Max Sessner was born in 1959, in Fürth, Germany. In his childhood home, there was not one book of poetry, but his grandmother cut poems from her old ladies’ magazines to give to him, and perhaps we have her to thank for the books he would later write. Sessner is widely published and highly regarded in the world of contemporary, German poetry, with a particularly enthusiastic following in Austria. Unlike most poets of his stature, Sessner did not study poetry in school. He did not, in fact, go to college. Preferring to engage the literary world almost exclusively through his poems, he is not a central figure in the German literary establishment. Sessner works at the public library in Augsburg where his books can be found on the shelves of the poetry section, yet some of his colleagues remain unaware that he is a poet. In addition to poetry, he loves motorcycles and dogs and art.
It is a popular convention in contemporary German poetry to abstain from the use of punctuation, and Max Sessner employs this technique throughout his oeuvre. In all his books, I’ve found but a few, direly-needed question marks. Further, he eschews the use of capitalization other than to capitalize the beginning word of each poem and, as is the German rule, all nouns. His line breaks are designed to create as many meanings and possible meanings and echoes of meanings as possible. A translator must pay careful attention, especially to grammatical clues, or she will easily lose her way. When translating a Sessner poem, I often use a pencil to mark where one phrase or sentence ends and another begins, to give myself a visual scaffold from which to work. When rendering Sessner’s poems, I sometimes change, of necessity, the order of words due to the differences between German and English sentence structure, but I work always to retain the dreamlike effects of his syntax and line breaks.
This selection of poems is from my translation of Sessner’s first full-length collection, Küchen und Züge (Kitchens and Trains), forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2023. The collection was originally published in 2005 by the Austrian publisher Literaturverlag Droschl, and a review in the Nürnberger Zeitung says, “Sessner sings with his book Kitchens and Trains the blues of ordinary objects, half sad, half happy, an exceptional talent!”
It was, indeed, the delightful pairing of melancholy with a sort of gladness or good humor that first attracted me to Sessner’s work. Though the world of his poems is often dark, I’ve yet to find any bitterness lurking there. When Sessner writes, he constructs a world that is surreal in the way that the world of fairytales is surreal, a world that is grounded in the strange details of ordinary life and yet is magical and odd. Sessner is a faithful and loving representative of the objects that live alongside us. In his poems, he tells the stories of their unlikely lives, and he tells our stories through them.
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