Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

On poetry, memoir, truth and revolution: Stavanger Literature Festival Day 1

Actually, they call it an International Festival of Literature and Freedom of Speech. The subtitle is Revolution. There are a number of sessions relating to the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Cold War, and revolutions of various ilk, including the CIMG_3953asserole Revolution in Iceland in 2008, or was it 2011? and not least Syria represented by the poet Adonis, billed as the Arab World’s greatest voice, and Scandinavia’s first female imam. There’s a lot of focus on the content and politics of the writing, not the writing itself, the how, the magic that renders mere words into a meaningful and transformative experience.

I used to attend readings in the States and come away with poems, my own writing primed by the flow of words from the stage. Here in Norway, I have been to few pure readings. It’s either “book baths” where an author is in conversation with a journalist to which we are witness, or the author talks about the content of a book in terms of its relevance for society, i.e. the woman’s memoir of trying to get help for her autistic son from the Norwegian welfare state; the Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny and Mette Karlsvik talking about violence toward women being a taboo topic in Iceland, or about the willingness of Iceland to pay its debt after 2008.  All very interesting, but I miss a focus on the literature per se, the workings of the art, the design templates and tools that make literature happen. The ultimate goal of literature is to render experience in the reader; there tends to be more talk about what that experience is than how it gets rendered.

Still, many utterances stood out, jumped off the stage and crept into my notebook. Here they are; to paraphrase Vigdis Hjorth in her talk about Alexander Kielland’s notes for an autobiography, Agerhøns med Champagne — facts that are not shown but told, not contextualized but left to speak for themselves.


More from Hjorth: The past is everchanging, undergoing a development, in correlation with our own development; what decides which aspects of the past are left to that evolution, and which get explored, elaborated on, even improved through being written about. The past can no longer expand once it is encapsulated in writing, fixed in place. According to Søren Kierkegaard, she says, the essential is well-timed remembering, and well-timed forgetting. To remember, and to fail to remember, are both constructs. Hjorth says that only in fiction can facts from real life be done justice to, and cites endless boring and aborted facts from real life in Kielland’s book that are, when addressed as fact, utterly boring. Real life can occupy much more space in fiction than in autobiography. A writer’s work is the metamorphosis of fact to fiction, a transformation that occurs each time you open your mouth, and each time you close it. The sannhetsverdi or measure of truth in fiction can only be judged by its effect on its readers. And with that she checkmated her sister’s move, which was to take a writing course to learn to write a novel so she could counteract with (what she claims as) truth the false representation of the Hjorth family made in Vidgis’s latest book, Nature and Nurture Arve og miljø.  The audience in kinosal 5 of Sølvberget got the implicit jab at her sister and laughed in appreciation, as Hjorth has repeatedly refused to comment on her sister’s public, and published, accusation. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood, she quipped, quoting whoever made that statement famous, and praised Kielland for NOT writing his autobiography. The slim volume of his notes was published seventy-five years after he died. He himself was smart enough, Hjorth says, to keep quiet and never write the memoir. The notes themselves are full of head-scratching annotation next to his actual journal entries: why did I go to Paris? what in heaven’s name does this mean? who was she? and so on. Had he decided to write his memoir, these notes show exactly how much of his own past he would have been forced to construct, a prospect that Kielland met with an underwhelming enthusiasm and ultimate conclusion of why bother?

From Gerður Kristný: whose novel Blodhest – Blood Horse is a retelling of a Norse saga: a woman was punished with a curse that would make her be thin and fall in love with other women. In other words, life as a slender lesbian was the worst possible fate in Viking times.

Thorvald Steen: the poet’s design is to express in words what happens in the space between the senses and the brain; in other words, to record the sensation on its way to being perceived as a sensation. The last time I saw him was in Bodø at Det vilde ord festival about three years back. He was walking then, limping. Now he’s in a wheelchair. The muscular degeneration he was diagnosed with at age 17 was supposed to put him in a wheelchair by age twenty-five and kill him before age thirty. He has staved it off and is well on his way to seventy. His latest book Det hvite badehuset is a memoir about discovering that an uncle he didn’t know about and the grandfather that his mother refused to even name, from whom his grandmother had fled with two small children due to something shameful (Steen always assumed it had to do with WWII crimes) actually suffered from the same disease that has informed his life and his writing.


Adonis: aujourd’hui j’ai lu un grand poeme norvegien, c’était écrit par la mer, les arbres, la montangne. When he said this I thought: yes, why try to write poems when one lives in the very poem itself. Religion is an answer. Poetry is a question. Not a single Islamic poet has done the haj pilgrimage to Mecca. A poet does not engage in ritualistic trappings of religion to honor a creator; the poet is creator, a god. He was asked if Syria would survive. He didn’t like the question, said you can annihilate a regime but not a people, so yes. He was asked, of course, about the role of poetry in the Syrian revolution. He said that poetry never felled a tyrant, committed a coup d’état; it revolutionizes as love revolutionizes, to broaden perspective, alter the relationship between lover and beloved, between the word and the object it names. Poetry is not a tool by which anything is accomplished. An audience member objected, saying that Neruda used poetry to a political end, and he wondered if Arab poetry was, by contrast, only concerned with flowery things. Adonis smiled – he is one of these old people whose wisdom is expressed in their ready smile and accompanying shrug of the shoulders – Neruda’s political poems, he said, were not good poems. Pinochet was more powerful than all the Chilean poets combined. Arab poetry has instigated other revolutions than political ones. Revolutions of love, the position of women – the first transgressor against Islam was an Arab poet, a woman – a revolution in the rapport between the self and others. An old woman in the audience kept going on about eternity and god – not asking a question, just wanting to say something that his poetry made her think of, and in protest to his dismissal of religion – there’s always a bit of god in eternity, or something like that which none of us understood even when they gave her a microphone so everyone heard her. Adonis smiled, shrugged, tossed his hand in the air so his old fingers, so well trained in holding a writing instrument, hovered for a moment over his shoulder, and said, “Madam, eternity is always behind us.”

I broke the day’s fast with a kveldsmat feast at the hotel, where the baked potatoes and pea soup were as delicious as the sugared almonds and croissants dipped in a rich, mahogany latte macchiato.


Trish Hopkinson

A selfish poet

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