Andri Snær Magnason says poets are like rats; even when they aren’t visible, they are ever present. His second poetry book, ‘Bónus Poetry,’ is now finally available in English.
Andri Snær Magnason has written children’s books, plays, non-fiction, and a dystopian sci-fi novel; he’s made a full length documentary and has even put his efforts into city planning and architecture. The list goes on, and so do the accolades. And it all started a little over two decades ago when Andri Snær became a household name in Iceland by way of poetry, his first love and favorite genre.
‘Bónus Poetry’ was originally published in 1996 and is now finally available in English. The title is a play on words: Bónus is the first chain of discount supermarkets in the country, and, as it happened, actually published the book itself: So the product, being “discount poetry,” was sold over the counter, eternally on special offer, and became the most sold volume of poetry in Icelandic history. It is a witty critique on consumerism, or as Andri Snær proclaims: “a journey through the allegorical Divine Comedy, beginning in Paradiso (fruits & vegetables), leading to Inferno (frozen meat goods) and concluding in Purgatorio (cleaning aisle).”
Literary works on consumerism were not new at the time, but certainly quite rare compared to the wave of such fictional and non-fiction works published after the turn of the century. In Iceland they were rarer still. So what made a then-23-year-old university student go down this path?
First and foremost I was a lover of poetry. And I wanted to defend it. At the time, public interest was waning; books of poetry did not sell and among critics there was even still a debate on whether poems should rhyme or not. I was simply trying to find a way to get poetry out there and I think the subject sought me out. As a student of limited means, and living near a Bónus shop, I did all my grocery shopping there. And everything was labelled “Bónus.” There was Bónus-bread, Bónus-Cola, Bónus-ham, Bónus-toiletpaper—all of which people would buy up without giving it a thought.
So I thought to myself, how would a book of Bónus-poetry look? As most people know, poets tend to think of the book cover first, followed by using it as a compass to write the book. I had some ideas that I had read out to my friends, who found them funny. But it was when I imagined this journey through ‘The Divine Comedy’ that I knew I had an artistic concept that I could see through. That made sense. What was really perfect—the icing on the cake of this particular performance—was actually meeting with Jóhannes Jónsson, the CEO of Bónus, who agreed to publish the book and at the same time giving the finishing touch of the artistic ippon.
So the consumer-critique was not the driving force?
In a way, yes, but it was more complicated. In my mind, the artist’s role is to break new ground, to give meaning to a new reality, or find meaning in things that need it or have yet to be defined. For example, in the dawn of 20th century in Reykjavík, people would not have associated Fríkirkjuvegur with anything romantic, with love or beauty. It was a street full of mud and filth next to a pond which had a foul odor. But then Tómas Guðmundsson wrote a poem and suddenly it had meaning. The lava fields in Iceland were nothing more than that until Kjarval saw the beauty in them and gave them life through his paintings.
To me, I wanted to present the reality I was experiencing in a supermarket, the market square of that era, where people met and gathered nourishment and other essentials. My grandfather grew up just below the arctic circle in the northeast corner of Iceland, living on what his seemingly boundless reality had to offer. The fish from the water, the butter from the cows, the meat from the lambs. In our case, that reality was bound within the confines of a supermarket. I wanted to give that experience a new meaning, a new reality.
I also thought, at the time, that it was an interesting contrast, my grandfather having grown up where nothing around him had been commercialized. In my life on the other hand, everything is vacuum packed and commercialized. The one thing left sacred was poetry. I thought it would be interesting, and probably a bit funny as well, to complete that circle— to mass produce poetry for the everyday consumer.
So perhaps you were unknowingly planting the seeds for works that were yet to come? In ‘The Story of the Blue Planet’ there is an underlying theme of vast injustice brought about by global capitalism and in ‘LoveStar’ everything has been commercialized. Were those ideas already there?
Well, when I was writing ‘Bónus Poetry’ the world was very different from what it is now, or even became shortly after. It was, in a sense, the End of History, as it was so eloquently described by Fukuyama. There was very little to complain about. There had been this environmental scare concerning the ozone layer, which kind of got fixed by a joint world effort in not using freon anymore. The Berlin Wall had come down, so there was no Cold War to get you angry. Even in Iceland, we had a female mayor in Reykjavik and a female president. So women’s rights even seemed to be heading in the right direction.
So there is this underlying tone [about examining the end of history, before a new period, the period we’re in now, began]. I feel very lucky that I found a medium to present my ideas—it was poetry. The book did really well, so the obvious thing for me to do was write another book of poetry. But I did a children’s book. Which also did very well, and it proved to be the best way for the particular idea I expressed in it. I was expected to do another book for children, but instead I found the best place for the next idea would be a sci-fi dystopian novel. So the original idea can take you to different places, and not necessarily ones you expect.
In facing the challenges writers deal with in getting published today, has using different types of mediums been useful? There are constant stories in the media about how fewer writers are being published, and fewer books read. There is even a decline in public literacy. How is it to be a writer today?
The smartphone has stolen our attention. I remember how you would see sad men standing in front of slot machines for hours. And I was even at the brink of praising that kind of devotion, to stand in front of the machine hours on end. But it wasn’t devotion, the people were mesmerised, hypnotised. And the smartphone works the same way. The Facebook and Twitter-newsfeeds are conceived in the same way as the reels of a slot machine. They keep you constantly occupied. Just at this moment I can see on my phone there are notifications—three of them! And I have to find out what they are. These activities, or addictions as it were, are taking up at least a third of all of our free time. Time that used to be, or could have been, spent reading or finding other means of entertainment. As an author, I have an audience making free stuff for the Zuckerbergs in the form of tweets and Facebook-statuses. The market for literature is still there but it has changed and the thriller or crime novel (without taking anything away from that artform), is too dominant.
Could poets perhaps shine in this new dimension of social media, having the capacity to be short and concise?
Poetry will always survive. Poets are like rats; even when they aren’t visible, they are ever present—close, underneath the surface. In the financial collapse in 2008, you could really see how young underground poets were realizing where we were heading long before the media did. And when the curtain was drawn back, there it was: a very different narrative than had been presented in the media, and one that brought truth to light. Poetry usually does this. It’s like life and life always finds a way.
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