Poet and critic Arngrímur is a tall Icelander with reddish-blond hair, who bears a striking resemblance to Tom Waits, and he already awaits us in the beergarden of Hressó, clad in a blue suit and smoking a cigarette. After a short shake-hands, I am eager to dive deep into one of my preferred topics on this planet – literature. And Icelandic literature especially.
Marcel: We are going to meet record labels and other artists, to get the whole picture of Icelandic arts. I understand how Icelandic music works, because people don’t need to understand the lyrics, so even if a band is singing people who don’t understand the language can still listen to the music, they don’t need to understand what the lyrics are about. What’s it for you when you write in Icelandic, do you know that you write for a limited audience?
Arngrímur: I think about it sometimes, and again, I mainly do poetry, and we poets only have a few hundred people as audience anyway (laughs), so it’s nothing that really bothers me – I’m content.
Marcel: I mostly write for online publications – because it’s easier to find jobs and assignments and to publish in general. Is this something you would do too? I think that Icelanders are quite open to everything online.
Arngrímur: There are various sides to this. Most people still publish their books because in the literary scene it’s not viewed “real” unless it’s in a book – for example there’s this one poet, Jóhamar, who wrote this whole poetry book and published online, but no one read it. And then he published it as a book…
Marcel: And it was recognized!
Arngrímur: He got one review (laughs) and somehow, especially in poetry, something tangible is always preferred. And then there are other sides to it, there are a few poets that publish stuff on the internet that’s not only text, there’s a friend of mine, Jón Örn Loðmfjörð, he has done a lot of digital stuff…
Marcel: I think he has his own Youtube-channel, where he published films, right?
Arngrímur: Yes, and as another example, he created this one poetry-machine, that uses Google and various databases to create poetry, you can see it appear on screen and if you like it you print it and cut it out, that’s great! And now he has published a book that started out as similar thing, that uses a database of a report on the Icelandic banking collapse, and for his poems he uses famous poems and their syntactical structure. That all happened online, but now he’s published a book, and he also does readings with poems that sound and look like Icelandic poems everyone knows, but it’s actually something that is referring to white-collar crime and currency, and it’s really weird. So it all interacts, also towards the publishing of a book.
Kai: And it brings new audiences, younger audiences.
Arngrímur: Yes – you can take Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl for example, who has published radio shows. The internet is something we like to use. I published a PDF of my first book when I was not making any more money out of it. So I put it on the web, and it’s accessible for everyone there. It’s all not as simple and straightforward as the music industry. But we’re getting there, I think.
Marcel: Is there any other infrastructure in a way? In Germany, whenever you want to declare yourself an artist, whether as a writer or a poet or a musician, people would look more for an academic background, for what college you come from, whom you studied under and what courses you did, and in Ireland I think there’s more like a grassroots-scene, people who just want to put their stuff out and make a small fanzine, or a little booklet to sell when they do readings . Is there something similar here in Iceland, maybe something state-funded that you can use?
Arngrímur: It’s kind of two-fold, I think. This background, educational thing and the grassroots – I think that 70 % of all people go to university but I don’t know how many actually finish it. So education is pretty much standard here anyway, and at the same time it’s always considered a bit shady when a guy who has a degree in comparative literature publishes a book, because it’s like “ah, yes, he publishes some standard piece of crap, using all the theories he’s learned and put it all in one book”. But it’s also down to your place in society. One of the most famous poets in Iceland, Dagur Sigurðsson, came from one of the most successful families, so he “resigned” his name and took the name of his father instead of his family name. And over the years he basically became some kind of bum. The archetype of an Icelandic bohemian poet, just lived off his friends, even though he could have had access to money had he reverted back. It’s like a reverse fairytale, I guess. And this has always been a thing that poets want to live up to, for some weird reason.
Arngrímur has published two volumes of poetry, his first book, “Endurómun upphafsins” in 2006 and his second book, “Úr skilvindu drauma” in 2009. He is also the co-author of “Síðasta ljóðabók Sjóns” (2008), together with Jón Örn Loðmfjörð. His poetry has been translated into English and German and has been published in magazines such as “Neue Rundschau” and “Tíuþúsund tregawött”.
Marcel: Is this typical for Icelanders or an Icelandic scene that it’s very compact? Most musicians are at least acquaintances and know what the others are up to, even when they are not playing together regularly. Is is the same with other poets you know? Do you have your own circle – or you know everyone because there are so few poets in Iceland?
Arngrímur: I guess it would be a yes to all of these questions (laughs). There’s always this tendency to create your own circle of poets or writers, and I think it began in Iceland around the 1950’s. There were these first modernist poets writing poems that didn’t rhyme, but they actually didn’t know each other , and they became known as the “Atom Poets”. I think it was really just because of the bomb threat. And they were all socialists. They were pretty much frowned upon back then – but now everybody wants to write like them. Since then poets have tended to form groups, at least lots of them do. We had in the late 70’s/early 80’s the “Medusa Group” trying to practise surrealism, and then there was Nykur in the mid-90’s, poets that came from everywhere and had no special ideology or idea, just a “do it yourself” poetry/publishing group. Then there is Nýhil which is still running, formed by Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl and Haukur Már Helgason. They have no specific agenda or manifesto either. It always comes down to this at the end – but at the same time we all know each other.
Marcel: Is there a weekly or monthly journal that reviews literature and poetry?
Arngrímur: That’s the problem – there’s none. We have the standard media, radio, TV and print press, they only review books during Christmas time, when most Icelandic books come out. The authors and publishers don’t want this, but they have to.
Marcel: Because all the other books get reviews.
Arngrímur: Exactly. Pretty weird. Then every media tries to cover the same books at the same time. And last year practically no poetry book at all got reviewed. Including my own. And the Christmas before that, another one of mine got snubbed. There are few who try, there’s this webjournal called Kistan, “the chess” – I write for them – and we try to be more ambitious in our reviews. But we not nearly have enough people writing for us. There’s also this exclusively poetry journal on the web that’s been pretty much dead for at least a year, it used to publish articles on poetry and review books. It was really ambitious and worked really well – translations as well and interviews with other poets and they were open for comments, so it was also a place for debate that could get heated sometimes, which is good. I think we should fight a lot more.
Iceland is the guest of honour at this year’s book fair in Frankfurt, the biggest in Europe. So we were eager to see how the independent poets and writers in Iceland perceive the fact that the literature of their country is presented there.
Marcel: When you talk about the traditional way of reviewing Icelandic literature and poetry – and next year Iceland is the guest of honour at the Frankfurt book fair in Germany- is this then only for the established writers and people and there won’t be any grassroots-artist there.
Arngrímur: There’s this one scheduled part of the programme where three German poets were supposed to visit Iceland, meet three Icelandic poets and then would have some kind of workshop together and study Icelandic literature. And with that I mean the sagas, the epic poetry. And then they were supposed to try themselves and perform spontaneously some sort of poetry based on this old literature. Which in itself is pretty ridiculous and a nationalistic idea. Anyway, none of us were really interested in participating, and then we found out they never asked us. They asked three Icelandic comedians and they called them “poets”. And everything went apeshit, people started to fight and we were called “whiners” and stuff. Basically we are not part of the whole thing.
Kai: It’s crazy. Do you have any idea why they did not ask you?
Arngrímur: I guess they are all pretty “established” for young people, one of them used to be a hip hop artist, that was eight years ago I think. The other guy had recently quit his band, he was the lead singer of a pretty popular pop band. And there’s this young actress. It was pretty weird, the pop singer has just now published his first book of poems. I’ve been in this thing for five years, and some have been for ten, and they are not asked.
Marcel: Our plan is also to publish a book, but it looks like because the fair is so established that it’s only for the established publishers and associated artists, so there won’t be any independent or small publishers. But your stuff was also published in Germany, I’ve read on the fict.is page, which is a great page by the way!
Arngrímur: Yes, we are actually “the underground” with that webpage – they linked to it from the official page. But it’s a really good webpage, and we’re getting more and more poets involved. It’s a pretty accurate overview on what’s happening right now.
We end the interview talking about the more gruesome traditions in Icelandic literature past and present, and the ever-present reference to the Vikings of old.
Marcel: There are a lot of Icelandic crime-novels published in Germany. Which is funny because there’s almost no crime happening in Iceland.
Kai: I think it’s the same with movies. Most of the Icelandic movies you get to see are crime movies, like the “Reykjavik – Rotterdam” film that is now remade in Hollywood.
Marcel: There was even this really cheesy horror movie, the “Reykjavik Whale-watching Massacre” …
Arngrímur: …a straightforward and honest attempt at a B-movie. I think it worked. But this is a relatively new tradition. Icelandic movies used to be about old people getting disassociated with society or some kind of wild-ass country scenery and people living horrible lives. But now it’s only crime crime crime, when there’s hardly no crime at all. I think it’s kind of ironic that the literary scene always pretends to be the experts on crime when there’s no crime around. It’s in the same manner that people thought they were experts on economics and the the crash happened. It’s sort of a hubris thing. This kind of literature was always frowned upon, as late as 1998, I think.
Marcel: But then the sagas are pretty brutal, in a way. I only read the Njáll’s Saga, but I love horror and action, and in the saga one of the sons of Njáll he hits one guy on the head with an axe and he looses the jawbone, which the son keeps as a souvenir, and later on they burn the farm of his father and he kills another guy by throwing the jawbone into his head. This is brilliant!
Kai: (pointing to Marcel) I don’t know this guy (laughs).
Arngrímur: I love that. The sagas are actually my favourite thing. They are pretty gruesome, but my favourite comparison is between the Icelandic sagas and Star Wars (laughs). It’s pretty much the same thing.
Marcel: But do you think these old texts are something that still influences young Icelandic artists? Is this something you’d consider when you write?
Arngrímur: I grew up on rhymes and fairy tales, and when I say fairy tales I mean stories about trolls and monsters. For me it has always been part of childhood. And maybe that’s why so many people still find they are connected to nature. I’m not sure. But I myself – at least not on purpose – don’t base anything on this. Unless to make a parody. There’s this certain image of Iceland that most young educated people hate, it’s the “pure” country, with pure water and pure nature, and the bullshit story of Icelanders fleeing Norwegian oppression to form the first republic in the world. What they really did was to invent courtrooms, not parliament. And our parliament today is named after the Old Norse courtroom. The Icelandic business tycoons were called, and we really invented a new word, “Vikings spreading throughout the world and conquering”.
Marcel: Instead of go and plunder a village they’d go an buy a soccer club somewhere.
Arngrímur: And it’s so ironic that they actually turned out to be scumbags.
Marcel: Not like the pure Viking heroes of old…
Arngrímur: …raping and killing. Assholes they were, really.