This summer, UK publisher Carcanet joins forces with Reykjavík/Manchester based publisher Partus to put out “Waitress in Fall”, a collection of poetry by Kristín Ómarsdóttir. The book presents a selection from Kristín’s career, including poems from her seven poetry books, published between 1987-2017.
It’s a unique volume that presents the reader with a remarkable picture of a poet’s career. Kristín’s unmistakable voice escorts the reader from early leaps into middle-aged maturity, with lines that trip into one another, passing swiftly from lightness to despair and back again.
A considered selection
The poems are selected and translated by Vala Thorodds, Partus’s founding director. The collection marks the publisher’s first foray into English language publication—a change of direction that bodes well for those left unsatisfied by the relatively slim selection of translated Icelandic literature.
For Kristín, reading the translations was an enlightening process, and she praises Vala’s choices as a translator and editor. “She revealed the poems to me anew in her translations,” Kristín enthuses. “The selection that she decided on forms a unified work that draws out aspects of my poetry that I’d hardly noticed myself. I’m also very grateful for her daring, as she chose many poems that I never dared to read publicly, back when the collections were first published.”
Keeping the future at bay
Despite her novel “Children in Reindeer Woods” being published by US publisher Open Letter Books in 2012, the collection is the first major publication of Kristín’s poetry in English. However, she does not dwell on the daunting possibilities of this new readership, choosing to suspend her expectations of how Anglophone readers will take to her poetry.
“I never really look further than where my next meal might come from,” she admits. “It makes me ill-prepared for the future but it also comes with a sense of freedom—not thinking things through means ignoring consequences and deferring trauma.”
Still, looking over the arc of her career in a single volume is a strange experience. “I clearly remember the girl who wrote the oldest of these poems,” she explains. “When I read them now, she’s there. I remember where and when I wrote each poem, all the work I put into them. In some cases, I even remember the initial spark. When I think of that girl, I feel like I can learn so much from her, far more than I can learn from the me who’s here now. There’s nothing I can teach that girl; I can’t arbitrate the past.”
The poet and the novelist
Alongside her poetry, Kristín has won several awards for her plays and novels and has been nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize four times. Still, she maintains that she feels most liberated as a poet. “A poet is only responsible to language and to the poetic form—as well as having a duty to pass on the embers in the chain-reaction that leads from one generation of poets to another,” she says. “There is also some dim obligation to the reader, but when I’m a poet, I don’t feel the need to please people, myself included. My eyes are free and not those of a slave, or so I hope.”
“Alternatively, the novelist in me is the most eager to please,” she continues. “That’s my latest theory, though it might be deluded nonsense. Sometimes, I feel as if I have knowingly surrendered to the entertainment industry that has almost overtaken the Icelandic novel, but if I have been guilty of doing so, it was only as a means of surviving in a market-driven society. That and a manic egotism that I like to think I’ve put behind me.”
Repetition and rhythm
As the poems drive the reader onward through the decades, passing haunting landscapes, surreal scenes of domestic life and shrines to the physicality of womanhood, there is a sense of rhythm and voice that carries throughout. A notable addition is the powerful use of repetitions in some of the more recent poems, though Kristín claims that such rhythmic choices harken back to her earliest unpublished work.
“There was a lot of repetitions of sentences, words, sounds and rhythms in the poetry I wrote as a teenager,” she says. “Poetry is a form of dancing. I think that going right back to the beginning there is an underlying beat that controls all poetry.” She grimaces. “Repetition is also a common trait of those who no one listens to—such as women. Not too long ago, women would have to repeat themselves over and over again because no one was listening to them—hoping that maybe this time their message would find its way through the sound barriers.”
Read more about Icelandic literature here.