Maintenant #31: Paal Bjelke Andersen
“We do not measure success by the number of casualties on the other side” – an interview with Paal Bjelke Andersen by SJ Fowler.
To complete our series of interviews with Norwegian poets in celebration of the Maintenant: Ny Poesi readings held in London recently we present Paal Bjelke Andersen, one of the most formidable poetic performers, thinkers and activists in current European poetics. Deeply engaged, both politically and theoretically, Andersen’s concerns are archetypal of the very best use of contemporary innovative poetry as a invaluable medium for social and political criticism. His relentless and profound poetry is never obtuse, never oblique, rather it serves to strip away pretension and take the reader / listener immediately to the invaluable nature of its concerns. Andersen is one of those rare poets whose action seems exactingly apt for the nature of their subject matter, and a poet who shows the now obvious fact that poetry constrained by method is a poetry that will omit the speech of our current culture. He wowed the audiences at the Maintenant readings in London and we are very pleased to present Paal Bjelke Andersen as the 31st subject of the Maintenant series.
3:AM: There seems to be a vibrant and potent poetry scene across Scandinavia that utilises some of the more inventive and expansive conceptions of poetry at the moment, yet each poet I speak to seems to think their work is being rather under-appreciated. Being at the centre of this community, how do you think experimental poetry stands in Scandinavia?
Paal Bjelke Andersen: The term “experimental poetry” I find difficult. I may well answer that so called “experimental poetry” has been very strong in Sweden over the past decade, that it has got a stronger position in Denmark over the last four or five years and that there have been done some important “experimental” works in Norway since 2000. But then we must also define what “experimental” is, and is not. If experimental poetry is a poetry that stands in opposition to “official verse culture,” and if this term again refers to a dominant I-oriented, lyrical, metaphor-based poetry, we can say that it is written and published somewhat, but there is not very much “experimental poetry” in Norway. However, we then also have to include that the major Norwegian publishing houses issue experimental poetry alongside the more traditional, that each book has the same distribution as others, that it gets as much attention in the press and that it largely has the same economic conditions. In Denmark there is hardly any “official verse culture” left. It’s just one big publishing house left which publishes poetry. Many of the most acclaimed poets are without publishers, regardless of how they write. This situation has arisen in the last three years. The good side of this is that a series of small, non-profit-driven publishing houses have emerged which publishes some really interesting works by younger poets. And if we look at Sweden, one can ask whether the “experimental poetry” is about to become the official verse culture. The largest publishing house publishes at least as much experimental as traditional poetry, and it might even get more attention in the media than the traditional, also when it’s published by the small presses.
Ten or five years ago I would have responded differently. Then parts of the poetry field was concerned with introducing and trying out strategies from the historical avant-garde and contemporary American, Canadian and French poetry. At the same time there was a large network of independent agents in Scandinavia, trying out alternative forms of publishing and distribution. This work also takes place now, but at that time many of us in a more acute way felt our own national poetries and institutions too limiting. Discovering that the discussions going on and the works done in for example Calgary were closer to my own concerns than what’s going on in Oslo, made me think: “if this is the most interesting poetry I know of right now, why not publish it in Norway?” In one way you could say that the experiments had a purpose in themselves, expanding what could be written and how poetry could be distributed. Now this “new” situation is in the process of being internalized, to some degree also by the literary institutions in Scandinavia. So we don’t feel the same need to experiment with the genre and the infrastructure as before. We ask ourselves different questions. For my part, that includes “What can we utilize this kind of poetry and infrastructure for?”
3:AM: You seem to engage in using found text & sound work, could you outline The Grefsen Address, a fine example of your work, its concept and how it was published and received?
PBA: In the Nordic countries the prime ministers and presidents give a televized speech to the people, each New Year’s Day. The Grefsen Address is an adapted version of these speeches from 2000 to 2010. It shows, in other words, a particular view of the Norwegian and Danish Prime Ministers and the Finnish and the Icelandic presidents’ view of the world in the last 10 years (the Swedish Prime Minister does not give a New Year speech). The fragments from the individual speeches are reproduced in the original languages, Norwegian, Danish, Finland-Swedish, Finnish and Icelandic. The book consists of eight sections: 1) All the sentences where the word “Nordic” is used, 2) all the places mentioned in the speeches, 3) all the sentences using the words “language”, “Norwegian,” “Danish”, etc., 4) all individual groups mentioned in the speeches, that is the people, 5) all the sentences using the word “border”, 6) all individuals mentioned in the speeches, 7) all sentences using the word “war”, and 8 ) a piece where I walk from my home at Grefsen in Oslo, down to the city center, around the Norwegian Parliament and back home.
The occasion for this book was a seminar which was held at Biskops-Arnö outside of Stockholm in the spring of 2007, which brought together writers and editors from the Nordic network I mentioned above. We were asked to bring with us a text we could read one of the evenings, and I did a little piece on the Norwegian and Danish Prime Ministers’ New Year’s speeches. My Finnish editor, Leevi Lehto was just about to start up Ntamo (as a matter of fact he presented the press at this seminar). He obviously liked what he heard and asked me to make a book out of it. In a sense, The Grefsen Address is a response to an inevitable but problematic and seldom discussed aspect of the Nordic cooperation: While Norwegians, Swedes and Danes more or less share the same language – we understand each other without problems – a joint Nordic dialogue provides that the Finnish and Icelandic participants speak a language other than their own. This is simply a condition of participation. The Grefsen Address is written in all the Nordic languages, it is a book addressing the Nordic community, but then it is also partially illegible for most of us.
3:AM: And your work, Dugnad, seems to be engaged with found text as its primary action?
PBA: Dugnad is published by Flamme Forlag, an imprint on one of the three largest publishing houses in Norway. About half of the texts have previously been published in various Scandinavian journals and anthologies, about half of them are written for this book. I think of it as a very Norwegian book, addressing Norwegian readers and Norwegian mentality. There are many references here that foreign readers will not catch.
One way to describe the book is that it examines my own poetry and the Norwegian contemporary language statement position. And that it does so by reworking already existing text. But I might as well say that it shows different forms of Norwegian language use, and thus some Norwegian views of the world. Anyway, I have tried to make this into a book in which individual texts are responding to each other. Two examples: 1) The book begins with the Norwegian part of The Grefsen Address and ends with “The name – a poem for reading aloud in Norwegian, Danish and Swedish.” This text contains the 577 names I have found of Afghan civilians killed in the ISAF forces’ operations, as well as the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish soldiers killed in the same operations. And throughout the book captions from the photographies from Afghanistan printed in Aftenposten, one of the largest newspapers in Norway, are running at the bottom of each page, from the front cover to the back cover. These photographs the newspaper have received from the Norwegian armed forces and the international photo agencies. In other words they represent the western gaze on Afghanistan. In fact, they mostly depict Western soldiers, the few depicted Afghans are almost never named.
In the book you’ll find three self-portraits, which are all made by cutting out the phrases and sentences that I could use to describe my own life. The background for the “Self-Portrait as Finnish poet” is as follows: In 2008 I participated in a monthly seminar which brought together critics and writers from most of Scandinavia. There a discussion evolved about whether we should use the Finnish (Helsinki) or the Swedish name (Helsingfors) on Finland’s capital. This may sound trite, but refers to a century-long conflict for supremacy between the Finnish-speaking and the Swedish-speaking part of the Finnish population, where the Swedish-speaking population long constituted official stand, a power structure which today is turned completely on its head, the Finnish speaking population dominates. During the discussion attitudes which I was very uncomfortable with came up among the Swedish-speaking Finns. A little later the seminar visited Helsinki and I was supposed to talk about an anthology of Finnish poetry translated into Swedish, on the basis that I perceived the Finnish poems as very different from Swedish and Norwegian poems. As a response to the discussion I rather chosed to focus on the familiar, wrote “Self-Portrait as Finnish poet” and read it aloud.
“Self-Portrait as a Norwegian poet of the seventies” is based on an anthology of Norwegian “engaged poetry” from 1970-78. Coincidentally several of the poets represented lived in the part of Norway where I grew up, so I get some very specific autobiographical elements in this text. However, it is also a chance to tie the book up against a group of writers who attempted to write a politically conscious poetry, which, among other things means that there is a lot of dialect in this text. Language policy has always been important in Norway, the dialect is an important marker of identity and the struggle between town and country, central and local governments have often had language policy implications.
In a genre that is so tied to the voice as poetry, I find it very interesting to express the personal through other’s text. To simply take their words in my mouth, creating an identity through the language I use. To me this is a fundamental experience. I grew up speaking what was called “Norway’s ugliest dialect.” For us it was an honorary designation, we looked with deep scepticism at people whose language revealed that they came from the capital, Oslo. As I have moved around (and been reading books) my language has changed. The Sandefjord dialect, I can no longer replicate, but I cannot speak proper Norwegian either. This state, becoming through what you say, and at the same time being able to place yourself inside and analyze specific discourses, is to me one of the truly interesting aspects of poetry.
3:AM: You have an indelible and unique reading style, one that calls back to the iconoclastic figures in 20th century sound and concrete poetry, thinking of Gombrich, Mayer, Cobbing. Do you follow the work to read a certain way or do you have a specific conception of what a poetry reading should be?
PBA: I do not think about my own texts or readings as sound poetry, although many poets whose works are clearly influenced by sound poetry, for example Caroline Bergvall, interests me a lot. It’s more about highlighting the reading as something different than a verbal reproduction of the printed text. That said, some of the most repetitive texts in The Grefsen Address have the character of sound poetry when read aloud – they highlight clusters of phonemes rather than semantic fields. And in “The name”, subtitled “a poem for reading aloud in Norwegian, Swedish and Danish” the sonic is essential. It is a text that tries to do something very simple: to let these names be heard in Norwegian (the text was first printed in a newspaper). However, it also shows an insurmountable distance: as Norwegians most of us are unable to pronounce these names correctly, we have no real understanding of the consequences of the Norwegian warfare in Afghanistan.
In general I would say that different texts, maybe even that different places and occasions, asks for different ways of reading. How I relate to the reading is probably very influenced by Charles Bernstein’s essay “Close Listening”. He talks about the reading as a form of publication, in principle equivalent to the printed text. Thus every reading is a new publication of the poem, equivalent to different editions of a printed text when it comes to format, paper, typography, etc. In Dugnad I have a text which first was published in a Norwegian magazine in 2008, but now is rewritten for this particular book. This text will be rewritten once more, for a translation that’s supposed to be published in Iran. When reading it I write new version, made to suit the specific occasion.
3:AM: You have discussed your engagement and influence from contemporary French avant garde poetry, could you detail that for us?
PBA: A very simplified view of much of the most interesting Scandinavian poetry in the last 10 years may be that it is based on three components: 1) A tradition that stretches from Charles Reznikoffs “found poetry” in Testimony to conceptual poets such as Kenneth Goldsmith and Robert Fitterman , 2) a tradition of focusing on the material qualities of language, such as sound poetry, concrete and visual poetry and some of the American Language poetry and 3) a tradition focusing on the poem as a constellation of statements, for example, as we find it in the poetry of Emmanuel Hocquard and Claude Royet-Journoud, and in a completely different form in Ron Silliman term “The New Sentence.” In parallel, you will also find a refraction equivalent to that between the (early) Language, poetry and the aforementioned French poet’s “Poetry blanc” autonomous and genre-specific view on poetry on the one hand and “post-language” poets such as Juliana Spahr and the conseptualists, and French poets such as Anne-James Chaton, Christophe Hanna and Franck Leibovici on the other. These impulses have obviously been treated in very different ways by individual poets, and in addition, the national differences play a major role. The Scandinavian national literatures differ, you respond to different expectations, the same strategies can have different functions within different institutions, etc.
3:AM: You seem to be engaged in some fascinating collaborative projects with poets in Iran, could you outline this?
PBA: The last year I have had two month-long stays in Iran and I leave for four new weeks next weekend. My aim is quite simply to make an anthology of contemporary Iranian poetry, translated into Norwegian. The starting point are some readings I attended and some conversations I had with a group of Iranian poets the first time I was there. Although we have read and are influenced by a lot of the same European and American poetry and theory, the poems we write are very different. I am quite simply trying to understand what this difference consists in, by creating an anthology that makes some of the reasons for these differences legible for Scandinavians. This is of course also an attempt to understand how Iranian poetry relate to the political, cultural and social conditions of Iran right now.
3:AM: What is the history of the Audiatur festival? How did it begin? It seems to have gained a vast reputation in Scandinavia and perhaps Europe.
PBA: Audiatur is a biannual poetry festival that was started by Martin Sørhaug and Audun Lindholm in Bergen in 2003. From 2005, a group of 7-8 people, writers and editors of journals and small presses, have been running it together.
The reasons why Audiatur has been such a successful poetry festival are many. I can name a few: 1) We have endeavored to present the good performers. In most cases we have met all the invited poets beforehand and know how they act on a stage, as well as socially. 2) Compared to many other festivals, we have relatively few participants, 16-18 over four days, All of them performing 2-3 times. Those who need it get long readings and we strive to give everyone the same attention, whether it is a Swedish poet with only one book published or a internationally renowned poet. 3) For each festival we have released a 800 page “catalogue” with texts by and about the participants and the communities they represent. In this way we have ensured that the festival is thoroughly documented and have an afterlife. 4) Bergen is a small town with a very active literary community. Audiatur is as much a social as an artistic happening. Participants live and eat together for 4 days, and the distance between audience and performers are literally short. Whats happening between the readings is almost as important as the readings themselves.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 10th, 2010.