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.
[In a recent announcement, which seemed strange even to those of us who thought we knew him well, our friend & companion in poetry Heriberto Yépez announced recently that “the writing project that was Heriberto Yépez” had now come to an end and that “Heriberto Yépez’s oeuvre has concluded.” Since Heriberto had only turned forty this year, it seemed a little premature & reminiscent, to me at least, of the “poets of the no” (the great refuseniks) in Enrique Vila-Matas's masterful Bartleby & Co. It was also enough to set off a
In 1970, Hannah Weiner exhibited a telegram in Oberlin College’s conceptual art survey Art in the Mind. After the “mail strike,” her letter to Virginian Dwan was delivered to the gallerist (page one and page two). In it Weiner complains that Vito Acconci’s telegram-piece should be exhibited in Language IV along with Walter DeMaria’s telegram, arguing that the medium was immaterial, and that the artwork, in either case, consists in its sphere of reference. So that there could be no redundancy involved. She cites her piece at Oberlin.
But she might have also claimed more significance for the telegram. A primitive speech-to-text technology, it is a phonic ticker, defamiliarizing the otherwise imperceptible but crucial transfiguration that takes place between sound-image and thought.
Multilingual writing has been ubiquitous since — when? The ancient Romans used it to pay homage to their literary forebears and for expedient communication. Medieval poetry mixed Latin with vernacular languages. And the modernists, of course, delighted in linguistic collage. In the 1980s, Chicana feminists moved between Spanish, English, and Spanglish as they composed their autohistorias. Meanwhile in Quebec, Francophone and Anglophone feminists collaborated on translational corps/textes.