A few years ago the Icelandic poetry world was rocked by a tectonic scandal that nobody noticed for weeks (and by now, everyone’s forgotten about). The country’s most prestigious poetry award, Ljóðstafur Jóns úr Vör, was given to the wrong poet. A young man from one of Reykjavík’s neighbouring towns was called up and told that he had been chosen by a panel of experts and that his poem had been handpicked as the best of the lot. He could now bask in the glory of literary prestige, he who had not even published a book – nor even a single poem, anywhere – he was the king of the crop, top of the pops, best of the land, tonk of the lawn.
This young poet laureate to-be came to the award ceremony with his family. He sat through speeches, music and recitals – and eventually the panel judge came up on stage to present the award. His poem was read and he turned white as the driven snow. This was not what he had written. Not one of the dozen or so poems he’d submitted. Traumatized he went up on stage anyway, not knowing what else to do. He was there, his grandmother was probably watching with tears in her eyes. You don’t let your grandmother down if you can help it.
The ceremony drew to a close and the cocktail after-party started. With a drink in him (or so) the young poet approached the panel judge and admitted the truth. He had never even heard the award-winning poem – let alone written it. There had been some misunderstanding.
A cloud of bureaucrats dispersed in a whiff of smoke – back to the filing cabinets, the calculators, and where did I put my Excel? The mistake was quickly corrected – the young poet had submitted his poetry under the same pseudonym as another (experienced, well-known and respected) poet. The older poet was called in immediately and the prize quickly transferred to him.
But not even in the land of the Eddic and Skaldic poetry does the mainstream care very much about poetry or its awards. Not a single reporter was on site to tell about “the most prestigious poetry award in the country”. And so the story traversed the grapevine (not the paper you are holding) for weeks and months before reaching the disinterested ears of a journalist – whose ears swashed and buckled forthrightly, catching the news and pasting it frontpage.
This disinterest has not plagued all poetry awards. A few years back, around the time of the aforementioned scandal, I founded and organised the “Icelandic Championship in Awful Poetry”. As all good things it was born in the blogosphere and quickly grew out of proportion. The media can always be trusted to reinforce your idea of reality. Poetry is boring, therefore we don’t cover it, but awful-poetry is funny (and reinforces the idea of poetry being awful to begin with) and therefore we cover it. The week before the announcement of the prize, Morgunblaðið (Iceland’s biggest newspaper) ran three interestingly bad poems at a time, with comments from the panel of judges, and the top three prizes were handed out on prime-time TV’s Kastljós.
(I’m by the way not entirely sure the media was completely wrong, since the best awful poems were indeed much more interesting than a lot of the award-orientated drivel being published these days).
I will leave you with the last verse of the victorious poem by Eyrún Edda Hjörleifsdóttir (in my own translation):
A pile of ringworms eddies in a bath of remoulade – mine and the Choco-beast’s, a single unblossomed and trembling late-summer night in May.
My toenail splits and bleeds, the road up the way and the hour of my most yellow band-aid has sunk in a pool of pus.
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl will be performing his sound poetry with Paul Dutton at The Scream Literary Festival event ‘Scream in High Park,’ Toronto, July 13.