Originally, we were scheduled to meet at 11 AM. Just before that, the writer texted me, asking to delay our interview by half an hour: “That’ll allow me to have breakfast.” At half past eleven, she is sitting in Skotti’s – no longer hungry, but still tired. She’d returned from a reading in Erfurt late the night before. Then she also stopped at a concert at the Künstlerhaus Dortmund on route to Düsseldorf. The 37-year-old is sipping her cappuccino to dispel her residual fatigue: “There’s a lot going on right now.” There always is a lot going on for Vera Vorneweg. Since she chose to leave her job at Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences in 2018 to fully focus on writing, she has been doing just that with admirable vigour and consistency.
She often is lucky enough to discover some special sites, meet just the right people, and make them excited about her work. On the train to Erfurt, the writer had another one of these helpful encounters when she met a Thuringian businessman who had just arrived from Dubai. He owns a number of properties in the Thuringian capital city. Vorneweg had brought him a cup of coffee from the on-board bistro, “I can hardly only get something for myself”. That got them talking, and in the end, she had his business card. Following this, Vorneweg is now going to inscribe the gate of a historical Erfurt house “with a text that merges past and present” next April.
Slot machines and high culture
The waitress at “Skotti’s” is bringing a glass of cherry-and-banana juice. The bar in Düsseldorf-Oberbilk serves it around the clock since the Skotti’s never closes. It is located at the intersection of Kölner Straße and Markenstraße in the rear part of the neighbourhood, facing away from the railway station. The place couldn’t get any livelier. Large windowpanes keep out the heavy traffic buzzing along Kölner Straße. A vegetable vendor has set up across from the bar. A gigantic billboard is mounted above the displays on the building wall, playing commercials and news incessantly. Inside, men are playing games of chess or backgammon – or simply enjoying a cup of coffee. Since May 2022, Vorneweg has regularly brought literary life to “Skotti’s”. She invites authors of concrete and visual poetry to this place of night-time meetings for her “Kunstkiosk” series. High culture happening in the direct vicinity of the jingling slot machines appears to be an impossible idea at first glance. It is, however, one of many things that Vorneweg has managed to make happen. Gerhard Rühm has accepted her invitation. Safiye Can did so, too. Three reading evenings are planned for 2023 again. Her events have made Vorneweg a part of the dedicated local community. Guests and staff at “Skotti’s” are approaching her, giving her warm hugs, coming to sit at our table to talk to Vorneweg, even though some of them don’t even share a language with her. “Who might that have been?” she wonders once a visitor has moved on. “Oh, right. It’s the gentleman who cleans around here.”
Playful use of language
Vera Vorneweg has always been writing. “That’s what many people say about themselves, though.” She kept a diary as a teenager. Later, she moved on to poems. By now, she is feeling more at home in long prose texts. She likes the idea that she doesn’t have to tell a story: “Only novels and stories are published in the literary scene. Playful use of language is increasingly pushed into the background. I, for one, like to have a theme that I can encircle with language. At the same time, I don’t require a story to emerge from it.”
Vera Vorneweg ceased to write her texts entirely on paper several years ago. She’s also leaving them on tree stumps, stones, containers, or roller shutters. She had the idea of writing on places in the public space even before the pandemic started. She took her first tentative steps, experimenting with a number of surfaces: “I wanted to try out what it was like to write on something else than paper.” The first surface she applied her delicate letters to with an acrylic pen was a tree trunk in the Eller Forest . She followed up by writing on a large stone near the Fortuna-Büdchen site right on the banks of the river Rhine. She also left some text on a wall of the Hall of Fame on Vennhauser Allee. That, however, was sprayed over again within the week. “Of course, I thought it was a shame for it to happen that quickly.” Her other early works have also suffered over time. “At least the tree trunk still shows that there used to be some text on it. You can’t read the story anymore, however. The writing has started to look rather like mould now.”
Like a sponge
When the coronavirus rendered indoor events all but impossible, Vorneweg stepped up her outdoor activities. “Ellerstraße/Oberbilk” was created in the summer of 2021, as Vorneweg left a silent, delicate work on the brown shutters of the closed Oberbilk pub “Zum Blauen Bock”, capturing scenes from the neighbourhood. The writer came to the site on Ellerstraße eight or ten times, choosing a different time of the day for each occasion. “Things are different in the morning, evening, or at noon.“ She was sitting outside the building entrance, notebook and pen poised, waiting for what was to come while remaining as open for it as she could. “Everything that happened might be of interest to me.” Her approachable manner naturally let her quickly strike up conversations with passers-by: “Many have opened up to me, telling me their most intimate experiences. Life stories, upheavals, fates. I acted as a sponge, soaking it all up.” Once Vorneweg had seen and heard enough, she digitised her handwritten notes, brought them into linguistic shape, proofread them, and finally applied the snippets from her personal conversations that can now be found on the shutters. “My street poetry is an accessible offer,” Vorneweg explains. “It’s from the street, for the street. There is no mediator. No money is taken. You don’t even have to read it. Just looking is quite enough.”
Since then, Vera Vorneweg has given Düsseldorf three works, or, more specifically: two and a half. Apart from the one mentioned above, a second one can be found in Oberbilk, also on shutters. That one is placed on those of a closed kiosk right next to “Skotti’s”. An unfinished work is located on one of the containers at Oberkassel bridge on the Stadtstrand (city beach), where Vera Vorneweg started to apply Bertha von Suttner’s peace manifesto “Lay down your arms!” after the war in Ukraine broke out. She has completed 50 out of 300 pages of text since March, covering half the container. Vera Vorneweg’s nature goes beyond this form of artistic protest against the war: She also actively helps as well. She and her family hosted four Ukrainian refugees, two women and two children, for three months. While her guests have returned to Kiev since, the writer and her family will forever remember the time when the war had come to their own living room. In times when arms deliveries have become acceptable for the majority, Vorneweg remains an uncompromising pacifist. She wants to continue her work on the container as soon as the Stadtstrand season commences next spring, hopefully bringing the full work by Bertha von Suttner into the public space by the end of 2023, as the writer states. “People are often talking about how men experience war. I want to use this work to make the female perspective visible, to show how war and violence affect women, less so physically and more so psychologically.” The diary of a soldier’s widow by Nobel Peace Prize laureate von Suttner is just perfect for this, she says.
Word after word
While she is telling me all of this, exuding enthusiasm from every pore of her body, a heavy rain shower is coming down outside of “Skotti’s”. We have been talking for four hours already. That’s not unusual for Vorneweg. She always has plenty to tell. There’s plenty happening at all times, after all. Sometimes you have to wonder how she can fit everything she’s doing, thinking, planning, and putting into practice into the 24 hours a day . Vorneweg prefers night-time for her literary work anyway. Once everything around her has quieted down and her two children are asleep, she will sit in the attic she has converted into her study, putting down word after word. She produces concepts, funding applications, literary texts, and emails. Many electronic text messages recently went back and forth between Düsseldorf-Eller, where Vorneweg lives, and Israel. She had visited the place already last spring in the scope of a working visit and is going to return in the autumn of 2022 to implement a project supported by the Goethe-Institut. “I am going to team up with an Israeli writer to inscribe the stage of the Yama Street Gallery in Nahariya. I am going to start in German at the upper left, while he will start in Hebrew at the lower right.” Once her work in Nahariya is complete Vorneweg is going to travel on to the Negev Desert, where she is planning to improve a stone with words not far from the Egyptian border. She wrote the text for this during her stay in Israel last spring.
Of course, these are far from all the plans the poet of the street has in mind. She also wants to talk about another one: Her idea of the monument. “After that, I really do need to eat something.” We’re keeping it brief. She wants to “write over” a monument. Jan Wellem is one that she has in mind for this. She wants to lay down the biography of a woman who was close to him on his image. It’s about the female perspective once again. She has not actually gotten to plan this project out in greater detail yet, but that might happen in one of the next few nights. Right now, she needs to go visit the Lebanese next door. “I do need some falafel now.”
Vera Vorneweg’s work in Düsseldorf:
“Ellerstraße/Oberbilk”, Zum blauen Bock (closed), Ellerstraße 173
Kölner Straße/Markenstraße, Markenstr. 1
“Die Waffen nieder!” Stadtstrand Oberkasseler Brücke, Tonhallenufer 2 (Since the Stadtstrand containers are put in storage over winter, her work will be interrupted until the spring of 2023)