From Iceland — Taking No Hostages: The Words Beneath The Waves

Taking No Hostages: The Words Beneath The Waves

Published November 3, 2016

Whether you’re a musician or a festival-goer, Airwaves is a messy week for all involved. Thursday is the second night of the festival proper, but if you’re anything like the dedicated Reykvíkingar in attendance, it could be your fourth night on the go. So whether you’re looking for an oasis in the chaos, or you just fancy a nice sit-down, Airwords could end up being the highlight of your festival.

The desire for a literary showcase during Airwaves first manifested itself in the form of an off-venue “poetry jam session” run by local publisher Meðgönguljóð (Partus Press), which paired up local poets with musicians. The experiment worked—today, Airwords is an annual fixture of Harpa’s Kaldalón stage that combines performance poetry, music, and “readings from the cutting edge of Icelandic literature,” explains Andri Snær Magnason, leading contemporary author, former presidential candidate, and founder of Airwords.

“I was abroad during Airwaves one year,” he explains, “and thought it was a shame to be travelling at a time when all these people had flown to Iceland because of the culture. Music and poetry have always been intertwined here in Iceland. There is music in words—and over the years, we’ve found that people are in the mood for a different kind of concentration. The event has fit better into the music festival than I ever imagined.”

Single jackass

This year, electronic “word-based” musicians such as Tonik Ensemble, einarIndra, Coals , and Amnesia Scanner take to the stage alongside poets Ásta Fanney, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, and Bubbi Morthens—a musician who’s soundtracked the last 35 years of Iceland’s history, and is now turning his talents towards poetry.

One name on the lineup stands out in particular, however. Crispin Best, whom VICE referred to as “London’s most original and oddest poet” is a young, upcoming artist—and a total Airwaves newbie.

“One of the worst problems of literary events is the ‘hostage situation’ feel of the whole thing,” Crispin says bluntly. “Everyone is stiff and quiet, nobody is allowed to leave, and a single jackass is in control of everyone’s experience. I think writers reading at music festivals are way more aware and engaged with this idea, and tend to put the audience at the centre of the experience more. The whole festival experience necessarily punctures egos a bit—in a great way—and the performers are usually in the same messy state as the audience, so everything tends to be a bit warmer round the edges.”

Dusty white dudes

Crispin is arriving at Airwaves on the back of touring a poetry collection published by Faber earlier this year, which was well-received by excited, open-minded audiences and also led to public threats in a national newspaper from “a few old dusty white dudes.” So is this year’s experimental line-up indicative of a wider trend in poetry? “I don’t think poetry as a ‘whole’ is particularly becoming experimental,” says Crispin. “It’s always fussing at the various edges of itself. I do think at the moment it’s expanding in a lot of different directions at once, so there are more trails of breadcrumbs leading away from the middle ground. It’s miserable there.”

So what can we look forward to from his set this year? “In terms of my set, I always try to read at least one thing that’s pretty new, so expect a huge exclusive that is also completely unfinished. I’ll probably only finalise what I’m going to read about a couple of minutes before I start. The good thing about being up there on your own is that you can react pretty instantly to what mood the room seems to be in, and what people are enjoying… or not.”

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