Joshua Weiner is the author most recently of Berlin Notebook, which focuses on refugees in Germany. His other books include the poetry collections The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish and From the Book of Giants. He is a professor of English at the University of Maryland, and the poetry editor at Tikkun magazine. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: Why did you decide to travel to Germany to explore the refugee situation there, and did you know before you left that you'd write a book about your experiences?
A: I had spent a year living in Berlin with my family about five years ago, and that city put some roots in me, I was eager to get back to it.
I was still trying to learn more German--the language and the literature, and the history, and to translate some poetry. And I had made friends that I wanted to see again. Basically, I just wanted back in.
I got lucky with a fellowship application and made plans to be there in the fall of 2015. But by summer of that year I realized my whole idea of what I was going to do there had to change.
The refugee crisis in Europe was peaking, especially in Germany where most of the refugees were heading. It was clear something enormous was happening, but no one really knew what it was. But it was going to change Europe. The sense of epic proportions was strong, even here in the States.
In fact, the situation had already started years earlier in Germany when I was living there, but the more modest scale of it, and my being a foreigner, kept it to the margins of attention.
So, I decided that instead of reading and translating poetry, I would try to write about it from the perspective of an American flâneur, or something like that, someone who was not acting as a professional journalist, but was just traveling around the city looking for where refugees were making an impact.
After all, the situation in Germany did not belong solely to Germany; the U.S. had had its role in creating the situation.
What I found once I started was a pattern of correspondences or historical rhymes between Syrian refugees now, and other refugees through time: the Huguenots in France who fled religious persecution, the Jews who fled the Nazis, the Germans who were themselves displaced after the War.
Once that pattern started to surface, I knew I had something with depth. The writings of Joseph Roth were my mentor. He showed me the way.
Q: During the period you spent in Germany, what did you find that particularly surprised you about the life of refugees there?
A: Well, that period--fall 2015 through spring 2016--the life of refugees was as you could imagine: it was, just as it is now, horrible.
The refugees I interviewed at the registration center (Lageso) or at Tempelhof airport (where some were being housed) were incredibly anxious, stressed out, exhausted, wounded, desperate, heartsick. They didn't have a life, they weren't really living; they were trying to survive, day to day.
But they were also resilient, full of humor, and vigorous in their anger against Bashar (they all refer to him by his first name) and (for the some of them) the West, even as they were eager to find a foothold in this new country, this very different society and culture.
Berlin has always been an immigrant city, the immigrant city of Germany, which is why it has such vitality, such an improvisational vibe: the refugees were all trying to get there.
At the same time--and this is something that no one in the press is talking about--at the same time, many of the refugees I spoke with were eager to go back to Syria as soon as possible, as soon as it was safe. But they were thinking in terms of decades--maybe 10, 20 years or more.
The debate in Germany between left and right often gravitates towards the problem of sustaining an open-ended situation requiring assimilation and all kinds of state support.
But the desire of many refugees to leave as soon as possible aligns in a weird way with the desire of the German far right to get them out as soon as possible: the difference may be how soon.
This seems to have become almost a taboo subject amongst Western journalists. It has weird and disturbing parallels to the intersection between the German push to remove Jews before World War Two (in other words, before "the final solution" was engineered) and the Zionist interest at that time in repopulating Palestine.
Q: Given the focus in the news lately on refugee issues, what do you hope readers take away from your book?
A: The "Berlin Notebook" is different, I think, than anything that's been written so far about the refugee situation, in that, rather than going for the front line of catastrophe, it meanders through German society, culture, and history, and connects points in time and connects different kinds of refugee experiences, you could say, that share commonalities.
Also, it includes interviews with the kinds of people no one was talking to at the time: everyday Berliners, ex-pats, artists, scholars, poets, religious leaders, musicians--I realized that no one was asking Germans what they thought was happening, and what they thought about it.
My hope is that the book reveals a deeper pattern, and that it works something like a poem, through unlikely associations.
I hope readers of it take away a sense that the situation we have now is, in fact, not new, but something we've been living with for a long time; that what seems strange is actually familiar; and that those who seem like strangers are actually our neighbors.
Q: Walt Whitman is a major presence in your most recent book of poetry. Why did you choose to focus on him?
A: Whitman is the great time/space traveler of American poetry, nonpareil; and the poem you're referring to, "Rock Creek," like the "Berlin Notebook," connects points in time here in Washington D.C.--it's a kind of meditation on the flowing of time and the synchronicities and simultaneities of the past.
I had been working on the poem for a couple of years, just gathering materials, without any sense of where to begin, but with a strong feeling that the figure of Whitman, who spent so much time in D.C. nursing wounded soldiers of both sides, was central to what I wanted to do.
As soon as I decided to adopt Whitman's persona, and move him, anachronistically, through time and space, the poem, which is about 15 pages or more, wrote itself in a month of concentrated feverish work.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've been writing a lot about German poetry in translation--Gottfried Benn, Rilke, Ernst Meister, and others, and translating some stuff by Goethe, Ernst Jandl, older stuff and more contemporary stuff.
At the moment, I'm deeply involved in and focused on translating a volume of poetry that Nelly Sachs, the first German writer to win the Nobel Prize after World War Two, wrote in 1959, about being a refugee.
Her work has been mostly out of print in English for a long time; she's difficult, and necessary. Now's the time to turn to her again, for a new generation to listen to her work. I hope to serve as but one instrument in that re-sounding.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Joshua Weiner will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival on April 22.