Iceland’s national identity is rooted in its literary history. Stretching from early international saga infamy to a flood of contemporary literature, the nation’s love of books is eagerly supported by a small island population with a near-100% Icelandic-language literacy rate. For Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir, hands-on engagement with literature forms the corpus of her work—troubling the division between author and artist.
Kristín Eiríksdóttir and I sit with her new book of poetry, Kok (Icelandic for Throat). The book is penned in Icelandic, and Kristín has performed a preliminary Icelandic-to-English translation of the text to accompany the book’s launch. Kok partners Kristín’s visual art with her meditation on relationship. The long poem touts simple diction in repetition, occasionally confronting syntax shift, and an unexpected end-before-the-poem-ends that wrenches the reader’s heart through her gut via quick sucker punch. Kok is poignant, bare, driven. It captures exactly that moment when a body becomes struck with what’s stuck.
We sit with her English translation on screen and an Icelandic print-out in hand. The computer and print-out cycle between our hands, fluid reference points as we compare her translation with the original. Several times we confront Icelandic words too difficult to translate.
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.
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.