Gerður Kristný

Gerður Kristný

Icelandic writer competes in the Poetry Olympics

Words by
Photos by
Alísa Kalyanova

Published August 16, 2012

It is not only the handballers and the swimmers who are repping RVK in London this year. The British capital also played host to some of the world’s finest poets earlier this summer. Reykjavík’s own Gerður Kristný was selected to stand among writers from 204 Olympic nations and represent Iceland in an international ‘Poetry Parnassus.’

Part of the UK’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad and initiated by leading British light Simon Armitage, this was one of the largest poetry events the world has ever witnessed. Sharing centre stage with literary luminaries such as Saint Lucia’s Derek Walcott and Australian poet John Kinsella, Gerður read from her collection ‘Bloodhoof,’ published in English for the first time this year.

The vast event was opened with a ‘Rain of Poems’ over London’s South Bank, as Chilean arts collective Casagrande dropped 100,000 poems printed on bookmarks from a helicopter above the twilit River Thames.

Gerður was at the heart of the action at the opening set-piece, where people jostled good-naturedly to catch one of the falling works of art, gliding and glittering through the sky like ticker-tape, even bartering for rare Latin American verses or perfectly-formed Japanese haikus.

“I tend to become a little combative with anything like this,” admits Gerður, as she remembers witnessing an elderly man eagerly gazing heavenward hoping to catch his own literary memento. “I stood with him and made sure nobody else came near so that he would get something. I can be quite aggressive. I think it’s because at school I was never very good at sports.”

This was just the beginning of six days of poetic performance and enjoyment, with talks and shows that spoke to the universal themes familiar to so many of those nations represented: identity, conflict, freedom.

More like a big football match

The festival atmosphere however was what constantly prevailed. “This doesn’t normally happen in poetry,” she laughs. “Poets have to look serious and earnest. This was more like a big football match!”

Gerður first met the festival curator Simon Armitage whilst travelling through Asia some years ago. Armitage is one of the UK’s best-loved contemporary poets. His latest works take the English folkloric tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and bring them to a modern readership. 

One of his earliest books was ‘Moon Country,’ published in 1996 with fellow British writer Glyn Maxwell following their voyage to Iceland, in turn evoking the travels of W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice to the country in the 1930s, which inspired their collection ‘Letters From Iceland.’

For Gerður, the Parnassus was “a crash course in international poetry,” yet she is hardly a beginner in the global poetic kingdom. She flicks through her copy of ‘The World Record,’ the official anthology of voices from the Poetry Parnassus (in which she herself is of course published), and recalls her favourite poems, some of which were written her old friends. 

Globetrotting with her poetry

As part of the festival, Gerður travelled across the Irish Sea to Derry in Northern Ireland to take part in a ‘Poetry Deathmatch,’ competing against poets from Tuvalu, Grenada, and Oman among others in round after round as poets were voted out until a winner was declared. “It was more like the Eurovision Song Contest,” she jokes.

Such globetrotting is by now second nature to her. Gerður has read her own work across the world, from Scandinavia to Asia. Her works appear in anthologies published far and wide. She shows me a Dutch anthology of poems about women, in which her own on Anne Frank is printed, alongside names such as Lorca, Nabokov, and Poe. She reads out the names still struck with awe, only then to conclude with a poet’s bathos and her own distinctive charming self-deprecating humour: “They must be turning in their graves!”

But her diary is filling up fast. Her next collection of poetry, ‘Strandir,’ inspired by the remote north-western corner of Iceland, is set to be released later this year. Soon she’ll be headed to Turku, the Finnish festival, as well as touring cities in the UK, and next year heading rather further afield all the way to Nicaragua. 

And to hear poetry from every corner of the earth—not least her own deeply Icelandic work—remains, she says, a true thrill. “In Iceland,” she admits in stark contrast, “people talk of poetry like it’s a hospital patient in poor health.”

Is it? Who in Iceland writes poetry today? “I do! And that’s all I care about,” she concludes with her teasing smile. But wherever she goes, she introduces yet more new followers to Iceland’s literary heritage.



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