“Everything in life is a journey, station by station. It’s good to know that life remains exciting, that you can never know exactly what will happen four stops away from here until you reach your final destination, even if it sometimes scares you or makes you doubt.” Ben Kretlow
Earlier this year, I had the wonderful opportunity to conduct an interview with Ben Kretlow. Now, a few months later, we have come together again for another interview. This interview may turn out differently than you might expect, as I recently received a message from Ben asking to speak with me again. I was delighted to receive his request, but at the same time I felt a surge of sentimentality rise up inside me. I could empathize with how he must be feeling and admired the courageous step he was taking.
There comes a time in every artist’s life when you think hard about how you can rediscover yourself and let yourself shine, even if that means leaving familiar paths. The title of this blog article was chosen by Ben himself, and I would like to grant him this last wish from the bottom of my heart. Because I am firmly convinced that the desire to find ourselves again exists in all of us. It is a deep-rooted urge that drives and inspires us.
In this interview, I will talk to Ben about his latest book and his future. “Finding yourself in the light again is the real urge!” is a title that couldn’t be more apt. We will dive deep into Ben’s journey as he searches for a new vision without being conscious of the next poem and perhaps even breaking new ground in the process. It promises to be an emotional and insightful conversation that can inspire us all to find our own path and shine.
1. Hi Ben, it’s been a while since we last spoke and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you again. How are you doing at the moment? Could you give us an insight into your current life?
First of all, thank you for this opportunity to talk about my art again. A lot has happened artistically since we last spoke at the beginning of the year. I’ve been working on my latest book for five months since the beginning of February and it was published at the end of July, although I had planned everything differently from working on a new book this year, let alone publishing it. But it’s like I’ve always done with poetry and the urge for creative expression in general: You just never know when an idea will come – and when it does, try everything you can to make it happen, as fast as you can.
2. Your latest book is entitled “ein gewonnener tag”. Could you tell us more about what this book is about and what personal experiences or thoughts inspired you to write it?
The book tells the lives of several characters who all have one thing in common: Namely, the desire to be able to escape their invisibility in a prefabricated housing estate on the edge of our society and not to lose hope of a better someday, which for some is a long way off due to many shattered dreams. This place could be anywhere in our country and, in a way, the main content of the book is probably more familiar to many of us than we might realize. Each of us knows in our own personal way this kind of rain, which could hardly be darker and colder, just as the characters in “a day won” often feel.
“selda no longer wants to know what it is that drives her: she would prefer to forget” Excerpt from Selda wants peace/ a day won by Ben Kretlow
3. In your book, you have created fascinating characters who go through ups and downs. What was it like for you to empathize with these different characters and explore their emotions, be it sorrow, joy or grief? Could you give us an example from the book of how this influenced your own perspective, especially in the case of Selda, who is striving for peace?
No one knows who lives next door anymore. Who is this person who lives on the other side of the wall? What is his story? What has shaped him? Why is it so difficult to say a quick hello these days, even though everyone basically lives under the same roof? We are talking here about one of the most serious diseases of our society: this anonymity that keeps us apart from each other, but at the same time connects us so much. I wanted to make this visible in the rough plot of the book – gently, but also harshly and brutally honest in many places. There is Mischa, who falls in love with the courageous Lara, but who only wants to get out into the wide, colorful world of the big city to make her dreams come true. And Mischa is waiting for her, afraid of becoming a mere memory that will eventually start to fade. There is Isa, who has ended up in the block due to personal strokes of fate, but who fights every day as if it were his last. At the same time, we hear the eleven-year-old girl Juliana, whose childlike perspective sees herself at the mercy of the threatening circumstances of our time due to the war in Ukraine. And then there is Selda, who has survived various forms of abuse, both mental and physical, and disappointment in the truest sense of the word. Selda wants peace. For herself, and not to make her evil counterpart feel relieved.
4. You also talk in the book about love and the thoughts we have about ourselves and others. You yourself are one of the main voices in this work. How important was it for you to be self-critical and also to show your supposed weaknesses or shortcomings?
With all modesty, I think my greatest strength is that I myself have understood how much I see this world with my heart. And at the same time, it is my greatest weakness, my biggest target, the point where I can be hit the hardest. I have often wished I was more rational, not so empathetic in everything. But that’s just my nature, and I don’t think most people are like that, even though it’s exactly what this world needs much more of, because love is the answer to everything we are. I believe that with complete sincerity.
When I wrote the pieces for the book, my aim was always to capture a snapshot of a story, whether fictional or real, an extract from a real-life situation that many people can identify with from their everyday lives or their most private moments. And in doing so, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the character in each piece, to take their point of view. I wrote from different perspectives, from mine, from someone else’s, and I also tried to recreate moments as realistically as possible from a female point of view. For me, the character, indeed the person behind it, was in the foreground; the circumstances he or she has to deal with are secondary. And when I succeed in doing this, as in the new book, as I have generally noticed in the last two or three years, there is sometimes more of me in the texts than I honestly thought I knew before. Everything is perspective. Everything is always a part of her, him, me, us.
5. Writing can often feel like a close friendship, in which stories and ideas or their characters become faithful companions. How does it feel for you to have let go of part of this friendship – as with every book before – with the publication of “ein gewonnener tag”?
When developing and writing a framework story, you become familiar with the characters. You can put yourself in their shoes, or if you find them too suspicious in all their circumstances, then you at least try to better understand their actions, their character. So it can happen that a part of yourself flows into these characters, but this doesn’t have to happen every time. A certain distance can sometimes be the best way to sharpen your view of the characters. I’ve always done it this way: when I have the feeling that a book is finished, that I’ve reached this point, then I know that the characters in my plays are ready to set off into the wide world of literature.
6. Your latest book certainly marks an important milestone in your career. How do you think it differs from your earlier works, both in terms of content and emotion?
Firstly, it differs in that I realized while writing and putting the book together that it would be my last. Towards the end of production, I felt something inside me that I couldn’t quite grasp; something was different from the other books; calmer, more reflected within me. And now I know why. In all the years since my childhood, I’ve rarely had phases when I wasn’t writing. It was always my inner world that could hold everything together at its best and worst: Writing as breathing, as a refuge, so to speak. I could always rely on that. But now, in the summer, I realized how this door inside me was slowly closing, so to speak. And this time I didn’t shake it like a madman and knock on it to get it to open again. I felt inside me: “Okay, something is passing.” And I realized to my own astonishment that there was no restlessness in me about it. I don’t know why I added a page in the book after the main chapters of “a day won” that simply says “END”. I just did it and thought it was because it accompanied the story of the main characters, Mischa and Lara, but now I know that it was already a sign from within that something was permanently changing in me as a writer, as an artist. And now we know why.
And in terms of content, “ein gewonnener tag” is another love story, just like in my debut “#DieLetzteFarbe”, in which the actor couple Lina and Jurek tell their story. In the new book, it is Mischa and Lara, but with a different outcome to their love, with different circumstances accompanying them, with a different time in which their story takes place. Lina and Jurek were rebellious intellectuals; Mischa and Lara are invisibles in our society, like us and everyone we know.
7. So “A Day Won” will be your last book?
Yes, the last book. It’s the last poems. I just don’t think anyone is waiting for another book from Ben Kretlow, or that anyone needs even one more poem that I write. At least I feel that I don’t need any more from myself right now. And out of respect for my talent and before I unconsciously ruin my art for myself, I’ll stop. I have published hundreds of poems in the six books alone or online and there are still around 1500 unpublished texts in my archive. I don’t know how much other writers write in their lifetime, whether that’s a lot or a little, but these poems will always stay with me as long as I live.
8. So you’re saying that this also means a general cessation of writing for you? This is a profound change in your life as a writer. How do you think it might change your self-image and identity?
I’m just really learning that the real urge in me is to find myself in the light again. I always thought it was the creative urge, this feeling that only by creating am I really me and can I find myself. But after all these years, I feel that’s not true. There is so much more out there than just pen and paper, and I want to discover it with my eyes wide open, with an undistracted consciousness.
9. You have published six books in the last 7 years, which is an enormous output. How much strength, perseverance, sweat and pain has it cost you? What have you lost and gained during this time?
Looking back, I would have preferred not to have published my second book “vom rand der nacht”, to say it up front. “auf einmal ist die welt”, “benni”, “noch einmal liebe”, perhaps “kalte nacht, kalter tag”, those are three or four poems from that book that are absolutely enduring. From today’s perspective, the rest of this volume simply doesn’t stand up to my own standards of quality. Otherwise, I see the other books as independent and justified in their own right, and I am proud of them and simply humbly grateful that I succeeded as an independent artist and writer and that I was able to create them with all my effort and dedication and publish them independently in the world. Everything I have experienced and learned over the years is pure gain: the highs, the lows, everything.
10. You know best from your own experience: writers are often looking for answers to deep life questions. Was there a specific question that you are trying to answer through your latest book or through your aforementioned retreat from writing?
Everything in life is a journey, station by station. It’s good to know that life remains exciting, that you can never know exactly what will happen four stops away from here until you reach your final destination, even if it sometimes scares you or makes you doubt. Some questions come up again and again throughout your life, others only in certain phases. I think my decision to retire as an artist was one such question that first grew deep inside me until I could hear it whisper clearly and distinctly to me: “The time has come.” So: why chase after a spent fire when you know that the embers will no longer ignite? The fire is out. That’s how I look at it, without melancholy, but quite rationally.
11. Do you have any future plans to get involved in other creative areas, or are you working on other projects?
There are still readings planned until mid-November, and then the final artistic silence will come. In the coming weeks, I will be publishing a calendar with Haydar Karaldi for next year entitled “polaroids. Kalender 2024”, if things go as we have planned and worked out. This will be the last of my original material to appear in print, along with a selection of Haydar’s collage work. Haydar has been an important companion for me on our artistic journey together over the last few years. We have experienced and realized so much and found so much fulfillment in it. This journey will not be over yet, but I will remain in the background from now on and am excited to see what new steps Haydar will take with his art in the near future, and I will certainly be there one time or another, only in a very quiet way.
“this is ben, whom one or the other knows this ben, who whines about #meerliebefüreinander + mitfühl in his poems yes, who burns with all his heart when something fires him up, which he affirms again and again like a prayer wheel” Excerpt from ein gewonnener Tag by Ben Kretlow
12. And just before the end of our conversation: What will happen to your social media channels, where you are very present for your audience? Do you plan to maintain them or withdraw from the public eye?
I think that once I’ve sorted through my archive from this year, so to speak, with all the 124 texts I wrote in 2023, that will be the final end. That means my website will go offline at the end of the year. I think the content on YouTube will remain dormant, as will the other social media outlets. That’s also part of my artistic legacy and I don’t want to erase anything that I’ve done for 28 years and that has meant so much intensive work, especially in recent years. That would be disrespectful of my artistic oeuvre as a whole; there will simply be no more new content from me in any form. As I said, no one needs or is waiting for the next poem from me. If you want the whole picture, you can already find it in the books or in the reading videos.
13. That sounds very determined. Is there anything else you would like to say or give your readers at the end of our conversation?
I would just like to thank from the bottom of my heart everyone who appreciates the value of my art and those who have supported, encouraged and guided me throughout the last few years. This journey has been phenomenal, and it has also helped shape me into who I am. So thank you for everything, including this interview and the respect for me as an artist. And now I’m just excited to see what’s waiting for me in the other half of my life. See you in the light.
“The end” – those were the words Ben wrote in his last book. Now, at the end of this interview, we realize that it not only marks the end of this book, but also the end of his artistic journey in the near future. This is a moment full of emotion and farewell that touches me deeply.
At this special end, I would like to express my gratitude from the bottom of my heart. I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to conduct this meaningful interview with you and for placing your trust in me.
Furthermore, I would like to express my sincere gratitude for your being, your art and the precious emotions and feelings you have shared with the world in your books. Your works have not only filled the pages of your books, but have also touched our hearts and inspired our minds.
I wish you all the very best for your future. May you continue to be characterized by success, fulfilling creativity and, above all, love and joy. Your contribution to literature and this moving interview will always remind us how wonderful and profound the world of art and literature can be. Thank you for everything Ben.
To the first interview!