The following talk was commissioned in March 2014 for the life celebration of poet, actress, and sculptor Melitta Urbancic, who fled from Austria to Iceland during the second World War. Her poetry collection From the Edge of the World was translated into Icelandic by Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson and launched at the celebration. I was asked to speak about the experience of being a foreign-born artist living and working in Iceland.
Góðan daginn og til hamingju með daginn.
It is a pleasure to think through the situation of the foreign-born Iceland-dwelling artist through the lenses of cultural sharing, societal impact, and especially polylingual implications.
I titled my talk Bý: a talk about the útlendingaljóðskald’s ecolinguistic activism through apiculture and Icelandic-language acquisition. As a poet, I’m a language pervert, and this long-winded multisyllabic title grants me the potential to introduce the terms ‘ecolinguistics’ and ‘apiculture’ into the room. Both terms are, for me, at the intersection where my experience crosses with Melitta Urbancic’s experience as a foreign-born artist living and working in Iceland.
Icelandic artist Ragnhildur Jóhanns’ work exists in the liminal space between book and art, between reading and looking, but perhaps, most significantly, because much of her work is so tactile, between looking and touching.
But doesn’t the experience of reading books always involve touching? We touch with our eyes. We look with our fingers. Books are also anthologies of touch. Their bindings, pages, paper, print. Holding a book. Turning its pages. We feel the paper – its texture and thickness. As my niece once exclaimed, “Wow! Its pages are paper thin.”
When we engage with written language, we feel each curve or angle of letter. Some books are the size of a sparrow, some are eagle-sized.
On the eve of my first Að landa post, the sky over Reykjavík plunged from pink to indigo when the last light dwindled near 17:30. Jupiter rose in the north as I set up my tripod, charged my camera battery. Holding a wrist near eye level to block the city lights, I scanned the horizon above Mount Esja for hints of moonlight.
Nicolas Billon taught me the wrist trick during his first visit to Iceland in October. I’d been curious to meet him, a fellow Canadian who'd authored Iceland. And so we found ourselves at Stykkishólmur’s Library of Water. New moon. Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl and I had just finished a poetry performance; we gathered outside of the library to stare at northern lights, partly obscured by high, thin clouds. Nicolas raised his wrist and coaxed us to follow his lead. With the electric harbour lights of Stykkishólmur blocked, we could see the aurora.
Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Iceland has created the most perfect society on earth, one from which the rest of the world has nothing to learn. For its unlikely Utopia is the happy accident of a history and a geography that cannot be duplicated, or even emulated, elsewhere. Outside of the South Pacific, no ethnic group so small has their own entirely independent nation-state. There are only 268,000 Icelanders, of whom 150,000 live in and around Reykjavík, the capital. The second-largest city, Akureyri, known for its arts scene and night life -- their Barcelona -- has 14,000. In the rest of the country there are few people, and the treeless wilderness of volcanoes, waterfalls, strange rock formations, steaming lava fields, geysers, glaciers, and icebergs seems like the ends of the earth, as though one were crossing into Tibet and found the sea. Nearly all the roads are sparsely travelled and unpaved, yet this is a modern Scandinavian country where everything works, and where the state protects its citizens from birth to death. There is universal education and no unemployment, no poverty and no conspicuous wealth. Per capita book consumption and production is by far the highest in the world. They live longer than almost anyone else. There is no pollution: the entire country is geothermally heated...