Uwe Kolbe is from Prenzlauer Berg, the GDR-Bohemian quarter of literature, rock-music, art, performance, and self-styled eccentrics. As opposed to the literary playfulness or language games of some of his contemporaries, Kolbe has placed himself in the tradition of the seemingly simple image right from the start. He constructs scenes which at first appear to be simple, but upon closer inspection allow a variety of interpretations and meanings. Kolbe’s texts search out the political and poetical implications to be found in everyday life.
Uwe Kolbe was born on October 17, 1957 in East-Berlin; his father was a sailor on the inland waterways. After graduating from high school and completing military service, he managed to get by with an assortment of odd jobs. In 1976 he met the writer Franz Führmann, who was to become Kolbe’s most important mentor, providing him with the opportunity of publishing his first poems in the renowned journal Sinn und Form (Sense and Form). Shortly afterwards, Kolbe signed a contract for his first book Hineingeboren (Born Into). He has been working as a free-lance writer and translator ever since. Between 1980 and 1981, he completed a special course at the Johannes R. Becher Institute for Literature in Leipzig, the official school of poetry in the GDR.
Kolbe managed to smuggle a poem into an anthology published by the politically conformist Mitteldeutsche Verlag that turned out to be an acrostic. The initial letters of his seemingly coincidentally arranged lines formed words that read "EUREM HELDENTUM WIDME ICH EINEN ORGASMUS / EUCH MÄCHTIGE GREISE ZERFETZE DIE TÄGLICHE REVOLUTION" ("To your heroism I dedicate an orgasm/ you powerful greybeards the daily revolution shall slash"). Although this kind of encoding was common practise in the GDR, in this case the author himself revealed the farce, much to the embarrassment of the censor’s office. Due to the controversy aroused by this and other poetical and political statements, Kolbe was banned from publication in the GDR between 1982 and 1985.
In this period, Kolbe worked as a translator of, among others, the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Between 1982 and 1987, he was the co-editor of the illegally distributed literary journal Mikado. Through publications such as these, Kolbe was able to ‘infiltrate’ the official literary circles in the GDR, and to continue publishing his own work at the same time.
Apparently Kolbe was considered worthy of support by those responsible in the GDR’s cultural circles – that is, worthy of exploitation for their own means. From 1985 onwards, Kolbe was given the opportunity to travel to several countries in the West. He taught as a guest-lecturer at the universities of Austin, Texas, and Vienna, among others. Kolbe moved to Hamburg in 1987 and did not return to Berlin until after the German Reunification. From 1997 to early 2004, he was the director of the Studio of Literature and Theatre at Tübingen University. Since then, he has returned to Berlin. He currently works on a book called Versuche, die eigene Erfahrung zu behaupten (Attempts at asserting one’s own experience).
In literary terms, Kolbe remains a little removed from the colourful goings-on in the Prenzlauer Berg scene. Too ‘awkward’ to be accepted by the highbrow set, yet too ‘classical’ for the neo-dadaistic carnival at Prenzlauer Berg, Kolbe writes the kind of poetry that straddles between the current moment and tradition, between Benn and Brecht, between societal doubt and poetic confidence. His techniques have become increasingly diverse in the 1990s: classical metre meets folk songs; Goethe meets Ginsberg. Yet all is held together by Kolbe’s typical, unobtrusive precision of sound, phrasing and image.
1987 Promotional Award – Arts Award from the City of Berlin (West)
1987 Promotional Award – Friedrich-Hölderlin Award, Bad Homburg
1988 Translation Award – Henschel Publishing House
1988 Nicolas-Born Prize – Petrarca Award, Munich
1992 The Berlin Literature Award
1993 Friedrich-Hölderlin Award, Tübingen
Hineingeboren. Gedichte 1975-1979 . (Born Into). Aufbau Verlag, Weimar 1980. Also Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/M 1982.
Abschiede und andere Liebesgedichte. (Farewells and Other Love-Poems). Aufbau Verlag, Berlin, DDR 1981. Also Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/M 1983.
Bornholm II. Aufbau Verlag, Berlin, DDR 1986.
Nicht wirklich platonisch. (Not Really Platonic). Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/M 1994.
Vineta. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/M 1998.
Die Farben des Wassers. (The Colours of Water). Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/M 2001.
Vaterlandkanal. Ein Fahrtenbuch . (Fatherland-Channel. A Logbook). Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/M 1990.
Renegatentermine. 30 Versuche, die eigene Erfahrung zu behaupten. Renegate’s Appointments. 30 Attempts at Asserting One’s Own Experience). Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/M 1998.
Uwe Kolbe on Lyrikline