Lucien Zell – interview

by Mark Stroup

MS: Poetry is what you’re best known for, right?

LZ: “I flew home. Then I flew from home… having found my home is flight.” Strangers have sent me pictures of that poem of mine which they’ve found scrawled on bathroom walls. So, sure, I suppose my poetry is the thing that the majority of people know about me. But it can happen that someone who’s familiar with my photography, and knows me as a photographer, will say, “What, you write poems? I didn’t know that.” Or someone who knows me as a singer and attends one of my concerts will say “Really, you make photographs?”

MS: Within some of those forms, what are the common threads?

LZ: All good works of art are soul fossils. They hold permanently, and to some degree indelibly, the fleeting eternities of our deepest impressions. As artists, we’re trying to compress larger, indescribable forces into a form. And if the form is a poem, it has this radiance that transcends the action which it is articulating.

Everyone notices. Poets notice that they notice. And then they note their noticing.

I love what Pablo Neruda once said: “If you ask me what my poetry is, I’d have to say I don’t know. But if you ask my poetry, she’ll tell you who I am.” Let me warn you though, that even though I just made a stab at what I think art is, I know that, in truth, I don’t completely know what it is and part of what calls me to be an artist is this deepening of the question of what it means to make art.

MS: What do you want to see in a Prague Literary Festival?

LZ: Milan Kundera asserted that Central Europe is a “laboratory of twilight,” and I think that phrase is significant on a multitude of levels. Twilight happens twice a day. First at the beginning of the day, with dawn, and then it happens at the end of the day, with night. Central Europe is a laboratory and we are living experiments.

“Milan Kundera asserted that Central Europe is a ‘laboratory of twilight’… What I’m hoping to do with the festival is to bring together different forms of energy in the forms of different authors and singers and filmmakers and hone in on an alchemy that proves that the laboratory of twilight is useful.”

Seen through a poetic lens, we’re all different chemicals in this great alchemical swirl of our time and age. So what I’m hoping to do with the festival is to bring together different forms of energy in the forms of different authors and singers and filmmakers and hone in on an alchemy that proves that the laboratory of twilight is useful, that it can bring out both the dark and the light in such a stark and tangible manner that we can really see something beyond ourselves and beyond this region.

So one of the things that’s important to me about my concept of the festival is that it’s not just going to be a Central European literature festival. It’s also going to bridge Central European writers with the world. For instance, we’ll galvanize the appearance of a Polish author that no one in the Czech Republic has heard of, by having a famous international author on the stage next to them, say Haruki Murakami, whom a lot of people are going to wish to hear, and they’re going to be inadvertently exposed to the work of these lesser-known authors from the region.

Said simply, Central Europe is more than just a geographical region, it’s a region of consciousness. I remember, in my first early years in Prague, when I first heard the term “Central Europe,” (as applied to Czech Republic), and I thought it was a joke because I thought, “It’s Eastern Europe. It’s Eastern Europe, and they’re trying to make themselves Central Europe in a vain and awkward attempt at artificially separating themselves from Romania and Poland. They’re trying to push themselves into the center.” It took me a while to realize that, no, contrary to my misplaced assumptions, Central Europe has, historically speaking, been an authentically thriving region for a very, very long time. A region of creativity and a region of acute and piercing interrelationships. But it was eclipsed, first by the collapse of the Hapsburg monarchy and then further eclipsed by the German invasion in 1938, and then even further eclipsed by the Communist takeover. Czech Republic has been steeped in turmoil and the identity of its place as the natural center of Central Europe has been put into question to such a degree that we often forget that Vienna is further to the East than Prague. We simply don’t think of Vienna as being further East because we more readily associate it with Western Europe than we do with Prague. I think that Central Europe is a bonafide region and Moving Center’s going to help push away that eclipse and let Central Europe shine.

MS: What’s your sense of Prague and Central Europe in terms of spirit of place?

LZ: Friedrich Nietzsche said, “When I look for another word for ‘music,’ the only word I find is ‘Venice’.” Angelo Maria Ripellino, who wrote Magic Prague, brilliantly echoed that, insisting: “When I search for another word for ‘mystery,’ the only word I find is ‘Prague’.”

There’s a tremendously mysterious core to Prague. That’s why it’s such a great place to launch Moving Center. Writers like Franz Kafka impeccably embody that mysteriousness. He’s been translated into almost every language on Earth. Numerous other artists have sprung into the world from here and profoundly shaken it up: Milan Kundera, Josef Škvorecký, Bohumil Hrabal, Miloš Forman… I would like to reaffirm Rilke’s Prague heritage too, because, although he’s often considered a German author, he was born in Prague. As Rilke wisely said: We don’t have to answer the questions. We can live the questions and slowly finding ourselves living the answers.

Prague has seething palimpsests in architecture, revised forms effacing earlier forms: Baroque, Romantic, Gothic, Art Deco and Art Nouveau. I’ve been seduced by architecture! The architecture is definitely one of the reasons I’m in Prague. And beyond those obvious, external palimpsests, I think Prague has internal palimpsests too, throbbing layers of consciousness and paradox that forge, you know, basically kind of a magnet for the city. This is a very ancient capital; at the same time, it was formed in 1989. So it combines youth and age in a marvelous manner. We who live in Prague understand that the intergenerational shock and trauma of various events is layered throughout the society.

“I think Prague has internal palimpsests, seething layers of consciousness and paradox that are, you know, basically kind of a magnet for the city.”

There are these various layers stratified through the society, very complex layers, and it’s very hard actually to discern all the inner connections. And I like that. I think that that very confusion is the first step to fusion. If anything, I want our Moving Center Festival to take that confusion and help alchemize it into fusion.

MS: The other part of the question is: what does the world offer to Prague and Central Europe?

LZ: Just as every person has a consciousness and subconsciousness, every nation has a consciousness and a subconscious too. The subconsciousness of the Czech Republic has a lot of humility in it. Humility is a good and bad word. Humility can be very good, and I love parts of humility, those which carry a kind of generosity and openness. The opposite of humility can be pride.

At the same time, the shadow of humility can be self-deprecation and an acute lack of self-confidence, with no will to assert one’s own beauty and one’s own gifts. So what I think that bringing those gifts into the world can do is that it can help to balance that subconscious sense of lack. On the other hand, a virtually opposite subconscious, that of Americans, can be very proud, very self-confident, but, unfortunately, can all too easily carry with it the shadow of pride, a shadow that can be distressingly overbearing. Hence America’s three greatest exports to the world: weapons, movies, and fast food. I would like to help the awareness grow that one of the greatest exports of Prague and Central Europe is its literature.

MS: How do you see that happening? Not just through a literary festival but through other means…?

LZ: Well, it would be nice if it happened just as naturally as it happened in Seattle. I grew up in Seattle in the season of Nirvana. Nirvana was just a garage band. Because of the success of the album Nevermind, however, they managed to radically transform the scene. Basically, bring it to the world stage. I would like to see Central Europe–and all its artistic efforts–suddenly be brought to that world stage and stand proudly in the spotlight of the world, and show that, wow, there is a burgeoning scene here and a lot of creativity and a lot of magical thinking. Moving Center aims to pay attention to that. To pay attention to writers and creators that few have been exposed to yet. It’s going to be a living, growing, perpetually expanding process of searching and discovery of new views and new voices.

The interview was edited for order, clarity, and length.