When you stumble across someone creating fresh stirrings in a literary culture that’s already on a constant creative simmer, they must be doing something worth noticing. Following publications of several of his poems on Icelandic poetry websites and the poetry journal Stína, mysterious newcomer to the Icelandic poetry scene Elías Knörr last autumn published a book of new Icelandic poetry ‘Sjóarinn með morgunhestana undir kjólnum’ (“The sailor with the morning horses under her dress”).
Elías Knörr was reportedly born into a family of Icelandic sailors, and was the first man in his family not to go to sea, deciding instead to study Italian linguistics and travel abroad.
So far, so standard. Except for one, very minor, detail. Elías Knörr isn’t really Elías Knörr. He’s the pseudonym of one Elías Portello, notable Galician poet, linguist, translator, traveller, and all round rather curious character. His translations and poetry have earned him critical acclaim and awards in his native Galicia and Spain, and his translation of his Icelandic work appeared in the renowned UK Poetry Review earlier this spring.
So how does a Galician linguist end up in Iceland writing under the identity of a small town sailor? A little hesitant, Elías laughs as he tells me he doesn’t even know where to start.
Well, how about from the beginning?
Well I’ve been writing poetry since I was a teenager and have always been fascinated by language. I studied linguistics and translation in Galicia and am still working on doctoral studies there. I first came to Iceland about nine years ago, to work on my Icelandic studies and began translating several Icelandic works, including Einar Már Guðmundsson’s ‘Angels of the Universe’ and Sjón’s ‘Skugga-Baldur’ into Galician.
Why work under a pseudonym for your Icelandic poetry?
Mainly because I wanted for the texts to be valued for what they are, not judged as if were written by a foreigner. There is no chance my work would have gotten picked up in the way it has here if I hadn’t done that, and certainly the selection for inclusion in the UK Poetry Review wouldn’t have come. I wanted to start from an equal place.
The way I write—even in Galician—is to very much stretch the grammatical constructions of language, in a way that that grammar and words become really very strong. The point is to lead the reader to a very particular focus within a word when they read it. Even in mother tongue, people have said to me, “Oh this is strange, or are you sure this is what this word means…” so if an Icelander knew it was foreigner writing, they would just think “Oh that’s wrong!” But no, it’s not wrong! It’s the way I choose to craft and turn the words, so it’s really well thought out!
And why use Knörr (“Ship”) for your pen name?
Knörr were the ships used by early Icelandic merchants to make trade and transport provisions. They are especially important for my poetry, and for me, because they’re associated with a journey and with the notion of travelling from shore to shore. When I publish in Galician, I make it very clear to the reader that I am making ‘such and such’ experiment with the form; I’ll have different chapters, explain my theories, etc. But in this book I wanted to make a journey and let the polyphony of these characters appear. It gave a lot of freedom, even though some of the topics were difficult. But then again seamen don’t have an easy life, and the people they tend to meet don’t have an easy life either!
The Icelandic culture of ‘going on a Knörr’ and seeing the world is very important. You know this word ‘heimskur’ in Icelandic? It means ‘idiot’ and its related to the word home. Icelanders say that the one that grows up without having ever left home is really the stupid one. So I will keep using this because it’s really important to my poetry.
From where, or from whom, do you draw your inspiration?
I have very concrete literary theories and one of them is to search for inspiration ‘outside’ myself. This can mean to look to other places and countries and languages but it’s also very important for me as a writer to find inspiration outside out my own head. Even though I have a lot of ideas, the world outside is practically unlimited, so if you want to allow yourself new ideas and to reconsider and transform things it’s important to consider perceptions and perspectives other than your own.
I love to research so I like to write poems that are interesting to investigate. Poetry isn’t just painting words, it’s also architecture.
As for who inspires me? Well, if you take the fathers of creationist poetry—Chilean Vicente Huidobro and Galician Manuel Antonio—and put them somewhere in the North Atlantic with Kristín Ómarsdóttir you could be close to Elías Knörr! Of course my style comes from a very personal place, but they are writers I really admire and identify with.
Have you any thoughts about the Icelandic poetry scene?
Well I don’t really know enough to say completely. Every country has its national clichés in how they create and preserve their literary culture. Personally, I always try to challenge cliché in my metaphors and identifications, and challenge the nature of words and of language. What I like here in Iceland is that there are many people who, in the same way, aren’t afraid of doing something. It’s like ‘it’s better to be doing something than not saying any word’. So if you write a book, maybe it won’t be the best poetry book, but even if one or two points are gorgeous, then it creates some movement in the literary system and broadens the horizons a little bit further.