Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

For WOMPO: A bit about being an expatriate writer…

Being an English-language poet in Norway was a challenge. I had been part of a manuscript group of women poets in Madison, Wisconsin for ten years before moving to Hawaii. (Members were Jesse Lee Kercheval, Robin Chapman, Alison Townsend, Judy Strasser, Susan Wicks and Susan Elbe – hello, Susan!)  Being without “the poets” was lonely, yet only one of many cultural, social and personal adjustments I had to go through upon transitioning to my new home. I continued to write and publish here and there in English language journals and anthologies, but over time I felt more and more isolated in terms of writing in English and sharing feedback.

I started teaching online writing workshops for Elisabeth Ayres who wrote Writing the Wave, one of the best writing-prompt manuals I know. Giving feedback was the next best thing to getting it, but over time this took too much of my writing energy. I also felt a need to get a foot in the door in the literary community in Norway. I was already a member of the North Norwegian Writers Association, but that is a loose interest organization, without much concrete to offer.

In 2010 I decided to apply for a 1-year course of study in creative writing at Tromsø University to kick-off my attempt to write in Norwegian. When I got rejected for this bachelor level study (for which I personally felt over-qualified) I about fell over! I could either buckle under and admit to being an outsider with no formal training in Norwegian, or forge ahead with no help from anybody. Within two months I performed street poetry at a literature festival in Tromsø, being paid to read my little Norwegian poems to strangers in shops, cafes and buses. The rejection from the university was ultimately a gift, because I worked harder to master the language on my own, knowing I had no academic crutch to help support me.

I wrote to my regional newspaper and asked if I could be a columnist, and to textbook publishers asking about writing textbooks for them. Both of those came to fruition. Some of my Norwegian poems have been published and recorded in readings by national actors, yet I am not sure I can call myself a bilingual writer. I could never produce a novel in Norwegian, but I can, with diligence, write poems and a feature column.

Both are delightful endeavors.Norwegian is a brilliantly concrete and poetic language. So many ordinary words are metaphors, and poetry lies deep in the Norwegian psyche. Letters to the editor are often in free verse, not cute and flippant, but about serious topics like the conflict in the Middle East. Norwegians tend to not notice the beauty of this. They take it for granted, and many young people tell me every year that they “only write in English because English is so superior to Norwegian”.

I think it is a bit of a “the grass is greener” phenomenon, and highly influenced by the Anglo-American influence of globalization. While I teach these students English, I always tell them to honor their literary roots and remember that culture is inextricable to language. Many of them are surprised to be told that Ibsen is well known outside of Norway. Norwegians are pathologically humble and tend to disparage their heroes.

I still want feedback and fellowship with other writers, so recently I started an MFA in British Columbia, a residency-optional program. One of the reasons I am attracted to UBC’s MFA program is it allows (and requires) you to write in three genres. I am looking primarily at creative non-fiction, fiction and poetry, but welcome the chance to dabble a bit in screen writing, plays and comics. I found out a long time ago that it was no good drawing lines between being a poet and being a prose writer. Many a failed poem was trying to be an essay.

I stumbled upon WOMPO in my attempt to find a writing community, and welcome any suggestions people might have for where I can find small groups of high caliber poets wishing to share and give feedback. Twenty+ years on, my manuscript group is still meeting in Madison, and I am still looking for their replacement in my life.


This entry was posted on 24/07/2014 by in Uncategorized and tagged .
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