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World Report from Switzerland: What’s in a Language?

Switzerland is often associated with fairytales and snow-washed Alps; cows decked in floral bells, goat milk and wildflowers poking through green mountain grass.  How ever postcard the country seemed to be, I was not the type of poet to embrace nature as my subject.  For me, there lurked a dark side more intriguing to speak of.  Not microscopic-dark, like the evil Santa Schmutzli to every child’s St. Nick, but immense with bank-tarnished reputations and right-winged politics sculpting xenophobia and racism.  In other words, plenty of fodder for an American writer and when I first moved here 13 years ago, I couldn’t wait to join the writing scene and hone in on my craft.  What better place to start than the university?  But I was stopped dead in my tracks: there were no opportunities to study for a creative writing degree at any university.  Worse yet, no workshops, no literary publications.  I attended seminars to keep my sanity.  I sat in English classes discussing Shakespeare and Keats with roughly 1% of the Swiss population that studies English literature.  Unnervingly, nobody wrote.  It’s tautological: poetry is taught in order to be taught.  And if there were poets underground who put together some sort of literary publication, they were hiding themselves pretty well.

As for the 6% of the Swiss who attend university at all, it’s about portion-control: everything in Switzerland is meted out and education was no different.  In a regulated society, which Marx and Engels would have been proud of, there is no room for writing degrees (I suspect the “radical” artists died out with the Dadaists.)  Nobody has the freedom to decide which path to take in education after middle school, (unless you are at a private institution) it is decided for you.

Having addressed lack of poetry writing with one of my professor’s assistants, she concluded that the Swiss-German language was the culprit for the nonexistent practice of poetry in Switzerland.  The Swiss feel it is unnecessary to write poetry and go global with it because the German poets have cornered the market.  She confessed that many Swiss feel their language is inferior to High German and if the many German poets have mastered the art, so be it.

This propelled me to to conduct a poll for a research paper for one of my linguistics seminars. I asked several of the Swiss if they considered Swiss-German an independent language or if they considered it a dialect of German.  All those questioned deemed it a dialect of German.

To say there is no poetry world to report on in Switzerland would be false.  It is true if I were not to mention the handful of poets who slam their work in Zurich cafes.  I’d be lying if I were to mention that, as a poet, it made no difference because nothing with the public would stick.  A true poet could live on any part of the planet and be grateful for what they had to work with.  I am.

Published in Lungfull! Magazine issue 19.

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