March 23, 2013
Helga M. Novak
Helga M. Novak [GDR/Iceland/Poland]
Born Maria Karlsdottir in Berlin on September 8, 1935 of German-Icelandic parents, the young poet attended the University of Leipzig, then part of East Germany, studying journalism and philosophy, before working as a technician, laboratory assistant, and bookseller.
In 1961 she married and moved to Iceland, having two children before her divoce. In her first year there she wrote her first book of poems was published as Ostdeutsch in East Germany and Balllade von der risenden Anna in West Germany in 1965. That same year she moved back to Leipzig, studying literature at the Becker Institute there. But the next year, her GDR citizenship was revoked, and she returned to Iceland, where she retained her legal name as Maria Karlsdottir, writing under the pseudonym of Novak. Over the years she lived in Iceland, Yugoslavia, and Portugal, and now resides in Poland.
Novak never allowed herself to categorized as a GDR writer, and conformed to none of the GDR writing requirements. As the poet herself expressed it: “To whom should I conform? I was born in a Childrens’ Home and my mother left me 14 days later. I was adopted by completely unsuitable parents. To whom should I conform? Then there was the war. I left my parents’ home when I was 15. Then came school and the party and I didn’t want to conform to those things either.” In two books, Die Eishelligen (1979, The Iceman) and Vogel federlos (1982, Bird Featherless), Nowak wrote of her difficult childhood and adolescence, works that contain both prose and prose poetry together.
Her more regularized poetry collections are sparer, although even more expressive. Over the years she has won numerous awards, among them the Literaturpreis der Staadt Bremen in 1968, the Kranischsteiner Literaturpreis in 1985, the Roswitha Prize in 1989, the Ernnsst-Reuter-Preis of the same year, and the Ehrengabe der Deutschen Schillerstiftung award in 1994. In 2001 she was awarded the Ida-Dehmel-Literaturpreis.
In 1999 her poems were collected as Solange noch Liebersbriefe eintreffen (As Long as Love Letters Arrive).
BOOKS OF POETRY
Ballade von der reisenden Anna (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1965); Colloquium mit vier Häuten (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1968); Das Gefrierhaus. Die Umgebung (with Timm Bartholl) (Hamburg, 1968); Geselliges Beisammensein (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1968); Wohnhaft im Westend (with Horst Karasek) (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1970); Aufenthalt in einem irren Haus (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1971/reprinted Frannkfurt/Main: Schöffling and Co., 1995); Stelsamer Berich au seiner alten Stadt (with Dorothean Nosbisch) (Hannover, 1973); Die Ballade von der kurzen Prozess (Berlin: Rotbuch, 1975); Die Landnahme von Torre Bela (Berlin: Rotbuch, 1976); Margaret emit dem Schrank (Berlin: Rotbuch, 1978); Die Eisheiligen (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1979); Palisaden (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1980); Vogel federlos (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1982); Grüheide Grüheide (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1983); Legende Transsib (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1985); Märkische Feemorgana (Frankfurt/Main: Luchterhand, 1989);
Silvatica (Frankfurt/Main: Schöffling and Co., 1997); Die Eisheiligen / Vogel federlos (in one volume) (Frankfurt/Main: Schöffling and Co., 1998); Solange noch Liebesbriefe eintreffen (Frankfurt/Main: Schöffling and Co., 1999); Wo ich jetz bin (Frankfurt/Main: Schöffling and Co., 2005); Aus Wut (Berlin: Mariannenpresse, 2005)
Oh, I stood by the spring
I forgot to drink
encircled by twigs
under a witch hazel roof
I saw in the damp
hollow of stone
did I absolutely want to go by myself
you still said—
I’ll come along to the spring
brooding in the cold
of water and moss
beneath the brightness of a sunny day
death all around
and think—it is all over
and I am rid of you
after I was out of that hell
I sank into a fox den
that was under the thorny runners
not to be seen
oh I stood by the spring
and did not drink.
—Translated from the German by Charlotte Melin
English language copyright ©1999, reprinted from German Poetry in Transition 1945-1990, ed. and trans. by Charlotte Melin (Hannover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1999)