Jan Wagner was born in Hamburg in 1971 and grew up in Ahrensburg in Schleswig-Holstein. He wrote his first poems at the age of 14, after exploring world literature from the classics to the present in his parents’ extensive library. Wagner began his studies in English literature in Hamburg, continued them for a year at Trinity College in Dublin, and completed them with a master’s degree at the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin.
While still a student, he published the magazine »Die Außenseite des Elementes« [tr: The Element’s Exterior] together with Thomas Girst. The literary and graphic loose-leaf collection, which was modeled on Marcel Duchamp’s »Box in a Suitcase«, was discontinued in 2003 due to financial reasons. In addition, Wagner also began translating English-language poetry while at university.
He published his first volume of poetry, »Probebohrung im Himmel« [tr: Test Drilling in the Sky], in 2001. As a poet, Wagner draws from classical forms and adapts them to his own work with sublime ease and elegance. To Wagner, poems are something essential, vital. In an interview, he commented that »Perhaps one no longer even expects that people who write poetry exist at all. […] The truth is that there are many poets, especially younger ones, who write excellent poems. So poetry is something very much alive.« In addition to his devotion to nature, which is always countered in his texts with harsh realities of life, he also enters a dialogue with poets from the past, such as in his text »der mann wird einem baume gleich« [tr: the man becomes like a tree] from his volume »Australien« [2010; tr: Australia], in which he quotes the hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt. In the poems compiled in »Regentonnenvariationen« [2014; tr: Rain Barrel Variations], Wagner again directs his attention towards nature. In the relationship between mankind and nature, the roles are often reversed – mankind does not subjugate nature but is observed and sometimes even marginalized by it. Wagner received the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for this volume in 2015. His most recent volume of essays was published in 2021 under the title »Der glückliche Augenblick« [tr: The Happy Moment].
Jan Wagner’s poems have been translated into more than forty languages. He is a member of the German Academy for Language and Literature, the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, the Mainz Academy of Sciences and Literature, the Free Academy of Arts in Hamburg and the German P.E.N. Among many other awards, he has been honored with the Anna Seghers Prize, the Georg Büchner Prize, and an honorary doctorate from Universität Bielefeld. Among the many poets translated by Jan Wagner are Matthew Sweeney, Robin Robertson, Charles Simic, James Tate, Margaret Atwood, Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas and Sujata Bhatt. He also writes radio plays and is the editor of anthologies of young German-language and European poetry.
Jan Wagner lives in Berlin.