Maintenant #8 – Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl
‘Prostitutes don’t just get lucky by accident’ – an interview with Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl by SJ Fowler
Vikings cry fly-agarics
Male seeks aid for
settlement of kitchen
forgets nothing (all gone)
The Central Bank is not a
house but a state of mind
from ‘Fist or words bereft of sense’
As iconoclastic a poet as Iceland has produced since Steinn Steinarr, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl is at the forefront of poetic experimentation and is widely respected across Europe and America for his valuable engagement with sound poetry, concrete and free verse. He is a formidable performer and reader, a frequent essayist and theorist, a member of the Flarf movement and has resided and performed regularly at festivals and events across Europe. His poetry is gregarious and vivid but always retains the clear mark of a skilled and concise practitioner. He engages and subverts the traditional subject matter of the Icelandic artist and in the most loyal spirit of the best work of his home nation is pan-European in his inclusive and distorting methodologies. He is a seminal and groundbreaking poet, and perhaps, he provides a model for the type of figure who will emerge from the aftermath of the experimental revolutions of generations past. His work can be viewed in depth on his extensive website and for 3:AM, he speaks to SJ Fowler,
3:AM: It appears you have a definite view of the aesthetics of poetry, do you ascribe poetry a wide dictum in terms of definition and more importantly, in terms of purpose? Does poetry have an ascribable purpose at all?
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl: I consider myself an experimental pluralist. I believe every creative person has to continually rediscover the artform that they work with, continually challenge their own assumptions about what their art should do, what it does and perhaps most of all what it can do. I find this feeling of discovery gets lost a lot, personally and socially – in the macro-sense I see societies of art stagnate and (unconsciously, unironically and therefore bereft of meaning) replicate and rereplicate and in the micro-sense I see myself do it. For me art is this continual rediscovery of the world and without it there’s only decorations.
3:AM: One way of rediscovering is shuffling through the world at a high pace, stopping abruptly and asking: wtf? And then pursuing an answer to said wtf.
EON: I’m interested in your journey into the more experimental realms of poetic output. Did you begin reading more classical verse and grow into using concretism, sound poetry and open verse?
I never read much verse, except as a child in school, and then later after I’d already started experimenting and had become more interested in form as such. I started writing bad love poetry for my girlfriend and being interested in poetry as a sort of joke – the Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning school of poetry. Poetry as the absolutely most boring thing the world could have to offer – or contrarily the most private thing a person could do.
One of my best friends was very much interested in hip hop and thereby alot more lyrically conscious than I was. Although I didn’t share his enthusiasm for hip hop (at the time, that came later) we listened to Rage Against the Machine together and I started picking up more of the lyrics than usually. Then I heard RATM perform Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Hadda be Playin’ on the Jukebox’ and I was ecstatic – I looked up Ginsberg, read Howl and found poetry full of nakedness, sex, drugs and drinking – poetry that I related to, which in and of itself was a great discovery. That poetry wasn’t just horrifyingly boring. We’d been forced to read all sorts of nationalist poetry in elementary school, all sorts of contained, disciplined, quarantined and disinfected poetry. And this had none of that and all of something else. This wasn’t vitamins made to be good for me – this was unhealthy raving nonsense ready to tell anyone and everyone to fuck off at a moments notice, a lot more so than any Ramones record, Kurt Cobain or just about anybody else.
Through Ginsberg I discovered Whitman, William Carlos Williams and later William Blake. I discovered Kerouac and Burroughs, Snyder and Corso and the rest of the Beats. After about five or six years of extensively reading poetry I’d nevertheless started to get really bored – I wanted to rediscover the original feeling that poetry was fun. At this time the internet was there, but it wasn’t half as cool as it is now, so I couldn’t just look up Hugo Ball or anything – I couldn’t find anything my library (in Ísafjörður, pop. 3.500) didn’t have or I wasn’t ready to dish out money for. So I bought some anthologies, mostly of slam-poetry, mostly bad – and for some time I was pretty disheveled about the whole thing, about poetry.
I published my first poetry book in 2002 which was sort of lyrical, partly Ginsberg inspired, and partly Haiku-inspired, but I didn’t really know where to go from there. I’d just moved to Berlin when I started experimenting – because I wanted change, I wanted the rush of discovery and I didn’t know where to go to find it. First I experimented with simple things like Burroughs/Gysin cut-up methods, then I ran into some translation software and started experimenting with that. At the same time I was picking up a lot of language from news stories and the internet in general, and piecing together poetry from all sorts of sentences that I found in some way transgressive, sentences I felt stopped me dead. I also started writing for the stage – we had just founded Nýhil and organized monthly art-parties in Berlin. I was always very stressed about reading and would always read too fast – people would tell me: Eiríkur, you need to read slower. But at these Nýhil parties, with all the drinking and nonsense that came with them, I started reading even faster and using the rhythm as a tool – as well as the audience as a manouvering space for transgression, for stopping-dead. I found that I could channel my stress into the reading by just reading the way I felt like reading, and instead of holding back I’d rush forward. And that’s how the sound poetry started – by reading really fast I found a new way for me to understand my own texts, which again influenced how I would write for the stage.
Most of my experimental work has come to be through similar methods – I find that if I dick around for a long enough time I eventually run into something interesting. And when I run into something interesting I try to stick with it and learn how it functions. I like to work in a space where I feel I’m not familiar with what I’m doing. When I start feeling familiar I try to move on.
3:AM: Does Iceland have a significant history of avant-garde poetry over the last hundred years, though I am familiar with modernism in Iceland, more extreme experimentation is not known to circles outside of Iceland in a significant way.
EON: No. That’s the short answer. Modernism in Iceland is more of the TS Eliot variety than it is of the Gertrude Stein variety – let alone Dada or Futurism. There are single examples of sound poetry, visual poetry and experimental writing in Iceland’s history, but they are mostly odd singularities – there’s no avant-garde tradition in Icelandic poetry, and even those poets that have dabbled in the avant-garde have done so ocassionally as “undisciplined youths” and then abandoned it for more mainstream poetic projects. When avant-garde poetry surfaces in Iceland it is mostly understood as novelty-item, joke or attempted artyfartyism – and dismissed posthaste.
3:AM: In terms of sound poetry, how do you approach the construction of that work? Who has been especially influential to your work in sound poetry?
EON: I worked with Paul Dutton last summer and he told me I shouldn’t call my work sound poetry, as it really was verbal poetry. I disagree with Dutton, but what he meant was that (most of) my sound work is actual words in actual, grammatically correct, sentences. I usually start with a concept and work from there. In the dictator series for instance, I’d noticed that a lot of dictators had interestingly sounding names (Pol Pot, Deng Xiaoping etc. etc.) – probably because many of them are Asian or from other languages whose sounds are very different from Icelandic or Nordic (I’d even dare say Western) languages. And so they’re names could also effect words in Icelandic, feeding them with a strangeness. The project also interested me as a political essay, to take the nonsensical cruelty of dictatorship (as well as the nonsensical weight of these words – Hitler’s the heaviest word in the world, and it’s proven too heavy for me, I still have no Hitler poem in the series) and turn it into a farce of silly sounds. So I took different forms – quatrains, pantoums etc. – emphasized over-alliteration and just ran with it.
3:AM: It seems you are an extremely reputed reader of your work and you have traveled extensively giving readings? Do you approach reading as altogether separate skill than the writing of your work?
EON: I don’t like reading most of my work aloud. But I’ll put it all on a page, more or less. Some poems are written to be read aloud, and some are impossible when quiet on the page. People have asked me why I publish them written at all, as they are obviously meant to be read aloud. The obvious answer is that alot of poetry is best aloud, but that doesn’t mean the poet who wrote them needs to be the one reading them aloud. If I publish them, they can be a part of the readers reading experience – he or she can read them to themselves. I agree that some of it’s athletic, but alot of it’s also much easier when read at half-volume or whispering, but still interesting to a reader (I hope). And many of my poems that CAN be read on the page, are MEANT to be read aloud – I’d recommend it to everyone, if a poem doesn’t seem to be communicating with you, try reading it aloud.
That being said, reading is obviously performative. Most poets feel that they need to take care and rework their poems, over and over again, but wouldn’t give five minutes of practice for a performance. They relegate the actual sound of the poems to a theoretical dimension and ignore the practical application of those sounds. I’m a religiously nervous person and I can’t propose a toast without knowing exactly, word for word, what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it – and this performance neurosis has made it very natural for me to practice. I need to be absolutely sure of what I’m going to do, otherwise it’ll all go to hell.
3:AM: I’m interested also in the more biographical reality of the growth of your work. Were you well supported in Iceland? Did you begin to travel yourself to build up readings? Do you receive alot of requests to travel now you have become established?
EON: I don’t feel that I’ve been well supported in Iceland – not by institutions in any case – but perhaps that’s just ingratitude. I’ve gotten two smaller stipendiums and a couple of travel grants. The first two or three readings I did abroad were through personal contacts, where somebody I knew invited me to come read somewhere and I’d apply for a travel-grant based on that invitation. And from there the ball simply started rolling – somebody organizing a festival in place b saw me perform in place a and so on. I’m not sure how many requests I get a year, maybe one a month. I accept most of them, if I’m not busy.
It’s been a little over 10 years since I decided for sure, rock-solid, that I was going to be a writer no matter what. In that time I’ve mostly hustled – I’ve worked as a nightwatchman, I’ve worked as a reporter (and skipped having a social-life, mostly, working at night instead of watching TV or meeting people), I’ve signed up for school to be applicable for student loans (and then dropped-out, as I was home writing), I’ve collected unemploymant benefit, I’ve worked three jobs for several weeks to be able to relax and write for a couple of months – I’ve been really poor, collected gross debts. In the last three years I’ve twice gotten a smaller stipendium, and I’ve translated several crime-novels and the like, and thus manage an existence where I can “work from home” (or more accurately, from the library, as I have a six-month-old baby at home who makes it kinda hard to work there).
3:AM: It seems too you are adaptable to modern media, that you utilise the vehicles of the internet to maintain a highly consistent and prolific base of poetry and commentary. Is this central to your work, cross media poetry and the consistant contact with a community of communication via the internet? And in so doing do you find yourself growing in your critical discourse, that is your engagement with the thinking of the substance of poetry?
EON: I live in a self-styled exile from the Icelandic poetry world, which takes place in Reykjavík. In the last decade I’ve only spent about twelve months in Reykjavík, mostly living in Ísafjörður, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Norway, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark. I find it necessary to maintain a debate with my colleagues – the Icelandic poets in Reykjavík, as well as the international avant-garde crew – and partake in a thinking, feeling, living community. If I didn’t have an online existance, I wouldn’t be in contact with this living community – and I’m not really a recluse sort of a writer, although I’m a bit of a recluse sort of a person.
3:AM: You have been involved in organising the Nýhil festival. Could you detail the history of the festival and it’s ideal?
EON: In the summer of 2004 I’d moved back to Iceland from Germany. I was in Reykjavík for a couple of days and I called a couple of friends in the poetry world and had them meet me at a café. When we’d sat down I asked: Who’s your favorite, living foreign poet? Suffice to say we all mostly drew a blank – all of us had been active in poetry for several years, some more than a decade, but we didn’t really know any foreign contemporary poetry. Not Danish poetry, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, French, German, English, American – all our knowledge was very superficial. One of us had seen Christian Bök perform, and some of us had some other names to drop. When I got back home to Ísafjörður I went online and googled the names that had been dropped. And found Christian Bök and his sound poetry. I immediately felt that I needed to import this person – the Icelandic poetry world needed to see this. This was something totally different from what constituted (or constitutes) poetry in the school-of-quietude modernist prison of Iceland. I applied for some grants and a few months later I wrote the whole thing off – it wasn’t going to happen, even if we’d get the money I applied for it wouldn’t suffice. But then I got one of the grants and eventually, with the help of my friends in Nýhil, we pulled it off for a ridiculous sum.
So I imported Christian Bök (and a couple of poets I knew little to nothing about) for the first Nýhil Poetry Festival – and kept him for five days. In the car on the way to Reykjavík I explained to him that his main job would be to name-drop and tell us about the world of poetry. And he complied. When he left I googled some more, found some more stuff, started buying books, keeping up correspondances and slowly but surely the world started opening up. Then we had the 2006 festival, the 2007 festival and the 2008 festival – in 2009 I was busy waiting for my son to be born in Sweden, but by then I’d amassed more than enough knowledge about foreign contemporary poetry to keep me busy for a lifetime.
3:AM: You have been involved in Flarf, even travelling to New York to read with those involved in its inception, could you tell me how this came to be?
EON: Flarfist Katie Degentesh came to the Nýhil festival in 2006 and we got to know each other, I showed her some translations of my internet-cut-ups and conceptual work and she suggested I join the Flarf-list, which accepted me and I them. I’ve corresponded with the Flarfists since then. When they were organizing the last Flarf-fest in New York I got invited.
3:AM: Your work seems especially focused on the material given by the literal surroundings of your environment, and with all the more power as the poetic transformation that your work enacts on this source material, for example the Icelandic economic crash, really draws content of value from the action. Do you feel a responsibility, as a public poet, to engage with the material of lived life? Or is it just a naturalistic response?
EON: It’s a little of both. I’ve always felt poetry should be political, and more recently I’ve found reason to demand of myself that it is also humanistic (a word I started despising because of what constitutes humanistic poetry – from SOQ modernism to moralistic slam poetry). I don’t feel this so much “as a poet” as I feel it “as a person”. I want to engage with the world, because I’m human and it’s human, and I believe that in some way we are responsible for eachother. We’re not demarcated beings – what I say influences the people around me, and therefore I’m responsible for the people around me. Not only do I believe co-dependancy and enabling are veritably unchangable facts of human existence – I’m a fan of both. It’s the way I want the world to be. And if that’s the way the world is – I have a responsibility. How I interpret that responsibility is another matter – I’m not saying I want to only cuddle the world. There’s more to it than that.
That being said, when you write poetry by the method of dicking around one is of course always fiddling with what is actually going on in the world – it becomes a method of living and of seeing. I constantly read everything around me, signs and posters, and rearrange the words in my mind, rearrange the letters – and then I take this home with me and it becomes part of what I do.
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, April 4th, 2010.