Maintenant #1: Aki Salmela
Tremble, Tyrant! Language not able to discern
trees from forest, the rumble from march, and then a sudden
erratic boulder that will stop up your delicate path.
from The Last Poets
Aki Salmela is one of the most exciting voices emerging from Scandinavian poetry. An accomplished translator and a highly adept, volatile poetic stylist, he has been lauded as one of the brightest stars of the Finnish contemporary poetry scene, maintaining a grand modern tradition in that country. At ease with the most experiment methodologies alongside far more philosophical, insightful verse he has published five collections of work in both Finnish and English. After the release of his latest publication, One and the Same (Tammi – 2009) he speaks to SJ Fowler on The Modernist Voice in the Finnish Tongue.
3:AM: Stylistically, your poetry contains elements of linguistic and structural experimentation, at times it seems phenomenological, that is absorbed in action, in immediacy and being, but it also appears colloquial and conversational. How do you view your style? Does it maintain a certain methodology?
Aki Salmela: I like to think that I don’t work with just one main style or method, but with several, some of which I would venture to say are contradictory. I work with two languages, that is English aside with Finnish. Pretty much all the work I have written in English is written as a kind of linguistic and/or structural experimentation; an experiment conducted by a writer who views English as an outsider, and who will remain an outsider, no matter how familiar with it he might get. English tempts me to experiment. Also partly because the most meaningful “experimental” writers for me have always come from the English speaking world (Stein, Joyce, Beckett, Burroughs, Ashbery and the so called “language school”, just to name a few) – and that is the tradition of which I see my experimental work growing from.
3:AM: How have you actualised this interest in specific experimental methodologies?
AS: There are numerous methods that I have been experimenting with – mainly collage and cut-up, but also with different kind of (mis)translation and mutilation of my somewhat more conventional work in Finnish. I use these methods to come up with the raw material out of which I construct the final poems. Change and arbitrariness play a great part in my method.
My work in Finnish is more mixed up. Some of it is considered highly experimental (I have even been called a “language poet”) while some is rather conventional – in the modernist sense of “conventional”. I have been experimenting with different methods and forms, but have concentrated on the more communicative aspects of the poems. Besides certain rather existential issues, in quite a few of these poems I have been interested in the way a poem happens – both for the reader and the writer – the coming of a poem so to speak. Poem as an adventure, as a surprise for both the reader and the writer. And yes, “phenomenological” might be a good way to describe my approach. I also try to leave enough space for the reader to wander around in a poem. I find it fascinating how people tend to “misread” poetry, so to speak; how we read things according to our own life and ways of association no matter what the intentions of poet might be. I tend to encourage this kind of “opportunities” in my writing.
Lately I have been writing quite a lot of prose poetry with a certain philosophical/existential undercurrent. My latest book (Yhtä ja samaa [One and the Same], Tammi, 2009) is a long prose poem broken divided into sixty independent units.
3:AM: Is it in someway a reaction to previously established poetic trends, for example are you reacting against the limitations of lyric poetry?
AS: No, I wouldn’t say that it is a reaction against anything, but rather a reaction for something. Mainly for the wild, boundless and unpredictable in poetry. For the freedom to experiment and to do things that might not always lead to anything (but when they do, that something might be the most mind blowing thing you’ve ever written). For the “other traditions”.
I believe that poetry can and should be absolutely free; that it can be anything – old or new, traditional or avant-garde, lyrical or completely non-lyrical – for me it’s a taste that matters. There should be enough room for the strange and unexplainable in poetry.
3:AM: Your work seems often rooted in place, in situation. Is this a thematic occurrence or more related to the metholodology you have used in creating the poem?
AS: I have written poems that are very much rooted in a certain place and time. I have for example written some “one hour poems” that are written in one hour in some specific place and I note the passing of time on the side of the poem. This kind of poem has to be done very spontaneously – there just isn’t time for wondering what to do, the clock forces the poem to go on. (It does have a certain kinship for Frank O’Hara’s way of writing.) When the hour has gone, the poem is finished. No rewriting allowed. It could be called a kind of phenomenological experiment. Besides Helsinki, I have written one of these poems in St. Petersburg, one in Ahmedabad, one in Bangkok… They all turn out quite different.
3:AM: How prominent are the major figures of modern Finnish poetry to you and other contemporary Finnish poets? I’m thinking of Paava Haaviko and Eeva Liisa Manner most specifically.
AS: Both Haavikko and Manner (and maybe Pentti Saarikoski, Mirkka Rekola and Sirkka Turkka) have been very prominent figures for most of the contemporary Finnish poets to these days, and they are generally held in great esteem. Though I’m not quite sure if their influence is that prominent any more, at least among the youngest generation who tends to get their inspiration from more global bunch of writers. I myself enjoy the work of these great modernists enormously and do have some references to them in my own.
3:AM: You translated John Ashbery into Finnish, was this a project conceived of by your own appreciation of his works or by a publisher? Do you have plans for any other translation projects?
AS: I translated Ashbery purely out of my great esteem of his work. Ashbery was, and still is, a poet whose work I very much enjoy and find inspiring. I have been translating quite a number of modern and contemporary American poets. I have done selected poems of Charles Simic and Ron Padgett, and translated quite a lot of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Tate, Charles Bernstein, Michael Palmer, Russell Edson, Robert Creeley and Gertrude Stein among few others.
I find translating a very pleasant and inspiring habit. Though translating poetry doesn’t really pay off – it’s hard work to get any commercial publisher interested in publishing translations of even the most major contemporary poets these days.
I have also been translating my Finnish work into English, though I have published only a little of that so far.
3:AM: Are you part of any literary groups? Are there movements within contemporary Finnish poetry? If so, are the groups united or opposed stylistically, theoretically or just from geographical proximity of their members?
AS: Strictly speaking there seems to be no “schools” or “movements” these days in Finland that anyone would claim to be part of, though there have been some attempts to outline some by certain critics. Outlining a “school” or a “movement” seems to hold more fascination to scholars and critics, than with any practising poet. Naturally, people who think likewise tend to do things together, so there are some loose groupings that are formed around certain magazines or small press publishing houses. I don’t consider myself really belonging to any group.
3:AM: What is the landscape of contemporary poetry in Finland currently? Are you well supported, financially and culturally? Are you met with a depth of reception?
AS: Contemporary poetry, in its very modest way, has been somewhat fashionable in Finland in recent years. There are more and more readings, poetry jams and clubs, and number of books being published is quite considerable (partly because of the new small press publishers such as Ntamo and poEsia). Poets do have reasonable financial support in the form of grants by art councils and foundations, so a good, acclaimed poet can make a modest living by just doing poetry. Of course poetry is as highly marginalized in Finnish society as it is in pretty much anywhere else. Critical reception tends to be rather shallow or non-existent outside the specific literary magazines, but most major newspapers still do review poetry and even occasionally run articles about it (though often with very little content). I myself have had very good reception, had the grants I’ve applied and even won a couple of prizes.
3:AM: I don’t want to be reductive, or play into a limited appropriation of Finnish culture, but from speaking with Fins, and other Scandinavians, there is often ascribed a specific aptitude towards the poetic from the specific geographical location and culture of the country, do you think this is true? Is there a quintessial link between the nature of the poetry you’ve written, and that is being created in general, and what can be reductively called an essence of Finnish expression or culture, that is, does Finland produce an intangible influence on its poets and writers?
AS: I find no such essence or influence in my work, or in the work of most of the contemporary Finnish poets that I can think of. Of course I might not be the right person to answer this question, for this seems to be an issue that can only be defined from outside. Of course a certain geographic and cultural location always forms certain kinships (mainly because people tend to influence each other) and Finland is such a small linguistic area that certainly there are some specifically Finnish elements in our ongoing tradition, but it would be a strong overstatement to call it an essence. The tradition of Finnish modernism has certainly played a strong influence to many of our contemporary poets, and that might be detected as an intangible, specifically Finnish element, perhaps.
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: Thursday, January 21st, 2010.