Poetry as gateway to mainstream literary success?
On “The Story Island,” a fresh young crop of writers is busy carving out a space, making way, creating a culture all of their own, in defiance of what came before. Much like their predecessors, and their predecessors’ predecessors
Icelanders’ rich literary history is an enduring point of pride for the nation, greatly contributing to the national identity, even providing the basis for their claims to independence in the 19th and 20th centuries. Long before the onslaught of the ongoing nation branding campaigns based on the reputation of revered musicians like Björk and Sigur Rós, Icelanders liked to present themselves as a literary nation—“The Story Island”—on the world stage, frequently boasting of their high literacy rates and fabled storytelling tradition.
Indeed, before Björk, there was Snorri Sturluson. Stretching from the Sagas of the Icelanders written in the 13th and 14th centuries, all the way to the diverse literary scenes of the 20th and 21st centuries, the tradition of the written word is almost forcefully ingrained into Icelandic culture. A widely disseminated myth states that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime, and while that is mostly bullshit, the sparse populace still manages to produce an impressive amount of literature.
So, let’s say you decide to devote your life to writing literature in a language of only 330,000 native speakers. How do you get started? How can you make your voice heard? As literary scholar Jón Yngvi Jóhannsson details in a companion piece to this article, a common route for young would-be authors since the advent of modernity has seen them grouping together under a banner, fleshing out and promoting mutual mythologies and shared aesthetics (that are often in opposition to their predecessors’) as they claim space for themselves and their contemporaries—usually emphasizing poetry over prose. Eventually, some of those authors will branch out into publishing more popular forms of fiction, and some of those will eventually become revered literary figures.
It all starts somewhere.
Which leads one to ask: what’s brewing in Iceland at the moment? What are our youngest writers up to, and where are they headed?
Photo by Friðrik Friðriksson
A quick survey of the local lit scene reveals that a group of young poets operating under the name Meðgönguljóð (translated literally as “pregnancy poems”) has been the most prominent and active in carving out space for themselves of late, making their presence widely known and slowly infiltrating the discourse. Founded by Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir and Kári Tulinius, Meðgönguljóð was conceived as an independent publisher of poetry that would provide young poets an opportunity to release their work through a professional yet highly DIY process, providing vital support, resources and encouragement.
After having each just come back to Iceland from stints in the US, Vala and Kári both noticed that Reykjavík was all of a sudden distinctly and lamentably lacking a literary scene.They found that readings and events for writers to come together had become alarmingly rare, while poetry books were prohibitively expensive, the average price hovering at around 5,000 ISK for a hardcover. “That price made it sort of precious somehow,” Vala says. “It wasn’t a part of the everyday. You weren’t picking it up and carrying it around with you and chatting with your friends about it. We basically wanted to make the whole experience more casual, to make it so that you could go to a café and pick up the newest poet.”
shells of buildings
lay their lustre against the sky
we hold hands
on the seawall
marvel the disappearance of a planet
(everyone leaves here in the end)
shadows swallow reflections
and we can no longer make out
who is swimming toward us
we are forgotten in waves
vanish by the seabed
absently we lay
the foundation of a footprint
To begin with, Vala and Kári drew on the low-cost model of zines and independent publishing—which they had grown familiar with in the US—to make a series of chapbooks: small handmade books featuring a selection of works by a particular poet, often their first published work. The two of them casually refer to the first project of Meðgönguljóð as the “coffee series,” as the idea became to sell each book for around the price of a cup of coffee, or between 4-500 ISK.
“The idea came in the wintertime of 2010 and 2011,” Kári says, “when the recession was still biting very hard and the post-pots and pans revolution excitement was sort of starting to wane.”
Meðgönguljóð’s first book came in the spring of 2012, a collaborative work written by Vala and Kári and published as a subsidiary of the small press Stella, owned by their friend and co-founder Sveinbjörg Bjarnadóttir.
In the beginning, Meðgönguljóð published a large number of women authors, leading some to conclude that they were only publishing women. They say they weren’t necessarily implementing a quota, however, it was just that a lot of interesting women attracted their attention. “I don’t know what it is exactly,” Vala says, “but it’s a fact that fewer women get published than men in Iceland, and it’s worse, statistically, in poetry than in other literary fields.” Vala says she was particularly troubled by a report by newspaper Fréttablaðið around Christmas 2013, which said that only 37% of the short stories and novels published that year were authored by women. Even more striking were the statistics from the field of poetry, where a mere fifth of poetry books published in 2013 were by women authors.
Their goal of trying to represent with equality the gender breakdown of the real literary scene thus came naturally. Vala says that with regard to who is actually out there writing, the ratio is closer to 50/50, which can be affirmed by surveying the Writers’ Union records. The gender ratio that Meðgönguljóð published this year has balanced out to about an equal number of men and women, reflective of the number of writers really out there. “Our mission early on became to find these voices that weren’t getting heard or weren’t getting their stuff out elsewhere,” Vala says.
Meðgönguljóð started out finding their authors mainly through word of mouth. Kári and Vala would attend readings, and when they witnessed someone they found interesting they tracked him or her down, and offer to work with them. And what Meðgönguljóð provides, its real value, goes far beyond just printing and distribution. They assign an editor to work with each poet, taking between six to nine months to revise and craft the manuscript. In the beginning, the editing was solely in the hands of Vala and Kári, who took turns doing every other manuscript. By now, they’ve gotten established writers on board as editors, fostering a connection between the younger and older generations of writers.
Mitten-clad hands opened beer bottles with a key and we sipped from them while trampling the snow in dress shoes. We walked single-file through the graveyard, holding on to each other so no one lost their way among the gravestones. Beyond the graveyard followed a sharp, steep hill, which we didn’t realize until we had half-rolled, half-ran down it. Still we landed on our feet and stood in the backyard of a house. Made a racket under the bedroom window and smoked a bunch of cigarettes. We sprinted over Tjörnin’s sheet of ice, letting ourselves glide across, fell and hurt ourselves more than we expected. Kept going and kept falling. There were stars in the sky but we didn’t see them for the street lights. Anyway, we didn’t want to see anything in this ice cold gale.
Vala is gung-ho about the collaborative aspect of the editing process. In working with an editor, she says that every single manuscript is improved in all sorts of ways. “There’s some sort of magic in the collaboration,” she says. “I think it’s invaluable just getting real feedback. The idea isn’t to put a leash on the writing. It’s about creating a dialogue.” She goes on to emphasize that getting out of your own headspace is critical, and that the notion that writers are solitary creatures who produce masterpieces in a vacuum is largely a myth. To her, a sense of community is important, and that’s exactly what she and Kári are aiming to do with Meðgönguljóð.
While Meðgönguljóð might be the most prominent group of the moment, it is far from the only game in town, with several other collectives and publishing groups keeping the literary scene alive, each with their mission statements and defining characteristics.
Started in 2013 by Sólveig Matthildur Kristjánsdóttir, Fríyrkjan is a punk poetry group of sorts. Sólveig herself is young, 19 years old, and many of the early members were around that age, though now the membership has expanded to those in their mid-to-late twenties. The group hosts monthly readings, currently at Bravó, where Sólveig works as a bartender. The scene at Fríyrkjan’s readings is Bacchanalian, fueled by beer and a raw edge. And in contrast to Meðgönguljóð, the group’s poets claim they aren’t at all interested in editing and refining their poetry, focusing on just writing it and performing on stage. They published their first compilation of 21 poems in August of 2012, and their second one in December of this year. Meanwhile, Sólveig herself is currently working on a book that Meðgönguljóð will publish come next year.
Emil Hjörvar Petersen, another poet published by Meðgönguljóð, is a part of a self-publishing venture called Nykur, originally started in 1995 by Andri Snær Magnason as a means to facilitate authors who wished to publish their own works.
Ásta Fanney Sigurðardóttir, a poet who has published with Meðgönguljóð, says that groups such as Meðgönguljóð are critical to foster a system of encouragement. “I think that poets are really sometimes like lone wolves,” Ásta says. “They’re all in their own world, writing and reading their own stuff. I think it’s important to come to these meeting points where authors meet authors and poets meet poets. Then you’re not alone and you’re not just putting your poems in a drawer.” She says that there’s always something that comes from these gatherings and can be used in her own poetry or just her life.
“There’s a nice atmosphere among the young writers, and I do feel they are generally supportive of each other,” says Arngunnur Árnadóttir, another Meðgönguljóð poet. “The group of people surrounding Meðgönguljóð is fantastic and it’s been inspiring to get to know them.”
When asked if she thinks they’ve been successful in fostering a community, Vala says she can’t really answer that, as she’s far too close to the action to have an objective opinion. Kári feels similarly, describing Meðgönguljóð as a generation rather than a movement, in the sense that the poets they’ve published so far were all born in the 80s. He says, “There are certain things in common with aesthetics, but we haven’t sat down and worked out a manifesto. And I don’t think we would ever do that, for various reasons. We’re not necessarily speaking as some sort of consensus, and in that sense, we’re not a movement.”
Kári goes on to say, “I do think that all of the poets that we’ve published, at least in the shorter works, the little books, are reacting to what happened in Iceland and the chaotic period that’s been ongoing since the end of 2008.” As life-changing as the financial crisis was, especially for people of his generation, just coming of age, he reiterates that he doesn’t have any interest in being a movement publisher. “Frankly, in some ways it’s because movements are internally sort of volatile. We like to keep things as drama free as possible. We’re poets, not playwrights.”
What’s poetry got to do with it?
Almost all writers affiliated with the Icelandic literary scene, past and present, local and abroad, seem to have started their careers with poetry. As long as there’s been a prose tradition in Iceland, there’s also been an equally strong current of poetry running alongside. This traditional fare is the stuff of the Sagas, with rigid rules for composition, mandatory end rhymes and a strong emphasis on alliteration. The Atom Poets broke free of this in the post WWII period, forming the first modern poetic movement in Iceland with their free verse, and subsequent movements have continued the theme of breaking from the past, including Nýhil, the most recent movement, whose most active years were between 2004 and 2009.
Haukur Ingvarsson is an author, literary scholar and poet who debuted during Nýhil’s heyday. He describes their approach to language as being very different from a lot of what’s happening now. He says they were very focused on language and political aspects of it, but at the same time playing a lot with its sound and utilising both high- and lowbrow stylistics.
Snæfellsjökull seen from a motionless bus
A damp entanglement of paper clings to the sky
I swipe Snæfell’s glacier from the window
and make a note of the things
I should have said to you:
1) under a flat, glassy surface
there are stones which are stones
2) snow softens;
I am a mountain that is a mountain
Snæfellsjökull will be tossed in a bin
will decompose among banana peals,
paper cups, pop cans, candy wrappers
refuse which is refuse
poems document landscape;
One of Nýhil’s founders, Haukur Már Helgason, posits that while poetry might be a natural driving force behind the urge to write for some, it’s not financially viable to dedicate one’s writing life to poetry, since Iceland is too small of a country to foster a literary market that could support that. Writers who are primarily novelists but started out as just poets might have been able to continue on with poetry, had they been born in countries with larger language zones and therefore space to support the subculture that is poetry. Nýhil co-founder Eiríkur Örn similarly says, “Iceland is too small to have a substantial subculture—everything has to exist within the mainstream to be able to subsist. Literature is more and more a cultural sidenote and poetry is a cultural side note within literature.”
Despite the fact that it’s not financially viable, poetry is still actively being written and pursued. Haukur Már says that the conscious reasons to create poetry “have to do with ideas about poetry being a good criterion for one’s capabilities, while also being an important place for practice: to actually focus on your writing, word by word, find your own desires and tendencies in its employment, in the way you bend it or squeeze it or explode it. I think these are not just rationalizations, but quite valid reasons for at least some writers.”
There’s something about poetry that appeals to an Icelandic sensibility, though it’s not necessarily just by virtue of being an Icelander that writers here start with it. Many, if not all writers continue on through their careers thinking of themselves as poets first, and novelists, screenwriters, or whatever else second. Says Kári, “I think it’s common all over the world, the idea that poetry is the expression of the soul. I think that idea has very strong currency in Iceland. For instance, though I am primarily in many ways a novelist, I believe in poetry in a way that I don’t believe in novels, in a sort of almost religious sense.”
It’s almost a given that a writer in Iceland is also a poet, no matter what genre or literary scene he or she eventually gravitates towards. Sverrir Norland, author of ‘Kvíðasnillingarnir’, a novel published this past September by Iceland’s largest publisher, says he started writing poetry as a child. His first two published works were poetry books, and then he moved on to prose, his current focus. “I’m a poetry guy, even though I don’t really write much poetry anymore. But I read it—it’s my main source of energy.”
Vala asserts that not only is poetry a natural thing for a writer, it’s also the bravest kind of writing. “In some ways, it’s easier to criticise, easier to mock, because it’s disarmingly simple. In that way I think poetry is a bit like being naked. Like making love, or being made love to, it requires a very concentrated surrender. And when it’s good, it’s terrifyingly honest. There’s nothing more dangerous than an honest poet—at their best, they can be a culture’s most devastating social and political critics.”
This critical potential rears its head in a different way for every generation of poets. Who can say exactly what this generation is reacting to and criticising? Opinions vary, and it’s difficult to know because there hasn’t yet been an opportunity for hindsight. Haukur Már, who is from the generation above the poets just coming up, notices an almost bitter sense. “If they have anything in common, as far as I see, it would be a sense of disillusion, giving birth to various different responses, from the finest cynicism to calls for arms. It might go somewhat hand in hand with a hopeless political situation, an enduring crisis of identity, of the economy, and of existence.”
How to make a living in three easy steps
If it’s not particularly financially viable to make a living off writing, and especially poetry, then how are there so many Icelandic poets and writers alive and well? The majority of writers have two or three other jobs, like Sólveig of Fríyrkjan who bartends at Bravó and Húrra, or Ásta Fanney who gets to eats whenever she sells a drawing. But surely this can’t be the only way, because romantic as it is to be a starving artist, it’s not exactly a sustainable career goal.
Haukur Már states it frankly, “Icelandic writers can make a career of writing because the state funds them. Period. Over 90% of published literature does not sell sufficiently to keep the author alive along with the publisher and the rest of the industry. About half probably manages to cover printing costs by sales only. But the deciding factor is this one fund, founded by the state in 1969, where artists, including writers, can apply for a salary. It is a stipend, but received on a monthly basis, for three, six, nine or twelve months a year, depending on the artist’s recognition and the quality of his/her application.”
It would be almost impossible for a writer to make a living if they had to rely only on the sales of their books, according to Haukur Ingvarsson. The grant system is necessary for the health of the literary scene, too, he says: “The existence of different kinds of literature is vital for the scene to function.” Poetry is what fuels the writers of other genres like fiction, like Sverrir Norland said.
It’s a fairly cut and dried process to apply for a stipend: you need to submit a detailed proposal, and sometimes a CV. However, the vast majority of people receiving such grants are over the age of 30, and have already published a book before. So the means to support oneself until those almost essential criteria are reached are slapdash and haphazard: side jobs, a generous family, or student loans.
“And I think, aside from any artistic merit, a collective can be tremendously important in those formative years,” says Haukur Már, “at least as a mental and social support system. When your extended family and your acquaintances from school, even close friends, don’t understand why you bother—having a group of people who share the manic obsession can be tremendously helpful.”
The pattern that’s repeated every generation is a fading away of the previous literary scene, the forming of a new community with a new sense of purpose, and then their subsequent fade. That’s not to say that the members of each generation just go away when the collective goes.
Certainly members of groups like Nýhil and its predecessors, like surrealist collective Medúsa (more on page 20), are still extremely active, their publications regularly topping critics’ lists and even sales charts.
Haukur Ingvarson thinks this generational cycle will continue. He says that each generation “not only invents itself, but also picks up older authors from previous scenes that were perhaps not paid much attention and it reevaluates their work and literary history.” Literature is like Ouroboros, with no discernible beginning or end, at least not within anyone’s living memory. Things, authors, stories, forms are constantly recycled and woven into the new narrative.
As to where it’s going, Haukur Már can’t say. “I wouldn’t dare to propose any direction. Anything worth anything will come as a surprise. One feature, however, that I think may be important, is emancipation from the fetishisation of language. As in: this particular language, Icelandic. The adoration of linguistic texture has at times been somewhat been given preference over thought or any other content.” He says this focus can make it easy to develop tunnel vision for Iceland and only Iceland, ignoring the existence of the rest of the world and, therefore, the context in which Iceland sits.
Emil is optimistic about the current variety in the literature he sees coming out of Iceland. “With a new generation, the genres come out of hiding, writers will experiment in other ways, and ‘the Icelandic novel’ will change.” He says he worries about the government’s proposed raise in VAT on books, along with its much maligned cuts to arts and culture funding, positing that they have the potential to negatively affect the literary scene. His hope is that the work of small publishers like Meðgönguljóð, who he says has created a new poetry scene in no time, continues because despite the larger publishers putting out great books, “in the long run it’s not healthy for literature to have such monotony. The more variety, the better for literature.”
Nauseous from hunger
we stretch out in the gutter
a bird in the eaves above
and sinks to the ground
deep down (inside me)
delineated in water
a shimmering wet
there I stow the salt
and the zippers
Vala herself agrees that the cyclical pattern will continue. She specifically hopes for the poets of Meðgönguljóð to flourish and keep at it. She believes the poets in Meðgönguljóð have the potential to be the great voices of tomorrow. To Vala, diversity is critical, both with the voices in poetry and literature, and culture and society at large, and her desire is for the powers that be to recognize and appreciate this. The politicians who are in charge of funding arts and culture have a great responsibility to nourish it.
“I cling to the belief that if we keep encouraging a diverse range of voices we’re bound to end up with a revolution. James Baldwin once wrote, ‘Where the poet can sing, the people can live. When a civilisation treats its poets with the disdain with which we treat ours, it cannot be far from disaster.’ I want to give poets the chance to sing. Poets can be great critics. They can spark things. You give them the chance and they will, as Baldwin says, empty oceans with a home-made spoon and tear down mountains with their hands.”