I’ve been busy the last few months.
Many years ago, I overheard a conversation at my favorite pub, Casey Moore’s. A boothful of recent college grads were talking about their plans for the future. Few sounded interesting except for one guy who was talking about his impending Fulbright year abroad. I’d heard of the program before and my eavesdropping informed me that it was not only for big brains and scientists. He was going to research a book he wanted to write.
I spent a few years bumping the thought of what it would be like to spend a Fulbright year overseas around my brain, immersing myself in research of a novel. After four failed stabs at applying to Poland to write a novel set in Krakow (failed because the dozens of academic contacts I reached out to in Poland were as interested in cultural and research exchange as they were in eating glass), I nearly gave up.
This past year, an idea for a novel flew into my head. It was based on a trip I made long ago to Kassel, Germany to visit a cousin. That year, 1997, I happened upon an unexpected delight: Documenta. My proposal below explains what it is all about. Documenta has lived with me since my visit. It is a spectacle, a delicious nugget, a city transformed for a hundred days into a modern art exhibition. And it occurs only every five years. So, I regathered myself, wrote up a brief idea for a novel set in Kassel and a Sharpied note I stuck to my fridge: FULBRIGHT – KASSEL – APPLY THIS YEAR.
I’ve done so.
Though the odds of me being granted a Fulbright are slim – it is highly competitive – about five minutes ago I submitted my completed application. I haven’t had butterflies in my stomach since I sent off college apps as a teenager twenty-five years ago.
Because it most probably will not succeed (‘ole cynical me!), I thought I’d share it with a few of you. At least this thing I have been working on will be read by someone else other than my editor self.
It’s dry in spots, owing to the strict requirements of the Fulbright application, but I hope my many months of work, of paring it down, of honing it, of whittling and polishing, might bring me a little luck with the Fulbright committee.
So, for a completely different kind of reading experience, I give you my two required essays for a Fulbright Grant – a Personal Statement and a Statement of Grant Purpose exactly as they appear in the inbox of the Fulbright Committee at the UN.
I’m off to Casey’s for a nectary Guinness.
Mark Sutz ǀ Germany ǀ Creative Writing: The Art of Bombs – A Novel
When I came home to Arizona one year from a summer trip in Chicago to visit my favorite cousins, I returned to the kind of welcome home gift any boy of ten years old would have envied: a hand-built bookshelf lining the far wall of my bedroom, from floor to ceiling. It was the kind of bookshelf one might see in a movie – oaky, dark, strong and, that day, mostly empty. My father said, “You’ve got enough shelves to fill up until you’re a hundred years old.” I filled them up much quicker. By the time I graduated high school, the shelves were overflowing, leaking books onto the floor but never once groaning under the weight. My life as a bibliophile had begun. It was only a few more years before I wanted to contribute my own work to those shelves.
The beginning of my college career was spotty at best. After graduating in the top 1 percent of my high school class I floundered in college, unsure of my direction. Poor grades were eventually erased with a diligent rededication to the academic life I had relished in high school. When I finally buckled down I still hid the secret of my writing life behind an academic pursuit which smacked of more legitimacy than the production of fiction: language study. I always loved languages and had a good ear for them. My mother is a Swiss immigrant to the United States and fluent in six languages and at least as many regional dialects. My ears were always attuned to the nuances of scoldings and praise delivered in foreign tongues. Russian was one language she didn’t know and one I fell in love with instantly when I realized I could perhaps learn to read Turgenev, Pushkin and Dostoevsky in the original tongue of production. I balanced a keen facility to read, write, speak and translate in this delicious language with my equally dogged pursuit of all literature written in English. I managed a cum laude at ASU and regained a sense of pride I hadn’t had in years.
Throughout it all, I wrote stories. And wrote more stories. And followed them with yet more stories. I enrolled in an MFA program and in my own mind, secretly and officially pronounced myself a writer-for-life. I still identify that way upon waking every morning and as I wander through the world. This realization has given me more than the desire to tell stories. It has taught me to listen closely to the rich skein of experiences available to each one of us if we simply prick up our ears.
I visited Kassel in 1997 for what was only to be a three-day visit to see a cousin. He thought I was there to also see Documenta. I’d never heard of it and he gave me a wonderful introduction to the exhibition which has beautiful Expo Stands. I ended up spending a few weeks there, amazed and entranced at this city which transformed into breathing art. Since my trip there, I have kept Documenta in my mind and made various notes over the years as to how I might write about it. About a year ago, like many fictional impulses, a story about Documenta and Kassel finally crystallized in my mind and I wrote down my basic idea in a two-hour writing jag. This is the story I speak about in my Statement of Purpose.
I believe the topic I’ve chosen is pregnant with possibilities as a novel. Over the years – from my near decade working at an independent bookstore to reading fiction with both a critical eye and an open heart to writing my own stories – I have come to believe wholly in an unattributed quote I read many years ago and now have tacked up above my computer: “Art is to reality as wine is to grapes.” To me, these words mean that the essence of the stuff of life is most palpably felt, seen, touched, heard and thought in the art that humans produce. For me, for many I venture to say, history is most strongly and truthfully felt through the stories we read and the stories we tell. Dickens did more to share stories about economic inequality and child labor practices in Victorian England than any other writer. Though he is most certainly not the premier dry-fact chronicler and journalist of the era (that person is relegated, rightly or wrongly, to forgotten memories), he did, like so many other writers of fiction across the world, imbue history with a narrative that strengthens the truth of a lonely statistic.
As a writer, one must spend a great deal of time trying to lasso what are essentially clouds of wispy thought, mold them into forms easily expressed to other people and then, once in their own minds, hope they are transmuted into more clouds of thought. This constant transference of experience is a critical imperative. In order that we better understand one another – our tragedies and triumphs – humans must hold fast to their stories and work to share them across all borders.
STATEMENT OF GRANT PURPOSE
Mark Sutz ǀ Germany ǀ Creative Writing: The Art of Bombs – A Novel
With a Fulbright fellowship for 2012-2013 to Germany, I will research the effect a permanent and ongoing art exhibition has on a city’s citizens after that city experienced near complete annihilation in World War II Allied bombing campaigns. I will study how a city’s broad self-identity is formed from ashes, both figurative and literal, after a population decrease from 250,000 pre-war to 15,000 on the day of liberation in April 1945 and after more than 80 percent of habitable structures were destroyed by Allied bombs. My focus will be threefold: first, research will be crucial in completing my novel about a lifelong Kassel resident and artist, The Art of Bombs; second, I will compile, manage and donate to the Documenta Archives a video record of interviews with long-term Kassel residents about their personal relationships with Documenta and their recollections about the changing face of Kassel from WWII to present; third, I will publish written interviews with and essays about these citizens in the American culture magazine The Nervous Breakdown in order to bring to a wider audience heretofore untold stories about living in one of WWII’s most severe tragedies and growing up in a city reborn through art.
Arnold Bode, a Kassel-born architect who returned to the city after the war, having lived in Berlin since 1928, organized the first Documenta in 1955. He would continue as director for the next three exhibitions, providing Kassel an event that has continued uninterrupted since its inception. An unmitigated success in 1955 including art by Picasso and Kandinsky and attracting more than 130,000 visitors, Bode originally conceived of Documenta as a reaction to the Nazi’s banning of so-called entartete kunst or degenerate art. Over the ensuing years, Documenta has proven perhaps the world’s most important exhibition of modern art, if not its most publically visible.
My novel, The Art of Bombs, is the story of a lifelong Kassel resident, born ten years before the city was obliterated. He has resided in Kassel continuously, become a large-scale sculptor and an amateur scavenger of WWII shrapnel, bomb fragments and detritus from buildings which were destroyed in the war. He has acquired, by way of inheritance, the last extant building from the war (a warehouse which I have discovered still stands in outer Kassel, bomb holes visible in satellite photos). He has spent decades organizing this material inside the massive warehouse and interviewing his cohorts, the few who remain, about their memories of the bombing raids of the war. He has done all this without any specific goals and in extreme secrecy and privacy, just to keep the memory of his parents alive, both of whom were casualties of the war. A junior foreign member of the Documenta organizing team in 2008 learns through the local grapevine about this artist and spends the next four years trying to convince her superiors to include him as an official Documenta exhibitor. She is rebuffed but during Documenta 13 in the summer of 2012, his warehouse becomes the unexpected, unofficial centerpiece of the event and the entire story of Kassel, its death and rebirth, is shared with the world after a worldwide buzz grows by means of social media.
If selected for the Fulbright I will analyze the role that Documenta and its founder, Arnold Bode, had in reestablishing Kassel as a viable city and answer four central questions which will provide the narrative thread in my novel: 1) Could a city which was almost totally leveled have thrived without Documenta? 2) Can a systematic integration of art into a city’s identity prove an example for other cities around the world which suffer similar fates during wartime? 3) Do the citizens of Kassel themselves see Documenta as the primary conduit through which life essentially began again after World War II? 4) Considering the results of the above, can Kassel and Documenta become more informative to the world at-large as the premier example of restoration and rebirth and not remain only a locale and exhibition known just to local residents and rarefied art enthusiasts.
Dr. Harald Kimpel, author of the book Documenta: Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Documenta: Myth and Reality) has agreed to assist me in both locating long-term Kassel residents to interview and to advise me on the historical accuracy of my novel’s narrative sections, the novel being organized in chapters that coincide with each consecutive exhibition. As Dr. Kimpel works in the Department of Culture for the City of Kassel, he has also agreed to direct me to official city resources that compile the city’s relationship to Documenta.
The Director of the Documenta Archives, Karin Stengel, has invited me to research their considerable collection which includes photos, video and written material dating back to the original Documenta in 1955. I will spend approximately ten hours each week during my academic year in Kassel at the archives. Combing through this material will be imperative on two fronts: to establish contact with Kassel citizens who were present at each Documenta and to create verisimilitude for the narrative of my novel, which takes place across a nearly 60-year span, from 1955 to 2011, encompassing each of the thirteen occurrences of Documenta since inception.
Conducting research in Kassel at this time is crucial to the success of this project because any residents of Kassel who are still alive and can recall either or both the WWII bombings and the initial Documenta will range in age from their mid-60s to early-80s. There has been no systematic recording of interviews with these long-term Kassel residents so it is vital that their words become permanent documents. Conversing with these individuals and learning about their experiences from the time Kassel was nearly destroyed through its continual rebirth via Arnold Bode’s unique vision of Documenta will give me an unparalleled chance to interact with the local community. Not only can I glean information from them to provide my novel with a historical framework which is accurate, but my recording of their interviews will also provide both the City of Kassel and Documenta with permanent first-person historical documents which can be utilized by scholars and read by the general public. Furthermore, access to primary historical sources in the Documenta archives and City of Kassel archives that I seek to examine are virtually inaccessible from the US.
In preparation for my Fulbright semester, I will travel to Kassel in early June of 2012 in order to begin an intensive program of German language study and so that I am present for the most recent iteration of Documenta, number 13, which occurs from June 9 to September 16, 2012. As Documenta is quinquennial and the next exhibition will not occur until 2017, it is essential for the narrative of my novel, which takes place greatly during Documenta 13, that I immerse myself in the event itself. My main goal during this pre-Fulbright residency will be language and narrative related, with Fulbright research as proposed above to occur during the nine months of the grant period, after Documenta 13 has concluded. However, during my attendance of Documenta 13, I will also spend time in the exhibition and city archives to more familiarize myself with the history of the exhibition.
From June 18 to August 10, 2012 I will enroll in an intensive German language course at the IFS Institute in Kassel, attending five days per week for four hours each day, and will continue studying German throughout my Fulbright semester by taking private classes at least three times per week. As a Russian major in college and as the son of a woman who speaks seven languages fluently, I found the study of a foreign language, if not an easy task, one in which I quickly immersed myself and emerged a student who had near accent-free speaking ability upon graduation.
Professionally, a Fulbright grant will be invaluable. Since I aspire to publish a novel addressing Kassel’s near-death from Allied bombing and its rebirth through art and to do this by using historical references and first-person accounts, a Fulbright year in Kassel will provide access to both the people and historical documents necessary for my research. Living in Kassel will give me the opportunity to write my own novel and, because of a guaranteed publishing outlet in America at The Nervous Breakdown, allow me to share the stories of Kassel residents with the world. Additionally, my interviews will be permanently located and available for anyone to use in the Documenta archives.
Upon return to the United States, I will edit my manuscript and seek its publication with a major US house. I will also compile my interviews in book form and seek their publication as a single manuscript with a publisher specializing in creative non-fiction art and culture titles. Through both my novel and my interviews with Kassel residents, I hope to share a little-known story about World War II which illuminates how a city which was very nearly wiped off the map can reemerge to become an important art capital and vibrant society. More importantly, I want to show that art has redemptive qualities not only for the individual practitioner, but also for a city which makes a concerted effort to rise from tragedy through the active integration of art in its charter and, thus, in its perpetual character.