Making of a Poem: Nadja Küchenmeister and Aimee Chor on “feathers and planets”


On Poetry

Basile Morin, close-up photograph of swan feathers letting sunlight through, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED.

For our series Making of a Poem, we’re asking poets and translators to dissect the poems they’ve published in our pages. Nadja Küchenmeister’s “feathers and planets,” translated by Aimee Chor, appears in our new Winter issue, no. 246. Here, we asked both Küchenmeister and Chor to reflect on their work.

1. Nadja Küchenmeister

How did this poem start for you? Was it with an image, an idea, a phrase, or something else?

The poem began, as it often does for me, with an image (“sugar, stirred into cream”) and at the same time a rhythmic set of sounds that, ideally, make a phrase into verse. I like tonal neighborhoods that are not immediately apparent but rather reveal themselves in the writing of a poem (in German, the words Einkaufsnetz [shopping bag] and Bett [bed] make a tonal connection, as do, more distantly, Netz [net] and Fuchs [fox]—at least to my ear). However, these resonances, these rhymes, have to emerge on their own—I cannot force them. They establish themselves on the basis of something that was already present in the poem. You could also say that something only comes to be because something else came into being before it. This is true for images and motifs and for sounds as well. In this sense, a poem always also creates itself, although of course I am the one who gives it its order.

How did writing the first draft feel to you? Did it come easily, or was it difficult to write? (Are there hard and easy poems?)

The final poem I wrote for Im Glasberg (In the glass mountain) was “feathers and planets.” It posed a problem for me because for a long time I had only the start of a poem. There were images that wouldn’t fall into place, that stood disconnected alongside each other. It was an abandoned poem. But I knew I still needed a piece for the book because I was aiming for a certain symmetry. (The first poem I had written for the book was “black laundry,” which also appears in The Paris Review.) Eventually I pulled the text that would become “feathers and planets” back out again. When the “briefs in the sleeve of a winter coat” appeared, I knew I was safe, poetically speaking, that the poem could work, even though it’s still a fairly small poem for me—perhaps because I had to wrestle with it so much?

With some poems, the images arise almost as if in a dream—one word elicits the next, one sound leads to the next (as happened with “black laundry”), whereas with others, I feel like I’m dragging myself from verse to verse with lead on my feet. And that’s not a bad thing. But it shouldn’t show once the poem is finished.

What was the challenge of this particular poem? 

The challenge consisted of a dissatisfaction that is hard to explain, that said, You are not finished yet. Sometimes I try to deceive myself—I just want a poem to be done, now! But it’s only finished when it’s finished. Fortunately, over the years you get a good sense for this. Just putting images and sounds alongside each other does not make a poem. It always has to do with the form. This is why, for me, it’s never about working on the feeling but always about working on the language. The language is what creates an emotional center, if one is successful. It is when a text has become more than a collection of images and thoughts that a poem begins.

When did you know this poem was finished? Were you right about that? Is it finished after all?

At some point, a poem is finished. Or not. If it’s not finished, it’s not a poem, and I set it aside. I don’t make changes in hindsight. I don’t still like all of my poems. But I am uncomfortable with the thought of poets reissuing volumes with poems that have been reedited, since this takes something away from the readers—part of their history with this poem. It’s okay to see in a poem what the poet was not yet capable of at that point. The poem “feathers and planets” was finished at a certain point, meaning that there was a shape that I had worked to create out of a pile of memories. What is perhaps decisive is that these memories transform themselves in the course of writing; they increasingly become the memories of a lyrical “I” that does not appear as such in this poem. And yet there is a consciousness, recognizable throughout the text, that recalls images, that remembers. I believe that when we are working with memories, literature starts where one starts to invent one’s own life. It is still your own life, and at the same time, it is different.

2. Aimee Chor

What was the challenge of this particular translation? 

One challenge of translating the poem was how much I love it. The way that this translation means and sounds has a lot of me in it—I am giving it to you in the way that I received it. While on the one hand that is inevitable—and welcome—on the other hand I wonder whether I have accurately conveyed the poem written by Nadja to the readers of the translation in English.

Another challenge is that the English is in some ways very unlike the German: Wäscheständer does not sound like laundry rack, and quark is not really the same thing as cream. But turning the poems into English creates new sonic and linguistic overlaps, both those I work at and the serendipities that I do not plan and for which I am grateful.

Did the translation otherwise come easily, or was it difficult? Are there hard and easy translations?

On their face, Nadja’s poems aren’t difficult to translate. The language is not especially opaque or convoluted. I do find some translations from German more difficult than others, at least when it comes to unpicking the meaning of the German itself. But beyond that, translating any poetry is difficult in a way very different from writing poetry. The original is always there, even after you let go of any simple idea of equivalence, and the translator is responsible to it, to do justice to it—that sounds like an ethical demand because it is, I think. I was fortunate that the poem comes from a book that is quite coherent, and so translating some of its poems taught me how to translate others, which in turn taught me how to revise the initial translations. The words and the rhythms of the translation have at least as much to do with the other poems in the book as they do with the logic and flow internal to this particular text. I am glad that it stands on its own, but it’s impossible for me to read it that way.

When did you know this translation was finished?

I could revise a translation forever, I think. But it’s done when trying new words or patterns doesn’t make it any better, just different or worse.


Nadja Küchenmeister’s most recent book of poetry is Im Glasberg (In the glass mountain). She is the winner of the 2022 Basel Poetry Prize.

Aimee Chor is a poet and translator.