Life, death and love
-and everything in between
Interview with Morten Søndergaard by Sander de Vaan, meandermagazine.net
Mr. Sondergaard, how would you introduce yourself and your poetry to those readers who are not yet familiar with your work?
This, of course, is a difficult question, but I write on life, death and love in that order, and everything in between … For the last 8 years I have been living, and writing, on a mountain in Italy. I also translate, I am the editor of a poetry magazine [www.hvedekorn.dk] and sometimes work for publishing houses. For me, reading and writing poetry is largely a matter of gaining access to knowledge connected to the senses, a poetical knowledge, one might say, knowledge which has to do with language and sensation. When I say knowledge, I mean knowledge that may be surprising and bound in language, almost like the surprising images you encounter in dreams; you take them for granted and you accept them as facts. Maybe poetry is language dreaming about itself? The kind of knowledge I am talking about is special, in a way it is worthless and useless, but at the same time very precise and very important and requires close attention. Poems can be precise and very clear. I think all art is a question of close attention. When I write I may find myself in a situation in which I am writing things, with great conviction, and really I have no idea where they came from.
Did you feel any urge during your long stay in Italy to start writing poems in such a musical language as Italian?
No, but moving to Italy was a kind of poetical experiment. The question was: What will happen when I move out of my native language and into a foreign language? I was moving from too much language to too little language. I knew Spanish but very little Italian. So I tried to find an area of speechlessness. I think much poetry is born on the borders of languages. That is why translation is so important for me. In Danish, to write a poem is called digte, in Dutch dichten, which is the same word used for seal up or stop a leak. In Danish the word for a dike is dige, in Dutch dijk, so writing poetry would seem to be related to finding creaks, crevices and fissures in the dikes of language. Your have a lot of dijke in Holland, so you have to deal with poetry a lot! I think that poetry investigates the cracks in language and try to both widen and seal up the cracks. Writing poems means linking and relinking things that are wide apart. This became very present to me when I was living in Italy; language became almost physical. I was living in Tuscany, and everybody knows that the Tuscan landscape is beautiful, and so many poets have been there. But how to write about that landscape? Too much and too little language at the same time. A slow and long conversation started, however, and sometimes I felt as if the landscape was taking form or coming into existence or falling into place as I was walking through it.
Three landscapes from Vinci, later:
To walk backward in our own tracks.
Walk: Movable names.
You ask me if I feel like taking a walk
and the question
branches out across the landscape.
The landscape tries to speak with us.
It tries to pronounce
our unfamiliar names
but we are unable
to translate them. What do you want to know?
It says: ‘Don’t be afraid. Stay.’
We say: ‘We are already here.’
The apple-trees blossom obviously
and teach us to see with words.
A second landscape.
Again: Words are doors left ajar.
You bring me a blossoming apple-branch.
Occasionally the swallows turn wildly
and fly around inside the house.
Such bustle. Guests call to tell us
they are on their way.
We take a walk from a swallow’s point of view. In their eyes
we are lit-up enigmas.
They make noisy comments about us:
‘Ma, come si fa?’ The swallows don’t walk on the ground.
They manoeuvre in the air. Mountains and trees stand still,
in relation to them. A figure upon a background
who cannot go back. The swallows daub my eyes
shut with wet clay
I translate what you say
but leave out the
most important things.
Come, let’s change into trees!
Grow. Put out new leaves and shoots.
The swallows glide
through the garden air
like soundless scalpels.
The fireflies sew the sky together with glowing stitches.
The landscape poses indiscreet questions.
But we utter nothing. The sentences
grow gnarled like old trees:
We must keep the most important thing to ourselves.
(Translated by John Irons, published by BookThug.ca 2005)
What is your ‘position’ in contemporary Danish poetry?
I really don’t know what my position is, but everything looks fine from where I stand. And I find the word “position” very interesting. Position comes from the Latin ponere, to put or to place, and in my books I have tried to investigate different positions. By which I mean different ways of writing poetry, but also, more literally speaking, how the body may be orientated. A position also means an orientation of the body in space. For me poetry is closely connected to walking, stumbling, and crawling. I find crawling fundamental; children learn to walk by crawling and running and falling. Actually, it is walking that is difficult! To walk is connected to thinking, to the emptying of your brain. When you walk, you sometimes take another way home or you take the long way round. I think I started to write poetry when I took another way home from school, a longer but fare more attractive one. I grew up in flat Denmark, and sometimes I saw the clouds on the horizon as mountains, and I always dreamt about running to those mountains to climb them. Maybe that is why I was living on a mountain in Italy. Walking is part of poetry, when we talk about the metre in verse we talk of feet, and the Danish poet Per Højholt was walking his lines on the stage; when he came to the end of line, he would pause and walk back, then start to read from the next line. When I began writing poetry, I had no problem with the break of the line, now I find that there must be a good reason for breaking lines. Why do we do this strange thing? I my latest book, A Step in the Right Direction, I have Orpheus contemplating the line break, since he was a poet and turned around too early, with terrible consequences, in that he lost Eurydice, the ultimate crack in the dike. But he invented the verse on that occasion! Verse means turning, versus, the turning around at the end of the line. I find the void at the end of the line appealing: That’s my position.
But do you belong (or are you said to belong) to some kind of ‘group’ or ‘generation’ or similar?
I think I have been lucky to be part of some interesting literary projects over the last years. In 1994, a group of poets and editors made a poetical encyclopaedia, in which we set out to gather all poetical knowledge at the time, instead of scientific knowledge. In the encyclopaedia you could look up the definition of words like yes and no and The meaning of life and freedom and love and cannibalism etc. Freedom was written by a prisoner who was king of the prison escapists, the entry fantasy was written by a prostitute, and so on. A lot of poets contributed, around 300, it was a kind of Wikipedia of poets. It sold 40.000 copies, and critics have now labelled the generation from 1990-2000 the encyclopaedia generation in Denmark. After that I joined a group around the poetry magazine Upper Surgery. We started around 2000, and I think it is fair to say that the magazine made an impact on Danish poetry, because it was a wild and anarchic magazine, introducing a more radical and playful kind of writing in Denmark. But a group or a generation is difficult to identify, and these groupings are often constructions made in retrospect. I have been away from Denmark for 8 years, which has given me a chance to see Denmark from outside.
Being a poet is not the easiest way for making a (good) living. What brings you to write poems?
I think all writers write the kind of literature that they themselves would like to read. I can not live from my poetry, but I live for it! I never really had a strong ambition to become a poet, or maybe there was no real choice, because slowly things began to revolve round poetry, and I have now gone so far down that road that it has become too late to turn back. Things start long before you know they start, and suddenly you are deeply involved. Writing a poem is an enormous ambition, and at the same time a very small one; I think I would like to say everything in each book, and afterwards lie down and die. But then doubts begin, and you need to write another poem and so the process starts afresh. There are so many bad poems in the world, but when you find a good one, it can light up everything. I think the best of my own poetry is written with no ambition concerning poetry. Sitting down in the ambition to write a poem is problematic. The best of my poems are written on my way out of the door or with no intention whatsoever of making poetry.
What is for you, essentially, poetry?
Yes: What is poetry?! Every good poem is a way to ask that question again. To ask questions is great, don’t you think? To be open or to be naive and open for what language can do. What can language do? What can be done in and with language? The questions a good poem formulates may include good answers. I think of poetry as an inner zone in every language, where everything counts, down to the commas and the spaces between words. In poetry we deal not just with communication, but with what carries that which should be communicated, such as sounds and rhythm. Rhythm is essential to poetry.
Which poets have been (and/or still are) inspiring to you?
My first reading was Kafka, Beckett, Borges and Rilke and of cause a lot of Danish poetry. Reading prose causes great trouble for me, and when I watch films, my companion has to explain the plot to me all the time. But I like to read philosophy and I especially like to read scientific writers like Richard Dawkins or Steven Mithen. I read a lot of different poets, e.g. Inger Christensen, Andrea Zanzotto, Ikkyu, Paul Celan, Jacques Roubaud, Peter Waterhouse, or Pentti Saarikoski.
Ikkyu (Japan 1394-1482):
this ink painting of wind blowing through pines
who hears it?
sin like a madman until you can’t do anything else
no room for any more
fuck flattery success money
all I do is lie back and suck my thumb
(poems taken from Crow with No Mouth, translated by Stephen Berg)
What about haiku and senryu? Do you like them too, and do you write them as well?
I am attracted to the very short form (haiku and senryu). One dreams of being able to say things casually and accurately at the same time, as in a Japanese drawing where a few brush strokes open up an enormous space. But on the other hand, I am attracted to the long flowing poem that encloses you and plays with you so that you are surrounded by the poem as you are in a vast space of poetry. I think I am constantly trying to build bridges between those two positions: A clear water poetry in which each word is calm and precise, lying on the bottom of a clear stream of language. A poet like Tomas Tranströmer is a clear water poet. On the other hand, I am attracted to wild water poetry in which meaning is playful and ironic and private, and the poem runs off on the surface and you can be drowned. One example of a wild water poet is John Ashbery. In my books I like to include different modes or forms of poetry, and my hope is to be able to write both clear water poetry and wild water poetry in the same book.
As for your preference for scientific literature, it was recently said by scientists that there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on earth. Does this kind of scientific information have any consequence for your poetical vision of life?
I am much attracted to small pieces of scientific fact. They work as poems for me. And I am reading scientific literature in order to find them. In scientific literature I look for what might be included in a poem, I look for what might shape a poem. This scientific information does not have to be “true”, because most scientific facts change over time. Think of the Greek philosophers, who were the scientists of their time, they where talking about the four or five elements making up the world etc. At the time of Dante, philosophers were obsessed with digestion, being convinced that the stars were glued to concentric circles in the sky. I found a beautiful description of the sun written by a scientist living 200 years ago, he explains “that it will take 12.314 earth-skins to cover the sun like a glove”. Scientific information is changing and our knowledge is changing. In the cracks and the changes we may find a lot of poetry growing. I have published a book called Bees Die Sleeping, and I am not sure that they do. But I like the way language can produce a space in which you can say such things. Like a definition in a encyclopaedia. We claim something. We maintain that things are like that here and now. That, for me, is a fascinating aspect of poetry: Its ability to say something with a particular strength. In a poem everything has a meaning, and it is interesting that we have these spaces with high densities of meaning where everything counts and we are willing to give meaning to everything.
What for you makes the difference between just an ordinary poem and an excellent poem?
All good poems have in common the capacity for doing something with mind-blowing stringency. Good poems explore that ability or competence to the extreme. But really: What can a poem do? Sometimes I think: Almost nothing. And sometimes I think: What a very good poem can do is to produce an image that I will never forget. When I see a girl with golden hair in the wind I also have to think of Celan’s Todesfuge. Associations seem to be crucial for good poetry. An excellent poem makes two images meet in a strong and mind-blowing way that produce strong thoughts and feelings.
You have translated Borges, possibly the most famous not-winner of the Nobel prize. He was a marvellous writer of short stories and poems. Has he influenced you in any way?
One of the things Borges taught me concerns the list. I think a poem is very similar to how a good list works. This is one of the most famous examples: From “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”:
These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
Borges wrote: El hoy fugaz es tenue y es eterno / otro Cielo no esperes, ni otro Infierno. (From the poem El Instante [The fleeting day is frail and is eternal:/ expect no other Heaven, no other Hell])
How do you think about this?
That quote is very Borges! Many of his poems and writings, for instance A New Refutation of Time, stem from the same reflection on time. He constantly makes the instant meet with the flow of time, the discontinuum with the continuum; I wrote my university thesis on Borges and his concept of time. In a way Borges has a Buddhist vision of time, which I like a lot. In the quote he is talking about the meeting of the moment with eternity. Every day we experience that clash between the moment and a more “eternal” time. Our consciousness can imagine a time that is eternal or unending. In our minds we shall live for ever. We dont’ really understand that we are going to die or we don’t accept it, we hope, we make plans to the very end. The consciousness is locked in a mortal body. We feel a kind of friction between the eternal consciousness and the limited body. That friction has created a lot of poetry, and our existential trouble stems from that fact. In modern life the body has become a kind of enemy, we have to keep it going and going by doing jogging and eat healthily. Death is a strange thing: It makes everything seem so indifferent, unimportant and trivial because we are going to die anyway and it has no meaning. But on the other hand, death makes every instant unique and incomprehensibly present to us if we surrender ourselves to that fact.
In your poem ‘Self-portrait’ you give in a very original way ‘life’ to a series of Volcanoes around the world. How did this poem occur to you and what fascinates you about them?
I think volcanoes are closely linked to poetry, it seems obvious; a lot of things happening below the surface, in the unseen, and it all results in spectacular outburst of material. Think of what Emily Dickinson writes of volcanoes:
On my volcano grows the grass,—
A meditative spot,
An area for a bird to choose
Would be the general thought.
Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America,
I judge from my geography.
Volcanoes nearer here,
A lava step, at any time,
Am I inclined to climb,
A crater I may contemplate,
Vesuvius at home.
The reticent volcano keeps
His never slumbering plan;
Confided are his projects pink
To no precarious man.
As a child I was very found of explosions and fireworks, I constructed my own bombs and made my own firework. I stopped when I almost blew my fingers off. Instead I was reading all that I could find about volcanoes. And living in Italy you have volcanic and seismic activity at hand. The idea for the poem came from reading a list: The world’s 25 most dangerous volcanoes, and my childhood fascination came back. And for a long time I had wanted to write a poem without any subject, without the problematic “I” being present. Everything fell into place when I saw that list of volcanoes. But actually, the names in the list were the most intriguing part. The names of something explosive and violent. We are using language to try and dominate or master nature, a name is the equivalent of saying: Stop! Stay there! That is what you would like a volcano to do if you were living on it. The names of volcanoes are very beautiful. Like Goodenough or Katla or Redoubt or Kilimanjaro or Tangkuban Perahu. Their names sound like magical counting rhymes. The names are supposed to conjure up the volcano. I think poetry is close to magical conjuring in the first place. When I was writing the poem, suddenly Etna started to erupt, and I went to Sicily and went up to Etna. People where fleeing the area but vulcanologists from all over the world where coming to see the eruption. So there I was along with people with special cameras and gear for walking on lava! And I managed to get very close to the crater and spent a fantastic night up there.[The poem can be downloaded here. ]
In a beautiful poem, ‘Footwear’, you describe a child who is taught to walk and how to speak at the same day. Finally, after a shocking experience, finding his dead father entwined in an electric fence, ‘(…) someone came and kicked (him) / far into language.’
For you, as a poet, how is your relationship with language and words? (are they merely ‘tools’, sometimes sufficient to describe, sometimes not, are there words which are too much ‘used’ and have lost their ‘sense’?)
“Footwear” deals with language and waking. And also the general idea that language is a way to bridge a gap or manage a distance. Like the dichten I was talking about before. For me, working with words can be very physical. Words appear with a certain urgency, taste, or weight. Then I write them into lists and I look at them, trying to find out what they want from me. Words may also function as doors: You can open them, and on the other side a poem is waiting. Words are tools, but tools that can be used for constructing something you don’t know what is before you have finished. Like making a glove in the dark without knowing the form of a glove. In Italy I was translating, and I think it is important to translate and to know the translating experience. I love to be in the translation state. It is like swimming under water and watching the surface from below. Translation makes you aware of the smallest word and the etymology of words. I don’t think that there are used or worn-out words. I think it is only a matter of getting to the word from the right angle. In Italy I was approaching words from the sound-side and from a translator’s side. There where many languages every day: Italian, Spanish, Danish and English. I had some polyphonic language experiences not knowing what language I was speaking. Sometimes people would ask me what language I was thinking or dreaming in. But I don’t think it works like that. Language is something else. In dreams it all comes down to what language the other people in the dream are speaking, and you try to be polite and speak the language they use. But thinking-language? I am not sure. In Denmark, where I am living now, I enjoy all the everyday clichés or twisted phrases I hear on the train or on the bus, because they are glimpses of what language is and what can be done with it. Sometimes a poem can be born from something I hear in street, in Italy that was more difficult.
Ordinary people and volcanoes, your inspirations are quite varied … Are there any subjects you do not want to or cannot write about?
I don’t think that there would be anything that I didn’t want to write about, but I am not sure. I am sure, however, that there are topics or subjects that I am not able to write about! Poetry is a field of great freedom. There is no money involved, and that is a very rare situation in our civilisation. Freedom is an extremely charged word, think of all the times politicians use it over and over again, President Bush used the word 27 times in his second instalment speech. But in poetry freedom is real. In a way you are committed to using your freedom as poet. Everything is possible in a poem. Poetry does not have to do anything in particular to be poetry, and every language and every word can include or transport poetry. So the endeavour must be to open up the poem in all directions. A poem can be very simple or full of contradictions and darkness. The world is a chaotic place or confusing and falling apart, but all the pieces it consists of now can be used to write on. I would find it hard to write real hard core political poetry or similar, but maybe I can write poems that show an alternative to the current order or produce strong images. The world is full of strong images. A good poem can be a little world in itself, and you can find poetry where you want to stay or settle down. Every poem is a glimpse of or a suggestion for a place to stay for a while.
And what can we expect from you in the near future?
Right now I am working with electronic musicians. We have just released a CD called “The Monkey of the Heart Kicks Itself Free” [Hjertets abe sparker sig fri]. I have plans for more books that I hope to be able to write, and I really look forward to that process. All that matters is writing the poems, the books stand at the end as a goal, but it is all the working and walking and thinking on the way that is really important. The book is a kind of half kingdom at the very end of the fairy tale and they lived happily ever after. I think I am more drawn to the process. Or maybe I am walking and searching for both the process and the princess. I want both the process and half the kingdom!