Talking about Swedish poetry, translations, literary culture etc

by on May.28, 2012

Here’s an interview Peter Connors (a scholar of Bataille, translation theory, modern French literature) conducted with me the other weekend when I visited Barnard for a panel with the Swedish poetry Jörgen Gassilewski and Anna Hallberg. I can’t remember what I said and I hate listening to the sound of my own voice so I’m not going to listen to it, but you can! If you want to!

Gassilewski and Hallberg talked about their new anthology 32 Poets from 2011, which consists of 32 poets who either had their first books published in the 00s or came to more prominence (as in the case of Johan Jönson). It is part of a tradition of similar anthologies in Sweden – anthologies that deal with poets from the 90s or 80s etc. Like its predecessor, 15 Poets from the 90s (which included Aase Berg, Helena Eriksson, Eva Stina Byggmästar etc), this is a really fine anthology. Full of great stuff – some of which I knew, some of which I didn’t, some of which I knew extremely well from having translated it for various projects (Viktor Johnson and others).

It might seem that this decades model would be really reductive and centralizing, but that doesn’t really seem to be the case. I was thinking about this today… Why wouldn’t this be totally boring? It actually results in really great stuff. I think this might be because there’s an assumption that new stuff will happen. Unlike US poetry, which is still so largely controlled by elders who seem to be scared of anything that challenge their aesthetics, and who go crazy promoting the younger poets that reinforce their aesthetics, Swedish poetry’s reductive model seems to assume that there’s a new generation, so it will bring some new ideas to the table.

This is true of a lot of the award, reviews etc as well. In the US, poets like Aase Berg and Johan Jönson are considered weirdos and published by small small presses. In Sweden they are published by Bonnier and they win these huge Pulitzer-style awards. And they are reviewed in the national press and appear on television. Partly this is of course a different climate, a climate in which poetry still maintains a slightly higher profile, but it’s also due to the fact that a lot of the awards are judged by younger writers (even the Swedish Academy that gives out the Nobel has this wild, experimental novelist on it). The people writing reviews in the newspapers are largely the younger poets, so you don’t merely get as much of the restricting, repressive Hoagland/Poetry magazine apparatus that disapproves of all the new “skitterish” poems who challenge their aesthetics. Though those people of course exist in Sweden too. And I may be totally wrong…

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Lucas de Lima

    I almost want Sweden to have a poetry refugee camp.

    For more on the relationship between poetry’s elders and its brats, here’s my exchange with C. Dale Young on his blog, which he appears to be shutting down:

  2. Kim

    No that sounds about right Johannes. I don’t think Sweden is some kind of poetry mecca though. There’s like 4 major newspapers, two which are pretty conservative and the other two evening tabloids, where you do find among sensational news and the on going royal soap drama a lot more younger people writing, feminist perspectives and less restrictive critique. It’s a small country and the popping art scenes seem to me quite centralized to the big cities. As far as experimental goes. Swedish Television and Swedish Radio have a pretty wide range of inclusion in their programming. So does Bonnier and other major publishers as far as I can tell. Something for everyone. As a result though, I never felt much of a sub-culture presence, though I might not have been looking in the right places. Except perhaps in the spoken-word scene. What if you don’t get into Bonnier? That’s something I do like about the American landscape, a lack of inclusion, not least funds I guess, does sprout from time to time violent and exciting counter cultures.

  3. Johannes

    Yes, you’re right Kim, that there hasn’t been many small presses until recently. But part of the dynamic seems to be that people engage with people of different aesthetics. I know Anna and Jorgen were a bit irritated at the old guard criticizing them. But I told them: in the US the old guard merely ignores writers who don’t fit their ideas (witness Ron Silliman or Lucas’s recent run-in with CDale Young). And now there are quite a few small presses.


  4. Kim

    Just a small aside regarding old guards and ideas that don’t fit. I was listening to Kino yesterday, which is a Swedish Radio program on film, and this program was on/from Cannes and had a segment from Thomas Vinterbeg’s press conference regarding his newest film Jakten (the hunt). I found it interesting, though mostly sad, that when a Swedish journalist (for DN, I think) asked him a gender related question (something about how many scary women there was in the film) he got notably irritated and spouted back (something like): “You’re from Sweden right? Why don’t we save the gender debate for Scandinavia? We’re in France now.” I can sort of get why he might get flustered. He doesn’t (like Von Trier) want to get pinned as a misogynistic. He wants to be able to make movies about anything, with any kind of characters. Still I wonder why some discourse has to be shut down? I wonder if there is also not an element of things like gender-perspectives threatening the originality of the art-work? I don’t know. Vinterberg who was one of the directors who formed Dogma 95 (with Von Trier), where one of the “rules” was (I believe) not to have any credits in the movies, prohibiting/freeing the director from having to be The Director. I remember absolutely loving his Festen (The Celebration). End of aside.

  5. Jeff Tatay

    To summon Derrida, the aestheticization of violence may come from the impetus to overthrow the privileged of a binary. You mention the aesthetics of the “elder” and that is, in a sense, what our world is build upon (the foundation of hegemony). I don’t mean to take your “aesthetics of the elders” out of context, but I instantly thought of Walt Whitman with his male camaraderie. He very much embraces the constructed binary of male/female, democracy/[everything else]: “By the manly love of comrades.” I feel that what is being referred to as “violence” in new poetry is, in fact, a reaction to violence and hegemony. It is an effort to obliterate the “aesthetics of the elder,” i.e. the hegemonic aesthetic of some old white man, whether it be Whitman or George W. Bush. Perhaps the “elder aesthetic” is what causes the tension and the feeling of being threatened, the tension that builds up in the underprivileged in the privileged/underprivileged binary. Or, perhaps it’s just biological to “murder” these dinosaurs, to push aside the impotent when they are no longer reproductively functional, i.e. biological violence as seen in the behavior of the great apes.

    I wonder if the violence in your work (as well as others) is coming from a deconstruction sensibility?

    Or, how much of it is biological?

  6. Johannes

    Interesting thoughts Jeff. I will have to think about it. I’m definitely not for some kind of evolutionary thinking – clearing the dinosaurs. I’m definitely on the side of that which gets rejected by our “progress” and “innovation” – ie the anachronistic, the dumb.