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Maintenant #5 – Gerður Kristný

A Hole in the Ice - Gerður Kristný interviewed by SJ Fowler.

I’d lay my ear to
the cracking of the ice
in the hope of hearing it
retreat
if I didn’t know
I’d be frozen fast

The ice lets no one go

My country
a spread deathbed
my initials stitched
on the icy linen
                                from Patriotic Poem

To stand apart from the wealth of poetic talent currently working in Iceland requires a unique eloquence of expression. The diminutive north sea nation is not short on artists, musicians and poets. Bearing a unique cultural tradition that emanates from the poetic, that is the written and spoken word of the sagas and the eddas, Iceland is a novum for ethereal, intuitive, organic poetry. Gerður Kristný is as fine an example as is to be found. Her work is cautious and collected, an image driven poetess, hollowing out poems into delicate structures that offer like the climate and geography of Iceland itself, a sense of humility, of beloved uncertainty and an appreciation of that which immediately surrounds. Her fourth collection is soon to appear in the upcoming year. For 3AM she speaks to SJ Fowler.

gerdur_kristny

3:AM: Your poetry seems extremely careful in its construction and very much concerned with exact statements. Do you edit your work from longer drafts or write in its form as seen?

Gerður Kristný: Each word is carefully chosen in my poetry. I compose my poems line by line but normally they appear in my books pretty much as I wrote them, I don’t rewrite them completely. My next book of poetry will though be radically different from the three previous collections since I will be telling a story. It’s the story of Freyr, the norse fertility god, who falls in love with Gerður and asks Skírnir, his messenger, to ask her to marry him. She doesn’t want to, so Skírnir threatens to kill her father and brothers and that convinces her. Freyr gives Skírnir his horse and his sword for his service. Freyr’s sword is magical in the sense that the one who holds it will not be killed in a battle and since Freyr has given away his sword for a woman he’ll die in Ragnarok. I wanted to tell this story from Gerður’s point of view. I spent some time thinking whether I write it as a novel or in a poem. I had doubts to whether my poignant style would work in a narrative poem but I’m pleased that it appears to be able to describe the dramatic too. I started working on the book in Stockholm, in October 2008 just as I got the news that Iceland’s financial system had collapsed. Maybe I’m one of those artists that thrives in crises.

3:AM: There seems to be elements of pronunciation in your work, not ecstatic, but certainly celebratory in its themes. Do you see your work as outward or inward? It appears your poetry seems rooted in your surroundings – your family, the climate and so forth, in this regard, are your poems inspirational or contemplative?

GK: I was 24 years old when my first poetry collection, Ísfrétt (Ice Warning), was published. My poetry was rather inward in the beginning. It took me six years to write my next collection, Launkofi (Secret Cabin, 2000). Time worked with me and the difference is obvious. The poems are much more outward and even more so in Höggstaður, (Weak Spot, 2007) my third and latest poetry collection. The frontiers of my poetry have expanded. Now I don’t hesitate to write about my deepest feelings, my family and what ever comes to mind. I can think about the same idea for weeks and months before I realise that it is actually a poem. One small example: my older son was born cross-eyed and had to have surgery in fact. A friend of mine looked at him and said ‘he’s got such beautiful eyes that they are drawn to each other.’ I kept telling people this until I realised that this could be something.

If a pregnant woman
stares at the stars
and the northern lights
the baby will be crosseyed,
says my friend

And look!
Your son
has such beautiful eyes
that they get drawn
to each other

3:AM: Much is said about the Icelandic environment, it‘s uniqueness, geographically, and its effect on Icelandic people, creatively. Physically, just literally, do you think your work supersedes this environmental reality or are you absolutely affected by the nature of Iceland?

GK: As I mentioned was my first poetry book was called Ice Warning and my poetry has always been covered with snow. So yes, Icelandic weather and nature have really affected my poetry. It’s dramatic. Serious weather changes can evoke stories and as do dangerous mountain roads. We don’t have dark woods or wolfs but we’ve got freezing storms and the winter darkness envelops us four months a year. That’s when things start to happen. During the summer there’s light all of the time and no need to sleep. And again, that is something worth telling.

3:AM: And emotionally, there is so much said about the ethereal nature of the Icelandic character, it‘s propensity for unique, poetic expression, it‘s idiosyncratic manner that seems to lie outside the norm of ‘Central European‘ culture. Do you think is a reality, or has it been made into something reductive and perhaps limited? To be more specific, it’s often said that Iceland lies outside of what may be called the Scandinavian tradition, do you think this is true of poetry too?

GK: Contemporary Icelandic poetry is rather down to earth. Last year a few poets wrote books specifically about the financial crisis, but poets that write about love and the landscape are still popular. Strangely there isn’t much love or landscape on the news nowadays and that’s when it comes to poetry. Icelandic readers are open to poetry. In schools we have to study poetry and learn poems by heart. Therefore most people can name their favorite poet. Many writers start their careers by publishing a poetry collection before writing a novel or short stories. Sometimes they publish the poetry themselves which can be a good experience. I chose to be published by a publishing house. I didn’t want to go between bars in the evening selling my books – like some poets did. I had won a poetry competition before I sent the publishing house my manuscript and published some of my poems in various literature magazines so my name was already known to the publisher.

3:AM: Often fascinating cultural and poetic traditions of expression emerge in countries where imported montheistic religions blend and mould with rich pre-existing belief systems, (voodoo and Catholicism in Haiti, paganism and Catholicism in Ireland etc…) Iceland appears to have held a strong connection to the pre-christian beliefs indigenous to the people. Do you think this shows up in the expression of Iceland in poetry, music, writing etc…?

GK: Icelanders have always been proud of the sagas and the eddas, old texts about the vikings and the old nordic goods. We have a small section of the population that still believes in these old gods, and the priests are allowed to marry people, so this is a respected religion. We still write about the viking times and that sort of literature remains very popular. The writer Einar Kárason received the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2008 for Ofsi, a story that takes place in the 13th century and The National Theatre is now showing Gerpla, a play written from Halldór Laxness’ novel about vikings.

3:AM: Relative to it’s geographical size the modern poetic tradition in Iceland is rich. I’d like to know how vital the influence of figures like Halldór Laxness, Steinn Steinarr and Guðmundur Böðvarsson remains on contemporary poets in Iceland?

GK: Halldór Laxness’ and Guðmundur Böðvarsson’s influences on modern poetry have never been that rich even though Laxness’ novels and other writings most certainly have. But Steinn Steinarr’s influences are immense. He wrote poetry about the common people for the common people and he did a lot to modernize Icelandic poetry. When Icelanders are in high school they all read Steinn Steinarr! The poets that have influenced me the most are Hannes Sigfússon (1922-1997) and Snorri Hjartarson (1906–1986). Snorri wrote about nature like no one else ever has and Hannes was one of the big modernists in Icelandic poetry. His poetry is obscure and complex and I always find something new in his work.

3:AM: Much has been made of the Icelandic music scene in the last few decades. Music is of course a poetic medium and often a linguistic one too. Is there interdisciplinary work emerging between the artistic communities in Iceland?

GK: In the 80’s rock concerts often started with a poetry reading. I remember warming up for The Sugercubes, fronted by Björk, at a concert in my high scool when I was 17. The writer Sjón (author of The Blue Fox published by Telegram 2008) often worked with The Sugarcubes and even sang with them. The collaborations between poets and musicians have all but ended. It was fun while it lasted!

(Special thanks to Kristín Viðarsdóttir at Reykjavík City Library).

sfowler1
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, March 14th, 2010.