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Poetry in Berlin Is Political

Spoken word is a political tool in Berlin, and you don't need to know German to wield it. No matter where you're from, these spaces prove that spoken word brings people together.

Spoken word poetry might have once found a strong base in Paris, where names like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein found their community and inspiration. But these days, one doesn’t hear much about English-speaking writers and artists gathering in Parisian cafés and bookstores. It seems to have shifted to a different city in Europe. Now, the English language spoken word and open art scene is growing and thriving in Berlin.

Before arriving in Berlin, I was unsure if I’d be able to easily meet other artists who write and perform in English in the capital of a country where it is not the native language. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the plethora of opportunities that opened up to me simply by attending such spoken word and open art events, talking to people and sometimes performing. In fact, within a month of living in Berlin, I could go to any single English language spoken word event and recognize at least five faces within the unique new mix of people. From the beginning, I felt welcomed within this vast community.

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Katie Burns performing / Photo by Geoff Ruddock

Folks come from far and wide to Berlin, searching for spaces to explore themselves, share their stories, and find community.. Throughout my time in Berlin, I’ve found some initiatives in the city that give space to people to come together, not only over a love of words, but also shared political and social concerns. I spoke to their founders to understand what Berlin’s English language spoken word scene means to them.

 

WHISKY & WORDS

 

Whisky & Words, which founder Carolina Robinson says, is “more about words than whisky,” was one of the first events I attended after moving to Berlin. I made my way to Keith Bar, where the event was held, walked along Schillerpromenade, and timidly entered the seemingly ordinary and unobtrusive bar alone.

I was surprised to be greeted by an amiable atmosphere—the warm hum of conversation throughout the packed, dimly-lit bar with candles burning on each table. Even before Whisky & Words started that evening, at which point everyone went to the back room to get cozy and enjoy the spoken word performances of the night, I had already met another writer from the US, who’s since become one of my good friends in this city.

 

BERLIN SPOKEN WORD + WICKED

 

 

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Naniso Tswai performing / Photo by Geoff Ruddock

Naniso Tswai became one of those familiar faces. I first met Naniso on one of my early explorations of Berlin when I found my way to Du Beast, his energetic facilitation and performances radiated throughout the basement room. A Berlin-based author, journalist, and academic, Naniso founded and directs Berlin Spoken Word (BSW), along with several other events. One of his many initiatives, for example, is Sharing Words that Matter, a performance-based project that “seeks to raise awareness in the community about issues that are otherwise obscured by silence.”

Another initiative he hosts is Wicked Poetry Slam, a monthly poetry slam centered around politics that is open to all styles of poetry, rap and spoken word. “The underlying message of Wiked,” Naniso shares, “is the recognition that as artists our art has a greater purpose and responsibility, and that we must strive to fulfill that responsibility, and thereby make a positive contribution to our immediate and wider social tapestry.”

 

KÜNSTLER, KÜNSTLERIN

 

“Art is everything,” states Alexander Norton, who founded and leads Künstler, Künstlerin, an open art event where, in her words, “anything is allowed.” Alex created this event out of a desire to “give a space to every medium that wants to participate in the community.”

“I found that there needed to be something regular which paid the artists and didn’t ask for them to pay to perform,” Alex continues. “This capitalist culture was like a vulture in the heart of a scene that meant well to give people space to share. I made it my mission to challenge this with action and pay open mic performers and also pay the feature a fee that was more substantial—from the donation fee. It’s crucial the artist gets paid because they are the event. The host/organizer is always secondary.”

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Alexander Norton Performing / Photo by Geoff Ruddock

I first met Alex at Du Beast, where we both performed at BSW’s open mic. It was the first time I’d read my poetry to a room full of relative strangers, and after getting up to read two poems and sitting down again beside Alex, she told me she had recorded my performance for me. “I just felt this is important,” she explained, later sending me the audio clips of this defining poetry reading. I was grateful for Alex’s thoughtfulness, and it helped me feel welcomed.

The crowd is as diverse and eclectic as the performances, ranging from short comedic skits to eloquent poetry readings to live multimedia sketches with lights and sound and acting. While Künstler, Künstlerin certainly contains many spoken word and literary-oriented performances, the event strives to transcend these mediums.

“I wanted to break free and produce something where anyone and everything could be explored and discussed,” explained Alex, who advocates for the notion of sketches over readings or performances. “I wanted to allow people to see where their work can be taken on the stage, doing so without fear of failure. I have been challenged on this by several friends,” Alex adds, “but for me, the notion of failure means you pushed your idea past what you already know. Therefore, your work has broken evolutionary ground. I am confident that people will break ground here.” 

 

 

Berlin, with its turbulent history of destruction and renewal, offers a space for such groundbreaking, “evolutionary” creative ventures—a place that attracts artists from around the world, a sanctuary for renewal and reinvention. Berlin has something for everyone.

“I moved here to escape the male orientated life I was leading in England,” explains Alex. “I knew I needed to come out as transgender but needed the environment to make it happen organically. I knew nothing about Berlin,” Alex continues, “I knew I needed to go, so I did.”

Anticipating the Performance at Keith Bar / Photo by Geoff Ruddock

Anticipating the Performance at Keith Bar / Photo by Geoff Ruddock

Many fall in love with the city as soon as they visit. I, myself, quickly grew to love Berlin when studying abroad here during university. “I actually came here for a three-week holiday, and have ended up staying for four years,” Naniso tells me.

For many artists, affordable housing and prices of living are a must, especially when moving to another country. Perhaps this is why Paris, with its exorbitant cost of living, has mostly lost the preference of English-speaking expat artists. Equally, if not more important, especially for literary-oriented communities, is a common language. “They say you can get away without speaking German in Berlin, which is a point of friction here, but nonetheless an indication of the saturation of English speakers,” says Carolina.

 

No one chooses where they are from, so why be defined by it?”

 

The English language certainly brings people together around literature, spoken word and art in Berlin. It not only unites native-English speakers who are away from their home countries but, as the unofficial international language, it also helps to connect people from around the world. “People come here to find weird things that match them,” says Alex. “The international language is English. As a result, we have a group of people who are looking to live their own way. It creates several communities that find a tie with the English language regardless of their home.”

From my experience, I’ve found Berlin’s English language spoken word and open art scene to be inclusive and welcoming. From the very beginning, it helped me find a community in Berlin. “The English and German scenes are very separate, which makes sense,” begins Alex. “The international audiences/participants interest me a lot more than notions of national happenings of being born somewhere. I have always felt like I’m from nowhere, so this city means we can be from ‘Nowhere.’ No one chooses where they are from, so why be defined by it? The English-speaking scene is encompassing everyone, which is really exciting for (capital-A) Art in the city. It is fluid.”

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Eliza Levinson performing / Photo by Geoff Ruddock

Alex’s statement rings true for me and for so many others I’ve talked to in Berlin—all the wanderers and dreamers and creators attracted to this city for its openness and strangeness, its volatility and dynamism. Paris had its time of English-speaking expat writers, from Hemingway’s melancholy to Baldwin’s brilliance, but now it’s time for somewhere new.

Berlin, where several times a week in various locations in the city—a crowded back room in Schillerkiez, a packed basement beneath a bar in Neu-Kölln—people gather around to watch and listen as artists express themselves to a varied and enthusiastic audience, whether they be regulars who have lived in Berlin for years or passers-by who are only here for the night. Everybody is welcome to join and be exactly who they are. That’s the beauty of this city.

 

 

All photos taken by Geoff Ruddock.

Gianluca Avanzato is an American writer and poet currently living in Berlin. His work is mostly narrative in nature, using stories to bridge the abstract and the material. He is mainly interested in using writing to explore narratives, places, and interpersonal connections.
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