Maintenant #41: Jón Örn Loðmfjörð
An interview with Jón Örn Loðmfjörð by SJ Fowler.
Jón Örn Loðmfjörð is a poet who presents his us with a paradox. The sensation of reading his work can be quixotic, even caustic, yet he is undoubtedly a poet so utterly without pretension, with an indelible skill in the way he wields humour and a violent sense of satire that we cannot help but feel reassured, that poetry in a medium for criticism and change, and one that is far more sophisticated than mere polemicism. The paradox is that he is hardly an optimistic poet in manner or guise, but yet the feeling we are left with is one of urbane rigour and integrity. The final poet to be featured in the Maintenant series who participated in our exceptional Icelandic reading program in November 2010, the work of Jón Örn Loðmfjörð was a revelation to all who witnessed it read live as it has been to come across on paper. In a typically frank interview we are extremely proud to present Jón Örn Loðmfjörð as the 41st edition of Maintenant.
3:AM: It seems your practise in poetry often revolves around subversion. Both in its creation – your utilisation of technology, your splicing techiques – and its performance.
Jón Örn Loðmfjörð: I had been writing poems for some time when I started working as a programmer in an advertising agency and when I was not working I attended classes in gender studies. It was rather funny to spend one hour discussing the imagery of an ad campaign, how androcentric it was and then spend another hour in the office listening to young males planning a similar campaign – even sometimes a campaign that I would have to analyze in class later.
But one way or another, both groups came to the right conclusions. The imagery of advertisements is disgusting, humiliating and androcentric – but the target group of 18-25 year old males (as an example) is insecure and willing to do anything to confirm his gender and sexual orientation – so why not just put in a lot of naked ladies and get done with it?
I soon realized that I could not discuss this with people in marketing the same way I talk to fellow students in gender studies. What is considered common sense in gender studies is considered wrong in marketing. People in marketing ask themselves: what color, form, words, sound is associated with the product? What age and gender is the target group? I think that lately, some marketing people have become willing to look away from some elements of the brand (form, color, words, sound, etc.) to create more dynamic identity but sex and age are variables that no one in his right mind in marketing is willing to question – that’s just how it is.
A lot of things in our society is nothing more than a touch of superficial PR, images created with tricks and without any logical structure behind them… Often these images can be exposed as superficial simply by introducing them into a new context – where everyone can identify them for what they are: ridiculous.
I have often used my computer generators to do something like this. The computer cuts up the text without any preconceived ideas of the normative meaning – while I’m often too conscious of the repulsiveness of the material I’m working with.
3:AM: Could you detail your translating machine creations? Were they simply conceived as ways to satirise other forms of poetry?
JÖL: Well, recently I have mainly used them to satirise other forms of poetry and text. The computer can work as a thousand pairs of scissors and it’s very easy and helpful to use it to create a new connection between different texts or distort something beyond recognition in a short time. But I have written a lot of generators for many purposes. Text, sound and graphics.
I started playing with a few tools for generative composing and then started programming my own tool, which made some kind of music by manipulating both random sound inputs (internet radios, my own recordings etc.) and scores found on the internet. It became a really big obsession – even my geekiest friends started to avoid conversations with me. So I guess I was kind of lucky when my hard disk crashed and I was forced to think about something else.
People who quit smoking often lose their minds when they find that all their senses are fully active again. I think something similar happened to me. After having spent a few months of listening to nearly random noises, I began to see patterns in everything. All music was a table. All text was a table. So I started to dabble in creating computer Haikus at first, as a way of showing a friend why I dislike them. And it evolved from there and since then I’ve created a lot of different text machines for different projects. From very simple scripts to much more advanced texts, from Haiku’s to parliament speeches.
But I’ve never really wanted to focus on my generators. Or only write and create by using them. I dislike when people ask me: “Did a computer program write this?”
I just nod my head even if I wrote it “myself”.
3:AM: Do you see the performance of your text as an opportunity to fashion a wholly new piece of artwork? By being drunk and occasionally abusive?
JÖL: Hah! I think it’s partly because I didn’t start reading poems as a poet. My first performances were as a member of a poetry group making noises with a computer or forcing other people to read generated text – where being annoying was one of the goals – well for me at least, I thought I was in a silly punk band.
And I have occasionally planned things to do. To break things up. Or planned a character who reads the thing. It all depends on the venue and the crowd. Being drunk helps. Everyone believes a drunk person who begins to cry about his inadequacy or starts being really abusive – and there are really a lot of things you can do with a crowd and a stage.
But then again I try not to overdo it. I’m not in the business of doing performance art – and I really don’t want people to analyze my performance too much instead of the text and I don’t want people to expect some spectacle every time – Sometimes I really just read.
3:AM: What is the content of your latest collection Gengismunur about?
JÖL: I heard the other day that a literature student in the University of Iceland told his teacher that it was too much gibberish to be analyzed. The teacher replied that it was rather a collection of words than a poetry book.
in the stock report
in the netto version of collateral loans
in the called version of the hotels
the time period takes experience
the day seems like
a euro at an introduction
in the rapid partaking
of financial companies
and goes all clear
like a chapter that was at an end
I always wanted to make a book with only computer generated texts. I just needed the right concept.
In April 2010, The Special Investigation Comission (SIC hoho) published a grand report analyzing the process leading to the collapse of the three main banks in Iceland. It instantly became a big success, selling a lot of copies as well as being downloaded massively from the website of Parliament. It became a sort of Holy Writ, something that couldn’t be criticized and at the same time begging to be picked at.
I downloaded the report and while my computer slowly extracted and analyzed every word in the text, I made a lot of patterns from modern Icelandic poetry – “This is how an ideal poem should look like” and sadly the computer didn’t know any better and complied with my wishes of molesting Icelandic poetry with the economical jargon (and other words) found in the SIC report.
Then some friends and I used a simple web interface to choose which verses were any good. After a few days I had more than 100 pages full of text approved by my “workers”. I then looked quickly over the text a few times, cutting out anything that made sense and highlighting interesting grammar errors, then rearranging, and finally I decided on how many poems should be in the book.
The process of me editing and writing the book in the end was much more like a tourist taking a picture repeatedly of what he found interesting and then selecting some to show to his parents rather than me staring at a blank paper thinking constantly “What is poetic about this report?” Gengismunur was proudly made on an assembly line.
I can understand that people think of Gengismunur simply as a collection of words. I really tried hard to not include anything in the text that could be perceived as a statement, a message. If there is any message it rather comes from how the book was made. I’m tired of the economical discourse which has been normalized in political discussion. It’s a highly meritocratic ideology meant to scare most people away from participating in the discussion and encouraging only those who understand those empty words to debate on important issues – who decided social issues are economical issues?
Behind the image of every bank is a big trustworthy sans-serif caption with an over-photoshopped model looking confident. You only have to scribble a little bit on the advertisement to see how empty this image is. That’s probably why all good citizens are afraid of graffiti. The book is just a little bit of scribble on the SIC report.
I also think it’s comical to see how seldom Icelandic poets criticize their own medium. How they use it. Not only what they write about but also how they arrange the words, the letters on the paper, and never seem to care about the result, the book – when a poet has emailed his word document to a publisher, it’s not his business anymore. It may be easy to laugh at an artist who foams at the mouth when he observes how badly the curator has placed his picture – but I think it’s even funnier to see
young people write
like everyone else
maybe thinking pressing
gives them some control
but without really asking themselves basic questions, like why is the form still like this? Is a book the only acceptable medium for poetry? Can I use books in other ways?
Sometimes you hear poets say that poetry is more linked to visual arts than other literature – but when you see a lot of poets clinging on to the same overused Icelandic modern form, it starts to look more like a grid-based graphic design than a painting.
3:AM: How did you collaboration with Tom Jenks work? Was the experience of reading in London for Maintenant positive?
JÖL: I found the collaboration very interesting, although during the whole process I repeatedly went all the way from being super-optimistic to not believing in it at all and back again – but I’d say that’s only normal because I have a quite capricious temperament. The way Tom writes is very different from mine, I think. I sometimes had to ask a lot of questions to figure out what he was talking about, both because I’m not used to writing in English and also because I might not grasp references to English history as quickly as the common reader perhaps would. Scott Thurston, a friend of Tom’s, told me he couldn’t see who wrote what, that my lines made him think of Tom and vice versa. I find that great. That in this collaboration, something came into being that we never could have created individually.
Reading in London was awesome. I was surprised to see the breadth among the English poets and just how good everyone was in general – I’ve been to so many boring poetry readings that I got seriously worried when the staff of the Icelandic embassy locked the front doors so that I couldn’t very well sneak outside to have a smoke, but I didn’t need to, it was all great. Holly Pester’s performance, in particular, was truly outstanding.
3:AM: You’re not new to collaboration, working with Eirikur Orn Norddahl to great effect. Do you think collaborations are under utilised between poets?
JÖL: I like the change, it’s fun to force yourself to work in a different way than usual. And if it goes well the results can be quite interesting, or at least informative for all concerned. One might be prone to getting too absorbed in one’s own thoughts sometimes and then it becomes necessary to distantiate oneself from the project and return to it later with a cool head. Then it can be fun to have someone around who simply says “yes” or “no” right off – a refreshing kick to the face.
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, December 19th, 2010.