Bragi Páll Dedicated His Right Thigh To: 'Hanna Birna, Resign'
Tuesday, August 12, 2014. Poet Bragi Páll Sigurðarson just disclosed his new tattoo. It is situated on his right thigh, just above the knee. Unlike most tattoos, this one is written in Times New Roman. One sentence, split in two lines, it reads: “Hanna Birna, segðu af þér.” That is: “Hanna Birna, resign.” Standard punctuation. The direct message is as clear-cut as the typography. The demand, of course, refers to the scandal surrounding Iceland’s Interior Minister in recent months, which has been duly covered in this paper.
I caught Bragi Páll on Facebook to ask him some questions. Well, before any actual questions, I just stated the obvious: Impressive, I said. “At least I hope so,” Bragi replied. “I’d feel betrayed otherwise.” I then make sure to ask if the tattoo is permanent, and not the henna-sort that washes out in a few weeks. It is permanent, Bragi assures me. A tattoo-tattoo.
You first caught my notice, as probably that of many others, when you published Fullkomin ljóðabók (e. Perfect Book of Poetry, 2012, publ. ÚTÚR). The poem in which selected politicians were executed caused some turbulence. Many authors take on political issues as a stylistic practice or a short stop on their journey, but your tattoo now seems to unambiguously state a lasting political dedication in your work. Do you see yourself as a political author? Is there any such a thing as political pain?
“The Perfect book was written at a time when I saw political poetry as a necessary variant, that poems with a standpoint, poems that said something, were more valuable than others. By the time I finished the book, however, I felt disgusted by my own preaching, and the condescension in telling people what opinions they should have, how things have to be. It felt in the way of the poem and I became absolutely averse to writing political poetry. That was my state of mind when I wrote my last book, HOLD (e. FLESH, 2013, publ. ÚTÚR), which is almost purely about my cohabitation with my body and my brain. The experience of being human, involving no society, ideally no environment or politics or anything, just me. And of course that book didn’t catch nearly the same attention. No one got killed in that one, except me. After working on that, I have been writing my first novel, where the text is not as free as it is in poetry. In a novel, the text serves a narrative. The poems that I have written lately, however, seem to indicate that I have fallen off that wagon.
In recent times, the country has seen some turbulence, and now the lower classes have been seriously impeded. I know very few people who, after paying their rent and food, have anything left. I know very few talented, intelligent and well-educated people who foresee staying in Iceland, permanently. I watch the ruling class do everything for capital’s sake, less and less for the public. Our new constitution is kept in a drawer at the Fishing Industry’s Association. The new government’s first act in office was giving billions of krónur to the recipients of fishing quotas and cut down parental leaves. What message is being broadcast there?
I find the alienation of it all crystalized in this whole sequence with Hanna Birna, where public officials bully immigrants, get caught with their pants down and then refuse to assume responsibility for their actions. I have tried to be impartial and stay out of it, just write poems for the poems’ sake, but ultimately, I find it hard to take no notice of this situation. So my decision to position myself outside any politics doesn’t seem to have withstood the onslaught of the government.”
The permanence of the tattoo suggests that you see your attitude towards the case of the Interior Ministry’s leaked memo as a standpoint in life, or at least something that far exceeds the case itself —that the message will have a lasting value once that case is over. How would you phrase that core-attitude?
“Rulers do anything they can to persist in power. Whether that is succumbing to capital or refusing to assume responsibility. Our democracy doesn’t work. These are just human leaders, posing as gods. People just want to go on existing without being bullied. No one should be superior to anyone else. When I have done a bad job at work, I have simply been fired. Hanna Birna has failed as this country’s servant and that’s why she should fucking resign.
To get back to the question if I am a political author, I have not tried to be. I just osmose what happens around me. If I were a poet in Italy, I would probably already have had the tattoo ‘Berlusconi, resign’ a long time ago. The name is secondary. It is this distance between authorities and the public which is at stake.”
I finally ask Bragi if he has ever seen a poet using tattoos as a medium in this way, or a tattoo comparable to his at all. No, he says. Nothing similar.
Bragi Páll recently gave away the two books of poetry mentioned above, which can now be downloaded for free, from his dropbox. “I always intended to give them away,” he explains. “The world gave them to me, and now I decided to return them to the cosmos.” He plans to travel across the USA next fall, while working on the novel, hopefully to be published in 2015.