka, Maceška and I is a fiction. Despite the fact that I worked with some facts of Blatný’s life, the main story line is nothing more than a play with possibilities. That’s why the character of the poet doesn’t bear Blatný’s name in this book.

The documentary novel The Poet is a book about the real Ivan Blatný. As I announce in the beginning of the book: All characters appearing in this book are true and their possible resemblance with who they really were is luckily fulfilled intention.

How has your work on Blatný affected your own writing?

In two ways. My first book of poetry (Relata refero, 1991) was almost entirely written during the time I studied intensively Blatný’s literary inheritance, thousands and thousands of unknown verses; you can find many references to them in Lucka, Maceška and I. It would be strange not to find any imprint of this very special experience in my poems. The most relevant thing I did was adopting the principle of “rhyme collision,” as I started calling it. Usually, this is a subject of great criticism: “The need of a rhyme made the author put down this or that.” Well, I fell in love with such creation. It liberated my associative mind.

Second, I learned a lot about writing, generally, during the years I worked on The Poet. The book is almost 600 pages, and I had to write approximately three times more pages to get the desired result.

Either as a biographer or a novelist, what did you want readers to get out of Básník?

Regardless of what I wish, everyone will take from the book exactly what fits most closely to their vision of the world, to their experience with relationships, and, last but not least, to the measure of awareness of themselves. Any reading of any novel is nothing else than a projection. There is no “real,” objective transmission, and the author of 13 published books should count on it. And that’s what I do.

Yet, there is something I would shyly recommend to others to detect in the book. Any human existence is somehow subjected to two histories that do not necessarily fully come together. We are carried, often unconsciously, within the broad stream of a big history. And from time to time, the small and the big histories spectacularly intertwine in one person’s particular life.

With so many poems in the Blatný archive, how many additional Blatnýs are waiting to be discovered?

I don’t think there are many available. A Prague Child introduces Blatný’s last decade in a representative way. The previous period of his works of poetry is summarized in Bixley Remedial School, and subsequent volumes have been published by the team associated with Antonín Petruželka and David Vaughan. Two or three of Blatný’s famous exercise books will probably be published next year in their original form, with each comma and mistake in its proper place.

What do you think Blatný’s legacy in Czech culture is today?

Poetry seems to be a less and less important medium of communication. On the imaginary battlefield, we lost almost every position and are now hiding in the last trench. Blatný was a poet. One of the greatest. Here, in the space left for the last combatants, we love him. He’s an icon, an angelic messenger from the time when poetry bore his name.

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José Vergara is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Swarthmore College.

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[1] A brief selection of Reiner’s verse may be found here and a prose fragment here. Both are in English translation.

[2] A representative volume of Blatný’s work in English translation, The Drug of Art, is available from Ugly Duckling Presse.

 

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