:: Article

Maintenant #51: Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson

An interview with Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson by SJ Fowler.

An iconic poet in Scandinavia, Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson, or UKON, as he is often known, has established a remarkable reputation in the literary culture of Sweden at large, despite being a challenging and innovative poetic practitioner. A resident of Gothenburg, and a winner of the prestigious Göteborgs-Posten literary prize, he is a practising psychologist and psychoanalyst as well as poet, and his prolific poetic output advocates the level of intellectual engagement and complexity that his chosen profession would suggest. It is hardly surprising that he also a deft satirist, lacing his writing with a black humour worthy of the great European tradition he maintains. For the 51st edition for Maintenant, Sweden’s UKON.


3:AM: You are a renowned performer, do you have a very specific conception of your poetry as a performative medium? Is it separate from what lies upon the paper?

Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson: I think of perfoming as one of many logical consequences of a situation where poetry, given it’s economic impossibility, is both forced into, and in itself looking for, other territories than the usual, i.e. the poetry collection. And of course the poetic result is in correspondence with these circumstances. For example I have a ongoing poetic project on Twitter where the phrase by definition can be no longer than 140 signs. You can look upon this as a sort of Oulipian restraint but for me Twitter-poetry is also an experiment in speed, I write it very fast and use it as a sort of notebook. It is potentially stimulating but in the same time possibly just an expression of poetry’s desperate and hopeless situation. Poetry’s outsider position is in fact it’s pharmakon – etymologically speaking – at the same time both it’s remedy and it’s poison.

3:AM: You have writing and performing for well over 20 years now. How has your work evolved since Kung-kung?

UKON: My first books from the early nineties where of a more expressive and lyric nature, at the time I was reading Rilke, Hölderlin and la poésie blanche, for example Ann-Marie Albiach and Claude Royet-Journod. They are still important figures for me but in fact I have been looking for a form, or rather certain forms, all the time. And I am still looking; the ideal would be the invention of a form that defines the whole text, where the rest is nothing but ordinary work. A form where the poet is happy only in the case when there is no longer the need of a choice.

3:AM: Your work seems marked by a humour, a satire, that underpins much of the deceptively poignant and clever language you employ. How do you view the purpose of your poetry, if you do so?

UKON: The last five years I have become occupied with tautology and oxymoronic logic, seeing and looking for phrases that produces a loop or short circuit itself. The ideal here is to write phrases with a minimum of complexity that poses questions of a maximum of complexity, poetry that is easy to read but that is without concern of it’s ”depth”, poetry that doesn’t pose the hermeneutical question ”what does it mean?” but rather ”why has anyone written this?” The effect of these kind of phrases are not seldom ironic, I think. But is it the purpose? Well, it’s not specifically my aim, more like a side effect, even though it would be idiotic to be against irony or humour in art.

3:AM: You work and publish as a psychologist. How does your profession interact with your poetry? What area of psychology do you specialise in?

UKON: I am definitely a Freudian. I have my own psychoanalytic practice here in Gothenburg where I work most of the week, except for Mondays where I see patients at the cancer-clinic at Sahlgrenska, Gothenburg’s biggest hospital. And I consider my clinical work as more or less the same thing as poetry. My last book Hjälp, vem är jag? – anteckningar ur en terapi (2010) [Help, who am I? – notes from a therapy] has more than ever to do with the clinical work. It is a collaboration with the singer and choir-leader Caroline af Ugglas, a very famous person in Sweden. The book consists of thirteen recorded and transcribed therapeutic sessions where af Ugglas talks about her life and her difficulties. A kind of In treatment I.R.L. where she is the analysand and myself both analyst and establisher of the text.

I think of this book as a conceptual poetry-collection and would like to compare it to Christophe Hanna and La rédactions work in France as ghostwriter in the book Valery (Al dante, 2008). In my eyes the book is a – very big – found poem but of course with a completely different commercial potential than my usual books, a kind of attempt from my side to swindle conceptual poetry into the Eurovision Song Contest.

3:AM: The Swedish poetry scene seems unusually self-sufficient. Is this a marked feature of poetry in Sweden in your opinion?

UKON: I have never – until now! – thought of the the Swedish scene as self-sufficient, which probably could be seen as a proof of self-sufficiency. But in fact, most of the magazines I have been involved in have very much been looking outside the Swedish context and I would say that one of the reasons for starting OEI was to translate and introduce certain traditions.

3:AM: The avant-garde in Sweden appear from the outside, perhaps incorrectly, unusually strong in Sweden, in terms of reputation and publishing, compared to most other nations.

UKON: I would say that at the time it’s correct. More and more of the poetry collections are published by smaller, independent publishers without the same commercial demands.

3:AM: You are an established and acclaimed translator, what work are you most proud of? How does translation effect your own practise? Is there interest towards the poetry of other nations in Sweden, especially new work emerging from abroad?

UKON: Translation is a way of reading and writing. And it very much coincide with my editorial work with certain reviews. Since 1995 I am in the editorial board of Glänta, since 1999 in OEI and since 2002 in Psykoanalytisk Tid/Skrift (who recently changed name into Arche). I have translated essays and poetry by, among many others, Bernard Noël, Michael Palmer, Denis Roche, Michel Couturier, Robert Creeley, Steve McCaffery, Rosmarie Waldrop, Georges Didi-Huberman, Olivier Cadiot, Georges Perec, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Reznikoff, Octave Mannoni, Gertrude Stein, Michelle Grangaud, Avital Ronell, Charles Pennequin, Christophe Tarkos. I have made many translations in collaboration with the OEI-editor Jonas (J) Magnusson and if I should mention one translation that makes me proud it would be Jacques Roubaud’s, Quelque chose noir (1986) (Någonting svart, Ramus förlag, 2008.)

But translating Tarkos and Reznikoff has probably meant most to me in the matter that their text has influenced my own writing. The reading of Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States in the late nineties was some kind of revelation, it was completely trivial in a way, I thought: Oh yes, this is how I will work! Reznikoff call his method The Method of Revision
and Testimony is composed of mostly short fragmental stories, each the distillation of an actual court case, nearly all of the poems describe a criminal act or circumstances surrounding such an act. The direct effect of the reading of Reznikoff was the thin book Någons stöd (1999) which is a condensation of a very extensive text on Psychosurgery I had been working on a few years earlier.

Photo copyright of Cecilia Grönberg.

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, February 27th, 2011.