Week Before The Festival: Littfest in Sweden

How to Be(come) a Poet

On labels and limits in Contemporary Swedish Poetry

/ by Helena Fagertun

There is one question that people, regardless of whether they are into literature or not, always tend to ask, when learning that you write: “What do you write?” For a genre-less – or, on good days, genre-ful – writer like me, this has seldom been a good start for a discussion. Sometimes I just avoid answering the question completely, and at other times I answer in an over-complicated manner instead, mentioning all the genres I’m into, and how they intertwine and entangle.

At this point in the conversation many authors, especially those who consider themselves poets, usually try to convince me that “poet” would be a good label for whatever I am failing to describe. Sometimes it’s not even a matter of conviction; I could mention a number of occasions where organizers and editors, without asking, start their presentation of me, whether written or oral, with “Helena Fagertun is a poet…”

My main objection to being a poet is almost trivial; even if I write poetry, most of what I write is not poetry. If there had been a Swedish word for “writer,” I would gladly use it. Using the Swedish equivalent, “författare,” doesn’t come that easily, as it is strongly connected to the requirements of “having published at least two books” to become a member of the Swedish Writers’ Union, and also has something old-fashioned and overly pretentious in it. If I heard a writer using the verb “författa” about their writing, I would probably declare it unreadable, without even looking at it.

When I received the invitation to become the guest editor of The European Review the week before the international literature festival Littfest in Umeå, I quite early on decided that my focus would not be on specific poets and published poetry books, but rather on movements and projects that widen the concept of what could be considered contemporary Swedish poetry.

Therefore, the week started with an interview with David Väyrynen, poet and spokesperson for Norrländska litteratursällskapet/Författarcentrum Norr. I was curious about his thoughts on why so many prominent Swedish writers come from the north, and why so many of them move to bigger cities in the southern part of the country, leaving very few writers still up north. Väyrynen’s reply to the latter question was not what I had expected; he believes that this is about to change, mainly due to modern communications, and that “other values have gotten stronger... values often about the ability to live a simpler life, in less need of money and success, and more about your possibility to create, never too affected by what the main tendencies in cultural life at the moment are.”

In the interview, we also discuss the work that is being done to improve the conditions for the indigenous Sami literature. David Väyrynen points out that the lack of publishers in the Swedish part of Sápmi, as well as the lack of a writing school for Sami writers, are crucial to solve, in order for the Sami literature to survive and grow.

If the interview was trying to widen Swedish poetry from within the borders, the Tuesday panorama presented a project that opens Swedish poetry to the world. I invited Kholod Saghir, project manager for a perennial translation series where female Swedish poets meet and translate female poets from the Middle East. The project shortens the distance between Sweden and the Middle East, but it also works for “the visibility of the effect of migration and exile, highlighting the question of belonging for migrants in a Swedish context.”

Another perspective included is the Nordic. Literature written by the Fenno-Swedish minority in Finland is not as widely read in Sweden, and even if the language doesn’t differ more than on a dialectal level, it’s usually needed that a Swedish publishing house republish Fenno-Swedish books, in order for them to be spread in Sweden. One of the Fenno-Swedish poets that has managed to become known in Sweden, although not as popular as she should be, according to Victor Malm, is Tua Forsström. In yesterday’s review, critic and graduate student Malm describes how a “quintessentially Scandinavian” environment is always present in her poetry: “Forests, lakes, an unceasing sense of snow falling over a seemingly unpopulated and desolate milieu.”

The week closes tomorrow with the critic Mats O Svensson’s essay on Scandinavian poetry. Starting with the Danish poetry boom in 2014, and its effects on Swedish contemporary poetry and critic, he traces Scandinavian poetry exchanges all the way back to the beginning of the 19th century. “Sometimes we are more interested in our neighbors, sometimes less [...] Literary power relations between countries are determined by economic, military and demographical factors.”

One thing that Mats O Svensson points out is how “smaller, independent literary reviews publish material in all three languages, poets meet at readings, and attend the same writing schools,” which leads to these poets becoming closer colleagues, with more in common than with their national colleagues, who are not a part of this system.

This is also connected to a current change in publishing. Earlier poets in Sweden published their poetry collections at the bigger publishing houses, but in the recent years getting a manuscript accepted at, for instance, Albert Bonniers or Norstedts, has become more and more difficult, with the denials not always being due to literary aspects, but economical. The message is clear: Poetry doesn’t sell.

This has led to smaller publishers taking responsibility of poetry books. In Swedish, small publishers such as Pequod, Dockhaveri, Teg and Trombone, just to mention a few, have come to publish some of the most interesting poets the past years. Not only is this a shift from bigger companies to smaller ones, and therefore to more unsteadiness, it’s also a possibility for a rebirth and redirection for the Swedish poetry scene. If publishing at the same time becomes easier, with endless possibilities for self-publication online or in print-on-demand, and more difficult, due to the bigger publishing houses focusing on crime and cook books, what entails being a writer or a poet needs to be reconsidered. If focus will become less on the book and more on the text written, the very literature, well, then I might start calling myself a poet very soon.

Helena Fagertun

is a Swedish writer, translator and former editor for the literary magazine Provins. In 2016 her translation of American writer Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (2012) was published and in 2017 Green Girl (2011/2014) by the same author was published, both at the publishing house Modernista.