Greg Nissan is a poet and translator from New York City. After studying comparative literature at Brown University, he moved to Berlin in 2015 to work on a documentary poetry project as part of a Fulbright grant, partnered with the Centre for Language, Variation, and Migration at the University of Potsdam. His poetry and his translations of Uljana Wolf have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Asymptote, The Brooklyn Rail, Denver Quarterly, Theme Can, and Two Lines, among others. He’s now translating Ann Cotten’s verse epic, Verbannt! He is the poetry editor of SAND: Berlin’s English Literary Journal.
Nothing against Christopher Isherwood, but I rarely think of him in Berlin. Maybe near Nollendorfplatz. OK, not there either. When I’m home in New York, friends of friends often proffer Isherwood as a token of the ex-pat writer in Berlin. I’m thrilled to say I have no more information than they do, because the English-language literary scene is so vivid and polyphonic that I’m busy keeping up with new writers, new venues, and new places of literary exchange.
It’s true that, for the casual linguist, Berlin is the worst place in Germany to learn German. English abounds. But I want to push back against the notion that the English-language literary scene is insular and monolingual. Often, its biggest faces moonlight as translators, and many of its most popular reading series dance around linguistic borders. In the United States and the UK, around 3% of the publishing market consists of work in translation, generally considered to be the low-end across the world. I like to think the English-language scene in Berlin is not a stronghold for the language, but a crack in the wall. It’s a crack we’re all trying to widen.
What follows is a constellation of places that make up one version of an English scene. But a handful of these place are not even “literary” in a technical sense. It’s one of the pleasures of the Hauptstadt: the cross-pollination of where and how writers gather.
1. Saint George’s English Bookshop
Like many English-speakers, my literary Berlin begins on Wörtherstraße with Saint George’s English Bookstore. The shop combines a wide array of used books with hand-picked new releases, from international fiction and criticism to a top-rate poetry shelf (one of the best I’ve seen at any bookstore). Saint George’s is woven into an international fabric of contemporary writing. After all, it’s a partner bookstore to New York’s Ugly Duckling Presse, and has hosted an array of releases for Germany’s kookbooks. Best of all is the reading series HERE! HERE! THERE!, curated by author and translator Shane Anderson. Anderson has hosted poets from around the world since 2011. In 2016, he brought his reading series to the Berliner Festspiele, with a playful and extensive workshop run by poet CAConrad for 4 days, each culminating in a nightly reading by a different poet. Saint George’s has the pointed curation of a boutique store with the meandering openness of a library. Ask them to order you a book, and they’ll let you know the cheapest, most convenient option. What more would you want?
artiCHOKE / VIERTE WELT
Neues Zentrum Kreuzberg, Galerie 1. OG
2. artiCHOKE / VIERTE WELT
Located in Kotti’s Zentrum Kreuzberg, Vierte Welt plays host to artiCHOKE, one of the city’s best reading series. Another English-speaking series that pushes against the monolingualism associated with Berlin’s English scene, artiCHOKE usually features four readers for each event, with a gorgeous zine that translates the readers into multiple languages, often done by Charlotte Thießen & Joel Scott, who organize the series. With a hot plate of fresh food for three euro and endless balcony schmoozing, it’s as good a spot as any to hear poets from around the globe. My highlight was seeing Alice Notley, whose 40-minute incantations had the room locked in. They say if no one’s talking, the food’s good. Apparently it’s the same for poetry.
3. Broken Dimanche Press
Some writers like to lament the loss of collaboration between visual artists and writers that served as a bedrock for poets and artists in the 20th century. Others will tell you to look harder. Berlin’s Broken Dimanche Press acts as a fulcrum between literary and art scenes in Berlin. Founded in 2009 By John Holten and Line Madsen Simenstad, BDP is both an English-language imprint and a physical gallery space, the Büro BDP on Mareschstraße in Neukölln. In Berlin fashion, the English-language press is highly polyglot, even poly-species. Just look at what they public: a focus on Scandinavian writers, an alphabet made of trees, their Parapoetics series (which investigates literature’s relationship with the environment in the age of the anthropocene), or the best-seller German for Artists. Broken Dimanche is an English press properly situated outside of an English-speaking culture. The Büro is split into a gallery space and a library, which houses Broken Dimanches gorgeous art books and literary offerings.
4. Kino Arsenal
Not quite a literary space, but Kino Arsenal in Potsdamer Platz is as good a writer’s tool as any in Berlin. In addition to series that focus on single directors or performers, often from underrepresented regions in the film canon, Arsenal’s rotating “Magical History Tour” curates a month of films based on one element—the voice, the close-up, music, etc. Arsenal, which was founded in 1963 to make the nascent German Film Archive open to the public, moved to the Filmahaus at Potsdamer Platz in 2000. Susan Sontag, who curated a program at Arsenal’s Welserstraße location in 1990, called it “the cinema that I love best on the whole planet.”
5. Akademie der Künste, Standort Hanseatenweg
Perhaps the biggest night of Berlin’s poetry calendar, Weltklang takes place at the Akademie der Künste Hanseatenweg every June during the poesiefestival. The poesiefestival, organized by the Haus für Poesie, is a crucial international gathering of poets and writers, with many lectures, readings, and round-table discussions, in addition to the opening night’s reading. And what a marathon reading it is. Poets from all over the world perform on the main stage as members of the audience, each gifted a minuscule reading light, can read along to German translations. Some of the English-speaking world’s best poets perform. My favorite was the Norwegian-French poet Caroline Bergvall, who lives and works in London. A linguistic archaeologist, Bergvall’s works with Middle English texts to interrogate our notions of body, state, and language itself. Her signature work is Meddle English, half-translations of Chaucer that maintain the sound of Middle English but allow Bergvall to play off the variations in a language across centuries, and tie the tale to new (yet old) political and cultural situations. In 2016, Bergvall lit up the AdK stage with her robust voice and an accent that iridescently cycles from French to Norwegian to English, settling in some space between.
6. Pro qm
A block away from the Volksbühne, ProQm is a multilingual bookshop with an extensive collection of critical theory, contemporary politics, art editions, architecture books, and a top-rate selection of magazines and journals. Their events, many with a critical urban focus, help to maintain an open discourse on Berlin, for Berliners.
7. SAND: Berlin’s English Literary Journal
Founded in 2009, SAND is Berlin’s premier English-language literary journal. SAND publishes biannually a wide array of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art in a gorgeously-designed format. The journal is known not only for supporting Berlin’s crop of writers and publishing works from all over the world, but also for their launch parties, which slowly grow from intimate readings to raucous dance parties. Jack Spicer said “a magazine is a society.” Berlin is the site of comings and goings for artists and writers of all kinds, so SAND acts as an important record of the community assembled here in Berlin.
8. Haus für Poesie
While the English readings in the Kulturbrauerei may be few and far between, I’ll never forget hearing Alice Oswald recite her book Memorial, an adaptation of the Iliad, from memory. The book is comprised of two elements adapted from Homer’s classic—a list of names of the dead, and pastoral similes used to describe them or their families at the moment of death. For seventy minutes, Oswald performed her text with stunning melodic and dramatic textures. Each passage of the poem is repeated twice, and I left wishing there’d be a repeat performance the next day. Haus für Poesie remains open to many poetic cultures, so keep an eye out for their English-language offerings.
9. Shakespeare and Sons
Another of Berlin’s coziest English bookstores, Shakespeare and Sons also houses Fine Bagels, which has notably the best bagels this side of the Atlantic. With a wide selection of English and French books, plus readings and concerts, Shakespeare and Sons is a great place to keep up on contemporary English letters and browse to your heart’s desire.
Ausland is a bunker on Lychener Strasse that serves as a multidisciplinary arts space. Their poetry series, Lyrik im Ausland, brings poets of different cultures and languages into conversation. The series goes past the simpler instantiations of a multilingual literary practice as 1 + 1 = 2. Many of the readers delve into the intertwining of their languages and heritages, so that we might see no culture is stable in its own right, but always built on difference. One example was a reading with Uljana Wolf, Berliner poet living in New York, whose multilingual prose poems exalt the space of hybridity. She shared the stage with Donna Stonecipher, whose (mostly) monolingual poems engage the space of travel and cities as constant revisions and recursions. Ausland’s musical performances are broad enough to bleed into these linguistic investigations. Case and point: Audrey Chen, who I saw perform at Ausland in September. Her vocal performance seems to crackle in the space between the mouth as means for virtuosic song and the mouth as an interstellar sound-box. That all these performances coincide in the same space makes Ausland a crucial and kaleidoscopic arts space in Berlin.
Spike Berlin / Fivehundred places
11. Spike Berlin / Fivehundred places
Jason Dodge’s Fivehundred Places has been publishing chapbooks by English-language poets, with readings set in the art magazine Spike’s gallery space, directly across across from the Volksbühne. In the spring I saw the Vietnamese-born American poet Hoa Nguyen read from a new verse manuscript about her mother, who was a stunt motorcyclist in Vietnam. Nguyen read as she projected photographs of her mother—standing hands-free on a moving motorcycle, for example—which interlaced with the ongoing exhibition by Marcelo Cipis. Fivehundred Press produces handsome little chapbooks by poets like Eileen Myles and CAConrad, who also read in collaboration with Dodge last year.
12. Museum for Architectural Drawing
How are we as writers to situate ourselves in the city, if we don’t know the city? Berlin, as a site of constant architectural speculation and an ongoing public debate about whom the city belongs to and why, is a perfect city for writers to question the relationship between writing and place. The Museum of Architectural Drawings, whose jagged building overlooks Prenzlauer Berg’s Teutoburger Platz, features its own kind of writing—the traces of actual and virtual plans for Berlin, ranging from Marxist utopian satire to government contests for the rebuilding of the Reichstag. The drawings are not limited to glossy digital visualizations or standard blue prints: even the lightly sketched notebook fragment finds a home, and the task of such drawing—to reimagine our sense of the world —will look quite familiar to writers.
13. The Reader
MFA vs NYC, published by n+1 in 2015, delves into the long-standing tension between the academy and the city in churning out writers. Can’t we all acknowledge a little middle-ground? Founded in 2011, The Reader offers workshops and contests to provide a foothold for English writers in the city to connect with others and sharpen their craft. While studying in Berlin in 2013, I took Donna Stonecipher’s poetry workshop, where we met once a week in Saint George’s to workshop poems, read in and out of the canon, and challenge ourselves to write pantoums. Being a writer is often a solitary gig. Such networks are crucial for turning Berlin’s English-scene into a community.
ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry
14. ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry
A part of the Pfefferberg in Prenzlauer Berg, ICI hosts conferences on such diverse topics as Hannah Arendt and post-truth politics to intersectional justice and medieval political theology. Events are free and usually followed by some top-notch snacking on the beautiful roof terrace. The ICI, directed by Christoph F.E. Holzhey, hosts a new group of post-doctoral fellows each year or two years. It’s a crucial institution in keeping the doors to the academy open: their multidisciplinary conferences and lectures are free to attend.
Amercican Academy in Berlin
Am Sandwerder 17-19
15. Die American Academy in Berlin
The American Academy in Berlin was founded in 1994 by the American ambassador to Germany at the time, Richard Holbrooke. The Academy hosts fellows and distinguished visitors in the interest of expanding a cultural exchange between the US and Germany. Lectures such as Kira Thurman’s on the role of German music in African American intellectual life prove the center’s interest in intermingling the study of American and German traditions. The top-rate visitors—such as the legendary literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak this fall—give lectures and performances in a vast array of fields, from literature and music to foreign policy and migration and integration. Spivak, for example, just delivered a lecture on W.E.B. DuBois and the emergence of US “abolition-democracy.” Located on the Sandwerder on the banks of Wannsee, the Academy is a beautiful place to retreat to and investigate our world with some of the US’s brightest minds in Berlin.