Sound og polipoetry

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl dialogues with Cris Costa

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl [left] and Cris Costa [right].

Editorial Note: This interview is part of a feature curated by a.rawlings; entitled “Sound, Poetry,” it began with a request for material on sound poetry as it is currently being practiced in northern Europe. “Sound, Poetry,” however, accomplishes so much more than reportage. Poets from Iceland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom converse with a broad array of Canadian interlocutors; some have even created new work together specifically for this feature. Here, a.rawlings explains the project: 

A term like “sound poetry” may no longer adequately contextualize or clarify what it is intended to represent. It seems a useful moment in the history of this term to reflect on what it means, conjures, describes, encapsulates, and wishes to hold within its reach. It seems personally useful to reflect on the relationship between gender and sound poetry. It feels politically responsible to consider this term in relation to geography.

The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling


Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl (b. 1978) is an Icelandic poet, novelist, and translator. He often works with sound and visual poetry and regularly performs at festivals throughout Europe. Critics have compared his books in Icelandic to such dissimilar poets as Snorri Sturluson and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Norðdahl’s poems have been translated into a dozen languages, and his second novel, Eitur fyrir byrjendur (Poison for beginners), was published in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 2010. In 2008 Norðdahl received the Icelandic Translators Award for his translation of Jonathan Lethem’s tourettic novel, Motherless Brooklyn. In 2010 his poetry-animation Höpöhöpö Böks received an Honorable Mention at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival Berlin. Eiríkur is a founding member of the Nýhil poet cooperative.

Cris Costa lives in Vancouver and is a writer, independent scholar, and arts and cultural worker. Her areas of research include contemporary literature, semiotics, space, and urban social movements. She recently completed a poetry chapbook with Heavy Industries, and writes fiction.  

This dialogue took place in 2010.


Cris Costa: Hi Eiríkur. I’d like to begin — and we could start just about anywhere — by diving right into the mechanics of your work. Your critical and creative writing, multimedia work, and performances are rich in what they offer readers and audiences, from form to aesthetics, from content to critique. The critiques that your work offers have dual character. They are often political and comment on the nature of literature itself (what is it, how it functions, who it’s for), and they also provide an implicit analysis of the function of language. What I thoroughly enjoy in your work, however, is its propensity for acknowledging these elements self-reflexively, that is, I see a layer of awareness of the potentials and limits of the exercise — and this comes through in both your creative and critical pieces. To be more specific, in your paper, “Mock Duck Mandarin,” you conclude by identifying a “common insanity” inherent in our collective human psyche, which comes out, which we seek to express (or hear), when we perform and listen to sound poetry. Elsewhere you explore the links between language and insanity, language and politics, language and ideology, or, on the other hand, ideology and insanity. You’ve said that you see sound poetry as an “escape from the cerebral toward the sublimely stupid,” with “a tendency to produce a group of pregnant afterthoughts.” Can you tell me more about how?

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl: I think there’s a case to be made for “insanity” as an interpretative and investigative tool for writing and for reading. Insanity or sublime stupidity are no doubt unpleasant conditions — but they suggest a method for or attainable condition of outsidership, for thinking outside the logical, or more to the point, what is perceived as logical. I feel I’m a very normal person, but I wish to have entryways into the not-so-normal parts of life, the not-so-normal parts of thinking — perhaps to escape my own normal thinking, which like any normal thinking is a mode of being that is simultaneously delusional and dangerous. What interests me about poetry, as a reader and a practitioner, is this possibility of escape — and that is, by rampant generalization, what I believe must interest everybody else about poetry. I feel this escape might be achieved through the insane/inane and juvenile (if not fully childish) manners of poetry — a “cerebral” and “emotional” artform that continually tries to escape the grasp of the cerebral and the emotional, in order to defy its own definitions.

This is in a sense just basic deconstruction, I think, albeit a rather chaotic and haphazard deconstruction. Any action is a creative action of sorts; one is always left with something in particular (or nothing in particular) as the creative outcome or product of any action. Deconstructing a house leaves you with a field or a plot. Burning a book leaves you with ashes, and perhaps, as when German university students of Nazi orientation burned books in the ’30s, decades of counteraction, idioms, legislature and protective measures for the freedom of expression, and against book burnings.

I see poetry as the use of language to create a reaction, to affect people with linguistic tools (semantic, semiotic, epistemological, social and whatnot). I used to do it through transgression — or attempts at transgression — but I’ve moved away from that (anger) and towards joviality, maintaining a transgression that is left becoming a form of gaiety — like friends taking the piss instead of enemies spouting hatred across the great divide. 

And so what we are left with when we turn language into a form of sublime stupidity, or what we are left with when we attempt to do so, is very often this kind of attempted reconstruction — which is what I mean by pregnant afterthoughts. For each deconstruction carries a reconstruction — and so each thought taken apart is put back together in a new way, if that makes any sense.

From Homer to the eddas to the koans to Symbolism to Imagism to the beatniks — not to mention Dada or Futurism, Schwitters or Stein — poetry has aimed to jolt by maneuvering outside normal thinking and within the realm of the intuitive while simultaneously formulating what we do in more sensible or cerebral terms. I wish to embrace not only the intuitive but also the downright silly, sublimely stupid — or in(s)ane — to further jolt and rejolt, start and restart, construct, deconstruct and reconstruct, write, unwrite and rewrite.

Costa: How do you see this linked to current sociopolitical and economic systems? And, if this applies, do you see your work as a product of this system, as mimesis or response?

Norðdahl: I’m not sure if I do, at least not at a self-reflective level. To a certain extent, doing business in the poetry world is a negation of economic systems, meaning that poetry mostly functions outside the economic, having no monetary value. But this is only partly true because there are grants to be obtained, positions to be acquired, and even pocket money for producing the actual poetry. But mostly poets fight for cultural capital. I’m no exception and I’m not even sure how I could be. I try to be aware of the fact that I desire other people’s admiration — that this is one of the reasons I do what I do — but I’ve not reached a conclusion as to whether my greed for cultural capital is a dishonest desire or perfectly justifiable.

Many poets could have chosen a more lucrative profession, both in a traditional economic sense and in the cultural capital sense. I’m not sure I could have — I have no Plan B, no education and no training, save for being partly raised in a shrimp factory at the outskirts of the known universe. Outside of literature, that’s the only business I know, and that’s even less lucrative.

As for readers, whether I intend for my poetry to have a sociopolitical or economic effect on my readers, yes, I guess I do. Which effect exactly, or even vaguely, I’m not sure. In writing I try to avoid anything that doesn’t intuitively feel capable of undermining social, political or sociopolitical thought processes, which doesn’t in some way turn it’s own logic on its head — and in writing politically I try to avoid (as far as that is possible) moralism, social realism, confessionalism, sentimentalism, and dogmatism, which are the most common forms of ineffectual political poetry. At the same time, I maintain a kind of socialism and the idea that I want my poetry to have a political efficacy. But then I also try to avoid making too much sense. Maybe I define literature too much from the standpoint of what it shouldn’t be rather than what it should be. I dread maturity, and I get a knee-jerk reaction every time I’m prompted with “maturity” (usually characterized by abundant “modesty” and “humility”) but perhaps that just makes me immature. I think I might have an aversion to people (authors, or characters even) who speak with too much authority (pun!), who believe too strongly that they are right. It’s an air of nobility that irks.

Maybe it’s both mimesis and a response. Like answering someone in a sarcastic imitation — snorting.

Costa: Thanks. This makes me think of your piece “Kreppusonnettan (IMF! IMF! OMG! OMG!),” which is available online, both as a recorded performance and as media art. The media art version of this sonnet offers a quality of sarcasm — in fact, it’s farcical, insofar that it’s presented as a computer animated collage containing the face of Jón Sigurðsson, the leader of Iceland’s nineteenth-century independence movement, superimposed on a voluptuous woman’s body, standing at the front of Iceland’s House of Parliament. But it calls upon our associations with the abbreviations of our computerized and commodified language(s) to produce a thoughtful poetic piece. This piece can, as you mention here and also in “Mock Duck Mandarin,” be read as someone “taking the piss.” On the other hand, it’s not — perhaps not entirely — and this comes out a lot more in the performance version of the sonnet. In the performance more attention is brought to the sounds of the abbreviations as they fall off a carefully intoned tongue. It’s funny, yes. Yet one can’t help but become conscious of the meaning we seek to produce, to project upon the sounds delivered from vocal cavities. Nonsense quickly becomes sense. The critique of the IMF not only becomes about the organization itself, the Icelandic government, or our propensity to watch the world economic crisis ravel and unravel through our abbreviated online existences. It’s also a critique concerning human cognition and our relationship to meaning and language. You discuss this through different angles in your critical work. Can you talk about how you are currently seeking to “destro[y] a language (of one’s own)” in your poetic practice. And, what does this have to do with vernaculars and accents in relation to poetry, but also at large?

Norðdahl: I’d like to start by giving a little context for the Crisis Sonnet. On October 6, 2008, the Icelandic economy collapsed, resulting in massive protesting which lead to the resignation of the right-wing government for elections and a left-wing government (which behaves exactly like a right-wing government, down to cutting childcare and increasing expenditures for NATO). Immediately after the collapse people started making all sorts of demands: one of them being that the IMF should be called in to take care of everything. When the poem was written, this demand was still on the agenda of maybe half of the protesters in Reykjavík — they were asking the government to invite the IMF to come and fix the economy. The other half of the protesters, the more seasoned lefties, were, of course, against it. The IMF eventually came and is currently working with the “left-wing” government.

On Austurvöllur square, where most of the protesting took place, stands a statue of Jón Sigurðsson. This square is also the scene for the media version of the poem. During the protests a group of (older, I think) feminists started dressing him up in a pink dress, symbolizing the desired change in government values (from strong “male” values to soft “female” values).

I didn’t intend for the crisis sonnet to be a sound poem. It’s written as a prologue to a book I’m working on, which is coming out in Icelandic next year, and hopefully English too, if I find a publisher for it. It’s called Fist or Words Bereft of Sense, and it deals with the crisis and collapse mostly through idiotic, playful language. I sent an early draft of the manuscript to a friend for comments and he said he didn’t like the prologue “although it’s probably great when you read it.” Until then I’d not even realized that it could be read, but following this suggestion it immediately took the form of a techno poem. I tend to relate the sounds of it to neon-colored cars that pass slowly with loud music booming from the inside, where all you get is the bass. Which I guess is also a metaphor for the IMF.

I’ve worked with malformed words in Icelandic quite a bit, using foreign accents to remake the sounds of words. The crisis sonnet does have some connection to that insofar as it changes abbreviations into unadulterated words, although that is common for abbreviations (think of acronyms such as NATO, UNESCO, AIDS, etc.). The first part of the sonnet drives on the punched and bowelled nasal “M” sound — the “M” you make with a thrust deep down in your belly. This sound doesn’t exist in normal words in any language I know. The same goes for the spitting in “FIT” in the last part or the singing of “LOL.”

The abbreviations are thus made into words containing malformed (adjusted) sounds that render them closer to music, or, at the very least, move them away from traditional pronunciation. They become words, but not really — they get the nonstop linearity of words, but are stripped of their normal sounds, while still remaining mostly recognizable.

In a way it’s a similar treatment as of the sacred meditative “om” in Hinduism and Buddhism, although without the prolongation. In fact IMF just might be the OM of a modern religion.

Costa: Nice comparison. You often cite the North American Language movement, Dada, and Futurism as points of reference and influence within your work. How do you position your work in the context of these past movements?

Norðdahl: I try to think of myself as pluralist when it comes to “schools” of poetry, which is awfully postmodern of me, I guess, but then that’s probably alright. I dislike some tendencies found in some schools of poetry, like the pornification of sentiment in confessionalism, and I usually find myself picking favorites on the far edges, towards the crazy. I have problems with LangPo — that it’s over intellectualized, for one — and with Futurism (its openly fascist tendencies). Dada was very dogmatic. In the transcontinental I would like to stand between Schwitters — I’m not a great fan of the Ur Sonata, though I find it “okay” — and Gertrude Stein. But I find a strong relation to these movements and an even greater relation to the conceptual movement and the Flarf movement, although I’m probably neither a conceptual poet nor a Flarf poet (while having many friends in both). Shall we say I’m in favor of a universal avant-garde siblingry? Is that too hippie? I like to pick from others what I like, and I would like for others to pick from me what they like — I like to see poetic project(s) as a communal effort, like one would see the history of thought in philosophy, something we are all doing together.

Costa: Do you perceive a difference in the reception of your work between North American and European audiences, and if so, do you think these differences are in anyway dependent on the movements we’ve been discussing?

Norðdahl: Geographically my hometown, Ísafjörður, belongs to the American continent: the continental divide runs right through Iceland. Culturally, of course, the country is some sort of Scandinavian country, although a far cry from lefty Sweden. The reception of my work is divided, but not into America versus Europe, but Iceland versus northern Europe. I have some connections to the U.S. through the Flarf collective, to Canada through derek beaulieu, Christian Bök, a.rawlings and a few other acquaintances, and I’ve visited New York and Toronto on poetry errands, but I saying I had “a reception” there would be stretching it a bit. I’ve had poems in 4–5 magazines and I’ve performed on the American continent a total of five times in three trips. 

My work in Iceland and in Europe is different. I perform and preach in Europe, while my books are published in Iceland. I have three novels, six poetry books, two collections of translations and two edited books about poetry, not counting translations of nonfiction, fiction and theatre. All are in Icelandic. I have no book in English or any other language outside of Icelandic, although my second novel is coming in German and I’m hoping to have an essay collection in English and perhaps Finnish next year. So far the largest portion of my work outside of Iceland revolves around sound poetry, whereas the focus in Iceland tends to be on my novels.

Costa: In light of your recent and intriguing article, “Quiet, You Ignorant Booby!,” I think it’s only fitting to thank you for your thorough, thoughtful, and detailed responses thus far, and to conclude with the most important question ever asked to any poet — for posterity of course: What is the future of poetry? (We, on the American side of your continent, have been trying to figure this out for decades.)

Norðdahl: I think, for one, that all the obscure struggling poets are going to become canonized elders who, perhaps, not receiving the Nobel Prize will continually be mentioned in the same breath as the various Nobel Prize winners. Others will have Pulitzers, Griffins, and National Book Awards. Those left without such esteem will either get popular and rich, or else they will get comfortable university positions and relatively more attractive spouses (although, as a general rule, all poets get attractive spouses). Having attractive spouses will do wonders for the poetic libido, which in turn will do wonders for the poetry.

While fiction will still remain popular — despite this imminent and sudden rise in poetic quality, poetic respect and the resulting poetic popularity — it will never really feel the same for novelists. Fiction writers will applaud themselves for being marginalized and thus more important than ever, but even that won’t be true. And even if it were, it still would not provide any comfort. Bad fiction will stop selling completely and bad poetry will cease to exist. Then, through an intricate web of causes, effects, misinterpretations and random coincidences, good poetry will eventually — (spoiler alert!) — eradicate world hunger, war, fascism, and disease. This in turn will make everyone happy. For about fifteen minutes.