Vienna Lit Celebrates

Poetry, Performance, and Discussion Unite the City’s English-Speaking Community at the Vienna Lit Festival

Festival Founder Julia Novak on stage at the Ratpack introducing British Poet Bruce Patton

In fin de siecle Vienna, the literati met in the coffee houses to escape their crowded, damp apartments: Arthur Schnitzler, Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus. Today, the coffee houses are still there, but writers meet elsewhere. Maybe it’s the central heating. One favorite haunt is the Alteschmiede on the Schoenlatterngasse in the First District, where German language writers meet to read and listen and hang out.

But, what if your language is English? Where do you go? Poets have had the Labyrinth readings at Café Kafka. Everybody else was out of luck, until the birth of Vienna Lit, the brain child of Vienna native Julia Nowak, and muse of local English language literature.

The second Vienna Lit Festival, April 17th to 20th, was held in the intimate soft light of the Ratpack, a jazz club in Vienna’s 8th District.  The audience of ex-pat’s and curious university students flowed in and out throughout the weekend, packing the close quarters of the club, especially in the late evening, with clusters of listeners standing along the back.

Vienna’s own English-speaking literati were in their seats a half an hour before the first performance started, hungry for entertainment. The Ratpack Café certainly does not suggest the rarified air of Café Kafka or the Alte Schmiede, but it gave English speaking writers, poets, journalists, and publishers living in Vienna a chance to meet one another and their respective audiences.

Australian born Sylvia Petter began the proceedings on April 17th, describing her struggle to maintain her native tongue when she first moved to Geneva 25 years ago., “the mixture of languages left me speaking some kind of international mish-mash, which soon reflected in my writing,” she confessed, adjusting her cat-eyed black glasses

Many writers present empathized with Petter’s linguistic isolation and her desire to intermingle with other native English speakers. The Vienna Lit Festival was a benediction that allowed writers to connect with one another over a shared experience of writing in English prose while living in a German speaking culture.

Julia Novak – who is working on a PhD in English Literature at the University of Vienna and speaks an English that would make the Queen jealous – has something of the tradition of the grossbürgerliche women of letters, who invited Vienna’s intelligentsia into their salons in the early years of the 20th century. Make no mistake, however, Julia, with her soft blond hair and engaging smile is far from Virginia Woolf’s “angel of the house.” This is an angel of quite another sort – the one who has single handedly fundraised, organized, promoted, in short who has imagined the Vienna Lit Festival into exuberant life. This year’s festival is the organization’s second and has gathered both local writers and some bigger names from abroad.

“I’m always a little nervous to meet writers that I love,” Novak confesses. “I’m scared we won’t connect in person.”

This wasn’t the case with Brian Patten, arguably the headliner of this years’ festival. Julia approached Patten after his poetry reading in Bath, England last year and enticed him to come to Vienna for the weekend, to enjoy the city, and (oh yeah) read for the Vienna Lit Festival.

Patten’s opening night performance set the tone for the festival. A born rebel, Patten had first come to international attention in the 1960’s with the “Liverpool Poets”, a British parallel to the American Beatnik movement. His poetry offers a refreshing break from the intense introspective, thesaurus heavy verse, one might expect to encounter at a poetry reading. His poetry is witty and irreverent, like his manner, still playful and exploding with energy after 40 years in the literary spotlight.

Throughout his performance, sweat dripped from Patten’s thick black curly hair, which he routinely dried on his rolled up sleeve and a full swing of his right arm. During the question and answer session at the end of his performance, Patten explained to the audience that he believed a poetry performance was like a gig.

“If I’m going to pay 10 euros at the door, I’d better be entertained!” he insisted.

The mélange of poets and writers present seemed disarmed by Patten’s honest assessment of their craft. “Poetry transcends all classes of society,” he said, in a candid moment, while scratching the nether part of his lower back.

The Beatnik spirit colored the Vienna Lit Festival with a bit of the free-wheeling, interpretive informal 60’s style; easygoing, sometimes irreverent, interpretation of life was particularly evident during “open mike” night.

Workshops were also provided for “budding writers” looking to improve their technique, and even younger uninitiated (pre-budding) writers were scheduled into the festival early in the evening on the second day for the “Vienna Lit School Slam.” The “slam” was a poetry competition amongst boisterous students from various secondary schools in Vienna, which provided them an opportunity to practice their best Euro2008 soccer cheers in support of their favorite poems. This certainly put a modern twist to the stodginess often experienced at poetry recitals.

Perhaps the least stodgy performer was one neo-hippy Canadian feline who managed a dramatic orgasm on stage while performing a rhythmic phonetic version of her poem, reminding one inevitably of the diner scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” when Meg Ryan faked an orgasm for an astonished Billy Crystal. You get the idea.

In short, the presentations were well received by all, aside perhaps from the occasional cynical publisher The diverse body of work offered something for everyone, ranging from Irish folktales to a debate between Indian Muslim writer Mehru Jaffer and Vienna Review editor Dardis McNamee. on the hot topic of Muslim headscarves. And if anyone was short on time, American writer Bruce Holland had invented a new type of short story, the short ‘short’ story.

Vienna’s permanent English speaking population is now estimated at 260,000, people in all areas of politics, academia, international business, and the arts, However, this potential English reader base, vastly outweighs the English literature available for consumption. This imbalance, while tolerable to the average ex-pat, can be linguistically debilitating for a writer.  Not to mention the effect that being a polyglot has on the creative instincts that seem to spring from the minds of monolingual souls who are searching to get in touch with that spark of individuality within.

The turn of the century Viennese coffeehouse nurtured a secure and receptive environment, where isolated artists could toss ideas around in conversation, and the Vienna Lit Festival achieved much of the same atmosphere.

Nowak’s crusade to unleash Vienna’s English literary spirit has succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations, satisfying a craving to communicate in a world where English literature would easily be ignored.

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