From Iceland — A Wide Range Of Voices: A Glimpse Into The Current Icelandic Poetry Scene

A Wide Range Of Voices: A Glimpse Into The Current Icelandic Poetry Scene

Published August 24, 2018

A Wide Range Of Voices: A Glimpse Into The Current Icelandic Poetry Scene
Noemi Ehrat
Photo by
Art Bicnick
Rebecca Reid
Martin Diegelman

Crowds gather to listen to poetry, cram into tiny spaces to attend poetry evenings and queue to receive a poem to go. Large collections of poetry by established writers are published alongside new poets’ chapbooks and the demand for poetry seems to be as steady as ever. Smaller, independent publishing houses, such as Partus Press and Tunglið, contribute to the poetry market in equal measure as long-established publisher Forlagið. Both young and old voices join a conversation which is no longer led by only a few well-known writers. Yet it seems that the current Icelandic poetry scene is at a crossroads and its future can go in one of two directions—remain as vibrant as it is at the moment, or else slowly decline, waiting for yet another generation to follow.

The beginnings

It all began in the winter of 2011, when the main grassroots publisher of poetry at that time, Nýhil, collapsed. Kári Tulinius, Sveinbjörg Bjarnadóttir and Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir subsequently decided to start a poetry chapbook series called Meðgönguljóð, roughly translated as ‘Takeaway poetry,’ in 2012 to fill the void.

“At the time, there was really nothing happening in poetry for young people,” remembers Valgerður. She and Kári wrote a first chapbook together, yet there was no opportunity to publish their collaboration. “We didn’t have any options, so we just thought, ‘let’s try this.’” Their collaboration became the first in the chapbook series. “It just really hit the spot, it filled some specific void and the reaction we got from the community was overwhelmingly positive,” says Valgerður.

Moving on to bigger projects

“If I had to characterise it, I would say that the generation of poets active right now is a bit less ironic than the one that came before it.”

One idea behind Meðgönguljóð was to give all kinds of poetry a platform and to enable new poets to publish their poems. Since its start in 2012, the Meðgönguljóð series has included the works of around 30 poets, many of them now moving on to bigger projects. In 2015, Valgerður founded Partus Press, which subsequently took over publication of the poetry chapbook series.

One of Partus’ poets is Fríða Ísberg, a 25-year-old writer who published her first collection of poetry with them. “My poems were originally planned to be published as part of the chapbook series. When I got the chance to work on a longer manuscript as my final project for the MA course in creative writing at the University of Iceland, Partus decided to give it a chance as a bigger project,” Fríða says. It was at that time that Valgerður decided to make Partus into a full-grown publishing house and Fríða’s book was the press’ first full length poetry collection.

Whole range of poetry

“Since we started, so much has changed that it’s hard to even remember what it was like before,” says Valgerður. Sigrún Ása Sigmarsdóttir, who had her chapbook “Siffon Og Damask” published this year, says that “the difference to how it was before Meðgönguljóð is that the poetry scene is now open to everybody. You’re free to express yourself in a more carefree way, without the pressure of being perfect.”

Sigrún Ása, who is 61-years-old, says that when she was in her twenties, she felt you’d have to do what she calls “serious poetry” to be accepted or be able to call yourself a poet. Fríða describes the new generation of poets as more “sincere, introspective and emotional” than others before.

“If I had to characterise it, I would say that the generation of poets active right now is a bit less ironic than the one that came before it,” Valgerður says. “However, I’m reluctant to say that the poets working today really belong to any one group, I think they’re all doing vastly different things,” she emphasises.

 “A bad book doesn’t do any harm, whereas a good book that doesn’t get published is a real loss.” 

Meðgönguljóð, in particular, was always meant to “capture a wide range of voices”, she explains. “The chapbook series is really diverse in terms of approaches, it probably covers more styles than Partus will be able to accommodate going forward,” she adds. Precisely this openness to diversity enabled older, yet new poets like Sigrún Ása to become part of the poetry scene and express their voice. “It was really helpful for me that Partus was open to giving older poets like myself a chance,” she says. However, she says she would like to hear from more new poets her age – “I’ve had really good responses from women my age who would like to publish their poetry but thought they were too old; so hopefully I inspire them to follow their own dreams,” she says.

Trendy poetry and cool poets

Iceland has, of course, always had a rather vibrant literary scene and while the novel with its successful history—ranging from the famous Sagas to Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness—has undoubtedly left its mark on the island, Icelandic poetry can certainly also boast a glorious past.

“Iceland has a strong poetic tradition, which plays a part in making poetry a desirable artform. Also, many of our most prominent historical figures were, among other things, poets. So poets have persisted in the national consciousness as heroes, of a sort. Anti-heroes perhaps,” says Valgerður. “They tend to be romanticised as rebellious outsiders, which I think has contributed to a specific notion of ‘coolness’ about poetry in Iceland.”

“Poetry is certainly a trend right now,” confirms Fríða. “People our age think about a young person when they think about a typical poet, not the stereotypical middle-aged man,” she says.

“People project masculine ideas onto what a poet is or should be,” adds Valgerður. “This is something I’ve been aware of from the start and am very consciously working against. I feel it’s my responsibility as a publisher to do what I can to change this idea,” she says.

Kári Tulinius, co-founder of Meðgönguljóð and internationally successful poet, says that while “previous generations were heavily male-dominated, the current trend has been towards equality.”

That trend has not started overnight, though.

“We’ve always had great female poets that have been arousing young women’s as well as young men’s enthusiasm for poetry,” says Fríða. For herself, it was well-known writer Steinunn Sigurðardóttir who awakened her interest in poetry and later Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir who served as a role model. “When I started high school, she had just published her first poetry book and she’s only seven years older than me,” Fríða says. “It was great to have this commercially successful poet who reached so many young people.”

Poetic communities

 “It seems to me that every author builds her or his own editorial board of fellow writers and friends.” 

Fríða, in turn, is part of the poetry collective Svikaskáld, or the imposter poets. “We’re six women who are pretty successful professionally, but still suffer from imposter syndrome,” she says. “When it comes to our writing, we sometimes still feel like it’s not good enough to be published, so the collective is really helpful in telling each other that we’re wrong in not going ahead to publish.” Besides simply saying ‘fuck you’ to perfectionism, the collective intends to inspire other women to do the same: to be creative and unafraid of voicing their opinions.

Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson from the independent press Tunglið, or moon press, explains that contrary to other countries, Icelandic writers often rely on their own communities to edit their work. “It seems to me that every author builds her or his own editorial board of fellow writers and friends to give feedback,” he says.

Partus’ Valgerður says: “Finding a poetic community in Iceland helped me to realize that poetry was not just a hobby or something you do alone in your bedroom.” The social aspect of it helped her a lot, too. “Seeing what other people are doing also sharpens your idea of what you want to do. It wasn’t necessarily that I saw somebody and wanted to be like them, it was more like finding yourself by discovering what you’re not,” she says.

Creative Writing

One way writers like Fríða or Bergþóra Snæbjörnsdóttir, whose book ‘Flórída’ was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Price 2018, found supportive communities through the creative writing programme at the University of Iceland. “I received mentorship and the time and space I needed to write through the creative writing programme,” Bergþóra says. “I also found a community, because I met a few like-minded people who were anti-establishment and wanted to do something different.”

“People our age think about a young person when they think about a typical poet, not the stereotypical middle-aged man.”

All of the six women from poetry collective Svikaskáld—Melkorka Ólafsdóttir, Ragnheiður Harpa Leifsdóttir, Sunna Dís Másdóttir, Þóra Hjörleifsdóttir, Þórdís Helgadóttir, andFríða—went through the MA programme. “The creative writing community is a very big part of the poetry scene,” says Fríða. “They host events during the school year and I feel like the majority of young people who are serious about becoming authors do this programme,” she says. “You don’t have to study creative writing, though,” says Bergþóra. “It’s just important to have mentors who are brutally honest with you about your writing.”

With ‘Flórída,’ Bergþóra had already been able to build herself a community of supporters. “In my experience, the writers’ community is very kind and open,” she says. “When I was writing Flórída, I was really lucky because I had established writers with a lot of experience reading over the draft for me, giving me comments. One of them told me to omit 60% of the first draft and I did and then I just wrote more. To have somebody who takes the time to sit down and read for hours and think about it and give you feedback is a huge gift,” she explains. This is why Bergþóra tries to do the same for others in return.

Sigurður Pálsson, teacher and poet

One of the most influential figures for the current poetry scene was Sigurður Pálsson, a poet and larger than life character in the Icelandic arts. Fríða, whose final project he supervised, calls him a “huge figure” in the poetry scene. “He taught poetry for a decade at the University of Iceland and was a huge inspiration as a teacher,” she says. “He lit a spark in every one of his students.”

According to Fríða, a lot of the young poets publishing today were his students. Sigurður was also the reason for Ragnar to turn to poetry. After he had started writing seriously, he attended a seminar on poetry held by Sigurður. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a ridiculous thing’ and that I would never write poetry and therefore should most definitely take this course,” says Ragnar with a laugh. “He really opened my eyes to the possibilities and freedom of poetry,” Ragnar continues. “He was very influential. If I hadn’t taken that course, I’d be writing prose solely.” Sigurður didn’t only know how to fill students with enthusiasm: “He was this rare breed in Iceland: a poet who is unafraid of the academic discussion,” says Ragnar. “He managed to glide between these two worlds effortlessly, which was very important for the scene, too. Sigurður managed to find a balance between the mystery of poetic creation and the academic discourse about it.”

Language discourse

Another discourse inherent in Icelandic poetry concerns the Icelandic language itself: Who would want to, or rather, would even be able to read Icelandic poetry?

Egill Örn Jóhannsson, general manager of Iceland’s largest publishing house Forlagið, says that “the Icelandic book market is a miracle; it shouldn’t exist.” He calculates that of the whole Icelandic population, which contains just over 300 thousand people, the total market of readers might consist of a third of that and thereof even less who read and buy poetry.

For writers of poetry, this bears quite a few challenges. “Writing in Icelandic doesn’t limit in an artistic way, but it presents specific challenges for writers wanting to pursue poetry full-time,” says Valgerður.

 “If you want to shoulder the responsibility of contributing to the culture of poetry in Iceland, that means taking responsibility for the Icelandic language.” 

Kári agrees: “There are no artistic limitations to writing in Icelandic,” he says. “The tiny market makes it seem like a foolish idea, though, financially speaking.” However, a smaller market has its positive sides, too. “There’s the artists’ salary in Iceland, which has helped a lot of people to pursue careers in writing,” Valgerður explains. “Although that hasn’t been true at all for new writers emerging over the past 10 years or so.”

Ragnar links the language issue to an even broader discourse on culture in general. “If you want to shoulder the responsibility of contributing to the culture of poetry in Iceland, that means taking responsibility for the Icelandic language,” he says. “How you then define that responsibility is up to each writer.” He’s convinced that variety beats monoculture and advocates a lively poetry scene – be it in Icelandic or any other language.

Translations and criticism

That is not to say, of course, that Ragnar would be opposed to translations, quite the contrary. Many of Ragnar’s books have been translated into German and French. “In such a horribly small place like Iceland, I always have the feeling that ninety percent of the people who have read my book know me personally,” he says. That way, Ragnar feels like his persona is blocking the reader’s direct access to the book itself, as does any poet’s persona. “This is why it’s such a pleasure to read reviews written by people who have never met me and know nothing about me,” he says. “It makes me happy to know that I am not standing in their way.” Indeed, the small size of the poetry scene in Iceland poses yet another challenge regarding literary criticism within Iceland. “This means that everybody knows each other and writing a negative review, for example, is a sensitive business,” Ragnar explains.

Yet there’s also the problem of a lack of poetry reviews in general. “The way I think writing in Icelandic is most limiting, actually, is in terms of the critical environment in Iceland. You don’t have that many people writing quality reviews,” says Valgerður. “Papers don’t write big reviews of poetry anymore,” Ragnar adds. He doesn’t think that this has necessarily a bad impact on the poetic quality, though. “I think it doesn’t really matter in a way, because a bad book doesn’t do any harm, whereas a good book that doesn’t get published is a real loss,” he says. Yet he does lament the lack of a critical discourse on poetry.

Surge of self-publishers

 “It’s hard to say who the next generation of poets will be, but it’s usually somebody nobody expects.” 

What exists in abundance, though, is poets of every age who publish their own work. Ragnar compares today’s situation with the 70s: “At that time, it became possible to photocopy and make cheaper books, which meant that the process of manufacturing a book became accessible for more people,” he explains. “Nowadays, with the advent of digital printing, there are many books published who wouldn’t have been published 20 years ago,” he says.

Valgerður adds that there are currently many young people who start their own presses and even create their own anthologies together. Self-publishing is not frowned upon as in other countries, as many of Iceland’s most famous authors, like Sjón, have started their careers this way. Moreover, Iceland’s small literary scene enables writers to simply take matters into their own hands and have their work sold in bookstores across Reykjavík.

Ongoing trend or on the decline?

“At the moment, there’s a slight broadening of the concept of poetry,” says Ragnar. “Poetry has become a very inclusive concept and even hip-hop lyrics are considered poetry nowadays, which would’ve been unimaginable twenty years ago,” he says.

Although Ragnar doesn’t mind the current surge of hipster poets at all, he says he’s looking forward for poetry to become uncool again. “The only thing I’m really worried about is these kinds of articles that everyone will read,” he says. “Poetry needs to keep a low profile, as it makes for better poetry when you just throw your artwork into a black hole,” he says.

“The novel is the ultimate book, it’s what sells and if you’re a serious writer, you’re supposed to become a novelist.”

Valgerður also wonders how much longer poetry will be considered cool and both she and Bergþóra hope that it won’t decline again. “I hope that people will continue to experiment with language and try to find their own ways of working with it instead of following a fixed concept of poetry,” Bergþóra says. Fríða, a philosophy graduate, thinks these kinds of waves are normal and remains optimistic. “Younger people will come and fill the new void—it only takes little time. Meðgönguljóð became the main young poets’ publication within two years,” she explains.

“It’s hard to say who the next generation of poets will be, but it’s usually somebody nobody expects,” Ragnar says.

From poetry to prose

In the meantime, as Meðgönguljóð comes to an end, Valgerður opens up a new UK branch of Partus Press. The Icelandic branch will continue, albeit with different, more specific projects. Currently, all eyes are set on the upcoming Christmas book flood and Partus plans to release, among other things, a novel by Jónas Reynir Gunnarsson, the aforementioned short story collection by Fríða, a poetry collection by Arngunnur Árnadóttir, an anthology of all the Meðgönguljóð books, as well as an Icelandic translation of a short story collection by Richard Brautigan.

Most of the writers, such as Bergþóra, Kári, Ragnar and Fríða, have turned away from poetry for the moment and are currently pursuing longer written works. Valgerður says she sometimes wonders whether part of the reason why so many poets transition into novelists is that poetry is a form of writing from which it is almost impossible to make a living. Or as Fríða describes the expectations, “The novel is the ultimate book, it’s what sells and if you’re a serious writer, you’re supposed to become a novelist.” Meanwhile, Forlagið prepares to publish a selection of the late Sigurður Pálsson’s poetry later this year.

In a way, it seems like the most recent surge of interest in poetry might have reached its breaking point. However, with more translations of poetry into English planned, Icelandic poetry might as well be on its way to open up new markets and reach a broader readership than ever before. And if Meðgönguljóð leaves a void in its wake, there should be enough confident and inspired young poets to create something new.

Some of the poets mentioned in the article have had work translated into English:

Fríða Ísberg: Some poems from her collection “Slitförin” have been translated by Meg Matich. Find them here.

Valgerður Þorroddsdóttir: While some of Valgerður’s Icelandic poetry has been translated into English, she has also started publishing her own English work. You can find more of her poetry in print the anthology “New Poetries VII” and her translation of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s work “Waitress in Fall“.

Kári Tulinius: Kári’s English translation of the Icelandic poet Elías Knörr will be published soon by Partus Press in the UK. Moreover, Larissa Kyzer has translated some of his poems, which you can find here.

Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson: Most of Ragnar’s work has been translated into German and French. Find the entire list here.

Neither Bergþóra‘s nor Sigrún Ása‘s work has been translated yet, although both of them hope it will happen one day.

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