A packed crowd gathered in the Ivy Bookshop at Bird in Hand Cafe on Nov. 2 to hear a reading by author and professor Donald Berger.
The event corresponded with the recent publication of Berger’s most recent book of poems, The Long Time, a bilingual book in which Berger’s words are translated into German by his colleague, Christoph Koenig.
Berger’s other poetry collections include Quality Hill and The Cream-Filled Muse.
His work has been featured in publications such as The New Republic, Slate, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, Fence, Ironwood, The Iowa Review and The Massachusetts Review, as well as magazines based in Berlin, Leipzig and Budapest.
Berger has taught at the University of Maryland and Montgomery College and currently teaches expository writing and literature at Hopkins.
The event began with an introduction by Koenig, a fellow literature professor, who spoke about the nature of Berger’s poems and his unique qualities as a writer.
Koenig remarked that during their first meeting in Berlin, Berger always listened to other people and took note of what he heard.
He then explained that his American colleague’s ability to listen to others, as well as his experience in Germany, could be seen in his work.
Next, Berger stepped up to the mic to discuss how he and Koenig began their bilingual partnership in Berlin after meeting at a poetry reading in Berger’s apartment. After they met, Koenig agreed to translate some of Berger’s poems into German. A year and a half later, their book was finally published.
The first poem Berger read, titled “I Forgot,” stemmed from a list of experiences he had written about his time in Germany, moments and words that he wanted to remember.
Berger spoke in a low, matter-of-fact tone, with each line relaying a specific moment. He concluded the poem with a line that expressed his fear of not having the words in German to express what he really meant.
Establishing the pattern for the rest of the night, Koenig followed Berger’s reading with the German translation as it appears in the book.
For the audience members who did not speak German, this format allowed them the opportunity to absorb the sounds and echoing verses of the German version.
The next poem read by Berger and Koenig was “Scotch and an Orange,” which was inspired by Berger’s obsession with Walt Whitman and the latter’s connection to Abraham Lincoln.
Before reading his poem, Berger explained that Whitman had cared for his brother and other wounded soldiers during the Civil War and had a somewhat mythical interaction with Lincoln during this time.
The third poem, “The Long Time,” was one of the shortest and had a rhythmic, beating quality. Koenig echoed this tone in his reading of the German version.
At this point in the evening, Berger and Koenig traded roles and Berger began reading the German passages while Koenig read the English. The pair then read the next poem, which gave satirical advice on how to deal with family problems.
One line that elicited a laugh from the audience was about a lying family member:
“When someone in the family lies / follow him until he doesn’t mind being followed.”
After reading a poem inspired by a CVS greeting card, “For Anyone,” Berger launched into an explanation of his next poem, named after a former student of his, Tom Madigan.
When Berger asked Madigan about his strong use of repetition in his assignments, his student responded by saying that Shakespeare had learned this technique in his own schooling.
This response inspired Berger to write a poem about Madigan’s serial absences from class, with each line repeating a similar sentiment to the one before it.
“Tom has lead us to a shrug party (…) Tom’s place isn’t here / and it stumps me.”
Of all the poems of the night, this one caused the strongest reaction among audience members.
The final two poems were “Xenophobia” and “Baltimore Sun”, with the latter based on the snippets of conversation Berger overheard in his poetry class.
The event concluded with a few questions from the audience. The pair responded to a question about arguments or tension between them by saying that they trusted one another.
When asked if he was nervous about the fidelity of Koenig’s translations, Berger joked that he was calmed by the fact that his original version would always appear alongside the German translation.