Martin Reiner: A grapefruit poet from military academy

Martin Reiner, photo: David Vaughan

It is not often that we have a guest on Czech Books who studied at military academy, but that is the case of our guest today, the novelist, poet and publisher, Martin Reiner, from the Czech Republic’s second city, Brno. We shall be looking not just at Martin’s unusual literary career, but also at his home town’s special relationship to poetry.

Martin Reiner,  photo: David Vaughan
How was it that you came to study to be a soldier?

“First of all I was young. I was only fourteen when I started to study at the academy in 1978.”

So, it was at the height of the Cold War.

“My mother tried to get me to the military school. She wanted me to study at university. We were a poor family. There was almost no money, and I was a younger brother. My mother wanted both of us to go to university, which even under socialism – so-called – in the former Czechoslovakia was a problem. There was one certainty about the military academy: that you will study at university, but of course it had to be an army university. We were just playing soldiers. It was not as hard as it sounds.”

You ended up in jail. That was a direct consequence of being at military academy.

“There were some rules. One of them was that you needed to pay a great deal of money to get out of the army. As I said before we couldn’t pay it. Then the only other way to get out was through jail.”

For an eighteen-year-old boy that must have been quite traumatic, wasn’t it?

“I can tell you. It was not that traumatic because it was quite similar to the circumstances in the army, which means I was quite experienced in it.”

A collection of your poetry has just come out in English translation, called “No Through Road”, translated by Andrew Oakland and published by Art Bureau.

Often I am strange.

I can be a kestrel,

but I don’t eat mice.

Then for hours

I’ll carry in my jacket pocket…

Florida State.

(River, posts, pelican take-off)

I stretch out my arm

and my twelve-fingered palm

rises famously

over the Gongga Shan.

You scatter me in the water,

drink deeply…

and spit.

“Yuck! A grapefruit poet.”

So you’re a grapefruit poet, with Florida State in your pocket…

“Yes, it’s playing on words and playing with context. This particular poem is dedicated to a friend of mine, who is a Brno poet, Tomas Pridal. It’s my generation, and this “grapefruit poet” is his way of writing poetry. So it’s a very friendly message from me to him.”

And this brings me to the question of Brno, your home city, and poetry, because it has a very strong poetic tradition, probably more than Prague.

“This tradition is long and very strong. I believe that one of the main reasons for the situation of Brno as a poetic capital of the Czech Republic is that poetry is an absolutely useless thing, and I quite believe that the position of Brno is good for poetry. There are not very strong pressures on people to make money, for instance, definitely less than in Prague.”

Brno is the capital of Moravia, which is traditionally a land of music, of song. Do you think that this tradition of song also has some link with the poetic tradition in Moravia?

“Yes, I think so. I believe that the language in Moravia is maybe more of a kind of treasure than for people in Bohemia. You can hardly say it is a definition, but there is something in it – that people in Moravia treat the language maybe in a better way than people in the rest of the country, and it quite often results directly in poetry.”

I saw you swim away,

as if writing me a note.

Your strokes, where your fingers would meet

for fleeting moments;

the tip of a pen dipping

up and down.

Your voice, then quickened breath;

wet forehead…

The fish puzzled out your movements.

And the catfish knew

that this shore-to-shore writing

kept you alive.

To the stupid tench

you were just a stain

on the rippling skirt of the water.

Martin Reiner,  photo: Vilem Faltynek
You are also well known in this country as a publisher, with your publishing house Petrov in Brno, which has published a lot of Brno and Moravian writing in particular.

“Yes, but not only. I believe that maybe about 70 percent of authors of my publishing house lately came from the rest of the republic – mostly from Prague. But it’s true that the poetry was mostly Moravian.”

And how did you come to be a publisher?

“It happened in the early 90s. It was an extremely turbulent time. I didn’t have a job, and I just asked the people around me, and suddenly there was a chance to become the editor-in-chief of the publishing house. But at the time I was not the owner of the publishing house. I was only the boss. And then things changed again. I never thought of becoming an entrepreneur. Really I felt more like a poet. It sounds funny, but it’s my nature. The reason why it went the way it did – I mean that Petrov quickly became one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the country – was because I loved the work and tried to do it as best I could.”

It’s interesting, because under communism Czechs were known to be great book-lovers – they almost retreated into books – but since the fall of communism there has been a decline in the amount that people read. You’ve bucked that trend really.

“Yes, the early 90s – the first half of the 90s – was quite a romantic time. At the time we didn’t feel it, but now, when you look over your shoulders you can see that the time was a very romantic time. It was the right time for publishing poetry. Unfortunately it has changed.”

Do you think it has changed for the worse? Are we more cynical than we were?

“More practical, yes. There is more consumption on the minds of most people, but I think it’s natural. There’s nothing surprising in it. It’s worse. That’s it.

“Here is a poem that I wrote twenty years ago. It’s one of my earliest, but I still quite like it.


The ripplings of summer

caught as ribbons in plaits.

In the morning tram

the children twitter.

Down the red avenue

time steps on the brake.

We open our hands

and rise like the phoenix.

I think that’s another very Brno poem, and I know that traditionally trams have a habit of creeping into Brno poetry.

“Yes. The tram is called ‘salina’ in Brno. It’s the only place in the world where people call it this way.”

The water stays in the gutter; it’s murky brown.

Nature moves it all on -

all that you came to know

as summertime.

You dare not oppose, do not raise your hand

in a gesture of defense.

You’re glad the movers missed all

that the world came to call You.

It is gutless, pitiful…

But you always get like this when the water in the gutter is

murky brown.