"Poetry Redressed": Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein sits down with Icelandic poet Sjón

Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein

       Considering its size and population, Iceland’s impact on the world’s stage has been proportionately large in the area of the arts. In the past few years, Iceland has put itself on the map in the areas of design and architecture, and today “Iceland” is often taken as a synonym for hip and New Age, even Space Age, a place where Ivy League jetsetters go to party for a weekend. In poetry and art one frequently finds instances of manipulated images where Iceland’s space in the middle of the world and the middle of the ocean is made to physically join up via some immense oceanic bridge to Denmark, Scotland, and Ireland. This is not simply a re-coordinating of the jigsaw of the earth to fit Iceland within the rest of Pangaea, but rather an apt metaphor for what is afoot within the culture. 
       Rarely in Iceland do you meet a writer that has not dabbled in other pursuits, genres, or art forms. Rarely do you meet a barman that is nothing but a barman. The key to understanding Iceland’s avant-gardes is to understand the spark of idealism lying ready in the bosom of each and every Icelandic citizen when threatened with the odds. The Crash was one such challenge to their historically inviolable identity. If award-winning novelist, poet, and lyricist Sjón, who wrote the great song “Scatterheart” for the movie Dancer in the Dark, is right, a mobilized intellectual class is already rising up to meet the world’s demands.

Jason Rotstein: Where are the intellectuals today in Iceland and what is the intellectual need?

Sjón: Well, I just wonder if there has ever been a real position for intellectuals in Icelandic society. Traditionally, we are a society where everybody has the right to voice his or her opinion about whatever is happening. It doesn’t matter if you come from the academe or if you come from the arts, if you are the foreman of the plumber’s union, or if you are simply a disgruntled or unhappy bank clerk somewhere, everybody has access to the dialogue through the newspapers. I think this makes the situation here a little bit different from what you can expect in other countries. I mean, most of the voices you see in newspapers, for example, are the so-called ordinary people, the laymen, and I think for me this is a very healthy situation. Of course, we have the tradition from the ’40s and ’50s of some key intellectuals, key writers, taking part in social discourse, mainly Halldór Laxness. So I think it’s a tricky thing to approach. I think Icelandic writers, for example, are quite wary of how they should position themselves in the discussion because most writers, I think, really don’t feel that their voice should have any bigger status than the voice of the cleaning woman who feels the urge to write to the newspapers about the latest legislation in the parliament. Very early on, I personally took a stance against stepping into the social discussion because I really feel that if writers want to have an impact they should do it through their writings and with the tools of literature. I sincerely believe that the minute a writer writes a piece for the newspaper, he has ceased to use the tools of literature—even though he spices it with poetry and funny or clever metaphors and witty irony or whatever he uses. In most cases, I would say in 99 percent of the cases, the writer has ceased to be a literary writer and has become some sort of a social analyst or a journalist. Right from the beginning, my position has been to express my ideas about how the society should function, where the society should go, and what should be the basic moral elements of the society—from the beginning, I’ve only wanted to do this through my writing. 

JR: So nothing has changed really since the “Kreppa,” the Crash in Iceland, for you in terms of your writing? Do you notice any change in your writing? Do you see yourself dealing (obliquely, even) with some of the issues?

S: I obviously know that this will find its way into what I write, but I also feel that I have, let’s say for the last ten, twelve, or fifteen years, been writing about the elements that brought this crash on. I think most writers have already been dealing with these elements in society and in our psychological makeup, in the psychological makeup, of the people living here. But I am doing it in my writing and I have been doing it mostly in my novels.

JR: How about your poetry? Is it harder to do in poetry than in the novel?

S: It always becomes more obvious in poetry, if you step into the social discourse. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of slogan-making, if you take poetry in that direction, but I am sure it will find its way into my poetry in some way. Having said that, I’ve never understood why writers answer to the call of politicians and academics—to do this and that. Obviously after the crash there has been a lot of demand that writers do this and that. “Oh, now the writers should write to the newspapers, now the writers should deal with this in their poems. Now the writers should do this and that….” I’ve always completely hated this idea of writers doing this and that. The writers should be exploring society through the literary tools and thereby exploring also the tools of literature. But having said this, it is obvious that this discussion about what has happened is already taking place in the theatre. It seems that the theatre has responded quite fast, and I would say efficiently and effectively, to what is happening. 

JR: Do you feel pressure to make your work accessible because of the milieu of the layman writing for a newspaper or people feeling as if the intellectual has to come off his high horse and meet the people halfway?

S: Well, I’ve been asked to water my work down from the beginning. In a way my generation — I was born in 1962 — we have from the beginning been perceived as quite elitist and arrogant and unaware of the needs of the layman. But I think that’s such a big part of the writer’s job — such a big part of the writer’s job is to be difficult and to work with the most complicated tools of language —

JR: — the widest yardstick.

S: Yes. Come on, everybody else can do that other thing and they are doing it all the time. But I think in Iceland we have a quite long-standing respect for writers and for literature. I don’t think people here would like writers to become populist and to water themselves down. I think they like us to be as artistic and difficult as possible, and they know that they will have to take a step towards us. But of course, every writer wants to have a reader. You never make your work so complicated that you only have three writers/readers: yourself, your editor, and your wife.

JR: Do you think that there are too many books being published in Iceland today? There’s a novelist writing a novel every year in time for the Christmas book bonanza/bazaar in Iceland. Do you think people publish too much in Iceland? 

S: Maybe it is the only way for Icelandic literature to move forward — that everybody is just doing this. I think that’s one of the reasons why we actually have so many good people in the arts — that everybody is allowed to try his hand at writing and publishing or making music or releasing a CD or having an art exhibition. Everybody is welcome at the table, so everybody tries.

JR: Do you think some of the better writers are pushed to the fringe then and not given their proper due? Do you think that the best writers still make it to the top of the heap? 

S: I think there are enough people here who recognize talent where talent lies, so I’ve got no problem with that. I really think this democratic way of doing things has helped us discover talent that would otherwise not find its way into the center of the literary scene. What I think is important in Icelandic literature now, what I think is important for Icelandic society, is that we find a way of opening up — to make it easier for those who never before have had a voice in Icelandic literature. And those are the immigrants, those are the foreigners that have come to stay here. At the moment the literary scene is absolutely closed to them. There are no places where they can approach the publishing houses, because then you would have to read it in Polish and then you would have to translate it. Are you going to wait for the poor Polish writer to get enough command of Icelandic to start writing? For me that has been obvious for quite some time now that the next big step for literature is when those voices are going to be heard. I think that’s in a way much more important than how Icelandic born-and-bred writers will respond to this crash. This crash is not going to be our eleventh of September. This is, of course, a big moral shock, but for people who have really been looking at the society for years, this isn’t such a shock. 

JR: The immigrant writer that you are describing, do you think that he or she would change the character of the language? 

S: I hope so. I think something is bound to happen when you start translating your experiences into Icelandic if your mother tongue is Thai, because you will build on that language and that system of thought. Also, then these people will bring in a completely different view of Icelandic society. I think the biggest gift we’ve ever had has been this flux of immigration. I think we should do everything we can to increase it.

JR: But what about the purity of the language? Icelandic is known for not accepting borrowed words. Do you think that the language would go through a renovation as well?

S: I’m sure that will be. I tend to look at this from a distance: this language is going to be changing anyway, and I think it would be much more rewarding for the language if it happens in a way where we embrace the changes that the immigrant writers will bring. Then we are encouraging someone to actually write about his experience of being here, translating it into words, filtering it through his Thai, or Polish, or whatever his language and experience [is]. That is a dynamic way for the language to change. And the language will change. It’s not like it’s ever been possible to keep a language pure. The Icelandic written language in the eighteenth century was so full of Danish and German that to read official letters at the time was really… they really look bad to us today. 

JR: Let’s just get back to the question of politics for a minute, because I am interested to know what place you see for politics within poetry, and whether or not you think that poetry can ever be devoid of politics. This is an ongoing question. 

S: I don’t think poetry should be devoid of politics, and I think poetry has never really been devoid of politics. Poetry is always so much about the individual’s experience. It has to deliver the individual’s experience of whatever political situation there is.

JR: Do you think it’s represented, though, in a different fashion in poetry than it would be in a novel? I mean, in a novel you talk conspicuously, for instance, about politics. Well, maybe not. But in poetry it happens a lot more at the linear level, if I can put it like that.

S: For me, in a way poetry is expression without mask. The novel is always a masquerade. It’s always an artifice. You are always expressing a situation through made-up characters. But in poetry you always have the poet speaking. Okay, well, you can have epic poetry with a lot of characters, whatever, but mainly the way poetry is practiced in Iceland, and I think in most poetry, is the poet himself or herself is speaking. 

JR: So do you consider that to be a political stance?

S: Yes, it is definitely an individual speaking against his experience, against his surroundings. That’s how politics comes into poetry. And of course the poet is angry at times and poet is also just happily surprised at the little beautiful things at other times. For me that is the important thing about poetry: that it is an example of the individual’s experience. 

JR: What do you find subversive in poetry when you read a lot of the work coming out of Iceland? Or would you consider any of the poetry coming out of Iceland to be subversive?

S: I think [with] Icelandic poetry we are always in the danger of becoming mannerist. We are at the point now where it is really necessary to put a question mark to the aesthetics of the modernists from the ’50s.

JR: The Atomists?

S: The Atom Poets. At the same time, they gave us all those tools. The second generation of modernist poets here really started moving it towards quite mannerist ways of doing things. I think we really need to go back and rediscover what they were doing because this small group of people—the Atom Poets—they really took an enormous step for Icelandic literature. There is no question about it, for all of Icelandic poetry. In the beginning there really was a challenge there, it really challenged what people here thought of as good taste, thought of as poetry.

JR: Do you write in formalist verse as well as in free verse, or in more experimental styles? Describe your poetry to an English audience. Andri Maganson said he thought your poetry was surrealist. I don’t know if that is an accurate description.

S: That’s where my roots are. That’s where I began, you know. I began in surrealist poetry. In the beginning I was simply influenced by the Icelandic Atom Poets, but when I started looking at where their influences came from it was obvious that they were very much influenced by the Surrealist tradition. So that’s where I went as well. In the ’80s we had this little surrealist group here called Medusa and we were exploring the possibilities of surrealism, but what we did which the Atom Poets did not was that we mixed it with more outgoing agenda because we were also influenced by punk. For us, it was the combination of the do-it-yourself attitude of punk and surrealism. So, right from the beginning, it was very much about bringing the message out there. We were reading at the punk concerts. You usually had surrealist poets between bands trying to break down the barriers between the real and the imaginary, which was quite a challenge for us, the poets, because I think at those gigs nobody was there for the poetry. Absolutely nobody was there for the poetry, nobody came for the surrealist poets, they all came for the music. And then you went on stage and you really had to tough it out for your fifteen minutes. You really had to find a way of delivering it, so they wouldn’t just boo you off the stage in the first minute. So, for us, from the beginning it was a mixture of a social agenda mixed with a really true and strong belief in the revolutionary possibilities of poetry. We really believed that things would change with surrealist poetry. We really believed that creating all those weird little things would have an impact, and I think we did, in a way. I think we managed to do quite a lot of things. I don’t think we changed society, but we managed to introduce much more aggressive, avant-garde approach to poetry and the arts.

JR: Do you think there is a collective like that nowadays? Do you think that your group in any way aligned with music?

S: For us it was so much also about dialogue and collaboration between art forms. As you probably know: in the Sugarcubes there were two published poets, the bass player and the guitarist, both of them had published two or three books of poetry and were recognized poets, young poets at the time. Right from the beginning for us it came absolutely easy together, and from the beginning [we] completely rejected the idea of “high art” and “low art.” I saw no difference between myself writing poetry to be published in books and to be read on the stage, and Einar Örn, the singer in the Sugarcubes, making his lyrics and bringing them to people through his music. I never thought his was a lesser art. So from the beginning we saw no barriers and no difference. It was just you and your friends expressing yourself through different means. I think that was something actually new here. Even the poets of the ’68 generation were obviously listening to the Rolling Stones, they never collaborated, they never had this easy relationship with the music scene. Today I work with people from all fields. I kept working with people from music. I have been working with jazz musicians, and I am working with classical composers, and I am working with people in popular music. For me it’s just one way of bringing words and images to people. 

JR: How do you compare Icelandic literature with other Scandinavian literatures? How has that relationship changed from the way it was in the past?

S: As far as I know of other literatures, I think we are actually doing quite well. I think, for example, the Danes have had an incredibly strong poetry scene for the last twenty years, maybe twenty-five years. Since the beginning of the ’80s they have had an incredibly strong poetry scene. I actually think the Danes are better poets than Icelanders. I think you see such strong and beautifully-made poetry there. They’ve nurtured their poets very well. In ’86 or ’87 they founded this Writer’s School there. It’s an incredible little idea. There was a Danish poet called Poul Borum, who was also a critic, and he was always looking for the new, new things. In the late ’80s, he founded this Writer’s School. It’s a creative writing school but founded by writers and completely built on the writer’s experience. It’s mostly focused on creating new texts.

JR: There has been a lot of criticism and backlash against some of the writer’s workshops in the United States and in England as well—but you think that this has worked well?

S: This has been working so well in Denmark. It’s really been an incredible breeding place for young talent. I think they’ve been nurturing their young poets there. Here in Iceland, to be a young poet is a struggle. As you know, most young poets here begin by self-publishing. That’s how we all begin, really. You publish your things yourself. And, fortunately, because of how small the country is, you manage, even though you might publish yourself, one or two reviews in the papers. Pretty soon after your first book you might find yourself at a reading where you are reading with more established poets. When I was eighteen, I did my first reading with four writers who were all absolutely part of the best in the Icelandic literary scene. I was just an eighteen-year-old there, very shy, but they welcomed me. It was a nice experience. So I think we have a tradition of that.

JR: Do you still value your early work? Is any of that early work going to be included in the Collected Poems that are going to be translated into English in the coming year?

S: Actually, yeah, last year we published the Complete Poems and it was the first time that I was faced with the idea of what to do with my earliest poems. My first poems were written when I was fifteen and published in the summer when I was sixteen, so it is really something that was written by a fifteen-year-old teenager. I actually decided to print them all, to just let them out there, because you can find them in the library. They are in the library and if somebody wants to read them they definitely can, so why don’t I just acknowledge that I wrote them and everybody will read them as the poems of a fifteen-year-old. But I am not sure I would have been so relaxed twelve years ago or so. Today, now, I am approaching middle age, so I’ve got no problem with that because the question of publishing is always the question of facing embarrassment. 

JR: Who are some of the novelists or poets writing nowadays, whether in Iceland or elsewhere, that you admire?

S: There is actually a Swedish writer who I am actually fascinated with called Torgny Lindgren. He is an incredible novelist. What have I been reading? In poetry, I really like the old guys. I also have been reading Octavio Paz, whom I find incredible. There is something about people like Paz and [Odysseus] Elytis, which I admire and envy. And that is the incredibly broad vision they have. They somehow manage to write about the universe and the life of the ladybug in the same poem. And this is something, I think, that is also important for today; poetry should still be the platform in which we can have this broad vision, where we can position man in the big picture, especially maybe now when we have this huge comeback [for] religion and religion is again claiming its role as the tool to position man. I think poetry should really state its case again as the other great tool we have, the tool that is devoid of dogma, the tool that is really the humanist way of positioning man. 

JR: How do you think the landscape of Icelandic literature has changed in the last fifty years?

S: What’s happened in the last thirty years is that we have much more professionalism. Today I think we have many more professional writers than ever before, more people who only do writing. And so in that sense, since the Second World War what has become true here is that we really have a literary scene, we really have a scene of professional writers and professionals in the publishing business. We have more people coming from the universities, scholars. It has become a real literary scene. 

JR: What do you think has been lost because of that? Clearly, writers have been moving away from the country, or maybe what you would call the native realm, and moving to the cities. Could you see a person like Halldór Laxness flowering today? He was more in touch with the land than a lot of writers are today. 

S: Let’s say the fairy tale that was Halldór Laxness will not repeat itself in the way it happened then, because the incredible thing about Halldór Laxness is the incredible thing about literature. He was actually born in Reykjavík. This is a man who was born in a town of 10,000 people, and he manages to find a way of holding the medal of the Nobel Prize in his hand one day. For me, that is an example of how literature should work. I am sure there is a town of 10,000 people in Benin today. It’s just as possible that a Nobel Prize winner is taking his first steps there now. That is the magical thing about literature, that it belongs to everyone. Storytelling belongs to everyone. Poetry belongs to everyone. I think we still have the situation here where writers, even though they are born and bred in Reykjavík—like I am, you know—we have contact with the country and the past. On the other hand, it is a question of whether the country has anything to tell us, and we should be challenging and channeling that. I’m not sure, but I think this democratic thing that I was talking about earlier—how we welcome new writers—is really the key to how Icelandic literature can renew itself. There is one thing happening at the moment, which is that Reykjavík has grown; I mean since I was a kid, Reykjavík has grown quite a lot. When I was a fifteen-year-old I just walked into the office of the writer’s union with a little poster I made myself and with a picture of myself and a little announcement that I had published my book and I put it on the wall there. While I was there one of the Atom Poets was visiting the office, and he looked at me and said: “How old are you?” And I said: “Fifteen.” “And you just published a book?” “Yes,” I said. “You’re very courageous.” And I said: “I hope so.” Then he just said goodbye. But then afterwards—it’s a small town—every time I met him in the street he said hi. So in a way he had already said, “Okay you are taking the step, you’re courageous, it’s going to be dangerous, but hi, there you are.” But today I think that there is more distance between young writers and established writers. That’s why maybe it’s necessary. That’s why we have for the first time departments of creative writing. Because if you are a fifteen-year-old writer today, the chance of somehow getting into the same place as the established writer is more difficult than it was when I was growing up thirty years ago.