Although Icelandic literature is today widely available in other languages, translations of Icelandic poetry are a relative rarity—this despite the vibrant Reykjavík poetry scene which has recently seen an influx of younger poets due to the efforts of grassroots publishers and festivals. When local poet Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir was contacted by Canadian poet K.B. Thors due to the latter’s interest in translating Kristín’s poetry, she consented with the expectation that at most it would lead to one or two poems being published in overseas poetry journals.
“I never thought it might lead to the publication of an entire collection,” Kristín explains. “Icelandic poetry collections rarely get published abroad, especially ones by writers who have never published a work of prose.” After several poems had appeared in English in journals such as the Harvard Review and EuropeNow, Thors’s translation of Kristín’s third book of poetry, ‘Stormwarning,’ went on to win the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Leif and Inger Sjöberg Award. This month, ‘Stormwarning’ will be published in a bilingual edition by Phoneme Media.
A cross-continental cooperation
Thors, who hails from rural Alberta, has a unique connection with Iceland through her paternal grandparents, who immigrated to Canada from Iceland some 60 years ago. The two poets worked over email and later performed together at a reading event in a bar in Reykjavík, taking turns reading the original poetry and the translations and also delivering found poems that they discovered in the bar’s bathroom stall.
“We had an immediate connection,” Kristín reminisces. “I answered any questions that she had, read her translation and made comments if I found something required more specificity. I’m a translator myself but I’ve mostly translated dead writers, so this was an enjoyable change of pace. Going through that process with my own poetry is always interesting—weighing individual words and phrases that have sprouted naturally in the Icelandic, having to explain myself and consider my attempts at mood and meaning.”
Taking poetry off its pedestal
Although Stormwarning is in many ways a more meditative work than Kristín’s previous books, it is nevertheless branded with her unique balance of social criticism and the scathing wit and humour that she uses to unravel the old-guard conservative rhetoric often overheard in Icelandic hot-tubs. It also touts a self-awareness that is sometimes lacking in today’s online call-out culture.
“I like writers—and people overall—that can laugh at themselves while sticking to their political and artistic principles,” Kristín says. “I’m a great supporter of using humour in literature and prefer books that are fun to read—at least on some level. I don’t mean that all writers should turn themselves into jesters, but I tire easily of authors that take themselves too seriously. People have this tendency to put poetry on a pedestal, which I really hate.
For example, Icelandic poetry translations often use formal or outright pompous language even when the original text doesn’t warrant it, which does a disservice to the poet and alienates readers. A decent work of literature has to work on multiple levels, but I want my writing to also work on the most basic of levels so that the reader can find some enjoyment without having to steep themselves in context.”
The historian and the poet
Kristín is also a historian; her book on the history of pornography in Iceland is due to be published in the fall. The two fields of her writing career inform one another while remaining separate identities of her author’s persona.
“History and poetry are both concerned with textual nuances and emphasis and the construction of meaning,” she explains. “I´m interested in many of the same themes in history and in poetry: the gap between the past and the present, obviously, but also the gap between theory and action, the physical and the intellectual, the spiritual and the material.
Still, the forms are so vastly different. In history, you present your case in an organised fashion, put it in context and argue the point. Poetry is raw, chaotic, ambiguous. There’s a level of gut-feeling in my poems that I try to keep intact.”
Distorting meaning through found language
Perhaps in a historian’s attempt to document our current moment, the references that Stormwarning pulls into the text go far beyond literature and poetry, reaching into the chasms of online debates and comment sections to pluck out phrases and sentences that Kristín weaves into the imagery and structure of her poems.
“The randomness and familiarity of that type of language suit my purposes,” she says. “Taking common rhetoric and subverting it, putting it into an unfamiliar context and using it to distort the poetry itself, you can’t do things like that so easily as a historian.” Her prized finding was the quote that inspired the collection’s title: meteorologist and weather reporter Birta Líf Kristinsdóttir’s comment in the dark of the Icelandic winter that “tomorrow will be worse but that does not mean that today isn’t bad,” which captured Kristín’s imagination. “It’s such a fantastic summing up of Icelandic weather!” She laughs. “Any meteorologist worth their salt should be proud of coining such a phrase.”
Read more about Icelandic literature here.