:: Article

Maintenant #35: Ragnhildur Jóhanns

An interview with Ragnhildur Jóhanns by SJ Fowler

Celebrating the third Maintenant reading of 2010 we introduce Ragnhildur Jóhanns, one of four innovative Icelandic poets to read at the Rich Mix arts centre in London on November 27th, and one of the most exciting and elastic poetic talents to emerge in Europe over the last few years. A unique craftswoman, she is a sculptural, visual and physical poet, unhindered by convention. She works with text, with performance but seeks to create poetic objects, pure concrete poems, that is literally fashioning books out of her work and embodying the text. Fulfilling our remit to introduce poets who will undoubtedly rise to prominence in the next few decades and who refuse to be limited by what has come before, for the 35th Maintenant interview, Ragnhildur Jóhanns.


3:AM: Your work is unique and on viewing, it seems clear how valuable your approach is. The attempt to encapture the vehicle of communication, rather than the content, has been a staple of innovative poetry and linguistic philosophy for many practitioners and yet your action of building poetry, of objectifying it, is inspired even within that field. Did you feel a need to approach poetry in this way?

Ragnhildur Jóhanns: I am an artist, educated as an visual artist and I make art, it just so happens that my art is poetic and occupied with poetry. My poems are generally the byproduct of my art work and I thoroughly enjoy allowing flow between work – that the sculpture can be a poem, that, in turn, can be subject to performance, to sound, photographs, books. It’s because I’m an artist that I need to approach poetry in this way. I’m not even sure I could sit down and write a poem on paper, it would not give me the same pleasure as transfering works of poetry. I like considering the question of what is poetry? What can it be? Is a poem just text on paper or text as a visual form. Is a poem only what can be placed in a book of poetry, in print? To me these are interesting questions that I like to work with.

3:AM: What is your feeling toward contemporary poetry? Is there a vibrancy, in your experience, in the way new poets are handling the medium, or is there a sense of atrophy?

RJ: I’m not very well informed about modern poetry, I must admit. I perhaps know about what is happening in the poetry comunity here in Iceland, published poetry books and also readings. I must admit too that I’m tired of the readings in this country, I think they are more or less the same. I think the poets here are quite traditional, they are working with poetry as it has always been, though there are exceptions. I am very impressed by Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl´s sound poetry and the working methods of Jón Örn Loðmfjörð but besides those two, I think few poets are experimenting with the creation of poetry. That doesn’t mean that the poets are not doing good things, not at all, many of them are writing great poems, I just feel they lack the power and energy that the medium offers to us. But thats my feeling against Icelandic poetry, and its undoubtedly because of my background and how I approach the performance and the medium in a radically different way.

3:AM: How do you approach the performance of your work? Do you have a direct sense of how your work will be read or become audible when you are in the process of its creation, or does the work provide an abstract opportunity to develop a performance?

RJ: In the process of creating, the performance is the very last thing I think about. I start with only the material work, and if I am working on a specific art project that can then be converted into the poem, the performance will follow. If I manage to create works that I can call a poem I am happy to publish the poems, anywhere and anytime, if I am asked to perform the poem I’ll start wondering how I will do so. I must admit that I decide how the performance will be shortly before I do it. Usually I have, however, a few ideas in the days before about the possiblilities I might want to perform for that specific work. Visual poetry has endless possibilities. How does one perform a visual poem? There is no one right way of doing so, all readings are correct and because the works are open to interpretation it´s so good to give yourself the freedom to read visual work in a new and exciting way. The performance of the poem is very influenced by my art education, I like performance and use it as a art form in and of itself, so when it comes to poetry, I think of it in a artistically performative way – how is the visual part of the performance generated by what is behind the physicality of the poem.

3:AM: How did you develop your practise, initially? Even with your art background, did you begin with the written word, were you writing poetry on paper, or did you begin by creating concrete objects?

RJ: I wrote poetry as a teenager but I never took them seriously and never made any serious attempt to write further. I kept making notes, I wrote down some words from time to time through my teens but stopped even that as I grew older. However, when I started focusing on my art education, I carried with me (and still do) a sketchbook, wrote in that as much as I drew and pasted. I wrote often lyrical lines that I didn’t look at as poems. For me, this was more of a conversation with myself, writing down phrases and Text in dialogue with the self, that´s how I develop concepts. In my studies at the Icelandic Art Academy professors and other teachers noticed my way of working with words and often pointed out artists who use text in their work. I was advised to take a look at concrete poetry. I did feel a connection to the works of artists who use text as art and it made me more aware of the importance of the written word in my work. For a long time, however, it was hard for me to make the image and text work together until one day I decided to just focus entirely on the text and and feel free to be poetic. I made artist books that contained a poems, poems that I created from an online forum. I hand-printed the book with intaglio printing and bound the fifty copies together myself. I looked at it as an artist book rather than a collection of poetry. Shortly after that I started using the book as an object and to transform it into poetic works, poetic sculptures, as I choose to call them. Since I am an artist first and foremost, I approach poetry in a different way I guess. I am a very visual person and I like to work with my hands. I can not sit in front of computer screen and write poetry because I do not get the same connection to the computer screen as I do when working with what I have in my hands and with what can be transformed, taken out of context, put in a new context or be seen and experienced in some new and exciting way.

3:AM: Who are your influences in terms of poetry? Does concrete poetry play a part in this too?

RJ: Even with my reading, I will admit that concrete poetry has had a limited effect on me, I know that I am placed in that category, but it is a category that I know little about. I would rather say that the old Icelandic rhymes and sound poetry has more effect on me. I like the sound of words, no matter what their meaning is.

I find it really quite difficult to find influences in poetry in general, I read poetry and I listen to sound poetry but I don´t seek poetry in a traditional way I guess. It would rather make sense to me to talk about the influences of art as it is truly the root of it all for me.

I would say that the Icelandic artist Magnus Palsson has had a great influence on my art and poetry creation. Also, the artist Hans Bellmer, Breton and most of all Surrealists. Feminist art has also had a considerable impact on me.

3:AM: Do you feel your practise has been embraced in Iceland, in the poetry community, as it is. Do you conceive of yourself as a poet, or do you not pursue definitions?

RJ: Yes I have to say so, considering that I don´t need to consider myself as a poet and I wasn´t writing as such. I was just doing what I was doing that was within my field of interest, to experiment with my work and to stretch that to the media. I have found that the younger poets in Iceland have received me very well but I´m pretty sure that the older poets have no idea who I am. However, I am aware that my work is on the edge of poetry and art. I have always been a little shy when called a poet and to be placed in the category of poets, though I consider it an honour. I always say that I’m an artist but I feel that there is no reason to define me as either artist or a poet.

3:AM: Tell me about SemSé, its development and its content.

RJ: As I mentioned before I like to feel free to let my work flow between mediums. The visual poetrybook SemSé is a great example of such work.

SemSé is a work of art, my piece for the graduation from The Icelandic Art Academy. The book, as an object, has poetic possibilities and therefore I tried to create poetry from the books that came my way. I do not feel the poem has to be readable; it is enough that the poetic possibility is visible through the object. Each and every word taken out is carefully selected, in order to create an incoherent whole in a romantic poem. The poems are pulled out of the books without abandoning them, making the book itself a part of the poem.

When looking at the work from the right, one can read the romantic poem, but from the left a chaotic mix of words meets the eye. Therefore, the poems are characterized by an interplay of feelings and coincidence and they also carry with them the look and era of the original text, as I do not rewrite anything, I only cut the excerpts into a new context.
The books came from different places, from people that have chosen not to own them anymore. We Icelanders think of ourselves as a book nation, which is right in many ways. Our books are dear to us, the words they contain, the memories they hold and the beauty they display on a shelf. The books I used in this work had been deprived of their purpose and were not on display on bookshelves anymore. I tried to capture romanticism and beauty from all these different books and wanted to allow the book, as an object, as poetry, to shine as best I could.

The work consisted of about hundred books, displayed on bookselfs with the words coming out. The visual poetry book SemSé was a byproduct of this work. I found it interesting to try and take the object of the poetic sculpture and make it in to a visual poem to be published. I selected some of the books and scanned them into the computer and put them together in a visual poem. Poems that are not readable in the actual sense, part of the poem is the book cover, the visual part of the book as an object not only the text it consists of.

3:AM: For the Maintenant reading in London you are collaborating with Iain Sinclair, one of the most reputed writers and poets in the UK. How has that project developed? What will you be producing in tandem?

RJ: The collaboration with Iain Sinclair interest me. As I’ve said before, I am not the typical writer who sits down to write, I prefer to create poems. Iain and I don´t know each other, we have not met and have spoken only through email, but we started off with him sending me a book of poetry by himself that I printed out and began to play with, cut up to pieces and put together again in some other new way. These things I have sent him back through the mail and at the same time, he has sent me a couple of things he has found here and there and then I worked with and sent him back. The interesting part in this whole process is that I do not know yet whether there is something in some of these things, as they are different, and somewhat like sketches for me at this point, early drafts. How they then appear as poetry on paper I do not know yet but seems interesting to see how the final outcome will be. For me, this uncertainty in this collaboration very exciting. It’s like you do not have enough control over what comes out of this and to me it’s an extremely fascinating experiment. I’ve only worked with the Icelandic language so far, all my work has become because of my love for my own language, so it is extremely difficult to work in a second language. I understand English, but I do not have the same feeling towards the language as I do to my own. There is a certain challenge for me with not knowing my partner and I find it rather exciting to have this separation.



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, November 7th, 2010.