The following is an interview with Danish writer Pia Tafdrup, conducted by K.E. Semmel. Semmel's translation of Tafdrup's essay, "Sleepless Hope" appeared in issue #44.
You’ve traveled all over the globe representing Denmark—and poetry—as a kind of ambassador. What have you learned about your own Danish culture from so much traveling?
Interesting question. What have I learned about my own culture, not the foreign…I travel first and foremost in order to meet foreign cultures head on, because it provides me with significant knowledge about people. This knowledge is found in sedimentary form both in the poetry and fiction I write. But on the opposite side of the globe, I actually do have my eyes opened to what is “my” culture: what it means to have a mother tongue that I know the deepest layers of, the possibility of an immediate mental reading of other people, a shared cultural background, being understood by likeminded people, the climate, the weather, the light I’ve known, the sounds that are part of my city, the smells, etc.
Even though Danes have vast differences among them, at a distance there is something that binds us together. Fundamentally, this is about understanding and shared reference points. But I don’t just think about what it means to be Danish, but also what it means to be Scandinavian, and what is European—both of which I feel strongly connected to.
I often hear the term “ambassador” used about poets who read in other countries, but I don’t see myself as an ambassador for others. I’m only myself…If I’m invited to appear in another country, I always read one or more poems in Danish, and then follow up with the translated poems—preferably read by a poet with the translated language as a mother tongue. It’s important for me that people in the world hear examples of how my poems sound in the language they were written—and in that way I represent Danish. But I can’t represent more than myself; I can’t represent other poets, just as they can’t represent me.
Every poet has his or her specific universe, and this is where I make my “spiritual signature” when I write. It’s this special stamp that can be so difficult to reproduce. But when it’s successfully translated, I’m thankful. I’ve experienced powerful emotional responses from audiences in South America. In Scandinavia you can easily thank a poet for the reading, tell her the reading made an impression, or make a comment on a particular poem. But in more excitable countries, the audiences come to me afterwards and show me the gooseflesh on their arms, or they kiss me—giddy with joy—before I realize what’s happening. When I get that kind of reaction from an audience on the other side of the globe, it’s probably because my poems deal in large part with human existence; they try to articulate states that are often wordless, but are understood across races, social classes, different cultural backgrounds, etc. It’s nothing short of miraculous that a good translation can touch and move people I’d never known I’d ever be able to reach when I wrote the poems. For me, it’s more important that poetry possess powers that bind people across continents than that it is Danish poetry.
In “Sleepless Hope,” the essay published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, you describe your experiences while attending a festival in Nicaragua. You also provide an outsider’s view of life in that country—which for many is a very difficult life. In spite of all the troubles in Nicaragua, however, poetry remains a vital part of life there. What responsibility, if any, does a poet or artist have in shaping culture?
Poetry was once held in high esteem in Scandinavia, but in recent years, there have been far fewer poetry books offered by the established publishers than earlier. Nor do poets have the same significance as before. In our culture, it’s rare that people are interested in what a poet has to say. Poetry is still being written by the young generation, but young poets aren’t just fighting to break through to the public: they must be increasingly innovative. Even though poetry is a wonderful genre, the large publishers no longer feel any responsibility toward it. Seldom is it a publisher’s flagship publication.
When you’re used to these conditions, it’s a real treat to land in, for instance, Nicaragua. Thirty or fifty or one hundred audience members are not unusual for us in Denmark—on special occasions you may even get 500—but in Nicaragua and that part of the world, it’s not unusual to have 1000 or more. The massive audiences that attend poetry readings night after night in Latin American countries are nothing less than overwhelming to a Scandinavian poet. And yes, it’s exactly where need and poverty are at their worst that poetry apparently enjoys a different meaning than with us. We would rather be entertained by an event culture where everything is forgotten two seconds after it’s past. In other words, when you’re not pushed to the brink, you don’t have the same need for reflection and depth. In Denmark most everyone does all right without poetry; it has virtually no significance in the lives of Danes. But poetry in Nicaragua is woven into daily life.
Whether there's one reader or listener or a thousand readers or listeners, poets are held accountable. For me, it’s important to answer for what I write: poems, poetics, novels, articles, etc. I write to the individual, not to a group…I write in the hopes of reaching and moving the person who reads my words. But clearly, it’s a strong response if a shudder goes through the crowd when a poet reads—I won’t deny that. But the person listening or reading should get the feeling that the poems are addressed to him or to her. Huge audiences can also be merciless on the poet who doesn’t move them. When you’re reading in front of an audience, you’ve got to have your antennae up in countries where such enormous expectations are placed on poets. A wonderful challenge!
Here in the United States, poetry seems to be marginalized in an academic setting. A great many of its practitioners teach in writing programs and publish for a narrow band of followers within that setting. How is the state of poetry in Denmark today? And how do we as part of western culture instill a love of poetry into our everyday lives?
Poetry is just as marginalized in Denmark today as it in the United States, but it’s been slightly delayed compared to other parts of the world, where this has been going on for many years.
I myself debuted in 1981. I wasn’t alone. Suddenly, there was this whole generation of poets (whose poems I’ve included, incidentally, in the anthology Transformationer. Poesi 1980-1985). Today, when you look back to the early 1980s, you see that poetry was in a better position than prose. You’ve got to go all the way back to the time right after WWII to find a corresponding “poetry boom” in Denmark—even if it wasn’t called that back then. “The Golden Rush” was an appellation the poet and the critic Poul Borum came up with when he introduced our generation to Sweden and Norway, where we were watched closely already then.
But there hasn’t been a similarly strong generation of poets since. Some very fine poets have emerged, but they don’t make up an actual generation. And there’s not the same attention paid to poetry any longer. It doesn’t fill university reading lists like it did 10 or 20 years ago. Similarly, it occupies less and less of the media’s attention. A poetry collection with a specific theme can suddenly clear out the front page of the culture section, of course, as when Lone Hørslev published her divorce poems, or when Christel Wiinblad published a collection about her schizophrenic brother’s suicide attempt. But with these publications it’s not poetry as such that attracts notice; first and foremost, it is the alarming subjects and the gripping way they are told, that captures the media’s attention.
Poetry must be kept alive by publishers, and by different media: newspapers, radio, TV, etc. Room should be given to readings at key locations in cities. Poetry won’t die completely when given short shrift, but it’ll have the character—as it once had—of an underground phenomenon. If poetry is cultivated, it’ll fill more of our lives. The most impressive use of poetry that I’ve ever seen was at a Mexican school. Each year, the school arranges a poetry day and invites not just one or two poets, but all of ten from different countries. This would be unthinkable in Denmark.
One year, I was one out of ten poets invited to sit at a long table set up in the school courtyard, where all the students were assembled. We were welcomed like a long-awaited rock band with cheers and whistles and foot-stomps, yet all we were supposed to do was read a small sampling of our work. Through the years, the students had developed an intense relationship to poetry. Many of them wrote poetry themselves, and after we’d read, a handful of the best students were plucked from the audience to recite their poetry for us. Very moving! I’d never been involved in anything like it. But it wasn’t hard to see just what it means for poetry—that it’s supported. We poets from Scandinavia or Europe have much to learn of visits such as these and, hopefully, can help give poetry a lift at home.
Pia Tafdrup was born in Copenhagen in 1952. She has published 13 collections of poetry, including: When an Angel Breaks Her Silence(1981); The Crystal Forest(1992), Queen´s Gate(1998, published by Bloodaxe2001), The Whales in Paris(2004), Tarkovsky´s Horses (2006) and Boomerang(2008). The Whales in Paris and Tarkovsky´s Horses will be published by Bloodaxe 2009. She has also published a statement of her poetics, Walking over the Water (1991), two novels, Surrender (2004) and Star Without Land (2008) and two plays, Death in the Mountains (1988) and The Earth Is Blue (1991). Poems of Pia Tafdrup has been translated into 30 languages. English translations of her poems have been published in more than 50 literary journals in the U.K., U.S., Canada, and Australia. Tafdrup has received the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 1999 and the Nordic Prize in 2006 from The Swedish Academy. Click here to see readings with Pia, Don Delillo, Steve Martin, Kiran Desai, Neil Gaiman, Nadine Gordimer, and others in NYC at PEN.
K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, the Washington Post, The Brooklyn Review, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, A River and Sound Review, and elsewhere. He is the Publications & Communications Manager of The Writer’s Center in Betheseda, MD. In addition to his Tafdrup essay translations, he has translated two of novelist and short story writer Simon Fruelund's books (and is now searching for a publisher), and has received a translation grant from the Danish Arts Council.