day 3, Nýhil International Poetry Festival

I sometimes get the feeling that geography plays a big role in the development of poetic style. I remember how in Sheffield, when we got people from other parts of the country in to perform at Spoken Word Antics, they often seemed like a breath of fresh air…not that it ever felt stale in Sheffield. That was the funny thing; you had a vibrant, diverse scene going on, and then someone would come along from outside and do something that was just self-evidently different from anything anyone in Sheffield would do. And that’s a bit what it was like at Friday’s poetry reading, day three of the Nýhil International Poetry Festival (Fimmta alþjóðlega ljóðahátíð Nýhils). There were ten poets, four of them from abroad, working broadly within what you might call the avant-garde tradition.

Dmitry Golynko, a Russian poet who is published in New York, read mainly in English, with a high-pitched incantatory tone that signalled a constant state of alarm. Even as he read in English his pronunciation (‘w’ as /v/, for example) and the melody of his voice seemed to transform many of the words back into Russian, so that the poems often had a liquid quality to them, melting back and forth between one language and the other. The repeatedly intoned line ‘weep it out’ in one poem sounded to my ears like the Russian ‘vypytaiut’, with its connotations of extortion and interrogation, and I struggled to remind myself that it was English. I can’t comment much on the content, but a lot of it seemed to address Kafkaesque (or Putinesque) state machinations, so this mis-hearing on my part wasn’t completely out of place.

UKON, a Swedish poet, used a lot of repeated sentence structures in his poems. One piece simply consisted of a long list of questions about ‘the father’, each question ending with the answer ‘nothing’.

What had the father bought for a Christmas present?
What did the father do for a living?

The effect of these accumulated negations of paternal responsibility, care, and agency was drastic, yet not entirely bleak, probably because there was an element of caricature implicit in the degree of exaggeration. The total rejection and alienation of the father seemed to reflect as much on the subject of the poem as on the father, suggesting that the inadequacies of the father have been passed on to the next generation. The lack of specification of who the father was and what the speaker’s relation to him was left the poem open, so that it could be interpreted at an intensely personal level or at an institutional level — the role, and implied failure, of fathers in society.

Another poem of UKON’s that impressed me was about age and height, and was largely made up lines of the type, ‘At the age of 8 I was 120cm. Two years later I had grown an incredible 34cm’. It went from birth right through to death at the age of 84, and clearly evoked those marks most families make on some spare wall or doorframe to chart the growing height of their children. All went as expected for the first three decades, with rapid growth through childhood and puberty levelling off. In the 40s the subject shrank slightly due to an illness — a bit earlier than one would expect, but still plausible. But from the 50s onwards the subject’s height departed from all norms, shrinking, then growing, then shrinking again to just half a centimetre, before doubling in size to one centimetre and increasing again by 1000%. In old age the subject’s height became extremely volatile, fluctuating from zero in one year to 34 metres in another.

The way that in late middle age the height took off, rather than shrinking, had a fantastic sense of elation to it, as if the subject had been emancipated from the rigours of aging. Perhaps this represents the emancipation of retirement or the loss of inhibition that some people feel around that age. The volatility during old age, on the other hand, evoked for me the uncertainty and physical insecurity of old age. I felt that height worked in the poem as a metaphor for the ego, or perhaps general confidence and wellbeing. Maybe the slight shrinkage in the 40s was the onset of a mid-life crisis.

In the second half we heard from two Danish poets, Mette Moestrup and Morten Søndergaard. Moestrup read a piece that drew on her time working in a hospital cafeteria when they were issued with skirts that were too short. The poem was all in Danish, but somehow it was very easy to follow, and the occurrence of words like ‘feminist’, ‘sexist’, and ‘communist’ gave non-Danish speakers a pretty good idea of what was going on. I even found myself laughing in places, although though I couldn’t have told you exactly what was being said.

Morten Søndergaard finished the evening with a piece in which he tried to incorporate the ‘noise’ that you get when you open a file on the computer in the wrong programme — that jumble of unintelligible characters, yielding occasionally to strings of recognizable text. I always feel like I am being confronted, and affronted, with something when I see this, like seeing a mess of DNA code with an ear and some body parts floating about in it. Søndergaard’s method of rendering this noise in performance was through using his Kaoss Pad — an effects and sampler box, as far as I can work out — to modulate, distort, and screw around with his voice. This seemed like a pretty good audio equivalent; the noise in a file is language and formatting distorted by a computer, and the noise produced through his Kaoss Pad was also language (his voice) distorted through a computer.

He also performed it perfectly, managing seamless transitions between direct speech and the sampled sections, which nicely balanced being irritating, intriguing, and just a little bit amusing. The effects even provided some relief at the end of the poem, which consists of a large block of text something like this: ‘abbaaabba ggapp gabba baahba…’. He started reading this and my heart sank, —oh no, are we going to have to sit through a whole paragraph of this?! Then, just as I was about to become paralysed with despair, he started comically modifying the sounds he was producing, giving the whole thing a playful twist.

It’s harder to say much about the Icelandic poets because, with the exception of one (Kári Páll Óskarsson, I think), they spoke and read exclusively in Icelandic, and I’ve already gone on enough (in my previous post) about the excitement of listening to and miscomprehending poetry in a language you understand little of. I recognised Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir’s piece from the Summer Poetry Jam in May. It contains the phrases ‘Mr Brown’, ‘I am not a terrorist’, and ‘viltu pylsu?’ (‘do you want a hot dog?’), which effectively convey the thrust of what I take to be an angry and witty poem. I missed the line about the hot dog this time, but she made up for it with double-bass accompaniment.

I did wonder whether, in the international spirit of the Festival, all poets ought to be required to perform at least one poem in a language other than their own. Most of the visiting poets read in three languages — their own, Icelandic, and English — and I was struck by how comfortable they seemed be with their poems in translation. Maybe that is something that poets in non-English languages have to live with a lot more — seeing their poems alive in different languages, and not thinking of translations as second best, but as another manifestation of the poem, another part of its life. It’s all part of the process of letting go, which happens the moment you publish or perform your work, but even more so when you let someone else render it into a different language for you.

One Response to “day 3, Nýhil International Poetry Festival”

  1. zqblog says:

    […] There was a good mix of poets and assorted performers, including Corncrake with his Kaoss pad, best described as a little magic box that seemingly dispenses with the need for any kind of band and opens up new vistas of intra-personal collaboration. The last time I saw one of those was in the hands of Morten Søndergaard at the 2009 Nýhil International Poetry Festival, who used it to render linguistic noise (see my blog post on that night). […]

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