Anna Blume at 100

One hundred years ago, the streets of Germany were stickered, like the cover of Sch… below, with the name Anna Blume, fictional woman of the poem by Kurt Schwitters. A century later, the Kurt Schwitters Society asked me to write about my translation and performance of the poem, featured in my collection The Merzbook. Here is what I wrote:

Anna Blume at 100

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Anna Blume, woman of contradictions: beautiful and silly, refined and vulgar, fickle and, constant, the same backward as forward. Schwitters celebrates her to the point of ridicule with his giddy excesses. Like the artist’s assemblages, his poem is a collage of odds and ends picked up from popular culture: jokes, slogans, clichés, absurdities.

I came to write my tribute to Schwitters, The Merzbook, at a time when I too was living with contradictions. I spent my days in my Ottawa office at Canada’s department of labour, my nights writing, planning and rehearsing with poets, artists and musicians in the performance group called First Draft. Like the Four Horsemen and Owen Sound, other Canadian poetry ensembles, First Draft explored sound poetry and word-music for a chorus of voices. Our books from Underwhich Press score works mainly for three spoken voices (though we worked with groups of up to twelve voices). I had adapted by own limited repertoire of sound and visual poems to perform with First Draft, but the group needed more. When in 1984 I reread Hans Richter’s Dada:Art and Anti-Art, the irrepressible energy and openness in his memoir of Schwitters reignited my interest. I began writing The Merzbook, and First Draft gave performances in galleries that eventually grew into the stage piece called The Cabbage of Paradise.  Most often, I performed “Anna Bloom as a duet with fellow poet Susan McMaster.

Since my German is barely adequate to order in a restaurant, my “translation” of the poem leaned heavily on a dictionary and previous translations. The quirky bits are my own interventions. First, I spell Anna’s name Anna Bloom in a nod to that great sex symbol of English literature, Joyce’s Molly Bloom. Quirkiest, perhaps, is my mangling of the “prize question” in the middle of the poem.  After a performance in Ottawa, I discussed the poem with a local German-speaking artist, specifically the phrase “Anna Blume hat ein Vogel.” The implication, my friend explained, is nothing like the English insult of “flipping the bird,” nothing like Bart Simpson’s “don’t have a cow.” The English equivalent is closer to the way Raoul Hausmann remembers the line in the poem that follows “Anna Bloom” in my book: “Anna Bloom is out of her tree … What colour is the tree?” Clearly, in the English idiom the bird has flown. In The Merzbook’s version of “Anna Bloom” I have raised the level of vulgarity and absurdity, turning to another English cliché: “Anna Bloom has a screw loose … What colour is the screw?”

A hundred years on, Anna Blume looks as young as ever and still elicits new translations from her many admirers. Objectified, deconstructed, beyond all isms, she is a beauty who can laugh at herself, and she still makes us smile too.