The first ever Nordic Poetry Festival (NPF) took place in October this year. This ambitious debut spanned five events across three cities, and featured the work of 21 avant-garde Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic and Sami poets. One of these events, which took place at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich, saw the Nordic poets paired up with local and well-renowned British poets for an evening of experimental poetry across a multitude of languages.
The festival organiser Steven Fowler has previously put on the successful European Poetry Festival twice, where he also worked extensively with Nordic poets. The idea for an exclusively Nordic strand therefore felt like a natural next step: ‘It grew organically from my own experiences working with Nordic poets at festivals I had the chance to attend as a poet across Scandinavia and from my other festival, the European Poetry Festival, already having an infrastructure I could utilise.’
The project was developed with the help from several Nordic embassies and cultural institutions – the idea for the festival itself came from Pirjo Pellinen, special advisor to the embassy of Finland. ‘Then I began contacting friends and contacts across the region, really to test whether there was enthusiasm for the idea’, says Fowler. Although he admits to have had ‘some trepidation, knowing that the Nordic region is not necessarily the context in the forefront of people’s mind at the moment,’ the reception was overwhelming: ‘We created something that I think was as resonant for the poets as for the audiences.’
A month before the festival kicked off in the UK, the NPF did readings in Ålesund and Bergen in Norway, where the poets were, according to Fowler, ‘wowed by the hospitality.’ Over the course of one week in October, the festival moved from the independent bookshop Burley Fisher Books in London via the Rich Mix Cinema to the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. The Nordic entourage then journeyed from one English city with Scandinavian roots to another, as the next event took place at the JORVIK Viking Centre in York. Then it was back to London again, with final readings taking place at the Writers’ Centre Kingston.
One of the Norwegian poets involved with the festival, Vilde Valerie Bjerke Torset, had previously worked with Fowler on The European Poetry Festival. She described the European poetry community as one of generous camaraderie, and found the first ever Nordic Poetry Festival ‘a lot of fun. There are so many components and coincidences that make up an experience like that… the work was really interesting and the venues amazing.’
Torset was paired up with the writer and journalist Sam Jordison, who was absent from the event at the National Centre for Writing due to it coinciding with the handing out of the Booker Prize (Jordison was one of the publishers of Lucy Ellmann’s extraordinary book Ducks, Newburyport). Torset therefore ended up alone on stage, acting out a priceless correspondence between the pair, alternating effortlessly for effect between British English and a broad Norwegian accent.
Another participant also familiar with the European Poetry Festival was the award-winning British poet, writer and translator George Szirtes, who has previous experience of poet-collaboration: ‘This was, I think, the fourth time I had collaborated with another poet, and the fifth time I had written work prompted by Steven’, he says. Born in Hungary, the author came to England in 1956 at the age of eight and was therefore not brought up strictly bilingual: ‘It was a matter of sequence: Hungarian first, then English.’ While Szirtes admits his previous knowledge of Norwegian literature was limited to Henrik Ibsen, he enjoyed working with Norwegian poet Endre Ruset, and their collaboration is still ongoing.
At the Norwich event, Szirtes read poetry in both Hungarian and English as part of his project with Ruset. Their collaboration consists of alternating translations of quatrains from Norwegian and Hungarian. Ruset read his own translations of the poems ‘Til en Keltisk steinskulptur’ (‘To a Celtic stone sculpture’) by Tor Ulven, ‘Åndens Katedral’ (‘The Cathedral of Spirit’) by Gunvor Hofmo, as well as his own translation of an extract from the Danish poem ‘Prologos’ by Inger Christensen.
While Scandinavian literature in translation has had a recent surge in popularity, Fowler does not feel this extends to poetry: ‘I think it’s quite a specific movement of Nordic noir or literary work like Knausgaard, but poetry in translation has very little space in the UK as it is, and certainly the zeitgeist isn’t pointing north in the UK. This is a profound shame, as so much great work is being written, but also understandable.’ It is good then that the Nordic Poetry Festival was packed at all five events, meaning that enthusiastic audiences in London, York and Norwich got to enjoy poetry that perhaps otherwise would not have been translated.
Several of the Nordic and English poets were writing and performing in a second language. Torset views this as an advantage: ‘At the heart of it, I’m an imposter in the language, which gives me a lot license’, she says. ‘Writing in Norwegian, I can’t shake the context of Norwegian culture and history, as well as my own experience. English, as well as being a wonderfully rich and complexly literary language, is a house I’ve broken into.’
Szirtes echoes this: ‘It is, after all, not a bad thing for the language in which you write to remain a little strange at some level, for it to reside either on just this side or just that side of some border. Maybe the position not quite at the core of either language is both blessing and curse, but I hope it is more blessing.’
This feature was first written for Concrete