Maintenant #42: Aase Berg
An interview with Aase Berg by SJ Fowler.
One of the most deft and iconoclastic poets in Northern Europe, over the course of the last 25 years Aase Berg has developed, remarkably, a reputation to match her talent. One of the founding members of the Stockholm Surrealist Group in 1986, it was during the 90’s that she came to the fore as one of the most prominent poets, theorists and critics in Sweden. In the 42nd edition of the Maintenant series she discusses the several collections of poetry she has published, some of which with the Bonnier publishing house, the largest and most prestigious in Sweden, and her thoughts in general on poetic innovation and the state of poetry in contemporary Sweden.
3:AM: I have heard it remarked that while in some European countries all poetic methodologies have become responsive to each other, perhaps due to the lineage of the poets in those countries, Germany for example, having both innovative and classic figures seen as great within their tradition, and while other countries have complete bisecting divisions between formal and experimental, Sweden actually has almost has no market for what one might term traditional poetry and that the only popular poetry is what some might term avant garde or experimental. Do you think this is true?
Aase Berg: It’s almost true. Experimental, complex, language-oriented poetry is definitely in the centre of the discussion about poetry, and will probably be the poetry going to history from this and the former decennium. But there are also some, very popular poets even populistic poets, some kind of slam poets or spoken word. A few of them sell in large amounts. Sometimes they are interesting, but more often they are not. With some exceptions, they are not possible to discuss, they are simply too shallow.
3:AM: For example you have published collections with Bonnier, one of the largest houses in Sweden, and your work is in no way formal. Do you think Sweden has altered with the changing face of poetry for a reason? Is it the readership or the force of the poets?
AB: I think it’s the critics, the literary magazines (the few that exist) and the smaller high quality publishing houses. I don’t think there are many people at my large publishing house that understand or even appreciate my poetry. Actually I have no idea why they still choose to publish my books, since they have been cutting heavily in the amount of poetry collections. Maybe because there are some single publishers at the big companies that still are willing to fight for their writers.
3:AM: What do you see as the trajectory of Swedish poetry over the last thirty years? From the outside, the figures of Martinson and Tranströmer, who hold such international prominence, seem to be perhaps heavily criticised by poets wanting to move away from their forms of poetic expression.
AB: I like Martinson, but Tranströmer is more annoying, in the sense that I feel somehow suffocated by his perfect images. Of course, I can’t deny his skills or influence on other poets, but I’m tired of these old, canonized men. I have learned a lot from poets like Martinson and Tranströmer, but I’m moving on. That goes for several other poets of my generation as well. You want to leave the perfect metaphor behind you, a wounded, vulnerable, ridiculous metaphor, or even no metaphor whatsoever.
3:AM: Could you outline the history of the Swedish surrealist group of which you were one of the founding members in 1986?
AB: We were completely asocial. We mixed the philosophy and methods of the French Surrealists with drug experiments and political happenings. After a while we started to take interest in contemporary natural science, or, we interpreted it poetically, I should say, since we didn’t understand much in a proper way. But nowadays I look back and realize that we lacked the feministic perspective. The surrealist group of Stockholm as it was in those days, and also the original surrealist movement, are almost the opposite of my feministic point of view today.
3:AM: The range and approach to poetry you have displayed in the fifteen years or so you have been writing is remarkable. Let us begin with With Deer. The form of your work here appears biologicial, wry, grotesque, you seem to use the prose poem as a medium in which to gently barrage the reader. The language is earthen, but very raw too. How do you feel about the collection now?
AB: During a period of time, for several years I was quite ashamed of that collection. It’s very kitschy, immature, even childish. But now, I like it again. I like the violence of it. It’s too much. I had no idea whatsoever what I was doing, but I was angry from the depths of my body, I completely hated this society and that affects the language in a fascinating way. I was the opposite of humble. I like that attitude from a young woman.
3:AM: Was this collection conceived as independent pieces, written perhaps over a course of time when you were younger, or was it written as a body of work?
AB: Both. The poetry came from the same source in me. But it’s written during three, maybe four years.
3:AM: Dark matter evokes Henri Michaux in its focus and specificity in using a topical model, in this case technology and science, to create mini-parables defined by vivid and incisive phrases that warp and bend their original subject into a new, poetic manner. How did you conceive of the collection?
AB: Dark matter is my hallucinations of imagination. I simply wrote them as I felt them. There are a lot of cultural influences and references in it, of course, but I wasn’t conscious of that at the time.
3:AM: Transfer fat is a genuinely remarkable exercise in care and poignancy. The subtlety and measure of the poems is engorged by their slightness. How much had changed in your approach to your poetry by this collection?
AB: Transfer fat is a pregnancy journey. Pregnancy is outer space. I started to experience new feelings of empathy (before that, I was quite cruel I think), and it was going on between me and the strange, unborn and, later, newborn child and nobody else. I had no dreams of cute babies, I didn’t even like children. So I looked upon it as an alien, with unpredjudiced interest and respect. Since then, I have been mixing rage with tenderness in my books. It made the poetry more profound. All poets should become parents.
3:AM: Was this the point in which your reputation started to become nationwide and even international?
AB: Maybe it was, I’m not interested in reputation. Reputation won’t give you food on the table. Many people in this business think that feeding the poet’s vanity is enough. I don’t agree. I want cash.
3:AM: Uppland seems to extend the refining process even further than Transfer fat. This transference in your methodology from producing expansive prose poetry to slim, 5-12 poems seems to run on a scale, the longer you have been writing the less you feel you wish to write in each poem. Is this a conscious decision?
AB: No, it’s not a conscious decision, but I get more and more interested in ambiguous words. I want the images to move inside the single words, instead of, as in my first collections, in the poems as a whole. And you can’t even imagine what an ambiguous language Swedish is! There are so many possibilities of mixed meaning in single words. It’s fascinating, beautiful. And my poems are untranslatable. But my translator, Johannes Göransson, succeeds anyway. I have no idea how he does it.
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 26th, 2010.